The Suburban Rail Loop project was announced by the Premier, Daniel Andrews, in a two-minute video posted to social media on 28 August 2018.
Originally code named ‘Operation Halo’, the infrastructure project was so secret that board members of the government agency responsible for its delivery knew nothing.
Speaking to The Age newspaper in 2021, RMIT’s Director of the Centre for Urban Research, Jago Dodson said, ‘It’s very difficult to think of a comparable example of a project of this scale that has been announced with virtually no public discussion, no analysis, no preliminary deliberations or planning documentation.’
Fast forward to February 2022 to a public hearing on the Environmental Effects Statement for the project. The hearing, run by an inquiry committee, was held over 10 weeks from 28 February to 5 May.
The committee’s report, fully supporting the project, has now been handed down, and the Minister for Environment and Climate Change has endorsed their report.
Three key issues the Association made in submissions to the inquiry related to the:
loss of public open space;
impact on areas covered by the 1.6km Suburban Rail Loop precincts and
mechanics of implementation and the role of local councils.
The committee’s report states that the loss of public open space will be a highly significant project impact that will be felt during construction and when the new loop service is up and running.
A steering committee will oversee the selection of replacement open space but the outcome of their work remains to be seen.
Box Hill Gardens is a heavily used and popular park adjacent to Box Hill Hospital and will be reduced in size by 25% for the project. The amenity and usability of the remaining parkland will also be impacted by the construction activity that could extend for 12 years (2023-2035).
The linear reserve that forms the median strip in Whitehorse Road, Box Hill, which contains significant canopy trees, will be decimated by the project.
The Suburban Rail Loop Authority will assume planning control over vast tracts of land (referred to as ‘Suburban Rail Loop precincts’) extending with a 1.6 km radius from each new loop station.
The committee’s report made very little comment about the 1.6km precincts saying they would be subject to a separate planning exercise but this process is undefined.
Whitehorse City Council and other submitters questioned why the 1.6km precincts were expressly excluded from the environmental assessment process given a key ambition of the project is to densify these areas with large populations to create multiple mixed-use suburbs.
The impacts are likely to be extensive with high-rise development, traffic impacts, and altered modes of living and working for large numbers of people.
The government submitted to the inquiry that significant changes to land use in the 1.6km precincts are required to support the viability of the new rail loop yet the potential impacts of transforming such large urban areas has not been assessed.
Whitehorse Council expressed strong concerns about the precinct planning process stating, ‘…the situation remains that there is no certainty whatsoever in relation to the extent and nature of future participation by the Councils and the public in the future precinct planning…’.
The Suburban Rail Loop Authority will manage the planning of the 1.6km precincts under the Minister for the Suburban Rail Loop, Hon Jacinta Allan. The planning policy for these areas will be dictated by the Authority and the Minister for the Suburban Rail Loop, with the Minister for Planning and the local councils taking a much reduced role.
The implication is that for suburbs such as Surrey Hills, Mont Albert, Box Hill North, Box Hill, Box Hill South, and Burwood much of these areas will now be under the planning direction of the Suburban Rail Loop Authority and the Minister instead of, as they are now, predominantly managed by the local council and the planning minister.
The Suburban Rail Loop Authority opposed the inclusion of local councils on the project’s Urban Design Advisory Panel and the Public Open Space Expert Panel. However, this position was rejected by the inquiry committee and the Minister for Environment and Climate Change.
The Suburban Rail Loop has been described as a single orbital heavy rail line beneath the middle-ring suburbs of Melbourne with only a few stations; 15 in total for the proposed 90km route, at an average spacing of 6km compared to the average 1.8km between the existing 219 suburban stations.
Professor Michael Buxton has noted, ‘The government has not explained why it is not prioritising public transport in the outer suburbs, where 44% of the city’s population lives but only 4% of their area is served by public transport. Funding the loop condemns 1.5 million residents in new suburbs to long term reliance on motor vehicles or crammed into country trains.’
The government would counter this by saying that you can do both; have the ‘city shaping’ suburban rail loop to transition Melbourne into a polycentric city and support outer suburban public transport at the same time.
However, a suburban rail loop that linked the Mornington Peninsula, Dandenong, Knox, Ringwood, and Melbourne Airport may be a better bet. This could give greater support to the public transport needs of the outer suburbs and the peri-urban areas around Melbourne and complement the inner and middle-ring suburbs that have historically been well served by public transport.
Of course, there are other options to a fixed heavy rail loop, including a fully integrated bus service for metropolitan Melbourne.
The estimated cost of the first phase of the project (Suburban Rail Loop East) is $30 - $34.5 billion. Infrastructure Australia has confirmed it has not been sent a business case.
The fact that the government rushed to a middle-ring suburban rail loop as the preferred option and created an addendum to Plan Melbourne to validate it, leaves the public questioning the merits of this project and its economic, social, planning, and environmental viability.