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Is Fairfax baiting us?

Fairfax isn’t introducing its new compact newspaper format until 4 March, but its increasing use of “bait selling” shows it’s already got the tabloid mentality bedded down

This is the level crossing in Brighton which The Age says is jumping the queue while a death trap in St Albans is ignored

In the sorts of transport and planning articles I take a particular interest in, I’m seeing more examples of  “bait selling” in the Fairfax media. The “bait” is a headline and lede that declare controversy and outrage, but as one reads on it becomes clear there’s really not much going on – it’s a beat-up.

Consider this story in The Age today, under the headline Brighton jumps queue as death trap waits.

MONEY is tight in Victoria for TAFEs, teachers and hospitals, but the state government has found millions of dollars to upgrade a level crossing in the safe Liberal seat of Brighton.

The New Street crossing – ranked a lowly 223rd on a government priority list of level crossings in need of fixing – is to be upgraded this year. The crossing is in the seat of deputy Liberal leader Louise Asher.

News of the upgrade comes in the same week Dianne Dejanovic visited the notorious Main Street level crossing in St Albans.

Ms Dejanovic’s 31-year-old son Christian was killed at the level crossing a year ago – the 16th person to die at the crossing – and she has called on the government to fix it.

The crossing is on the priority list and the government has said work will begin this term but it has not allocated any money.

Public Transport Victoria said the Brighton crossing had been closed since 2007 because of safety concerns about its manually operated gates.

“There had not been any fatalities recorded at the New Street Level crossing, however in the three years prior to closing there were 17 near misses, some potentially fatal, including a train colliding with the gates,” it said.

So just to be clear about this, The Age says the Baillieu Government wants to prioritise upgrading what’s a comparatively low risk for Brighton silver-tails, ahead of fixing what is literally a life-and-death concern for residents of working class St Albans.

On the face of it, that’s a very serious worry. There are 170 level crossings in Melbourne and the average cost of elimination (i.e. to grade-separate rail from road) is around $100 million per crossing. The more difficult ones can be up to $200 million.

He’s doubtless playing politics, but Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese described the St Alban’s crossing this week as “one of the worst in the country”. He implied he might come to the party with some funding.

But the reader who’s prepared to stick with the story eventually stumbles on these two paras:

A spokeswoman for the government said “separating a road from a railway line by going over or under costs around $150 million to $200 million, and St Albans is on the Coalition’s list” of 12 priority crossings.

“New Street level crossing is a completely different type of project – to install boom gates that were closed in 2007 – and is likely to be less than $5 million,” the spokeswoman said.

So unless the spokeswoman is telling a bald-face lie, the Baillieu Government wants to spend $5 million in Brighton to install boom gates so the crossing can be re-opened. It’s not proposing to spend tens of millions on grade-separation as is necessary in St Albans.

Now it’s certainly arguable whether this is the best way to spend $5 million, especially in a tight financial environment.

But it’s not even remotely close to the implication The Age fosters. There’s no valid comparison here – a $5 million upgrade in Brighton isn’t going to determine whether the Government does or doesn’t spend $100 -$150 million for a complete grade separation in St Albans.

I’m seeing increasing examples of this kind of “bait selling” in The Age. For two other examples, see my articles on Is high-rise CBD living bad for our cities? and Who got the facts on traffic forecasts wrong?

The formula is to knowingly construct a story with a distorted and controversial angle that’s intentionally misleading.

It’s done knowingly because “the facts”, which contradict or seriously weaken the way the story’s framed, are inserted later in the text. Then the paper can (and does) say it was fair reporting because it presented both sides of the story.

For the record, St Albans really is one of the worst crossings and needs to be attended to fast.

On a different matter, I’m wondering if the switch to the compact format might usher in a new tone in Fairfax editorials too. I don’t think I’ve seen anything before in The Age that’s quite as bolshie as this editorial today, Why don’t our school children have seat belts in buses? Here’s an extract:

So, what is happening in Victoria? Nothing. Mr Mulder, have a good look at Coroner Spooner’s report and see why seatbelts in buses matter. Listen to the parents whose children have been injured in bus crashes. Rise above the Dr Nos in the industry and your own government who reject every program because it will cost money.

