Rail Futures's rail plan for Victorian at 2046
Rail Futures’s rail plan for Victorian at 2046

Citizen rail advocacy group, Rail Futures, released an ambitious 25 year regional rail plan for Victoria on Monday (Intercity: how regional rail can re-balance population growth and create a “state of cities” in Victoria).

The vision includes 200 kph regional trains; a new fast line to Geelong; a new line from Geelong to Ballarat and Bendigo; quadruplication of the Caulfield-Dandenong line; and a host of line speed upgrades, signalling improvements, and upgraded stations.

The stand-out proposition though is the creation of a major rail hub at Melbourne Airport served by three new rail lines. One would be a dedicated high-speed line running on a new direct route to Southern Cross Station (the existing reserved route would not be used on the grounds it’s too slow). There’d be a new fast line heading north-west from the airport to join the Bendigo line near Clarkfield; and another heading north-east to join the Albury line at Seymour.

The underlying rationale for these proposals is to relieve Melbourne of the pressures of population growth by siphoning a large proportion of it to the regions, where it would be accommodated at much higher densities than Melbourne currently manages. This would have the secondary benefit of helping to develop the economies and cultural life of rural areas.

Rail Futures’ plan didn’t get much traction on social media, but The Age was impressed. It published a very supportive editorial yesterday (Better regional rail is crucial to state’s future):

Rail Futures argues – rightly, we believe – that an improved rail network would open the way for many thousands more regional residents to commute to Melbourne…Central to the Intercity report is the notion that creating a faster and better regional rail network would lead to significant growth in regional cities, taking the pressure off Melbourne and creating a vibrant statewide economic and cultural network…

Now I enjoy a fantasy rail map as much as the next person (see here, here and here) and this one’s a beauty; it really puts the grand in grandiose. The idea of providing direct rail connections to the airport for some regional areas – and thereby also giving them a duplicate rail route to Melbourne CBD – is a magnificent touch.

No doubt all of the ideas in Rail Futures’ panoply would be nice to have, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there’s no estimate of the financial cost and no estimate of the economic costs and benefits. It follows there’s no serious indication of how the various schemes might be funded, or what might have to be foregone elsewhere in the public budget to accommodate the program.

And of course even considered on its own terms, there’s no consideration of alternatives. How do we know (say) that there aren’t better ways of linking Geelong with Bendigo? How do we know (say) that building a line directly from Geelong to the airport wouldn’t produce more net benefits than linking Bendigo directly to the airport?

I don’t know why The Age chose to give an undeveloped set of proposals such prominence, but there’s a more substantive issue here that’s worth thinking further about i.e. the idea that population growth ought to be directed away from Melbourne to regional centres. This is a common phenomenon in European cities – e.g. the forty ‘overspill’ or satellite towns surrounding London – but its appropriateness for Australian conditions isn’t clear.

Politicians like promoting regional dormitory communities because they can point to them as a reason for protecting established metropolitan suburbs from redevelopment pressures. They can also claim they’re providing an alternative supply of affordable housing that purportedly doesn’t involve more suburban sprawl on the edge of the city.

For their part, many residents of regional centres like the idea because all those commuters will generate demand for local businesses and workers. They might not work in the area but they need the services of local tradies, teachers, counter-hoppers, and doctors when they’re at home.

But whatever the benefits are, they come at a cost. As Transport Futures’ proposals show, regional dormitories require very serious expenditure on long-distance trunk transport infrastructure to connect them to the high-paying jobs in the metropolitan area.

Yet much of the travel generated by dormitory communities will be by car. While current regional residents who commute to Melbourne mostly use rail (44% Traralgon, 55% Geelong, 67% Ballarat, 75% Bendigo), further growth necessarily implies an increasing proportion will work outside the centre of Melbourne i.e. in places where accessibility by public transport is lower and driving is accordingly more attractive.

It’s also likely most non-work trips to Melbourne will be made by car because it provides greater flexibility at the destination.

There’s no net infrastructure saving in services like water, sewer and electricity supply. Even where there’s some existing “spare” capacity, it’ll soon get used up. In fact, there’ll be loss of economies of scale. Some regional areas have bigger problems with water supply than Melbourne.

Rail Futures’ assumption that regional dormitory folk will be prepared to live at much high densities is a dubious argument; the necessary policies could equally be applied to the Growth Areas on Melbourne’s fringe. It might well be that new settlers will seek to live at even lower densities because the relatively small size of regional centres means they can enjoy space while retaining ready access by car to the centre of town.

This isn’t decentralisation in the Whitlam-era sense of creating economic activities in the regions to attract population growth from the big cities; it’s the other way around. I think the best that can be said is the jury is out on the wisdom or otherwise of regional dormitories; the proposition needs a lot more hard-nosed analysis.

Having said that, I think regional sprawl is probably inevitable. None of the parties is serious about increasing densities in established metropolitan suburbs and even the two with pretensions to being progressive are tentative in their support for increasing housing supply in the city centre. If so, it requires a real analysis of the transport needs of the state.