The much talked about Melbourne Airport Rail project is becoming a reality, with progress being made towards making future travel to and from Melbourne Airport that much easier.

The project has been decades in the making. In fact, planning for a rail connection to the airport predates the construction of Melbourne Airport itself in 1970. By the end of this decade, there will be a rail connection to Melbourne Airport for the first time.

The project involves laying around 13km of track between Melbourne Airport and Sunshine Station in Melbourne’s west, and adjacent to the existing Albion-Jacana freight corridor.

A new rail bridge to cross the Maribyrnong River will be built alongside the existing heritage bridge. A series of new above-ground structures will include elevated viaducts and shared use overpasses. Substations will also be built to provide the extra power for trains that will run on the line.

There will also be structural modifications and strengthening works at Calder Freeway, Fullarton Road, Western Ring Road, Keilor Park Drive and McIntyre Road. Noise walls, signalling equipment and overhead line equipment will be installed along the route.

After reaching Sunshine, Melbourne Airport Rail will connect into the heart of Melbourne’s CBD via the new Metro Tunnel. Rail Projects Victoria’s Ben Ryan, the Project Director for Melbourne Airport Rail, said the route was chosen for its far-reaching connectivity benefits for the metro, regional and Melbourne Airport trains that will pass through Sunshine Station for all travellers.

“The Sunshine route will provide superior connections to more areas of Melbourne compared with other options assessed, through its integration with the Metro Tunnel and an upgraded Sunshine interchange,” Mr Ryan said. “Among a number of other benefits, it also allows us to deliver the project to Victorians earlier.”

In 2018, it was predicted that 67 million passengers would travel through Melbourne Airport by 2038. Melbourne Airport Rail aims to both cater to this demand and reduce congestion on roads towards the airport.

Planning and delivery of Melbourne Airport Rail is being overseen by Rail Projects Victoria (RPV), which is also assisting in the delivery of other major rail infrastructure projects such as the Metro Tunnel, Sunbury Line Upgrade, Regional Rail Revival and Geelong Fast Rail.

Melbourne Airport Rail is being made a reality through a joint commitment from the Federal and Victorian Governments, each contributing $5 billion towards the project for a total of $10 billion committed funding.

Turn-up-and-go service and other benefits

When operational, Melbourne Airport Rail will provide a ‘turn-up-and-go’ style service, enabling trains every ten minutes, with a journey to Melbourne’s CBD taking around 30 minutes.

With links into the new Metro Tunnel, direct airport access will be provided to 30 stations, including Sunshine, Footscray, the five new underground Metro Tunnel stations, and stations along the Cranbourne and Pakenham lines in Melbourne’s south-east.

The project will also integrate into the broader metro and regional rail network across the state. Across Victoria, most commuters – even those in regional areas – will need to make only one interchange during their trip to or from the airport.

“By using the Metro Tunnel infrastructure and the Sunshine route, we can connect the airport to key employment areas across metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria, either directly or with only one interchange,”  Mr Ryan said.

Travellers will also benefit from the use of the new fleet of High-Capacity Metro Trains (HCMTs) on Melbourne Airport Rail. These HCMTs have more carriages, better accessibility features, more hand-holds and more space than other models currently on Melbourne’s metropolitan train network.

Although the rail link itself is the focal point of Melbourne Airport Rail, Mr Ryan said there are other benefits included in the project scope.

“We’re also making major improvements to Sunshine Station, such as a second concourse with better accessibility features, escalators and lifts,” Mr Ryan said.

The combination of the Metro Tunnel, Airport Rail and Geelong Fast Rail will deliver a ‘turn-up-and-go-style’ service for Sunshine and easy connections to Victoria’s western regions, Southern Cross via Footscray and Melbourne’s CBD through the Metro Tunnel.

The project will also provide new or upgraded pedestrian and cycling connections, and other rail infrastructure upgrades such as new signalling and power systems along the route.

In the short-term, there will also be support for up to 8,000 direct and indirect jobs during Melbourne Airport Rail’s construction, including engineers and planners, construction workers, and local suppliers who will help shape the project.

A concept image of proposed upgrades to Sunshine Station as part of Melbourne Airport Rail, including a new, accessible second concourse for better connectivity.

Progress to date and contracts to confirm

Engagement with the community and key stakeholders has been a continuous process, helping refine the project’s scope, design and planning approvals. Mr Ryan said there has been a significant response from the community to date surrounding the project.

“Overall, lots of people are happy that the project is on its way – more than 90 per cent of people agreed or strongly agreed that the project will benefit the broader Victorian community,” Mr Ryan said.

“But the people who live and work along the corridor care a lot about their communities, so we have received, and continue to receive, a lot of important local feedback on what they value about their communities.

“Since late 2020, more than 3,000 people have visited our virtual engagement room and we’ve had in excess of 2,500 responses to surveys.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the project team performed these community engagements. But the team adapted to conduct engagement both online and face-to-face, subject to the COVID-19 health advice at the time.

In early 2021, concept designs for an elevated rail bridge over the Maribyrnong River and elevated twin tracks between Sunshine and the Albion Junction were released by the Victorian Government (seen in Infrastructure magazine, Issue 19).

The extensive community response has continued as the local community was once again consulted for feedback on concept designs at key locations along the route – including Sunshine Station, Albion, the Maribyrnong River, and the Western Ring Road.

“With every engagement with the community, we get a better idea of their needs, their ideas and potential concerns that they may have,” Mr Ryan said.

Project designs will be finalised once contracts have been signed to deliver the works. A multi-stage procurement process is ongoing within the market to determine the project’s construction partners.

The Melbourne Airport Rail team has had to adapt in engaging with the community due to COVID-19. Here is an in-person setup at Sunshine Marketplace in July 2021, when restrictions allowed this.

The works for Melbourne Airport Rail have been divided into several packages, providing opportunities for different contractors to deliver different sections of the project.

While the project team continues to refine the scope and timing of each of these packages, the broader construction industry shares the community’s excitement.

“Through our earlier registrations of interest, more than 100 local and global organisations across Australia put their hand up and registered interest in potentially delivering Melbourne Airport Rail,” Mr Ryan said.

“We’re now progressively working through the procurement process, to narrow down a contractor or group of contractors that we believe will deliver the best outcome for each respective package of works.” The procurement process will continue as contracts are progressively awarded.

Where to next?

The approval process is taking place at both State and Commonwealth levels, as land around Melbourne Airport is Commonwealth-owned.

Detailed planning and development work is also continuing as the project works through all the necessary approvals needed before getting shovels in the ground.

Once all necessary approvals are in place, the project plans to begin construction next year, and to have passengers boarding Melbourne Airport Rail trains in 2029.

“Melbourne Airport Rail isn’t being built for the short term, it’s being built to service travellers for many decades to come,” Mr Ryan said. “We’re proud to be delivering such a long-awaited project for the people of Victoria and shaping the state’s future.”


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