|Proposer||Government of Victoria|
|Cost estimate||$50–100 billion[a]|
The Suburban Rail Loop (SRL) is a proposed orbital line of the rail network of Melbourne, Australia, which would traverse suburbs 15–25 kilometres (9.3–15.5 mi) from the Central Business District (CBD) along an approximately 90 km (56 mi) route. Although several orbital rail schemes have been proposed and some constructed throughout Melbourne's history, the SRL received significant new attention in 2018 when the Labor government of Victoria led by Premier Daniel Andrews announced it as a policy in the lead up to the state election of that November.
Construction of the SRL would take more than 25 years and cost over $AUD50 billion. A substantial portion of the route would be built underground along entirely new rail alignments, although the western half would be shared with or formed by the proposed Melbourne Airport rail link and the existing Deer Park–West Werribee railway line. Four distinct sections have been identified for the staging of construction and operation.
Initial planning for the SRL was carried out in secret prior to its announcement, and, when the plans were released, publicity was widespread. The SRL plan was praised for its long-term vision and ambition, as well as being an innovative solution to the difficulties faced by Melbourne's transport network, but criticised for its obvious political motives and enormous cost.
The Melbourne transport network was substantially developed in the late 19th century, when the newly available technology of the railway enabled population growth away from the city centre. The result was the development of a largely radial network, which, over the following century, reinforced a model of urban development focused on heavy daily commuter flows into and out of the CBD. Furthermore, a program of freeway construction in the wake of the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan reinforced the structure of the suburbs and introduced car dependence to new regions of development not served by the legacy rail network. As a consequence, Melbourne, unlike many cities of comparable size, did not develop any major centres of employment or dense population in its outlying regions over the course of the 20th century.
A number of orbital lines were constructed at the peak of railway development, but most failed to attract the necessary traffic of passengers and goods to remain sustainable into the late 20th century. The Outer Circle, which ran from Oakleigh on the Dandenong line to Fairfield on the Hurstbridge line via the Glen Waverley and Lilydale lines, was constructed between 1888 and 1891 but closed by 1897, though it was partly reopened as the Alamein branch line. The Inner Circle linking the modern-day Upfield and Mernda lines, was opened in 1888 but closed to passengers in 1941. The Albion-Jacana line and Newport-Sunshine line in the city's west, though performing a similar purpose, were never intended to carry passenger traffic.
In the late 20th century, interest grew in enabling orbital journeys between Melbourne suburbs. Included in the 1969 Plan were a number of orbital freeways, virtually all of which were constructed over the following decades. The M80 Ring Road through the outer western and northern suburbs was constructed in stages between 1989 and 1999, and, by the time of its completion, was claimed by its advocates to have been partly responsible for a massive economic boom in the western suburbs, centred on its points of intersection with existing radial routes.[b] EastLink, a similar orbital freeway through the eastern suburbs, opened in 2008, but was less successful, failing to reduce traffic meaningfully on parallel arterials such as Springvale Road. Detailed plans for the North East Link, connecting the Ring Road and EastLink to complete the orbital route, were released in 2018, with construction expected to start in 2020 for an anticipated completion date of 2027.
Despite the investment in orbital road transport from 1990, little changed in the structure of the public transport network. No new suburban railway lines after 1930, and trams were increasingly delayed by traffic congestion on key routes. From 2002, the SmartBus program introduced three orbital bus routes in an attempt to meet the city's burgeoning need for outer suburban public transport. In addition to serving new corridors previously without mass transit, the buses were operated at a relatively high frequency and along direct routes, in contrast to the existing network of infrequent and circuitous routes. As a result, the SmartBus routes became the most heavily used in Melbourne, and were widely praised as a model for recasting the future public transport network.
In August 2018, three months prior to the 2018 Victorian election, incumbent Premier Daniel Andrews promised that a re-elected Labor government would undertake "the biggest public transport building program in Australian history", in a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. The comments were interpreted as a hint that as-yet-unannounced projects would be revealed closer to the election, although Andrews provided no detail in his speech.
On 27 August, Andrews revealed plans for the Suburban Rail Loop for the first time: a 90 km (56 mi) orbital line for Melbourne's rail network, connecting 11 of the city's existing rail lines and serving new regions of the middle and outer suburbs at an estimated cost of $50 billion. The government committed $300 million to complete a business case and feasibility study should it be re-elected, noting that the project would take several terms of government to complete.
