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Local News - Victoria

Why it took 50 years for an airport rail link to get off the ground


Broken election promises, fruitless feasibility studies and vested interests have stalled the project, making it a common gripe for many Melburnians. Sydney and Brisbane have one, the complaint goes, so why don’t we?

The answer to this question should soon change. After months of negotiations, lobbying and the odd disagreement, the state and federal governments are on the cusp of announcing their preferred design for airport rail. Each are offering to spend $5 billion on the project.

Sources familiar with negotiations expect the governments to back a new, above-ground line between the airport and Sunshine, 12km west of the CBD. Trains would then run along existing tracks to the city via the new Metro Tunnel. This option would kill off a proposal from superannuation giant IFM Investors to build, fund and operate a $7 billion tunnel between the city and Sunshine, allowing fast express airport services on dedicated tracks.

The politicians might be opting for a cheaper build, but they’re coming closer than their predecessors to sending a train to Tulla.

A question of timing

With so few flights leaving the tarmac at Tullamarine because of coronavirus restrictions, some may question whether a multibillion-dollar airport rail link stacks up.

Total travellers at the airport were 97 per cent fewer in April compared with 2019, prompting S&P Global Ratings to downgrade the airport’s credit rating, citing reduced cash flows and increased debt.

Travel numbers are not expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024 but Melbourne Airport’s landside access chief Lorie Argus says the rail link is still needed.

“We’ve seen global shocks to the industry before,” Argus says. “We want to build capacity ahead of the demand.”

Fifty years of waiting for a rail link to the airport have locked taxpayers into a far more expensive project than would have been possible decades ago.

A swag of Victorian premiers have investigated getting it built: Sir Henry Bolte in the ’60s, John Cain jnr in the ’80s, Joan Kirner and Jeff Kennett in the ’90s and Steve Bracks, Ted Baillieu and Denis Napthine over the past two decades. They commissioned numerous taxpayer-funded feasibility studies on the project, but to no avail. In the ’90s, the project involved extending the Broadmeadows line by five kilometres to the airport. That’s no longer feasible because of development in the west and reduced rail capacity.

“We talk about spending $5 billion now, that’s 10 times what was being discussed 30 years ago,” Public Transport Users Association spokesman Tony Morton says.

Politicians say airport rail has long been popular among voters. So why the delay?

The long take-off

Kennett, a long-time proponent of airport rail, says the reason for the project’s delay is simple.

“Other pieces of infrastructure had higher priority and were simpler to deliver,” the former Liberal premier says. “It’s a lot of money for a fairly short piece of infrastructure.”

Initial 1963 drawings of a proposed underground train station at Melbourne Airport's international terminal.

Initial 1963 drawings of a proposed underground train station at Melbourne Airport’s international terminal. Credit:CAHS/Airservices/CASA

Victoria has explored the likes of a French-built monorail and Dutch-inspired fast tram but time and demand hasn’t justified the expenditure, especially in the face of a high-performing SkyBus service.

Bracks won the 1999 election promising airport rail as Sydney and Brisbane were setting out to build their own. He envisioned a public-private partnership model, as did fellow Labor premier Kirner.

“Internationally, most places had this and it was a gap we could easily fill,” Bracks says. “There were certainly vested interests lobbying against our proposal” he says, referring to the taxi industry and the airport’s operators who were seeking to protect substantial car parking revenue.

Almost empty parking bays at Tullamarine Airport during the coronavirus lockdown.

Almost empty parking bays at Tullamarine Airport during the coronavirus lockdown.Credit:Getty Images

More pressing though, Bracks says, was a clause that Kennett locked into the CityLink contract blocking a public transport link. But ultimately, it was the collapse of Australian airline Ansett – reducing the high number of airport workers set to use the link – that put the project “on hold”.

“Ansett was key,” Bracks says. “I was very disappointed it couldn’t go ahead.”

Virgin rose to become a major airline that was competitive with Qantas after Ansett’s demise.

Lyndsay Neilson, a former state infrastructure department secretary who oversaw a study into the project under Bracks, recommended a boost to SkyBus over rail. “Suburban rail has in itself fallen so far behind that investing in airport rail was considered a luxury,””he says.

But bureaucrats underestimated the airport’s growth: “Nobody anticipated the extent to which China would open up as a source of international tourism,” Neilson says.

Follow the leader

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull beamed as he announced on a windy morning at Tullamarine in 2018 that he would build airport rail.

He promised $5 billion – beating Premier Daniel Andrews to the punch. Turnbull was a technocrat known to get hooked on the finer details of infrastructure. His announcement was paving the way for the type of big, city-shaping construction projects he hoped would become his legacy.

It caught Andrews off guard, forcing the state to match the funding promise. Andrews had iced Denis Napthine’s airport rail plans in 2014 to pursue level crossing removals and the Metro Tunnel.

