Napthine rail plans are facing an overhaul

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The Australian: Napthine rail plans are facing an overhaul. John Ferguson. 17 February 2014

Graphic: Viki Sizgoric

The nation’s biggest urban rail infrastructure project is facing radical surgery as the Napthine government fights an electoral backlash over its stalled public transport agenda.

The Australian can reveal that the government is examining sweeping changes to the $9 billion Metro Rail capacity project plans, including extending it to a new growth corridor in Melbourne’s inner west.

The government has modelled several new options for delivering the inner-city rail-tunnel project within a reasonable budget, that could have it removing at least one of the stations from the original project.

The Australian understands that delivery of the project is so complex that Swanston Street – the heart of Melbourne – could be shut down for up to two years and the busiest CBD intersection turned into a “giant hole” in order to build the rail-tunnel project.

In a nightmare scenario for transport logistics, the intersection outside the iconic Flinders Street railway station may have to be shut down during building.

Under the modelling conducted by the government, the new suburb planned at Fishermans Bend in Melbourne’s inner west is being considered to become part of the huge rail and tunnel project through the heart of Melbourne.

But the trade-off may include axing one or more of several proposed rail stops, because each station will cost a staggering $500 million to deliver.

When finally started and finished, the rapid-rail tunnel will run for 9km from the inner northwest to the inner southeast. The government is believed to be taking a hammering in the polls due to a lack of progress on public transport in its first term, with the heavy emphasis on the $8bn East West Link road-tunnel project. Tony Abbott has promised that project $1.5bn but is resistant to urban rail.

Victorian Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder has the backing of cabinet colleagues but is under extreme pressure to start delivering, having not built “a single centimetre of his own rail line in three years”, sources said.

The drive to make the Metro Rail capacity project work is expected to lead to the Napthine government selling off the Port of Melbourne under a multi-billion-dollar pre-election deal.

The rail-capacity project is crucial to unlocking further capacity in the rail system, especially freight, to enable the planned new Port of Hastings to function south of Melbourne.

“The government has been undertaking a great deal of preliminary research and geotechnical testing with respect to the cross-city rail-capacity project,” a spokeswoman said.

“It is important that the government casts its preliminary testing over a wide area to ensure all possible routes are fully and properly considered, to get the best value for taxpayer dollars.”

The Napthine government is yet to sign a single contract to begin its six major transport projects, five of which are for public transport, including the Melbourne Airport Rail Link.

The Coalition made a series of promises prior to 2010 to proceed with key projects but has been hampered by indecision and a lack of capacity within the rail network. Labor believes the government is vulnerable because it has placed too much emphasis on roads over public transport.

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