budget 2019 high speed rail geelong victoria
(Image: AAP/Tracey Nearmy)

Will the last person who wants to fund a fast train to Geelong please raise their hand?

If there’s one thing that unites politicians in Victoria, it’s that the overcrowded train line from Melbourne to Geelong needs to be improved to increase capacity and reduce transit times. Last September, the Andrews government declared it was “getting on with delivering fast rail to Geelong, while working to run more trains and making station facilities better for passengers in the region”. (Don’t you love it when politicians use the sullen, pass-ag phrase “getting on with”?).

That didn’t mean it was building anything to do with high-speed rail, just that, in addition to upgrades to improve the line, it was spending $50 million to study the idea of high-speed rail there, along with other fast-rail connections in the state. Then-Liberal opposition leader Matthew Guy had promised a high-speed rail service that would take just 32 minutes between the cities.

It availed him, as they say in the classics, nowt. Among the losses for the Victorian Liberal Party in the state election was its only Geelong seat.

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So just under two weeks ago, terrified of the doom coming for Victorian MPs and, in all likelihood, Sarah Henderson in the seat of Corangamite, Scott Morrison announced $2 billion for a “fast train service” between Melbourne and Geelong if the Andrews government matched the commitment. It “would be the first of many the Liberal Nationals Government would build over the next twenty years”. At the time, cities minister Alan Tudge was reported as saying work could begin within 18 months.

You would expect the budget to have fleshed out this commitment. And it kinda, sorta did. Under a cross-portfolio “population package”, Budget Paper no. 2 explains:

The Government will provide $2.1 billion from 2019-20 to ease population pressures in major cities, while ensuring that regions share the benefits of population growth. The funding includes: $2.0 billion from 2021-22 for the delivery of fast rail from Melbourne to Geelong to reduce travel times, increase train patronage and ease congestion on the Princes Highway and West Gate Bridge; $14.5 million from 2019-20 (and $2.5 million per year ongoing) for a National Faster Rail Agency to identify and support the development of fast rail connections between capital cities and key regional centres. 

So, not really 18 months at all, as Tudge claimed. What will be established in 18 months is a “National Faster Rail Agency” costing $3.5 million a year, of around 15-20 bureaucrats. Notice they won’t be charged with identifying and supporting the development of high speed rail, just faster rail — which is more likely to be track straightening, duplication and better rollingstock to reduce transit times, not “European-style” high speed trains of the kind promised by Guy.

Quite how that will interact with rail networks controlled by NSW and Victoria isn’t clear, though the Commonwealth controls the interstate routes between South Australian and Brisbane via the Australian Rail Track Corporation. But the budget has a lovely, if rather crude, drawing of the government’s rail ambitions.

Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks this week mocked the $2 billion commitment from Morrison, saying “I don’t know who did the costings, I don’t know where the business case is, but I can only assume it was done on a napkin in a cafe … How the Federal Government thinks you can do this for $2 billion, when the section ­between Sunshine and Southern Cross will cost at least four times that amount, is a joke.”

But even assuming the business case is sound, Geelong residents shouldn’t expect anything to happen before the mid-2020s anyway. According to the budget papers, Victoria will receive $135 million in total rail funding in 2021-22 and $280 million in 2022-23. At that rate, the $2 billion commitment will take most of the 2020s to be delivered.

Just when the first fast(er) trains will travel between the cities isn’t clear, but don’t hold your breath.