City Loop summer standstill could derail recovery, says restaurant group

City Loop summer standstill could derail recovery, says restaurant group

The City Loop will shut down for two weeks in summer, forcing the rail network to a standstill in what the Restaurant and Catering Association says could undermine the CBD’s COVID-19 recovery.

Problems with the fire and emergency systems, revealed in an investigation by The Age in 2011, were supposed to be resolved with $43 million during the former Liberal Napthine government. But the upgrade has been beset by delays and remains unfinished after the collapse of a previous contractor.

Scaffolding seen at Parliament Station.Credit:Justin McManus

The government quietly announced a new $319 million contract had been signed on the Department of Transport website in January, confirming the Melbourne loop will come to a standstill for two weeks in January 2023.

January is the quietest month on Melbourne’s train network and the government generally arranges maintenance to occur then to minimise disruption.

Restaurant & Catering Association chief executive Wes Lambert questioned the reliability of historical data as habits had changed during the pandemic. He said peak summer was when international tourism boomed.

“This can potentially derail what is already going to be an uncertain year in the hospitality industry,” Lambert said.

The exact construction dates will not be set until stakeholders have been consulted this year. The shutdown will be communicated to the public closer to the date.

However, Shane Wylie, executive officer of the Docklands Chamber of Commerce, which represents 400 businesses in the city district, said January was “one of the wisest times I’ve heard of anyone shutting down public transport”.

Felicia Mariani, chief executive of the Victoria Tourism Industry Council, said January was the best time for maintenance disruptions from a business perspective.

“There’s never a convenient time,” Mariani said.

Confirmation of the closure follows Tuesday’s state budget, which was criticised for its failure to support the CBD recovery.

Last year, the government provided $107 million to rejuvenate the city centre through programs such as the Melbourne Money Scheme, but no new money was set aside in the latest budget.

Shadow public transport spokeswoman Steph Ryan said the COVID-19 lockdowns were a missed opportunity to fix the City Loop while public transport patronage was low.

“This work should have been prioritised over COVID when the city was at a standstill,” she said. “Now the CBD faces massive disruption at a time when it still hasn’t recovered from lockdowns.”

The former contractor collapsed in 2018 and left scaffolding around parts of Parliament and Flagstaff stations, which added commercial and legal costs.

Shadow public transport spokeswoman Steph Ryan at Flagstaff railway station.Credit:Luis Ascui

Asked why the work was not done earlier in the pandemic, the Level Crossing Removal Project, which is handling the project on behalf of the transport department, last year said the collapse of the contract was a slow process involving creditors and debtors.

The new construction consortium – Acciona, Coleman Rail, WSP and Metro Trains Melbourne – will upgrade smoke detection and extraction systems and sprinklers at Flagstaff, Melbourne Central and Parliament stations, and finish the works by the end of 2023.

Fire detection, fire hydrants, CCTV, and intruder-detection systems have already been upgraded.

About 105,000 people entered the three stations each weekday before the pandemic.

Tuesday’s state budget listed the whole project at $468.94 million, 10 times what was initially announced.

A government spokeswoman said the City Loop needed maintenance and improvements like all infrastructure.

“While the loop is currently safe, stage two of major upgrades will ensure it remains world-class and continues to meet the needs of the city’s growing rail network.”

The Metro Tunnel will also service the CBD once it opens in late 2025.

The Liberal state government, which only admitted that safety issues existed after a 2012 Ombudsman investigation criticised the Department of Transport for failing to act, allocated $43 million towards the City Loop safety upgrade in 2014.

The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office last year costed the entire project at $382 million, which has since increased to $468.94 million.

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