Victorian opposition says it will shelve the Suburban Rail Loop and invest in health if elected

The Victorian opposition has pledged to shelve the multi-billion-dollar Suburban Rail Loop and divert the funds into Victoria’s ailing health system if it wins the November state election. 

The long-term rail project aims to connect every major rail line from Frankston to Werribee via Melbourne Airport and is estimated to cost $30-50 billion.

The Victorian government has so far committed $11.8 billion and is planning to gain substantial support from the federal government, which has so far pledged $2.2 billion.

Construction of the first section of the rail line, between Cheltenham and Box Hill, began in June and is expected to be completed by 2035.

The first section includes 26 kilometres of tunnels and six new underground stations.

The Victorian opposition says it will shelve the project and invest the money saved into new hospitals at Melton, Mildura, West Gippsland and Wodonga as well as a new infectious diseases hospital.

The first section of the rail loop between Cheltenham and Box Hill is expected to be completed by 2035.(Supplied: Victorian Government)

It is also proposing a major rebuild of hospitals at Rosebud, St Arnaud and Sandringham.

The opposition said it would allocate $550 million towards rebuilding Caulfield Hospital.

“Daniel Andrews has failed to make sure that Victorians have got the proper health system they can rely on,” Shadow Health Minister David Davis said. 

“They’ve failed to make sure that our emergency departments are able to provide the calls and support they need. They’ve failed to provide the triple-0 support that’s needed.”

Matthew Guy’s opposition says it will build several new hospitals with money saved by scrapping the Suburban Rail Loop.(AAP: James Ross)

The opposition pledged to halve Victoria’s elective surgery waiting times within four years of being elected.

It is also promising free public transport for healthcare workers, proposing to place a mental health professional in every Victorian school and offering rebates of up to $4,500 for IVF and fertility treatment.

Victoria’s Minister for Transport Infrastructure, Jacinta Allan, said Labor took the Suburban Rail Loop proposal to the last state election in 2018 and the government intends to deliver it.

“The suburban rail loop is a project that Victorians voted for and they’ve backed the project because of the vital connections it provides to universities, to our hospitals in the suburbs,” she said.

“These are the connections that the Liberal Party and Matthew Guy will cut.”

The government said scrapping the project would also cost thousands of jobs during construction and delivery of the project.

Opposition says it will honour contracts already signed

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said there would still be job opportunities in construction under his party’s proposal.

“There are thousands of jobs to be created in building new hospitals, and there are thousands of people who have to work in those hospitals, and more the point, in doing so, it’s saving Victorians’ lives,” he said.

“Building a railway tunnel from Cheltenham to Box Hill doesn’t save anyone’s life. Building or upgrading 20 hospitals around the state does.”

The scrapping of the East-West Link by the Andrews government after contracts had been signed cost taxpayers more than $1 billion, but Mr Guy said a government led by him would honour contracts already signed.

The opposition said last year it would revive the East-West Link project if elected, as long as the Commonwealth’s $4 billion funding offer stood.

Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh said a quarter of the money diverted from the Suburban Rail Loop would go towards regional hospitals.

John Setka — the Victorian secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union — criticised the announcement, arguing the move would cost construction workers close to 25,000 jobs.

“With a large portion of our members working on government projects, this will have a detrimental impact on them and their families,” he said.

“The Suburban Rail Loop is a critical piece of infrastructure to provide Victorian’s access to education, healthcare, and jobs.

“It is what Victorians voted for and deserve.”

Think tank says project ‘riddled with risk’

Marion Terrill, transport and cities program director at the Grattan Institute, welcomed the opposition’s decision to pause the rail loop if elected.

“The suburban rail loop has been a project that’s been riddled with risk from day one,” she said.

“It was conceived of in a very secretive process announced just before the 2018 election and it was three years later that we got quite a sketchy business and investment case.”

Marion Terrill says the Suburban Rail Loop project should be paused for now. (ABC News)

Ms Terrill said the project bypassed Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure Victoria’s usual approval processes.

Speaking based on the plans that have been released, she said connectivity between existing and new stations looked to be poor.

“If they’re not well integrated, people won’t like it and they won’t use it,” she said.

She said given the Victorian government’s pandemic-induced debt, questions needed to be asked about whether the Suburban Rail Loop was the best use of funding.

“There’s a lot of reasons to go slow, to pause, and to think if this is really the best use of a generation’s worth of infrastructure funding,” she said.

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