Tens of thousands of train passengers on the Dandenong line face the prospect of several years of severe overcrowding and declining reliability because of the Napthine government's failure to kick-start the multibillion-dollar Metro rail project.
A Transport Department study of the Dandenong rail corridor found that major investment is needed before the end of this decade - including new high-capacity trains and the removal of up to eight level crossings - to cope with forecast growth of about 8000 extra peak-hour passengers a year.
The study, completed in early 2012, concluded the $9 billion to $11 billion Metro rail tunnel was the long-term solution to the looming congestion crisis, noting that it could be built by 2021 at the earliest with prompt state and federal government funding.
But the project has languished in the two years since then, as the state government pursued the east-west link road project and the Abbott government took a hard line against funding urban rail. In recent weeks, the state government has recast the Metro rail tunnel towards Fishermans Bend, rejecting the original plan to tunnel beneath Swanston Street.
The Dandenong rail corridor, which includes the Pakenham, Cranbourne and Gippsland lines, experiences more train overcrowding than any other line in Melbourne. The most recent passenger load survey, in October, counted 13 load breaches on Dandenong-line trains out of 25 breaches across the Metro network. A load breach occurs when a train is carrying more than 798 passengers. Patronage on the line grew more than 50 per cent in the five years to 2012 to more than 65,000 passengers each weekday.
''Patronage on the Dandenong rail corridor is expected to further increase by around 8000 passengers per peak hour over the next decade, a growth rate of 5 per cent per annum,'' the study found. ''However, the corridor is currently operating at close to its maximum capacity for the existing infrastructure. Further capacity increases are needed to accommodate future patronage growth, requiring investment in both rolling stock [new trains] and upgraded infrastructure.''
Short-term measures have been proposed, including ''peak spreading'' and modifying train interiors. The government has committed $25 million in the current budget to peak spreading - extending the peak over two hours instead of one.
Jill Hennessy, Shadow Public Transport Minister, said Labor was committed to addressing the Dandenong rail crisis by removing all of the remaining recommended level crossings and supporting Metro rail.
‘‘The Napthine government have ignored their own advice for two years whilst generating lame excuses for failing to take action on this transport congestion. Funding commitments should be made now,’’ Ms Hennessy said.
Such a commitment would likely require a huge investment in level crossing removals. The study found that ‘‘any increase in the volume or length of trains operating through level crossings will cause an increase in boom closures and have an adverse impact on road users’’.
It proposed investigating the removal of eight level crossings along the line between Caulfield and Dandenong. The removal of one crossing at Springvale Road is currently under way at a cost of $159 million and early planning has started on removing the Murrumbeena Road crossing.
Labor has pledged to remove 50 level crossings in eight years if elected.
Monash University transport expert Graham Currie said there were economic consequences to train overcrowding. ''The city is growing, and many want to get there by rail, but it's going to be increasingly hard, so it will restrict economic development of Melbourne's CBD.''