In the days following the proposal, the government revealed that its plan had been under consideration within Development Victoria, a planning agency under the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning for 12 months. Controversially, neither Infrastructure Victoria nor Transport for Victoria, both established by the Andrews government, had been involved in the SRL's planning stages; furthermore, neither agency had identified the need for a similar project in their long-term plans for the transport network. Andrews defended the decision to develop the SRL independently of infrastructure authorities, arguing that while Infrastructure Victoria "have lots of good ideas, they don't have every good idea".
The tender process for the Melbourne Airport rail link project was launched in mid-September, and the state government confirmed that it anticipated the airport link would form the north-western section of the SRL, with construction beginning in 2022
In mid-October, Labor federal Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten announced support for the SRL, including a commitment for $300 million in initial federal funding should the Labor Party be elected. The state government also indicated that it would be prepared to add additional stops to the loop to those included in the original announcement, particularly in the western suburbs.
Days later, a leaked document from Transport for Victoria showed that the SRL had not been included in the transport authority's long-term plan for the rail network.
$300 million was allocated to planning works for the SRL in the 2019 state budget. Rail Projects Victoria announced registrations of interest for potential contractors were open in June, and the first geotechnical investigations began in July in Box Hill.
The state government announced the formation of a Suburban Rail Loop Authority in September, at the same time as confirming station precincts for the south-eastern section. In November 2019, the government announced that the loop would be an operationally independent, standalone line using different rail technology from the existing suburban rail network. The system would use new, smaller metro rollingstock that is four to five carriages long, allowing shorter platforms. The Premier announced an intention to use private investment to help fund the line, but did not indicate whether the line would be driverless.
Suburban Rail Loop
The SRL Strategic Assessment produced by Development Victoria in 2018 identifies four distinct sections of the route, some of which mirror parts of other projects or existing rail corridors. The overall corridor selected was originally identified as a "middle" corridor, and was assessed against other routes closer to and further from the CBD before being prioritised for further investigation.
The south-eastern section between Cheltenham station on the Frankston line and Box Hill station on the Lilydale railway line would be the first constructed, and be entirely underground along a new alignment. From south to north, the south-eastern section would also include stations at Clayton on the Dandenong rail corridor; Monash University's Clayton campus; Glen Waverley station, the terminus of the line by the same name; and Burwood, near the main campus of Deakin University. Government press releases identify Clayton as the location of a "super-hub", allowing interchange between SRL services, frequent Dandenong corridor services, and regional Gippsland line services.
The north-eastern section between Box Hill station and Melbourne Airport would be constructed after the south-eastern section, and include stops at Doncaster, a middle suburb long proposed for the terminus of a new radial rail line; Heidelberg station on the Hurstbridge line; Reservoir station on the Mernda line; Bundoora, home to the main campus of La Trobe University; Broadmeadows station on the Craigieburn line; and the airport itself. This section of the SRL would also be constructed entirely underground, and Broadmeadows would function as a "super-hub" for the Seymour and North East regional lines.
The north-western section would parallel the route of the proposed Melbourne Airport rail link between the airport and Sunshine station, with no intermediate stations proposed by the Strategic Assessment. This section would be mostly constructed along the existing railway corridor at surface level, and could be completed as part of the airport link project, commencing with the south-eastern section in 2022.
Apart from the termini at Sunshine and Werribee, the Strategic Assessment did not identify specific routes, intermediate stations or connections to other lines for the south-eastern section, and suggested it would be the final section constructed. The Western Rail Plan published by Transport for Victoria in October 2018 suggested that the role of the south-western section could be undertaken by electrifying the Deer Park - West Werribee line to Wyndham Vale station as an extension of the radial suburban network, and extending the Werribee line to meet it at Wyndham Vale. Later documents released by the government confirmed that Wyndham Vale would become an interchange station.
Federal Infrastructure Minister Alan Tudge said that the Suburban Rail Loop's "big vision is great" but said the federal government would withhold its support until further details and costings of the plan were provided.
Following the plan's original announcement, federal Labor leader Bill Shorten said that he "liked the principle" of the SRL, but would not immediately commit to supporting it with federal funding. He announced federal Labor's official support in mid-October 2018, committing $300 million in business case funding and saying the project responded to an "old map of Melbourne... [that] simply doesn't work any more". His infrastructure spokesman, Anthony Albanese, said that "this project here in Melbourne is the most transformative project for any capital city in Australia". Shorten later called the project the "Holy Grail" of public transport projects.
State opposition treasury spokesman Michael O'Brien said that the SRL was a "plan for the next election rather than a plan for the next generation", and called on the government to send its plans to Infrastructure Victoria for independent costings and analysis.
The plan was embraced by influential former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, who called for bipartisan support for the project immediately after it was announced, despite expressing doubts about the accuracy of the $50 billion costing.
