Melbourne and regional Victoria: stronger together

Saturday, 15 June 2019

By Mayor Bruce Harwood

Stronger, Together is a program of fast, high-capacity, high-frequency electrified commuter rail between Melbourne and the regional cities of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton and Latrobe, as well as many interim towns, largely designed to complement the Melbourne Airport Rail link, with which much of the program shares common infrastructure.

The context is simple: booming Melbourne now represents around twenty per cent of the national economy and thirty per cent of national growth, yet its liveability and access to opportunity is under challenge, notably in its far outer suburbs.  Yet while this has happened, regional Victoria has remained the lowest-growth economy in the nation for over a decade.
How can these two things co-exist in such a relatively small, prosperous state?

Despite serious and much-appreciated investment effort from successive governments, Geelong is getting further away from Melbourne and more challenging in commuting terms, rather than closer and easier, due to rapid population growth, an increasingly overloaded passenger rail service and a congested freeway. 

Keeping our beautiful city and region liveable is a losing battle under these circumstances.  Many other wonderful regional cities are facing similar challenges.

Status quo approaches won’t save us.

We wanted to see whether fast, high-frequency, French-style regional rail could solve both problems in one commercially, economically and environmentally-productive program.

In 2017 we decided to commission modest work on this issue. We brought in local and even international technical and strategic advisers who were willing to design a smart fast regional rail vision for almost no money - and with no certainty about where it would lead. Is this entirely local government’s role? Perhaps not, but our councillors voted eleven to nil in favour of trying...

We reached out to others - Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton, Latrobe. The shared passion was clear.

After much work, the potential can be considered in Stronger, Together: it finds around a million people can be induced mostly out of Melbourne’s population by 2050 by making nearby regional Victoria an attractive and reliable commuting and living proposition, with daily high-capacity, high-frequency fast regional transit times equating to daily commuting times across many middle ring suburbs in Melbourne. 2.7 million regional Victorians would gain access to fast capital connections by 2050.

On the evidence of eminent economists Professor John Stanley and Dr Peter Brain, this saves Melbourne around $800 million per year of congestion costs. 
For somebody living in Geelong or Ballarat, fast rail would save them seven full working weeks every year, which is what they would otherwise have to spend in their car travelling to and from work.

We are extremely grateful that the Andrews Government has committed to plan for fast rail to both Geelong and Ballarat and is doing essential suburban line duplication work to speed-up regional trains, while the Morrison government has committed major funds to actually build Geelong fast rail. We hope our report will broaden thinking and accelerate action. 

Is it technically achievable? Insights from some eminent Victorian rail specialists have informed a practical design. 

Is it affordable? A professional preliminary business case has been built in parallel with our report. That is for governments to consider as they wish, but it suggests much of the vision could be built in parallel with Melbourne Airport Rail Link. This means fast regional rail may not have to wait for another decade. 

The same business case suggests major outcomes could be affordable within currently-agreed State and Commonwealth government funding commitments.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we have tried to reimagine how Victoria could take shape with the right project - a much bigger single labour market of opportunity around Melbourne. International case studies help us imagine possibilities. 

Whatever happens, our community wants to have more agency over major infrastructure - what is built, when, how much it will cost, how much communities might be willing to pay for the right outcomes, what protections there are from price gouging, what planning and funding will be in place to prevent fast rail cities suffering the blight of sprawl and overdevelopment.

We are confident regional Victoria is ready for that debate. We hope Melbourne and Canberra will be too.

Councillor Bruce Harwood is the Mayor of the City of Greater Geelong, which was recently designated a UNESCO Global City of Design.

Page last updated: Monday, 17 June 2019