“Services that people use every single day are my priority,” Andrews said at the time. But towards the end of his first term, he put airport rail back in the spotlight, promising it would be built within a decade.

“The Commonwealth was pushing hard to get airport rail on the agenda,” said Mike Mrdak, who was secretary of the federal infrastructure department at the time.

In 2019, Andrews outlined his vision for airport rail. It would probably involve a tunnel from the city and Sunshine and not stop at suburban stations. The project would be a boon for the regions, including Geelong and Ballarat, he said.

As if on cue, an IFM Investors-led private consortium proposed to build a $7 billion tunnel, allowing 20-minute journeys running 24/7, that would service regional fast rail. It seemed like a done deal but the state went cool on the proposal, preferring a cheaper, above-ground route that put it at loggerheads with the federal government.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Premier Daniel Andrews speaking to media about the airport rail link at Sunshine station in April, 2019.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Premier Daniel Andrews speaking to media about the airport rail link at Sunshine station in April, 2019. Credit:Stefan Postles

Canberra wanted to keep costs down while building an express, high-speed service that was competitive with SkyBus.

Torn between Victoria and behind-the-scenes lobbying by IFM and regional Coalition MPs, including Victorian senator Sarah Henderson, Education Minister Dan Tehan and, more recently, Nationals MP Damian Drum, Prime Minister Scott Morrison decided he would not go to war with Victoria on airport rail.

The airport rail link is important to Coalition MPs keen to score points on infrastructure. They want a tunnel to secure fast trains to their regional seats, with Henderson calling for “high speed dual track rail tunnel” to deliver 32-minute services to Geelong as she fights to win back her marginal seat of Corangamite. Drum says the north-east rail line, which run through his seat of Nicholls, is the state’s “worst performing” and that he wants faster services to Bendigo, Shepparton and Albury–Wodonga.

Fifty years after the airport opened there could be an alternative way of getting there.

Fifty years after the airport opened there could be an alternative way of getting there.

But Morrison is determined to build infrastructure with Andrews, sensing it is a winning formula with voters. If federally-funded projects build car parks at train stations in Victorian Liberal seats are to go ahead, the Victorian Premier has the keys.

Party Matters

Arun Chandu, who has written a PhD on the airport, says a rail link has traditionally been pushed by the Liberal Party. “Andrews is the first Labor person to start talking about a railway line seriously,” Chandu says.

Kennett rejects this idea, saying support for the project isn’t a “Liberal or Labor thing”.

Former premier, Ted Baillieu.

Former premier, Ted Baillieu.Credit: Chris Hopkins

But Kosmos Samaras, a key Labor election strategist from 2006-2020, disagrees. “It’s always been the Liberals’ flagship because the business community has generally always asked for it.”

The economic argument for an airport rail link falls flat without providing additional stops to stimulate the western suburbs, says Samaras. The question of whether the train runs express to the airport can be viewed through the prism of traditional Labor values.

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In 1965, Labor joined the Country Party to stop Bolte’s express airport route in favour of a suburban service stopping at Keilor East, Avondale Heights and Airport West. Former Labor member for Broadmeadows John Wilton accused Bolte of building a “glamour project” for a “selected few who travel by air”.

Treasurer Tim Pallas has signalled airport trains may stop at suburban stations to boost sluggish patronage, despite Andrews previously ruling this out. This option would also use existing tracks between the city and Sunshine, which risks clogging any spare capacity for extra trains to the west.

A suburban service is at odds with what is being proposed by the IFM-led consortium made up of Melbourne Airport, Metro Trains Australia and Southern Cross Station. IFM is fiercely pursuing an investment trifecta: a rail link connecting its two assets, the airport and Southern Cross Station.

The consortium insists they want a low return on revenue, that tunnel access charges will be modest and they will absorb the construction risk.

To Kennett, turning down IFM’s $7 billion is reckless. As licensees of the airports, the superannuation funds “should be investing in the provisions of the infrastructure,” he says. “And who better to own it than hundreds of thousands of Australians.”

But RMIT professor of urban policy Jago Dodson cautions against allowing the private sector to run airport rail.

“Private companies don’t get into building infrastructure for virtuous public purposes, they build it because they see a profit,” he says.

The airport link should be part of the suburban service accessible with a myki, with the cost on par with a regular zone 2 service and not be “fragmented out into separate rail systems,” Dodson says.

Baillieu, who promised rail links to Avalon and Tullamarine when he was premier, says that, express airport services on dedicated tracks are more costly, but without a dedicated line, “you’ll probably stay in a cab”.

“Commuters will judge this very quickly and very harshly,” he warned. “It will be judged on frequency, speed and cost to them – not to the taxpayer – and what happens at each end. That’ll be it.”

