Suburban Rail Loop was first announced by State Labor ahead of the 2018 election. They romped it in, and the conclusion was that the project had widespread support in the electorate. Despite the cost, it was genuinely seen as a big thinking, city-shaping project.
Last week the Coalition announced they’d put the project on hold if elected in November.
Here are some thoughts on this.
Yes it’s a big expensive project.
But obviously SRL is not just one project, it’s a series of them.
- First is SRL East (Southland to Box Hill)
- Then SRL North (Box Hill to Melbourne Airport) – possibly developed in two halves, with the split at Reservoir
- Lastly SRL West (Airport to Werribee, though the route for this section is very vague)
Even just the first stage is bigger than most road and rail projects, because there’s a minimum practical size for a new independent line.
It doesn’t help with cost that all of the first two stages are underground (apart from the contentious stabling yard at Heatherton). This makes it more expensive than if it was partly a ground level or elevated line.
It also looks like almost all of it will be tunnelled by boring machines, making it more expensive than if some of it was built with cut-and-cover – but this is near-impossible in built-up areas if not following major roads.
Just Stage 1?
If stage 1 gets built, but future governments don’t commit to later stages, are there benefits? Yes. Obviously the more you build, the more benefits, but even stage 1 improves journey options into Monash Uni, the research precinct and the new Heart hospital, Monash Medical Centre (hospital) at Clayton, Southland, and Box Hill – including the hospital there.
SRL is not the cheapest option to improve orbital travel, but in many ways it works better than the alternatives – certainly for speed between the existing major train lines, and capacity.
Aside from the politics, it’s probably important to remember that it’s a land use and planning project, not just a transport project. It’s about enabling further development of the precincts around the stations, and encouraging access to them by public transport.
The current station designs partly compromise the end-to-end journey times. To maximise the benefits, the stations should really be modified to cut walking times to major destinations and to other connecting train, tram and bus services.
There’s also a strong argument for additional stations – at the very least near Warrigal Road, given the opportunities for urban development in Moorabbin’s industrial area, and the long distance between stations on that stretch of the line.
SRL has very few stations by modern standards. By way of comparison, Sydney’s NW Metro has 13 stations along a 36 km route, or a station every 2.7 km. SRL East is 26 km with just 6 planned stations, or one every 4.3 km.
My PTUA colleague Ben notes on his own blog that the PBO costing includes 50 years of running costs, as well as major asset renewal costs during that time, so of course it’s going to be higher.
Additionally, it appears the SRLA costing is using “present value” dollars (cost at the time of writing), but the PBO is using “nominal” dollars (the cost at the time of spending, decades into the future). I would also note that both documents are a little vague on this to my untrained eye.
Still, this could help explain why the two costings for stage 1 are very similar, but the PBO’s for stage 2 is about double. I’m no economist, but it does seem that the SRLA and PBO costings are not directly comparable.
So will the Coalition’s threat to cancel the project work?
Given the project’s popularity, I was initially surprised that the State Coalition would pledge to cancel it. But the more I think about it, the more I suspect they’d be pretty grumpy if they got into government and had to fund one of Daniel Andrews’ signature projects.
All the same, it’s a bold move. They probably thought they needed something big to get them out of the mire of repeated scandals and to have any chance of a shot at the election.
I’m not sure it’ll work, but I do think we always need a strong, competitive opposition to keep whoever is in government on track. So far, it’s not looking like it’ll be a close election, though the most recent poll was just before the Coalition’s SRL announcement.
We’ll see how the debate goes from here.
I still think that SRL, while an expensive project, is a worthwhile project. The health system obviously needs to improve, but public transport also needs a shot in the arm. Whoever is in government needs to upgrade both.
Update 24/8/2022: The Coalition followed up today by demanding that no new SRL contracts are signed before the election. This is actually a very reasonable request… though it sounds like it was unlikely to be an issue. And given the history of the East West Link side letter, they’ve certainly got some chutzpah.