Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull today made up more than 50 years of time wasted by bureaucrats and government in planning and delivering major infrastructure at Melbourne International Airport.
The precinct still affectionately known as Tullamarine by Victorians has suffered from a transport disconnect with the capital city and major regional centres since it opened in 1970.
Passengers taking to the skies have been left with few alternatives but the car with thousands now clogging short and long-term carparks day after day, congestion around the airport outstripping any belated increase in carpark size over the years.
The Prime Minister’s pre-Budget announcement of $5 billion towards a rail line linking Melbourne Airport with the city finally gives action to decades of talk and will hopefully force an end to inertia that has dogged the airport since the opposition Labor and Country Parties scuttled the 1965 plans of then-premier Sir Henry Bolte’s government for a link then estimated to cost 100,000 pounds.
Back in an era when train travel was waning in Victoria, “the Opposition parties … opposed the Bill on the grounds that it would not receive the level of patronage from air passengers or airport employees for the service to be viable, with competition from the airways’ bus services, taxis, private cars and company vehicles,” according to research papers in the Victorian Parliament.
Just five years later in 1971, the Bolte Government authorised a feasibility study for a French-designed monorail system for the Melbourne-Tullamarine route that estimated a 16-minute travel time from city to airport and looked at a satellite extension to nearby Sunbury. The cost was just under $30 million … but it came to nothing and set the scene for another 40-plus years of dreams and aspirations constantly rejected by governments and bureaucrats, eyes fixed more on the short-term parliamentary cycle than genuine infrastructure planning to meet projected demand for half a century.
The first challenge now for the governments of Prime Minister Turnbull and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, and perhaps their successors if they fall in elections due over the next year, is to look beyond playing infrastructure catch-up with the Melbourne Airport rail link project.
Together, even though political poles apart, Turnbull and Andrews can achieve a legacy of not only meeting future demands in the Melbourne Airport precinct but firmly plant flashing lights for government investment and access to services on the metropolitan fringe and in the major regional centres.
But Turnbull’s announcement was, wrongly, focused purely on Melbourne. He omitted to mention transport links from regional areas that could be incorporated into the project – the four route options released are only concerned with Melbourne.
Yet, 16 kilometres away is Sunbury – home to 36,000 people and centre of what appears an area of unrelenting residential development and also just a little further on the Bendigo-Swan Hill rail line, the commuter towns of Gisborne, Woodend, Macedon and Kyneton.
Bendigo, Victoria’s largest inland city, was quick to make noises about its inclusion in planning. A diversion from either Clarkefield or Sunbury to the airport has been floated
City of Greater Bendigo manager of regional sustainable development Trevor Budge has been reporting as saying the council was confident that the Bendigo line would be considered in any Melbourne Airport rail link plans.
“If VLocity trains are used, we could see a one-hour airport-Bendigo trip given the express service to Sunbury takes an hour,” he said.
It appears Malcolm Turnbull has fallen into the same trap that has caught policy-makers and decision-makers for much of the last century with an announcement that perpetuates errors of the past by concentrating investment in the capital cities and along the eastern seaboard.
This same announcement lacked a strategic component. When his state colleagues must win regional seats for any real chance of reclaiming government in Victoria this November, regional linkages to Melbourne Airport would have sent a strong Liberal brand message beyond Melbourne of a party that was looking to the future of the regions.
Jacinta Allan, transport minister in the Andrews Government and the member for Bendigo East, has been quicker out of the blocks advocating for Bendigo’s inclusion in planning for the airport rail link.
While the Prime Minister has struggled with recalling lyrics to more contemporary Australian songs, he seems better versed in hits from the sixties like The Seekers’ Morningtown Ride when the train headed around the bay.
However, Malcolm Turnbull needs to be riding this late-arriving airport train deeper inland than the Melbourne CBD and environs around Port Philip Bay.
Regions need inclusion in the Melbourne Airport rail link to begin reversing the perception, and indeed too often the reality, of governments overlooking the capacity within provincial communities to grow in population, economy and worth to the national fabric.
Chris Earl is a rural and regional consultant.
Illustration: Malcolm Turnbull/Twitter.
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