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Public transport

Oct 4, 2012

Does Melbourne need a subway?

Jeff Kennett and Peter Newman think creating a rail subway in Melbourne would be visionary, but it wouldn't address the key factors that drive public transport demand.

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35 years of Shinjuku skyscrapers in 10 seconds (From July 1969 To July 2004)

Jeff Kennett reckons Melbourne needs to puts its rail lines underground. The former Premier of Victoria says it would be the “most important infrastructure needed for Victoria’s future.”

Addressing the Australian Property Institute’s Pan Pacific conference on Monday, he said:

It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but I can assure you when you look back in 50 years, or 100 years, whatever you pay today would seem cheap. We can hardly accommodate the traffic on the surface of our community in an efficient way and it is only going to get worse.

Peter Newman, Distinguished Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University, endorses Mr Kennett’s call for a subway system. He says “it’s the kind of far-sighted thinking we desperately need in Melbourne’s politics.”

Of course it would be delightful to have an underground rail system like London’s in any of our capital cities. It could possibly make sense in Melbourne because the city has a very serious problem with level crossings.

Sydney got rid of virtually all its level crossings years ago, however Melbourne still has 170. They contribute to localised traffic congestion and severely limit the number of train services that can be operated in peak periods.

Putting the rail system underground would also provide land that could be developed or used for civic purposes. No doubt that’s of great interest to the members of the Australian Property Institute.

But Mr Kennet’s estimate of “hundreds of millions of dollars” is sheer fantasy – it’s way off the mark.

The average cost of eliminating Melbourne’s 170 level crossings is around $100 million each. The cost of constructing the proposed 13 km Rowville rail line would be in the order of $2 billion and it would be mostly at-grade (surface) and in-structure (elevated).

A rule of thumb in the US is elevated lines cost four times surface lines. Underground lines cost eight times surface lines. Costs of subways are much higher in the US and Britain than elsewhere but are more relevant to recent Australian costs.

Britain’s Crossrail cost $1 billion per kilometre and the Jubilee Line Extension $450 million per kilometre. In New York, the East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway and the 7 Extension cost $4 billion, $1.7 billion and $1.3 billion per kilometre respectively.

Assuming an average cost of $300 million per kilometre, it would probably cost in the region of $25 billion to underground all existing rail lines within a modest 10 km radius of Flinders Street station. That’s a conservative estimate though, given the cost would be increased by the number of rail stations and roads that would need to be reconstructed.

That’s a huge outlay. It’s considerably larger, for example, than the Commonwealth Government’s recession-busting national Building the Education Revolution (BER) program, which cost $17 billion. It’s the kind of money that would have an enormous impact on other budget priorities

Some of that cost could be recouped from selling development rights but I expect the revenue would fall well short of the cost. The outlays for each stage would be incurred upfront but the revenue from sales would trickle in over an extended time frame and should be discounted accordingly.

Moreover most of the land currently used for inner urban rail lines is narrow and close to existing land uses, so its development potential would be modest e.g. three story apartments rather than high rise units. There would also be pressure to reserve a lot of it for parks and community uses.

The key issue though is the operational benefits of undergrounding – i.e. the improvement in the level of service of the rail system – would be relatively modest compared to both the cost and to other potential improvements the funds might be applied to. It wouldn’t even deliver on elimination of level crossings, as only a small proportion are within 10 km of the city centre.

Mr Kennett is no doubt impressed by subway systems he’s seen in Europe and elsewhere. However as the outgoing President of the Public Transport Users Association, Daniel Bowen, says, the benefits from those metro systems don’t derive from the fact that they’re underground.

We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that for our trains to run efficiently we need them to run underground. You don’t get better rail services just by running them underground. The key is to run them frequently and to run them all day, every day and ensure they’re reliable.

What’s much more important than undergrounding is to increase the connectivity of the network and expand the capacity of existing lines to support more frequent services. That requires measures like improved signalling and elimination of level crossings.

There’s also a need for some new rail services on high capacity routes (like the proposed Melbourne Metro rail tunnel). However expansion of the public transport network doesn’t have to come primarily via expensive underground rail lines.

Australian cities already have an enormous reservoir of untapped capacity that can be exploited to expand the network at relatively low cost. That capacity is the huge existing network of roads and freeways, currently used mostly by relatively low-occupancy cars.

Road space can be reallocated to bus rapid transit and, where warranted by the level of demand, to light rail. The key requirement is that private passenger vehicles give up both road space and road priority to ensure transit isn’t unduly delayed. Drivers, of course, can shift from cars to transit.

