BENDIGO line commuters could have direct access to a rail interchange to Melbourne Airport after the state government identified the Sunshine corridor as its preferred option for the Melbourne Airport Rail Link.

Premier Daniel Andrews said the government would throw $5 billion at the project if re-elected in November, having already secured a federal contribution of the same amount.

The announcement came after Transport for Victoria presented its assessment of four route options – through Sunshine, Craigieburn, Maribyrnong and Flemington.

The latter two would have involved extensive tunneling and no link to regional services, which had been identified as a priority.

The move has been welcomed by several parties, including the Rail Futures Institute and Regional Cities Victoria, which said it is “the best possible outcome for regional Victoria”.

Victorian public transport minister and member for Bendigo East Jacinta Allan said that the Sunshine option had been the state government’s preferred option to connect the regional network into the plan.

“What we do know through the work that we’ve done is that investing in an airport rail link that comes through Sunshine, it gives us the chance to connect people from Ballarat or Bendigo or Geelong, they will be able to connect to that link,” she said.

“That’s maximising the number of people that can take a train to the airport and also recognises that we wanted to give regional passengers more of a chance to connect to the airport.”

Transport for Victoria’s strategic appraisal of the project prioritised the Sunshine option based on its better connections to more areas of Melbourne through the Metro Tunnel, superior connections to regional Victoria through Sunshine and earlier completion at a lower cost.

Passenger numbers at the airport are forecast to almost double from the current 35.2 million to 67 million passengers in 2035.

Of seven major international airports used as a comparison in the assessment including Sydney airport, Melbourne was the only one without a rail link.

Previous studies had also settled on the Sunshine option as being the best route for the project, and land along the Jacana rail corridor in Melbourne’s north was reserved after an initial study in 2002.

It will not provide the quickest service out of the three options, both the Maribyrnong and Flemington options would have offered quicker travel times, but could cost up to $25b.

As part of the project, Sunshine station would be redeveloped to accommodate the extra services.

A full business case is expected to be completed by 2020, with early 2022 eyed as a potential date for the start of construction. – Joel Peterson