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  • 1
    Tom the first and best
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    The Government did promise before the last election to grade separate but in government have changed to a slightly more affordable position.

    The ranking of 223 on the list was before it was closed to traffic. Closing it to traffic would have made in much safer. Opening it again will decrease safety. The current Government would get very bad press if it had a serious accident or even a fatality after it is reopened.

  • 2
    samquigley
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    You’ve got a million/billion mix-up in there, right after the spokeswoman’s quote.

  • 3
    SBH
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    on a different matter, how on earth an it cost 100 million dollars per crossing to put road and rail on separate levels?

  • 4
    (the other) HR Nicholls
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Look at any story dealing with cycling – I don’t have access to Fairfax’s site analytics but the weight of comments submitted tells you that these fishing expeditions hook plenty of readers.

    They’ll want to come up with some more substantial ideas once the paywalls go up – I can’t imagine anyone would pay to take part in the inane comment box battles that spring up, which can be had for free in any number of other areas of the Internet – but being Fairfax, well do you see them changing tack? I don’t.

  • 5
    melburnite
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    re : “bait selling” – “a headline and lead that declare controversy and outrage, but as one reads on it becomes clear there’s really not much going on – it’s a beat-up”.

    This is hardly new – I noticed it at least ten years ago in The Age, the headline announcing a controversy that doesnt exist. In fact they wont run a planning story unless there are competing views, even if they are entirely predictable (National Trust vs Development Council). Pity ‘cos there are good planning stories out there – I think….

  • 6
    Adrian Tritschler
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Typo. in your text, “… wants to spend $5 billion in Brighton ” should be “$5 million”

  • 7
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Samquigley #2; Adrain Tritschler #6:

    Oops! Thanks, fixed.

  • 8
    hk
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    201302081545
    Gordon, (2007) writes for the recent complex comparable project at “Middleborough Road, a Vicroads project, with the main purpose of eliminating the railway level crossing at Middleborough Road, Box Hill had a total project cost of $56.5 million (including $2.2 million for the feasibility study). …The project was wholly funded by the Victorian Government.”
    What is the basis for a comparable project at St Albans being estimated to cost up to $200 million?
    Reference: Gordon, C, Middleborough Road Project, accessed 8 February 2013 at http://www.vicsig.net/index.php?page=infrastructure&project=Middleborough%20Road%20Project

  • 9
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    hk #8, SBH #3:

    I don’t know that the Government spokeswoman said St Albans specifically is a $200 million project, but she implied it is at least $150 million. She’d have VicRoads advice. Here’s their draft ‘rail over road’ option for St Albans. Here’s the ‘rail under road’ option. Neither look low cost.

  • 10
    Daniel Borton
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    The St Albans crossing is far more complex than Middleborough Road. Middleborough Road is basically one road and one railway line at right angles to each-other, with no train station. It also has reasonable land on either side of the track.

    St Albans has Main Road east-west, with the train track going through at pretty much a 45 degree angle. Then there’s another road either side of the train tracks (East and West Esplanade’s), running through main road. So basically 1 train track, and three roads, creating two 4 way intersections separated by a train track. The station buildings are less than 5 metres from main road.

    To make matters worse, on the north of main road, there’s shops between the railway line and both East and West Esplanade. Lowering either the road or the railway line without demolishing/damanaging these shops will be very challenging.

    Given there are 3 roads (6 directions), it seems tunnelling the train line may be the best solution. But that is costly. Add to that the station builings are less than 5 metres from Main Road means that a new station will have to be built, most likely underground, or further away from the intersection.

    To me St Albans seems more similar (yet still different) to the Boronia Road/Dorset Road undergrounding of the rail line. Not sure what the cost of that was, but given it was more than a decade ago, I’m not sure how comparable costs will be.

    As part of my university studies, we took a visit to St Albans, and looked at the intersection/crossing. Now that Sunbury is on the Metro line, the boom gates are supposed to be down for more than 20 minutes an hour in peak hour. At to that the time that the lights on Main Road are red for traffic on the Esplanades to get through, and it starts to become apparent why so many people take risks at the intersection.

  • 11
    Daniel Bowen
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    True, $5m wouldn’t go very far in grade separating the Main Road, St Albans crossing… but it could pay for enhanced pedestrian gates/fencing/signage/warning lights, which would be beneficial given the large number of pedestrian deaths there.

