Annual metropolitan train trips, Melbourne (millions). Source data: Project 10,000.

Much of the discussion around public transport in Melbourne in the lead up to the State election later this year is focussed on the two competing proposals for a new CBD tunnel.

Labor says it’ll proceed with the original $9 billion Melbourne Metro under Swanston St, which has been on the drawing boards for five years now. The Government ditched Metro earlier this year, saying it will instead construct the $8.5 – 11 billion Melbourne Rail Link under South Melbourne. (1)

The Government’s belated change of plan means it’s highly unlikely it will make a start on its tunnel in the next term if it’s returned at the election. There’s simply too much investigatory and design work to be done on what is effectively an entirely new alignment.

As I’ve noted before that’s quite convenient, because it will be hard for the Government to find the money for Melbourne Rail Link on top of its existing commitment to the $18 billion East West Link (see Will Napthine’s new route ruin Melbourne’s Metro?).

Labor however should have no such problems starting construction of Melbourne Metro because at least $50 million has already been spent proving up the project over the last five years; it’s effectively shovel-ready.

Labor’s transport election policy, Project 10,000, makes a compelling case for Metro:

Currently, the city loop is often full – particularly during the morning peak period – and unable to handle additional train services… The pressure the system is under today means that investment in rail improvements must be the top priority of government.

And yet, Project 10,000 makes it clear that, should Labor win the election, it won’t make a substantial start on constructing Melbourne Metro in its first term. The only explicit promise it makes is:

As part of a future Victorian Labor Government’s first budget, $300 million will be committed to complete the planning, design and early works of Melbourne Metro Rail, a project which has stalled under the Liberals.

Given all the work done to date on Metro, spending the next four years on even more “planning, design and early works” sounds like a party intent on avoiding serious commitment.

Project 10,000 provides some further clues to Labor’s thinking; substantial commencement of the project is dependent on two big conditions.

The first is that the Commonwealth must contribute one third of the cost (i.e. circa $3 billion) “in keeping with the precedent set by the State-Federal funding partnership that has enabled delivery of the Regional Rail Link”.

Since Prime Minister Abbott has made it clear his Government will not fund urban rail, and since he’s already kicking in $3 billion for the full East West Link, that seems like a condition that’s unlikely to be met any time soon.

The second condition is that the timing of the project is dependent on “the removal of key level crossings as set out in Project 10,000”. This refers to Labor’s other signature initiative, grade separation of Melbourne’s 50 most congested/most dangerous level crossings, at an estimated cost of $5 – 6 billion.

The logic of the connection between the two promises is that the extra rail capacity provided by Melbourne Metro in the city centre will be hobbled unless the capacity of the key suburban lines is also increased through grade separations. At present, the ability to add extra services is constrained by the time boom gates must be down and holding up traffic.

But Project 10,000 doesn’t provide the timing for the level crossing initiative – is it over 4 years or 40? It doesn’t indicate the priority of various grade separations – will construction be timetabled on a line-by-line basis (essential for Metro) or will they be scheduled according to local political pressures?

Like the Napthine Government, it appears the only way Labor can find room to fund all its initiatives is to delay making a substantial start on construction of the CBD tunnel for as long as it possibly can; at least until a second term i.e. 2018-2022. That would most likely see completion of the tunnel, at the earliest, sometime over 2022-2026.

Then of course there’s the looming shadow of the East West Link. If the Government signs a contract before the election (as it says it will) and an incoming Labor Government honours it (as Labor says it will), then it’s hard to see how there’d be enough funds for either Melbourne Metro or the program of level crossing grade separations; they’d have to slide further out. (2)

So all in all, it looks like Melbourne will be waiting a long time before whoever’s in government makes a substantial start on a city centre rail tunnel, let alone finishes it.

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  1. The Government puts the cost of Melbourne Metro at $9-11 billion; but Labor is sticking with the lower estimate.
  2. I’m tempted to think that despite what it says Labor doesn’t intend to honour a signed contract and will find a way to get around it. Still, that’s not what it’s saying.