ON SEPTEMBER 5 the Victorian state government announced a A$550m cash injection towards a five-year programme of upgrading and modernisation to provide faster passenger services between Melbourne and the regional centres of Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong and Traralgon. Premier Steve Bracks said the project would be funded as a public-private sector partnership under the Partnerships Victoria policy, with major works put in hand by late 2001.

Launch of the Fast Rail Links Project follows completion of detailed feasibility studies for each route. These suggest that journey time from Melbourne to Ballarat (119 km) could be cut to 1h, with the state capital reached in 80min from Bendigo (162 km), 45min from Geelong (73 km), and 90min from Traralgon (158 km). ’The studies have confirmed that there is a significant economic benefit associated with reducing travel times between Melbourne and these four provincial centres’, said Bracks.

To meet the FRLP journey time targets, a major programme to upgrade and resignal around 500 route-km is needed to accommodate new trains able to run at 160 km/h or more. Total cost is put at A$800m, of which the government will provide A$550m from the Growing Victoria infrastructure fund, including A$80m already allocated for the project in the 2000-01 Budget.

Traffic on the four rail corridors is expected to rise by 70% overall. Bracks said that the scheme would drive population growth in regional centres, with 21000 more people living in the four corridors by 2021. Around 9000 jobs will be created during construction, and there will be ’environmental benefits for all Victorians’.

Transport Minister Peter Batchelor announced that a high-level project team had already been set up to co-ordinate the project. This team will determine the commercial framework with the private sector, and discussions are planned with operator National Express and infrastructure lessee Freight Australia.