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Issue #1621      December 4, 2013

Regional Rail Link*

Massive corporate handouts

Regional Rail Link (RRL), the largest infrastructure project under way in Australia, is a $5.3 billion new diesel suburban rail line running from Werribee to Southern Cross Station in Victoria. At first glance you would think that any new rail infrastructure would be a good thing but planned as a “stimulus project” in order to fund large handouts to private construction companies, it has been mired in problems from the start, and is leaving behind a trail of noise, air quality, amenity and access issues for local communities.

Regional Rail Link works between Footscray and Sunshine.

Economic stimulus vs genuine rail project

By 2009 the capitalist economic crisis was in full swing and the federal Labor government was tripping over itself to hand out Keynesian welfare to big business in the form of cash bail outs and contracts for big projects to keep them afloat. Soon the Victorian state government began to follow suit. In the 2009/10 state budget, then Victorian Treasurer John Lenders announced that Victoria would spend a record $20 billion on infrastructure projects over the next four years in order to “stimulate the state economy”. The Regional Rail project was identified as one of these.

Declaring the RRL a major project under the major projects act was a calculated decision to allow the project to be fast tracked and avoid time consuming community consultation. So it wasn’t until 2012 that residents from the working class suburbs of Sunshine, Albion, Ardeer, Sunshine West, Deer Park and Derrimut started to become aware of the impacts of the new rail line which would bring more rail traffic through dense residential areas and yet provide no extra train services.

The community organised a large community meeting in June to discuss the impact of the Regional Rail Link and Fix the links: Residents Rail Action Group was formed out of this meeting. The meeting requested that the state government and the Regional Rail Link Authority suspend the project while they addressed our concerns regarding noise, air quality, liveability, traffic and emergency access.

What are the problems?

The RRLA’s own noise, air quality and traffic assessments identified that the noise levels will be above the thresholds set in the government’s new noise policy. They know that diesel fumes, which are now recognised carcinogens, will increase dramatically. They know that traffic congestion at level crossings on Fitzgerald Road and Station Road will be unbearable. They also know that the boom gates will be down by up to 45 minutes in the hour during peak times. This project is being rushed which is crazy when they are building a rail line for the next 100 years.

The RRLA are saying that these issues will be addressed once the rail line is built. We say it should be built properly in the first place. We have proposed many solutions. Some of our proposals include:

Noise

A deeper cutting for the rail line, earth mounding barriers, tree planting, double-glazing for windows are all options that should be considered. We don’t want the planned dirty big wall running through our neighbourhood.

Diesel pollution

We want older, more polluting rail stock to be retired. They could bring forward the plan to electrify the rail line to Melton and Geelong. This would reduce diesel fumes and provide for the transport needs of the fastest growing areas in Melbourne.

Access

Station Road and Fitzgerald Road crossings should have grade separations. Melbourne already has too many level crossings. Recently two people have died at these crossings. Furthermore, the rail line should go under Anderson Road at King Edward Avenue instead of closing this road.

It costs more to do the job properly. However, this way, you don’t solve one problem and create many more.

We have been talking to local MPs, the capitalist press and the RRLA. Yet the building continues without addressing our concerns and now three years on communities along the length of the new line are still fighting to have their concerns heard.

So how did it come about?

For a major project there was little in the way of long term planning. Between 2000 and 2010, the Victorian government released four transport planning documents for Melbourne but the RRL was not mentioned in any of them. Paul Mees from RMIT University appears to be the only person who has done any investigation into this lack of planning and he pointed out that the first of these documents, the Melbourne 2030 metropolitan strategy, launched in 2002 focused on land use planning, with the transport content confined mainly to “aspirational” statements.

Then in 2004, Linking Melbourne: Metropolitan Transport Plan listed a number of “rail network issues requiring attention, including the Dandenong line, the City Loop and the approaches to the loop through North Melbourne Station.” Again there is no mention of the RRL. This was followed two years later by Meeting Our Transport Challenges: Connecting Victorian Communities. A new project was included, involving expansion of the main western line between Footscray and Sunshine to three, and in the long term four, tracks.

However, the RRL was not mentioned. The final report in the series is the Victorian Transport Plan (VTP), released only eight months later in December of the same year. This document substantially reversed the public transport priorities of its predecessors. No explanation for the change was offered. In place of the Dandenong line third track, the VTP proposed two new major projects. The first priority was the Regional Rail Link.

Another key issue is the lack of investigation of alternatives. Again it was Paul Mees who was a lone voice in pointing out that capacity exists on the existing lines to significantly improve the services and that full and proper investigation of this does not appear to have been done before thinking about spending on such a massive new project.

A Public Sector contrast

Prior to the RRL, the largest urban rail project in Australia for decades had been the Mandurah line in Perth, which opened in December 2007. In engineering terms, the Mandurah line was a much larger project than the RRL, incorporating 71 kilometres of new electrified rail line including a tunnel under the Perth CBD and 11 interchange stations. The two CBD stations are underground, while the nine suburban stations feature purpose-built bus interchanges and extensive park-and-ride lots.

Patronage, at around 60,000 trips per day, is above pre-construction projections. Yet, the community consultation lasted for 10 years and the cost of the Mandurah line was $1.2 billion, less than a third the price of the RRL (allowing for inflation) (Mees, 2010).

Fightback

Successive Labor and Liberal governments have shown that they are only interested in creating inflated projects to keep capitalism afloat and for the class they serve to profit from. They are not in the least concerned with the impact of the project on the community or the environment. As the WA experience goes to show, public ownership and control of the project leads to greater cost containment, and greater accountability.

The Brumby Labor government and the current Liberal government exempted the RRLA from conducting an environmental effects statement, which means that long established working class communities face living with carcinogenic fumes, high background noise levels and poor neighbourhood amenity. However, communities along the length of the line are fighting back.

First in Footscray where residents stood up over poorly handled housing acquisitions as well as noise and air quality issues, then in Sunshine a community meeting attended by over 80 residents outlined how they would be affected by the new rail line and demanded that works be suspended in the corridor until proper consultation had occurred. They also demanded the electrification of the line. More recently a group in North Melbourne was formed to fight the loss of service they will experience as a result of this project.

* Anyone who would like to help out with this campaign can contact Geraldine on 0423 158 422
Fix the Links: Regional Rail Action Group
www.facebook.com/FixTheLinks

Next article – Convict meets asylum seeker – Some lessons about history repeating itself

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