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Unpacking the Wuhan link to Victoria’s biggest COVID-19 cluster


But the truth was the flight was privately arranged by a consortium of Chinese-Australian business figures, including Zhi, who were looking to onsell the products.

Zhi told The Age this week that he did not want the aircraft to return to China empty; he wanted it full of meat for the hungry people of Wuhan. When an initial plan to fill it with beef from a Victorian meatworks fell through, Zhi turned to Cedar Meats for 35 tonnes of its mutton.

“Cedar has a fantastic name for their product in China,” he said. “I have to fight to get it. I have to kiss arse.”

Back in Australia, Cedar Meats is attracting the kind of attention no business wants. On Friday the number of COVID-19 cases connected to the meatworks rose to 71, with an aged care worker, a nurse and a schoolboy now affected.

Eddie Zhi

Eddie Zhi

The company’s quarantined workforce and their families are anxious and wondering whether management has been upfront with them. The Victorian government is also under pressure to explain why health authorities did not do more to act on the first positive result for a Cedar Meats worker back on April 2, and why it failed to directly contact the company when more infections were confirmed on April 24.

“Why didn’t the Health Department advise the boss of the company to [put] health measures in place? Obviously no action because it led to 45 cases,” asked the mother of one infected worker earlier in the week.

WeChat Posts

On April 9, 35 tonnes of Cedar Meats mutton were loaded onto the Chinese aircraft at Sydney Airport. For all the fanfare and media coverage surrounding the arrival of Chinese personal protective gear, there was little fuss about the Australian produce going back to China.

Cedar Meats did not go out of its way to highlight its involvement with the Chinese consortium in any major Australian media. But it did post a link to the shipment on the Cedar Meats page on popular Chinese social media platform WeChat.

Cedar Meats owner Tony Kairouz (left) and colleagues celebrating in Melbourne in October 2019. The photos were posted on the company's WeChat account.

Cedar Meats owner Tony Kairouz (left) and colleagues celebrating in Melbourne in October 2019. The photos were posted on the company’s WeChat account.Credit:

The link included a statement from Cedar Meats general manager Tony Kairouz, who told the company’s Chinese audience of their shipment, describing it as a “humanitarian” act.

“We are concerned about the world climate and anything we can do to help we are doing,” he said. “We made a loss on the consignment as our contribution to the humanitarian efforts to provide them [China] with some meat.”

Cedar Meats is among a select group of Australian meat businesses with a licence to export to China. It is not known how much was paid for the mutton or how much the Australian government knew about the shipment. The federal Agriculture Department declined to comment on the matter.

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But what is known is that Zhi was working with former PLA officer-turned-businessman Kuang Yuangping to source the mutton for Wuhan. Kuang, who made headlines in March for his involvement in the export of Australian medical and protective equipment to Wuhan, was linked to the Cedar Meats deal through his seven-week-old company, Australia Olon Food Services.

As for its dealings with Zhi, Cedar Meats on Friday acknowledged it had recently bought face masks from him. But that was the first and only time it had done so.

“Cedar Meats does not take OH&S advice from Mr Zhi,” the company said.

Cedar Meats also firmly ruled out any staff travel to China as a potential explanation for its COVID-19 outbreak. “No one from Cedar Meats has travelled to China since May 2019,” the company said.

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Nevertheless, the Cedar Meats WeChat page makes clear the company enjoys strong relations with its Chinese customers.

The company’s WeChat page also features photos of Kairouz and other senior staff dining and smoking cigars with Chinese customers in Melbourne last October.

It even features a photograph of a novelty T-shirt about vegetarians, describing the word as the “ancient tribal name for the village idiot who can’t hunt, fish or light fires”.

In a high-risk place

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton this week described Cedar Meats, and all abattoirs, as places of high risk for COVID-19 transmission.

Meatworks, which are essential businesses for obvious reasons, have proven to be fertile ground for coronavirus infections in the United States and Canada. But so far in Australia, the Brooklyn abattoir remains the only food processing site affected.

Kairouz said this week he was hopeful Cedar Meats would be back to normal business when a two-week quarantine period ends later this month and extensive cleaning has been done.

The virus outbreak has put a spotlight on Cedar Meats and the broader meatworks industry in Australia. It has revealed a strong reliance on labour hire companies to provide workers to perform some of the most unglamorous jobs in Australia.

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The involvement of a labour hire company in the Cedar Meats case has added an extra layer of confusion in tracing who knew what and when in relation to its COVID-19 cluster.

As The Age revealed on Friday, Victorian health authorities failed to tell Cedar Meats on April 24 and April 26 that it had workers who had returned positive tests.

Instead of talking to Cedar Meats management, health officials told Labour Solutions Australia that a worker it supplied to the abattoir had COVID-19. It was left to the labour hire firm to inform Cedar Meats about the positive tests and the company has since admitted the message was confused.