At the election of November 2018, the traditionally Liberal-held seats of Mount Waverley, Burwood and Box Hill – all falling along the path of the SRL proposal – were claimed by the Labor Party after large swings, leading to speculation among Labor MPs and electoral commentators that the SRL announcement had contributed significantly to the government being returned with an increased majority. The phenomenon was also replicated in a number of safe Labor seats which would benefit from the line.
Local media outlets were generally supportive of the project, although cautious in their optimism given the heavily politicised planning process and lack of detail in the announcement.
The Age, in its editorial the day following the announcement, wrote that "there are so many reasons to endorse this proposal that it’s easy to get carried away", but observed that "good government is ultimately about more than just vision. It’s about having the inventiveness, discipline and fiscal capacity to make that vision reality", and suggested that the true test for the SRL would be the government's ability to complete it. Herald Sun political editor Matt Johnston was less supportive of what he called a "highly political" project, arguing that the comparisons to other major global cities ignored the fact that "Australia is fairly remote, has a relatively small population and has higher labour costs". However, Johnston also noted that "the route of the suburban rail loop... would go near to, or through, Liberal-held state seats such as Mount Waverley and Burwood [and] near to, or through, federal Liberal seats such as Chisholm and Deakin".
Experts and lobby groups
The SRL was warmly received by the Public Transport Users Association, with spokesman Daniel Bowen describing it as "Big City thinking" in an opinion piece. Prominent public transport advocate Graham Currie also supported the plan for its potential to induce new development in the outer suburbs, although he admitted being stunned by the government's secretive planning process. The Royal Automobile Club of Victoria also offered in-principle support, saying that "it makes sense for the state to protect a rail corridor through what is now 'middle Melbourne'", although it also argued that the SRL should not overshadow other improvements to the network such as Melbourne Metro 2.
The SRL plan was criticised by rail lobby group the Rail Futures Institute, who argued that its benefits could be produced by a substantially cheaper network of orbital light rail routes. Marion Terill of the Grattan Institute was also critical, saying that travel demand did not warrant the investment required for the SRL.
Media outlets reported massive levels of public support after the initial announcement of the plan. An impromptu competition organised by The Age to redesign the Melbourne rail network map to incorporate the SRL received entries from leading cartographers and attracted thousands of public votes in the days after the announcement.
Analysis and criticism
Both the plausibility and practicality of the government's headline $50 billion construction cost for the project were the subject of significant commentary at the time of the SRL's original announcement.
Political opponents suggested that the government had wildly understated the cost of the project, with former premier Jeff Kennett calling the figure "irresponsibly and fraudulently inaccurate", state opposition spokesmen suggesting the cost could be between $50 and $100 billion, and federal infrastructure minister Alan Tudge later saying he believed $100–150 billion was a more likely range. Independent experts agreed that the project was likely to ultimately cost more than the government's claim. Prominent transport commentator Daniel Bowen, in a "back of the envelope" analysis, concluded that the government was "close to the mark" but expressed reservations about the accuracy of his estimate.
Separately, transport planners criticised the promises made by state and federal Labor for a total of $600 million in planning funding. The Age published comments from an engineer arguing that a "competent" business case could be completed for only $5 million.
Some commentary also questioned the capacity of the state to fund the project without severe impacts on its fiscal policy, irrespective of its actual cost.
The Strategic Analysis released by the government in 2018 projects total daily trips on the SRL of 400,000 by 2051, making the line the busiest in Melbourne. It suggests that morning peak would have a 60:40 ratio of clockwise to counter-clockwise travel, with the balance reversed in the afternoon peak; by comparison, Melbourne's radial lines operate at a 90:10 ratio.
Independent analysis of the plan by SGS Economics in the weeks following its release broadly supported the Strategic Assessment, noting that if the SRL had been in operation in 2018, a 2 km (1.2 mi) catchment around each station would have captured "roughly: 270,600 jobs, 416,100 residents, 212,300 workers, and 112,600 higher education students". It argued that the South-East section, consequently, would have served 30,000–50,000 daily trips if in operation in 2018, with the qualification that the level of service provided would need to make travel time competitive with car journeys. However, it concluded that the benefits and potential patronage of the North-East and two western sections were more nebulous, as their impact would depend on the efficiency with which the project was leveraged to create new development.
- While the Victorian Government's initial announcement stated an estimated cost of $50 billion, experts have claimed the cost may be higher, and the state Opposition argued that the true cost was likely closer to $100 billion.
- This claim has been disputed; well-known public transport advocate Paul Mees argued that the assertion was "at best premature".
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