Mernda rail extension plans on the drawing board

The Age: Mernda rail extension plans on the drawing board. August 18, 2014. Adam Carey, Transport Reporter for The Age

Plans for a new rail line in Melbourne’s booming outer north are quietly being drawn up by the Napthine government, just three months out from a state election in which transport issues are tipped to swing many votes.

The plans, which are at a very early stage, involve extending the South Morang rail line eight kilometres north to Mernda on Melbourne’s suburban fringe. Fairfax Media understands potential locations for three new stations are being assessed, as well as whether land owned by government corporation VicTrack could be sold to developers to offset the construction costs.

Planners with state authority Public Transport Victoria have consulted planning officers at the City of Whittlesea about the proposal. The terminus for the new line would likely be built next to the planned Mernda town centre, a grassy paddock that will eventually become a commercial hub for tens of thousands of people.

A rail development plan released by Public Transport Victoria last year deferred the Mernda rail extension for another 20 years. The Labor opposition has said it believes the rail extension should be built earlier than that and that it will review PTV’s timeline, but has not committed to building it.

A community campaign to pressure both major parties to commit to the Mernda rail extension is gathering momentum ahead of November’s poll. The Access Denied campaign has erected billboards on main roads in the area and hit state politicians with thousands of emails.

Transport Minister Terry Mulder told a gathering hosted by the Metropolitan Transport Forum on Thursday that any suburban rail extensions must follow construction of the Melbourne Rail Link, an $11 billion tunnel from South Yarra to Southern Cross Station that is largely unfunded.

“What I can tell you is that PTV are doing some preliminary work in relation to a number of extensions and Mernda is one of those,” Mr Mulder said.

Population growth in Melbourne’s outer north has rapidly outstripped transport infrastructure, with new suburbs that are home to tens of thousands of residents currently served only by buses.

The Auditor-General warned in a report to Parliament last year of the potential for outer suburban ghettos to form in Melbourne, should transport continue to lag behind population growth.

A Public Transport Victoria spokesman said the Mernda rail extension remained a long-term proposal, and the authority was simply doing proper planning.

“PTV is undertaking very early investigations on what the rail extension would eventually look like, so as to protect options for its eventual construction and integration with any future development,” he said.

The South Morang line was itself recently extended from Epping at a cost of $498 million. A rail corridor remains in place as far as Whittlesea, where trains ran to and from Flinders Street Station until 1959, when the line was closed north of Epping and the tracks ripped out of the ground.

From the day it opened in 2012, South Morang station has drawn more park-and-ride commuters than it can handle. Its 450-space car park overflows each weekday, with hundreds of cars spilling onto nearby vacant land owned by Westfield. A new car park with up to 350 spaces is being planned.

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