Regional Rail Link runs through the inner western suburbs of Melbourne from Southern Cross station, running through Sunshine, Tarneit and meeting the Geelong line at West Werribee. The line separates existing Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo V/Line rail services from the Melbourne suburban rail network, as well as serving new stations on the city's western fringe.
Departing Southern Cross Station, Regional Rail Link consists of two pairs of tracks which join at Spion Kop Junction, north of North Melbourne Station.
Tracks from Southern Cross platforms 1 through 8 leave the station via a redesigned track fan, crossing Dudley Street on a new bridge, before crossing a reconfigured North Melbourne Flyover. On the north side of the flyover, the ARTC standard gauge mainline and the tracks to South Dynon diverge, with the RRL tracks passing beneath Dynon Road and skirting Melbourne Yard until the reach the junction. Meanwhile the pair of tracks from Southern Cross platform 15 and 16 parallel the suburban tracks the entire way, along with a single goods line, before reaching the same junction.
The RRL tracks continue west, passing South Kensington station and paralleling the suburban tracks on a new viaduct that crosses the Maribyrnong River, reaching a flyover on the western bank.
Here the RRL tracks pass over the top of the Newport bound suburban tracks on a flyover, and then run between each pair of suburban tracks to Footscray station. At Footscray RRL trains use the former platforms 1 and 2, and then run on resumed land to the south of the suburban line to Sunshine, past Middle Footscray, West Footscray and Tottenham stations, with a number of track slews required to the suburban tracks to make room.
Beyond Sunshine the existing rail corridor is used as far as Deer Park Junction, where the RRL tracks follow a new alignment south and west through Tarneit and Wyndham Vale to a junction with the Geelong line at Manor.
One of the earliest railway plans for a new route between Sunshine and Geelong can be found in the 1954 'Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme' compiled by the then Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. Inside were a number of railway proposals, one of which was a "cross country" line running from the existing lines south of Sunshine station, through the empty paddocks around Brooklyn, then joining the Geelong line near Laverton station. Conceived as part of the relocation of the Newmarket saleyards and abattoir complex to a new site at Derrimut, the intent of the railway line was to enable trains to bring cattle to market from country locations.
There were also proposals to increase the track capacity for passenger trains towards the west of Melbourne, with the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan proposing the construction of two new tracks between North Melbourne and Footscray, along with a third track between Newport and Footscray. The first part of the plan was completed in 1976. But the third track to Newport was never built, apart from an extra set of abutments being included when the Francis Street over bridge in Yarraville was rebuilt.
Although not included in the 1969 plan, the idea for a third track from Footscray to Sunshine was also doing the rounds of railway head office, with the 1981 grade separation of Tottenham station including provisions for another track across the Ashley Street bridge.
Early planning for the Regional Fast Rail project also examined the creation of express tracks for V/Line trains through suburbia, which was detailed in the Fast Rail to Regional Centres feasibility study final report released in September 2000. It considered the construction of a third track between Footscray and Sunshine, between Laverton Junction and Aircraft, upgrading existing freight tracks for passenger use, and new tracks near Southern Cross Station.
None of those plans were adopted, with the Regional Fast Rail project instead focussing on the raising of speed limits in the country areas, with the use of track upgrades and curve easing.
State Government's unfunded 'Meeting Our Transport Challenges' plan released in May 2006 recommended the construction of third and fourth tracks from Footscray to Sunshine.
The final chapter in the story of Regional Rail Link's evolution came in April 2008, when Sir Rod Eddington presented his 'East West Link Needs Assessment' (EWLNA) report to the State Government. Chapter 9 included two big ticket rail transport recommendations:
- Planning work should commence for the staged construction of a new 17 kilometre Melbourne Metro rail tunnel linking Melbourne's booming western and south-eastern suburbs.
- The Victorian Government should bring forward the construction of a new rail connection from Werribee to Sunshine (the Tarneit link) to significantly improve the frequency and reliability of services from Werribee, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.
What became the final version of Regional Rail Link was made public in December 2008, when the State Government released yet another document full of transport pipe dreams - the 'Victorian Transport Plan' of 2008, which superseded the three year old 'Meeting Our Transport Challenges' plan. It was also where the 'Regional Rail Link' name was coined.
In May 2009 the Regional Rail Link project was allocated the required funding to start work: $3.2 billion from the Federal Government, and $1.1 billion from the State Government. The first sod was turned in August 2009, but major works did not commence along the route until 2011.
In July 2011 construction begun with the shifting of existing railway tracks between Sunshine and Tottenham. By early 2013 fitout of platforms 15/16 at Southern Cross was completed, with the associated tracks between there and South Kensington being opened to Geelong trains in December 2013.
In January 2014 new platforms 1/2 opened at Footscray for suburban services, and in April 2014 the new platforms 3/4 opened at Sunshine for Ballarat line services.
Ballarat and Bendigo line services commenced using the new tracks between South Kensington and Sunshine in July 2014, with Geelong services having to wait until July 2015 for the new route via Tarneit and Wyndham Vale to be opened for revenue services.