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Fast rail ‘impossible’ for Shepparton if dedicated airport tunnel is ditched

By Madi Chwasta

Shepparton will miss out on fast rail - resulting in fewer services and a blow out in travel times - if the Melbourne Airport rail tunnel is scrapped, according to rail experts.

The concern comes after The Age reported the state government is on the brink of abandoning the plan to build a rail tunnel between Sunshine and Southern Cross station.

The alternative proposal is to link Melbourne airport with the Metro Tunnel rail loop currently under construction, where airport trains would then be squeezed onto existing tracks between Sunshine and Melbourne’s CBD.

“Stronger, Together” business case design lead Luke Fraser said the latter option would mean Shepparton trains would continue to share tracks with suburban trains into the future.

With anticipated population growth throughout the state, he said this would choke the number of services to and from Shepparton, and would increase travel times.

“If a tunnel fast rail connection is not available, Shepparton line services will still be sharing tracks with suburban metro trains in and out of Melbourne in decades ahead,” Mr Fraser said.

“As Melbourne grows larger and larger, these suburban trains will start to strangle V/Line services, like Shepparton, off the network.”

Mr Fraser, who leads a design team of rail, infrastructure and finance experts from Australia and the UK, has found through “extensive” research the airport tunnel was the most cost-effective and “future-proof” option that would bring more government investment into the region.

“A network of regional fast and high frequency rail is the cheapest and best solution for solving economic growth in regions like Shepparton,” he said.

“Fast rail would bring higher regional infrastructure spending to keep these regions liveable.”

He said it would be “as good as impossible” for Shepparton to ever gain fast rail to Melbourne if the dedicated tunnel was ditched, and the town would be worse off than other regional centres as it was not included in the Regional Rail Link completed in 2015.

“It is ludicrous to think you could build two sky rail systems from Sunshine to Southern Cross,” he said.

“A tunnel is the elegant solution.”

However, State Member for Shepparton Suzanna Sheed said deserting the airport tunnel did not mean the end of high-speed rail from Shepparton, despite speaking to a number of experts who supported the option.

“There have been other proposals, such as the one put to the last federal election that singled out Shepparton for a very-fast inland rail option from Melbourne to Sydney,” Ms Sheed said.

“As disappointing as losing the tunnel would be, it does not spell an end to high-speed train options.

But Rail Futures president John Hearsch insisted the dedicated tunnel was the only way to get fast trains to Melbourne in the foreseeable future.

“There really is no way that trains can run high speed into the city without a dedicated path,” he said.

Mr Hearsch also agreed the exclusive tunnel from Sunshine to Southern Cross was “fundamental” for Shepparton’s future growth.

“We’re all thinking Shepparton will be bigger in the future, and getting fast rail is one of the pre-requisites,” Mr Hearsch said.

He said Rail Futures had lobbied for years for a high-speed rail between all major regional centres and Melbourne, but conceded the Shepparton route had no government commitment and was at least a decade away.

Committee for Greater Shepparton chief executive officer Sam Birrell said connectivity between Melbourne and Victorian regional centres was the only “real way” to manage growth in the state.

“The state government should be doing all it can to build it, so it has potential to provide that growth,” Mr Birrell said.

‘Stronger, Together’ is a regional alliance, led by Geelong City Council and includes the Committee for Greater Shepparton, advocating for 200 km per hour rail between Melbourne and regional centres, including Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton and Latrobe.

The Airport Rail Link tunnel is fundamental to Stronger, Together's modelling, and according to their ‘Fast Rail’ report, would slash the Shepparton to Melbourne commute by more than an hour, from two hours, 42 minutes to one hour and 38 minutes.

The state government has committed $350 million to upgrade the Shepparton rail line, and its completion would increase V/locity services to nine a day, and allow trains to travel up to 130 km per hour.

Federal Member for Nicholls Damian Drum said he remained faithful to fast regional rail and has called for the state government to commit to an airport rail tunnel.

Airport rail is set to open in 2027, with the state and federal governments each pledging $5 billion to the project.

A Department of Transport spokesperson said they were working closely with the Commonwealth Government on all options for Airport Rail.

"(Options) that will get people to and from the airport quickly with minimal interchanges," the spokesperson said.

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