    Note the dramatic picture on the Age article is of a completely different St Albans crossing, at Furlong Road.

  • 12
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Daniel Bowen #11:

    What do you have in mind for enhancing pedestrian safety at the St Albans crossing? At present there are boom gates, warning lights, pedestrian gates, fencing, signs…..looks like it’d be a case of very diminished returns (unless perhaps there are more advanced options used elsewhere?).

  • 13
    Daniel Bowen
    Posted February 10, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    “What do you have in mind for enhancing pedestrian safety”?

    Options include the “Another train coming” and/or red man signs used at Bentleigh (I suspect the former are more effective than the latter), lockable emergency bypass gates (if not installed already), or even a pedestrian underpass (which would be much cheaper than full grade separation).

  • 14
    IkaInk
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    In answer to your first question, yes. The Age is baiting us. They have been for years. The quality of Australian journalism is pretty god damn terrible and has been for a long while.

    Secondly, I see your still posting the much sprouted “$100million average cost for grade separation of railway crossings”. If you are going to continue to sprouting this, please point to where this average price is estimated. In the past I’ve pointed out that the Committee for Melbourne have not shown how they ever arrived at that figure in any publicly available document (that I’ve been able to track down at least) and that even the current lot of “high priority” and very complex projects are costing around the $100million mark. To assume the other 150 odd will be as complicated or as expensive as the most urgent and complicated 20 or so is just plain silly.

  • 15
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    IkaInk #14:

    We’ve had this discussion at some length relatively recently.

    Yes, the figure’s from the Committee for Melbourne. Unfortunately it hasn’t chosen to share its methodology.

    I don’t assume the Committee is telling lies. It has working groups of high-level people in the business who should know this stuff far better than you or me. Importantly, there’s no incentive for it to over-state the costs, the opposite if anything.

    While I don’t discount the possibility the number was arrived at in a few meetings, it should still be in the ball park. I wouldn’t advise anyone to take it other than as a guide.

    The spokesperson for the Minister quoted above puts the cost of crossings at $150-$200 million, although presumably she’s referring to the highest priority ones i.e. the top 12.

    I think it’s important to distinguish between the median and the mean in this case. The last half would of course be much, much cheaper than $100 million each.

    It would be great if some group with the relevant expertise and a reasonably objective approach were to undertake an analysis of the cost of eliminating crossings and make it public.

    However the Committee’s estimate is really the only game in town. The PTUA had a go but its choice of methodology – inflating estimates from older grade-separation projects by CPI, as I recall – showed it doesn’t have the knowledge. That approach doesn’t allow for the fact that the cost curve has moved out!

    Those like the PTUA who are concerned about the high cost of grade-separating crossings would be better off directing their attention to the causes of high infrastructure costs (e.g. PPPs) rather than continuing with the delusion that it’s all some sort of conspiratorial deception by politicians.

  • 16
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Another ‘Media Botch’ by Fairfax.

  • 17
    Dudley Horscroft
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    Perhaps they should start thinking “outside the box”. What percentage of the traffic is cars and light vans? Probably close to 90%. Now, such vehicles fit easily in multi-story car parks with a headroom of 2.1 m, and need only a lane width of 2.0 m. They can happily use gradients up to 15%. Heavy vehicles can use Taylor Road to the north, where there is an underpass for the road.

    At Main Road, there is at least 20 m between the near kerb line for the Esplanades and the rail track, probably nearer 30 m from Google Maps. Enough room, certainly, to fit in a steep ramp between the tracks and the Esplanades. So, in this wide road, it would be easy to fit in a shallow and narrow underpass for cars and light vans only. Main Road would be dead ended, with other vehicles turning at the track.

    If there is a bus service (which will need to cross the tracks), then a road overpass will be necessary, but the width of the lanes will have to be increased to 2.5 m. Large vehicles (buses and HGVs) will be constrained to fit in the 2.5 m lanes by kerbs. This will stil leave plenty of room for cars and other vehicles alongside the flyover.

    If this is too difficult, note that to the north there is plenty of room on the railway reservation used presently for car parking. This would be a suitable location for a bridge for all traffic, think the famous “Horseshoe Bridge” in Perth.

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