Two significant milestones have been reached on the path to Western Australia’s March 9 state election, the first to be held under the new regime of fixed terms.

The first was the issue of the writs by the Governor on Wednesday, which regardless of what anyone else might tell you marks the formal commencement of the campaign period. The second was the launch of the Poll Bludger seat-by-seat election guide, wherein you may find details on the demographics, electoral history and preselection battles behind each of the state’s 59 lower house electorates.

Labor goes into the election needing to secure four more seats, plus one extra for as many of its existing seats as it might happen to lose.

The numbers after the 2008 state election were 28 for Labor, 24 for the Liberals and four for the Nationals, with three independents. Since then, Labor has lost a further two seats, adding an extra seat each to the ranks of the Nationals (with North West MP Vince Catania’s defection to the Nationals in July 2009) and independents (Adele Carles having won the April 2009 by-election for the Greens, then parting company with the party the following year).

Two seats suggest themselves as low-hanging fruit for Labor: Fremantle, which is expected to revert to type after Adele Carles’ heavily publicised travails, and Morley, where Labor was hindered in 2008 by the former Labor member’s decision to run as an independent and direct preferences to the Liberals. Morley has also been strengthened for Labor by redistribution, while the opposite has happened in Vince Catania’s seat of North West (now re-named North West Central), making his decision to switch sides all the more opportune.

Seat-level factors are likely to cause Labor further difficulties holding its ground outside Perth. Sitting members are retiring in the state’s northern most electorates of Pilbara and Kimberley, which are under determined challenge from the Nationals — especially Pilbara, which will be contested by party leader Brendon Grylls in an audacious hands-on bid to expand the party’s base.

Labor also has an anomalous hold on the south coast regional city seat of Albany, which voted 67-33 against it at the federal election. Its 89-vote victory at the 2008 state election was aided by support for the then premier, the locally born and bred Alan Carpenter.

Taking all that into account, it can reasonably be surmised that Labor will need at least four extra seats in Perth if they are to be in serious contention for a majority. Labor appears to be backing itself in the face of this formidable challenge, even if nobody else is (Sportsbet is currently offering $10 on a Labor win).

Opposition Leader Mark McGowan has seized the early campaign agenda by promising four major rail projects will be built by 2019, as part of a scheme collectively branded as MetroNet. This will cost $3.8 billion by Labor’s reckoning, and $6.4 billion by the Treasurer’s. Whatever its merits as policy — and there are doubts relating to cost, viability, planning and capacity to deliver on schedule — it’s impressively cogent as a political gambit.

With Perth famously attracting 1000 new residents from interstate and overseas every week, congestion on the city’s roads is a sleeper issue that appears to have awoken just in time for the election. Patterson Market Research, which conducts the Westpoll series for The West Australian, last month found Perth respondents rated “transport/congestion” as the election’s single most important issue, the state-wide response rate of 21% comparing with just 6% when the same question was posed in July.

As election promises go, a Labor plan to deal with the problem through a massive program of rail works is likely to ring truer in the public mind than most. Labor’s promotional material for MetroNet boasts of “110km of rail built under WA Labor”, compared with “7.5km of rail built under the Liberal Party (still under construction)”.

Each of the last two Labor governments bequeated suburban rail lines built entirely during their time in office: the Joondalup line in the north, built between 1989 and 1992 under the Dowding-Lawrence government, and the Mandurah line in the south, built between 2004 and 2007 under Geoff Gallop and Alan Carpenter. The Mandurah line was contentious in conception and dogged along the way by industrial disputation and cost blowouts, but it has proved an outstanding success, with patronage of the rail system as a whole almost doubling since it opened.

As the two lines straddle the Mitchell and Kwinana freeways which form the unavoidable backbone of Perth’s road network, each stands as a visible monument to Labor’s otherwise highly troubled periods in office.

The rail promises also dovetail neatly with the negative dimension of Labor’s campaign strategy, which seeks to exploit Barnett’s imperious image and western suburban detachment from daily life in Perth’s cheaper seats.

One of the showpieces of Barnett’s agenda for the next term is a grand plan to redevelop the Swan River foreshore, which will tellingly have the effect of constricting one of the city’s main road thoroughfares. Another is the construction of a new football stadium at Burswood east of Perth to replace the decrepit Subiaco Oval. While a vote-winning proposition in its own right, it is of narrative value to an opposition that says it can save money by pursuing an alternative proposal for a new stadium in Subiaco.

In this context, Barnett seemed to misread the breeze last week when he opened the Liberal campaign with a $70 million plan to redevelop and beautify Perth’s most popular beaches.

For all that, there are good reasons why the odds being offered on Labor are as long as they are.