I get why Jeff Kennett would put this sort of proposal to a meeting of the Property Institute of Australia. What I don’t understand is why Professor Newman would endorse it.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The Urbanist is edited by Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consulting.

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14 comments

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14 thoughts on “Does Melbourne need a subway?

  1. Smith John

    Transport planning is bedevilled by the fact that the issues are intuitive enough to allow everyone to feel they’re an expert.

    People who are smart enough to refrain from saying that heart disease is cured by garlic (it’s not their field) have no hesitation in making equally naive statements about the cure for big city traffic problems.

    For Jeff Kennett the pet idea is ‘subway’. For Paul Barry it’s ‘Rennes metro’. For someone else it’s bus rapid transit. For someone else it’s personal rapid transit.

    For Rod Eddington in the 2008 East West Link Needs Assessment, it was the Tarneit link and the Metro Rail Tunnel (multi billion dollar projects which appeared from nowhere in his report, and to this day have no adequate published economic evaluation).

    For Nick Greiner in Sydney, it’s ‘$10 billion worth of new motorways’. (see Infrastructure NSW’s recently released plan).

    Look at any blog or newspaper transport thread, and see how quickly most commenters get bogged down on ‘we need Doncaster rail… no we need better buses… no we need a monorail to Box Hill…**

    Engineering projects that people can *visualise* always seem to trump the hard stuff about cost benefit analysis and network planning and getting the political settings right so that complicated systems with many managers can work as an efficient whole.

    All the pet ideas contradict each other (because they compete for funding, even if they are not technically incompatible), and policy ends up settling not on the best idea as a result of some rational analysis, but on the pet idea of the most influential figure or group.

    ** I made up the last one, but that’s the type of thing you do read.

  2. Chris Judd

    Yeah i don’t think that Melbourne needs an extensive subway system but a few underground metro lines that connect to the main suburban network. However the main priority should be to move as many level crossings as possible with the busiest corridors such as the Dandy line the focus. The metro tunnel is a start in that it opens up newer areas of the inner urban area to heavy rail, connects to the main network providing an alternative route into town and takes pressure off the City Loop. Paul Mees has got rocks in his head if he thinks 192 suburban trains can be run through the loop especially considering the fact that there are only three track pairs on three viaducts. The problem i have with the metro tunnel is that it does not provide any additional capacity to the network that cannot be achieved by grade seperation of the Dndenong line, platform legthening and 9 car trains but just shifts it to the new tunnel (there is no room for an additional track pair between Caulfield and South Yarra). That’s why i favour the Caulfield to Footscray route since it can allow the Dandenong line to run two alternative routes into the CBD once quadded. Doncaster to Newport would be the next step decades down the track to complete the underground metro metwork i believe Melbourne may need in the long term but that’s a long way away. BRT is definetely the way to go however for the time being especially on major freeways such as the Eastern and East Link. An East Link BRT service from say Franga through to Dandy and Ringwood would provide the orbital route that so many harp on about. The idea of a bus terminal at Victoria Park Station also appeals to me.

  3. Alan Davies

    michael r james #3:

    Er, the statement IS supported: by the link I provided in the text. Here it is again, Why do subways cost more here than elsewhere? (in fact you commented in that thread!). That article in turn gives a link to another one, Why is infrastructure so bloody expensive? The high cost of infrastructure is a complex and important issue but it’s not the topic of this post.

  4. michael r james

    [Costs of subways are much higher in the US and Britain than elsewhere but are more relevant to recent Australian costs.]

    WHY? Why make this statement and not support it. Why should construction costs be so, so different between countries? Cost of steel, concrete and labour? No. Do you think it might have something to do with the perverted method of planning and vested-interest industry insiders? Paranoid. Here is what Paul Barry writes in today’s Crikey/PI.

    [Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this world view, given the former Liberal premier (Greiner) is the man who introduced toll roads to NSW and is chairman of Bilfinger Berger, which built the M2, M7 and Anzac road bridge. But surely there must be a better way?]

    So, this is the usual story: claim PT will just cost too much so we can’t do it. Exactly as the Greiner report asserted about cross-harbour rail proposal. But they can find $30bn for just a few roads. Here is what the SMH said yesterday:

    [The Infrastructure NSW report is unashamedly supportive of more investment in roads, including bus services, rather than rail or other dedicated public transport corridors. The report argues against the idea new motorways create congestion.]

    That last bit is only about 40 years behind the times. Oh, but they will consider the hugely expensive burying of bus lanes in the inner city for the reason, wait for it: it will create more space on top for … cars. Just what our inner city needs more of.

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