BENDIGO commuters would be worse off if the government reneged on plans to develop a dedicated airport rail tunnel, a rail expert says.
The Age newspaper is reporting the state government has ditched plans for a tunnel between the Melbourne CBD and Sunshine, with trains instead having to enter the city through the new Metro Tunnel.
"All of the indications are they want to jam the airport line onto the existing tracks, but it would be bursting at capacity when Melbourne Metro opens," Rail Futures Institute president John Hearsch said.
"We don't agree with that at all. It will have an impact not only on regional trains, but probably services in Melbourne's west, which is already a problem.
"We're waiting on further indications from the government on which way they would go, but we're certainly opposed to any idea of running the airport line on existing tracks."
Mr Hearsch said an airport rail service without the tunnel and additional tracks would hinder Victoria's regional centres.
"One thing for sure is they wouldn't be able to get anymore trains on the line," he said. "If we look at the three main regional cities in Victoria, there is tremendous growth potential.
"Bendigo and Ballarat could have 200,000 people or more by the middle of the century. That is going to require more intensive or fast rail services for it to work.
"While the government is going to give some voice to the regional services, their actions have been louder than words."
The state government is considering a number of options that will allow for direct services into the city to and from the airport, and an interchange at Sunshine for connections to regional and other metro services.
"We're working closely with the Commonwealth Government on all options for Airport Rail that will get people to and from the airport quickly with minimal interchanges," Minister for Transport Infrastructure and Member for Bendigo East Jacinta Allan said.
"All options being assessed for the Airport Rail will stop at Sunshine for connections to Victoria's major regional rail lines, such as Geelong, Ballarat, and Bendigo."
Mr Hearsch said the Rail Futures Institute put forward a proposal to the government for a connection on the Bendigo line between Clarkefield and Tullamarine.
"Instead of going through the suburban system, it would allow Bendigo trains to go straight to the airport," Mr Hearsch said. "It would benefit Bendigo because it would be about 30 minutes quicker to the airport.
"It's a longer-term project and it won't be cheap but the airport rail link is not cheap either. The government has certainly not committed or acknowledged that opportunity."
Mr Hearsch said while a lot of the focus was on Melbourne, the tracks on the Bendigo line also needed improvements.
"When the regional fast rail project was introduced 15 years ago, they removed one of the tracks between Kyneton and Bendigo because they didn't think they would need it," he said.
"Since then, there has been a lot of growth and they've realised they need to put the track back.
"The government has had medium-term plans to do that but no real commitments at this stage. They would need to do that before they can get better train services."
Mr Hearsch said there had also been upgrades to sections of the line, which meant velocity trains could run at 160km/h.
He said the remaining parts of track would need to be improved to meet the same standards, as trains were still travelling between 115km/h and 130km/h on those sections.
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