How Melbourne's rail network is expected to look on completion of the new Melbourne Rail Link project

Yesterday’s State budget confirmed the Napthine government’s commitment to addressing the looming capacity constraints in Melbourne’s rail system. As expected, it will make extensive changes to the existing plans for Melbourne Metro.

It’s now called Melbourne Rail Link and the tunnel component will be routed via a new station at Fisherman’s Bend rather than under the CBD as Metro planned. It includes a line to Melbourne Airport and a number of changes to the operation of other services.

Revising the project has lots of political benefits for the government. Most importantly, it gives it real credibility on public transport.

Whereas the Metro was Labor’s creation, Melbourne Rail Link is the Coalition’s own invention. It will also provide a line to service the government’s signature urban redevelopment scheme at Fishermans Bend.

And the change, with its associated need for years of extensive design work, provides political cover for not spending serious money on the project until at least 2018.

That doesn’t mean, though, that Melbourne Rail Link is necessarily a bad project or even inferior to Metro. All major projects involve compromises and have to be assessed in terms of how well the inevitable compromises are traded off.

So, has Denis Napthine got it right this time or is he about to stuff up Melbourne’s Metro?

Fortunately there’s more information than was provided previously. On the basis of the limited technical information available, the Melbourne Rail Link provides a number of advantages compared to Metro. It will:

  • Cost less to build, mainly due to shorter tunnels. This means for the same cost as Metro ($11 Billion), the project includes construction of a new line to Melbourne Airport with stops at Southern Cross, Flinders St and stations out to Pakenham.
  • Increase peak hour capacity across the system by a claimed 30% versus Metro’s 17%.
  • Provide rail access to Fishermans Bend, “the largest urban renewal project in Australia”, (40,000 jobs, 80,000 residents).
  • Avoid temporary disruption in Swanston St from building the two new CBD stations proposed for Metro.
  • Include construction of an interchange at South Yarra with the new line (Metro had the tunnel portal at South Yarra but not a station, due to cost).
  • Give all services stops at a minimum of two CBD stations. The key Sunbury – Dandenong line will have stops at Southern Cross and Flinders St (Metro planned these services would stop at new stations at Melbourne Central and Flinders St).

And what are the downsides relative to Metro? The biggest one in my view is the delay necessitated by the changes to the project.

The start of construction is put off by at least three to four years as a significant amount of work has to be done on front end design and engineering. Rushing that work would risk major cost blow-outs.

Another is that the station at Parkville planned under Metro will no longer be built; the new station at Fishermans Bend (Montague) will effectively replace it. As I’ve noted before, I think that’s a reasonable trade-off.

While there’s not much there now, Fishermans Bend is effectively a ‘greenfield’ site with potential for much higher densities than Parkville. Moreover, Parkville is close to the CBD and is already serviced by trams; funding is provided in the project to improve tram and bus connections to the area.

Seemingly more worrying is the location of Montague station on the eastern end of the Fishermans Bend precinct (intersection of Montague St and 109 tram line). Although Montague includes a tram and bus interchange, a more central location would be better.

However that has to be weighed against the additional cost. In any event the highest job and residential densities will be in the eastern part of the precinct (1).

A further issue is that travellers from Frankston will “detour” via the new tunnel and hence have slightly longer journeys. On the other hand they’ll now get access to four loop stations compared to three under Metro (but not Flinders St in either case). At present Frankston trains only stop at Flinders St and Southern Cross.

A more substantive worry is the revised project forfeits the relief Metro was expected to give to severe tram congestion on Swanston St and St Kilda Rd. There are of course other solutions (e.g. see Is this a real tram ‘network’?) and the government should ensure the issue is addressed.

Melbourne Rail Link doesn’t solve all of the same problems as Metro but it’s a different beast; all in all this is a better project than the early leaks suggested (2).

I’d still like to see more information (e.g. on how the Benefit-Cost Ratio and the higher peak hour capacity claims are calculated) but there’s enough there to give me confidence the Napthine Government isn’t about to stuff up the key purpose of Metro i.e. to provide greater rail capacity in the city centre.


  1. Update: the government says it’s considering a new “light rail loop” to link into Montague.
  2. Either the Government’s revised the project in response to the criticism or it needs to do leaks a lot better
How the network was expected to look in circa 20 years with Melbourne Metro (source: PTV Network Development Plan)