Cedar Meats was not directly contacted by health officials until April 27, when more positive results were returned. Further confirmed cases were reported on April 29 and workers were finally told that they had been unknowingly working in a coronavirus hotspot for a week on May 1.

“It would spread so easy at that place,” a former Cedar Meats employee told The Age. “You work in a line. There’s maybe a metre between you and the next person. You all eat together in a small room with maybe three microwaves. You all use the same toilets.”

Premier Daniel Andrews has defended the performance of the Health Department in handling the outbreak, but the opposition has called for an inquiry, declaring it “Victoria’s Ruby Princess moment”.

Whatever the case, the Cedar Meats experience will shape future contact-tracing efforts and communication strategies.

As for the Cedar Meats workers wondering if they will develop symptoms or have passed the virus on to their partners and children, they are far from impressed with the performance of management and the government.

“It isn’t good enough. No one is buying the story we’ve been told,” said one worker forced to remain in quarantine while the rest of the state looks forward to enjoying relaxed rules next week.

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Hungry black hole may be cosmic ‘missing link’ – BBC News


Bbc.com

Astronomers say they have found the best evidence yet for an elusive class of black hole.

Image copyrightESA/Hubble, M. KornmesserImage caption
Artwork: The presumed black hole revealed itself by tearing apart a star that ventured too close
A team of astronomers has found what it says is the best evidence yet for an elusive class of black hole.
They say the presumed “intermediate-mass” black hole betrayed its existence by tearing apart a wayward star that ventured too close.
These medium-sized objects are a long-sought “missing link” in the evolution of the cosmos.
Researchers used two X-ray observatories, along with the Hubble telescope, to identify the object.
“Intermediate-mass black holes are very elusive objects, and so it is critical to carefully consider and rule out alternative explanations for each candidate, said Dr Dacheng Lin, from the University of New Hampshire in Durham, US, who led the study.
“That is what Hubble has allowed us to do for our candidate.”
In 2006, Nasa’s orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton satellite spotted a powerful X-ray flare named 3XMM J215022.4055108.
The nature of the X-ray flare meant that it could be explained by just two scenarios, according to Dr Lin. It was “either a distant (outside our galaxy) intermediate-mass black hole disrupting and swallowing a star or a cooling neutron star in our own galaxy”, he told BBC News.
Neutron stars are the crushed remnants of an exploded star.
Image copyrightNASA GSFC/Jeremy SchnittmanImage caption
Artwork: Black holes come in different sizes, but mid-sized ones have proved elusive

  • A black hole is a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape
  • Despite the name, they are not empty but instead consist of a huge amount of matter packed densely into a small area, giving it an immense gravitational pull
  • There is a region of space beyond the black hole called the event horizon. This is a “point of no return”, beyond which it is impossible to escape the gravitational effects of the black hole

In order to distinguish between the two scenarios, the Hubble Space Telescope was pointed at the X-ray source to resolve its precise location. The telescope provided strong evidence that the X-rays emanated not from an isolated source in the Milky Way, but a distant, dense star cluster on the outskirts of a different galaxy.
This was just the type of place astronomers expected to find a mid-sized black hole. Dr Lin said the Hubble data made this the “most likely” explanation.
So-called supermassive black holes are commonly found at the centres of galaxies; for example, our own Milky Way hosts a massive central black hole called Sagittarius A*.
Image copyrightNASA / ESA / D. LIN (UNH)Image caption
The black hole (circled) lies on the outskirts of a large galaxy
Image copyrightESAImage caption
Artwork: The X-ray flare was found among thousands of observations taken by the XMM-Newton orbiting observatory
But intermediate mass black holes have been particularly difficult to find because they are smaller and less active than the massive types. In addition, they don’t have as much nearby cosmic material to act as fuel, and lack the strong gravitational pull required to draw stars inwards to produce X-ray flares.
Astronomers effectively had to catch a mid-sized black hole red-handed – in the act of gobbling up a star.
Dr Lin and his colleagues had to comb through thousands of XMM-Newton observations to find one candidate.
The X-ray glow from the shredded star allowed astronomers to estimate the black hole’s mass at 50,000 times the mass of the Sun.
Image copyrightNASAImage caption
The Hubble Space Telescope was used for resolve the location of the X-ray source
This isn’t the first candidate for a mid-sized black hole. But seeing the object tearing a star apart makes this detection the most persuasive yet, according to Dr Lin’s team.
Intermediate-mass black holes are key to many questions about black hole evolution. For example, does a super-massive black hole grow from a mid-sized one?
Astronomers also want to understand how mid-sized black holes form and whether they tend to reside in dense star clusters, such as this one.
“Studying the origin and evolution of the intermediate-mass black holes will finally give an answer as to how the supermassive black holes that we find in the centres of massive galaxies came to exist,” said team member Dr Natalie Webb, from the University of Toulouse, France.
The results are published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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