Victoria’s first big 21st century rail megaproject is almost complete. Regional Rail Link was started and mostly funded by Labor (State and Federal, in part as stimulus money during the Global Financial Crisis), and largely built under the State Coalition.
Construction itself is now complete, with driver training and other preparatory work happening ahead of the expected opening in
The line provides an enormous amount of additional track capacity in the western suburbs… but of course this is only of use if it’s used.
So what are the benefits, and what do we know about how it’ll be used?
Tarneit/Wyndham Vale get their new stations and new rail line, served by some Geelong trains. The infrastructure for starting suburban diesel trains from Wyndham Vale into the City has also been provided, but it’s not clear that option will be used initially. The opening of the stations will be accompanied by a bus route revamp in the area, focussed on the new stations, which makes a lot of sense, and pleasingly have had extensive community consulation.
Geelong line – more reliable travel time in the suburban part of the journey, as V/Line trains won’t get stuck behind slower Werribee line trains. It’s unclear if the trip will take longer though — this was a subject of some controversy when RRL was first planned, and still hasn’t been clearly answered. While it’s a longer distance, the track speeds are higher than the old route, so hopefully the running time won’t be much longer.
We know the Geelong line will go to 20 mins off-peak (probably every 40 minutes to Armstrong Creek due to the single track beyond South Geelong), a move which was probably possible in the past, but will be easier to reliably operate with RRL in place. This boost was promised by Labor before the election, and amusingly matched by the Coalition, who claimed they’d been planning it all along… but they hadn’t actually told anybody about it. Ah, secret railway business.
Ballarat and Bendigo lines — ditto; more reliable travel times. Likely to be faster, particularly during peak when in the past they had to wait for Sunbury line trains. Scope for some extra services, though this is still constrained by the single track sections further out. These trains are already using the new RRL tracks from Sunshine into the City, but timetables haven’t yet been adjusted. The question will be whether the April timetable makes use of this properly, and whether V/Line get their act together at the city end to reduce or eliminate delays coming into Southern Cross, where they should now have plenty of platforms to accommodate all the incoming trains.
The 2021 draft documents suggested the three lines combined would have up to about 15 trains in the busiest hour, but the infrastructure should allow some growth beyond that.
Sunbury line — apart from between Sunshine and Sunbury, no V/Line trains have to share the metro tracks anymore, meaning a virtual doubling of capacity between Sunshine and the City.
Right now (as of the last load survey in May 2014) figures show crowding on the line has eased, following a roughly 50% boost in peak services over the past 6 years, thanks in part to moving the Werribee line out of the Loop in 2008, and also thanks to the Sunbury electrification, which added stations but also added overall track capacity by removing short haul V/Line trains off the line.
However with Zone 1+2 fares having been cut by about 40% since the start ofg the year, we may see a lot more people on suburban trains across the network, so the question is how quickly will the government move to boost services on the line to cope — particularly in peak hour, but also at off-peak times when crowding can be a problem. The new Calder Park train stabling, expected to open later this year, will help with this.
Werribee line — again, once RRL opens the Geelong line trains will be off the Werribee line completely, and with crowding already bad before January, they’ll need to make use of that capacity to boost services.
In the past 6 years, the load survey shows the Werribee line has gone from 13 to 21 services, and in that time has gained Williams Landing station. But the line has evidently seen greater passenger growth than the Sunbury line, with far more trains above the load standard. In fact it has 46% of AM peak passengers travelling on crowded trains, the highest proportion anywhere on the network.
I’m hearing the zone changes have eased demand at Laverton, in favour of Williams Landing, but given the huge population growth in that area, I’d also expect overall patronage to keep growing.
Williamstown line — theoretically could get a boost, but not seen as a priority as it doesn’t serve growth corridors, and the last load survey showed crowding was well below the levels seen on other lines. One would hope at least the 22 minute peak frequency shared with Altona will be fixed to 20.
Altona Loop — technically part of the Werribee line, the changes in 2011 when the third (turnback) platform at Laverton opened were primarily of benefit to the outer section of the Werribee line (early 2011 was when the line got a big increase in services). It helped add capacity for the Altona Loop stations, but degraded the service in other ways: peak hour service dropped back to an almost impossible to memorise 22 minute frequency, and at off-peak times on weekdays shuttle trains run every 20 minutes only as far as Newport.
This means that at off-peak times, if you want to travel to a City Loop underground station, you need to catch three trains — one to Newport, another to North Melbourne or Southern Cross, then a third to the Loop.
One of the reasons widely cited for the shuttle trains (and the 22 minute peak timetable) was a lack of capacity between Newport and the City, given the need to share the line with Geelong trains. RRL will see the Geelong trains off the line, and it has been flagged many times that this would bring an end to the shuttles, with off-peak Altona Loop trains going all the way into the city — in fact Labor pledged it during the 2014 election campaign. It would help those passengers, but also ease off-peak crowding on the Werribee line by enabling the Werribee trains to run express Newport to Footscray, bypassing busy inner-city stations like Yarraville.
But with a lack of assurances from the powers that be, there are now fears this won’t happen after all, or at least not any time soon. (Do you use the Altona Loop? Click through to find out how to help the campaign.)
Other lines indirectly benefit: the Frankston, Craigieburn and Upfield lines gain some isolation from V/Line operations which currently can snowball across the network.
So, RRL brings a lot of scope for extra services
With the zone 2 fare cuts, anecdotal evidence is that patronage is on the rise again, right across the rail network. The government is going to need to stay ahead of the growth, to avoid the politically sensitive situation of widespread packed trains that we saw in the later years of the Bracks/Brumby government.
This time, they’re a bit more prepared. RRL unlocks capacity for a number of lines, and planning work is underway to unlock capacity on other lines around the network. The key is for the funding for upgrades (and that includes infrastructure, fleet and services) to keep on coming.
You wouldn’t expect them to use all the extra capacity from day one, but they should where they have the train fleet available and the crowding is worst (eg the Werribee line and Altona Loop), as well as a plan to roll out additional service boosts over time.
Of course it shouldn’t just be directed at easing train overcrowding. Trains, like no other transport mode, have the ability to get large numbers out people out of the traffic on the Westgate Bridge and the other river crossings, if good frequent services are provided.
And remember — all-day, 7-day frequent services — every 10 minutes or better — are actually relatively cheap on the upgrade list, because they largely use fleet and infrastructure already provided for peak hour. Frequent services help the people who can, make more trips outside peak hours, and just like in the world’s biggest cities, help turn our train system into a mass transit solution that gets people out of cars by providing good connections between lines, and Turn Up And Go services.
- Update 20/2/2015: The government has postponed the opening to June, blaming a lack of V/Line rolling stock due to the previous government delaying the order.