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Is Napthine about to stuff up Melbourne’s Metro?

It looks depressingly like the Victorian Government might be about to compromise the first major new electrified rail line in Melbourne in 40 years by addressing the wrong problem.

Proposed route of Melbourne Metro. The Victorian Goverment wants to design a new route

It’s hard to fathom what’s going through the political brain of Victoria’s Premier, Denis Napthine.

On the one hand he’s desperate to improve the Government’s credibility on public transport matters before the election due on 29 November this year. He’s already said publicly that the Government, like the Opposition, is committed to building the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel.

Following a spate of headline firm closures in recent weeks, he’s equally desperate to show his Government has a plan for creating new jobs and stimulating economic activity.

Yet on the other hand, he came out this week and stated publicly that the Government is now looking at alternatives to the planned route of the Metro. At first he presented it as a matter of choosing the best alignment through the CBD, but it now appears the planned Metro route is dead.

He’s not saying what the alternative is but the key option appears to be a rail line via the Government’s massive urban renewal project planned for industrial Fishermans Bend. That would require an entirely different route to that proposed for the Metro (see exhibit).

Given the East-West Link motorway is proceeding with alacrity, it’s not surprising the Premier’s announcement has been interpreted as a lack of commitment to building public transport.

The Metro has been under development for five years and prior to the change of government was in Infrastructure Ausralia’s top ‘ready to proceed’ category. Any alternative route will require considerably more time for investigation and engineering design.

It seems a key driver of the Government’s rethink is a determination to reduce significantly the estimated $9-11 billion cost of Metro. The time required to prove up and design a new route would be convenient too, as it would give the state budget breathing space to accommodate other priorities like the East West Link.

Further, since the Government will have to provide new transport infrastructure to support Fishermans Bend anyway, it might be thinking it can kill two birds with one stone. The fact that Metro is the brainchild of the former Government, whereas Fishermans Bend is the Coalition’s idea, might have some bearing too.

What the Premier should not lose sight of though is the key rationale for Metro; it’s to increase the ability of the rail system to bring travellers into the CBD, especially from the north and west.

Its primary purpose is to address looming capacity constraints that would otherwise limit the potential of the city centre to continue growing.

That role is emphasised by Metro’s (new) official name; the Metro Rail Capacity Project. According to Public Transport Victoria:

The new name better reflects the significant capacity benefits that the project will provide to the Sunbury, Upfield, Craigieburn, Pakenham, Cranbourne, Sandringham, Frankston, Werribee and Williamstown lines. On day one the project will enable an additional 20,000 passengers to travel on Melbourne’s rail network in the peak hour…

Another virtue of the current plan is its near “text book” design. Rather than deliver travellers to a single station, the planned route under Swanston St delivers them to the middle of the CBD. There they can connect with other train services, as well as trams, at the two busiest stations on the entire system, Flinders St and Melbourne Central.

This route will also help relieve the severe tram congestion currently experienced on Swanston Street and St Kilda Rd. In addition, stations planned at inner city Parkville, Arden and The Domain will facilitate development at higher employment and population densities.

City of Melbourne Lord Mayor (and former Coalition leader), Robert Doyle, is adamant the Parkville station should be built. He told The Age:

We need that underground station (as it would be) right in the heart of where our new cancer centre will be, our research precinct, the University of Melbourne, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Royal Women’s Hospital, it’s just crucial that we service that with a large underground rail station.

There’s an argument for promoting Fishermans Bend ahead of (but not instead of) these areas; they’re already serviced by trams and further development will inevitably be constrained to a degree by existing uses.

Fishermans Bend is effectively a greenfield site with enormous capacity; it’s projected to accommodate 80,000 residents and 40,000 jobs. Development should be easier than in an established area.

The key issue with any alternative route, though, is whether or not it satisfies the central objective of overcoming capacity constraints. The Government argues other proposed lines like rail to the airport can’t be built until the capacity problem is solved.

Dr Napthine insists the Government is still committed to that objective, but it’s not clear how it could be achieved by a Fishermans Bend route. It’s also hard to see how it could cost significantly less but still offer the same high level of accessibility within the CBD and interchange with other stations as the currently planned Metro alignment offers.

An alternative route might well cost less, but travel time savings and patronage levels feed into the benefits; the Government must ensure the BCR remains positive.

Despite what Dr Napthine says, I suspect the Government has already made the decision to abandon the planned route of Metro. The debate about alternative alignments through the CBD (Swanston St vs Russell St) appears to be a red herring; the new route might include Southern Cross and possibly even Flagstaff but it probably won’t go near the traditional centre of the CBD.

Major new rail lines are rare in Australian cities, especially in the city centre. Melbourne’s underground loop was started in 1971 and completed in 1981 (1). It would be an enormous loss to stuff it up with a politically-driven solution. Fishermans Bend needs its own solution.

Ironically, the best political course for the Government at this stage would probably be to show real enthusiasm for Melbourne Metro. It could further improve its credibility on public transport by going a step further; use the inevitable disruption in Swanston St as the basis for a comprehensive overhaul of the inner city tram network (see Is this a real tram network?).

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  1. Update: The Regional Rail Link is currently under construction. It’s not part of Melbourne’s electrified metro network because it’s primary role is to serve regional populations (it’s diesel). It will however stop at some western outer suburban stations and the metro network will benefit by the transfer of regional services on to their own tracks.
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  • 1
    mook schanker
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I have a feeling Fishermans Bend has been chosen as whoever is the ‘Developer’ will be required to fork out some of the capital costs for new stations and possibly some of the alignment. Either way, such costs will be built into the purchase price of the land and also the expected returns the developments will have being on top of new station/s and rail route.

    But in reality, yes he’s just dithering (purposely), hoping that some random headlines will distract the public…

  • 2
    Saugoof
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Translation : “We have no intention of building this. The new route proposal gives us an excuse to delay the whole thing until it’s somebody else’s problem”

  • 3
    Daniel Loudon
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Would a Fishermans bend arrangement that includes a crossing to Newport achieve the same capacity gains for the West? It would be very expensive but getting developers to co-contribute is key.

    On the other side this could link to the South Morang line for decoupling, which would still mean Parkville station gets built, and it would directly address the capacity problems that are preventing Doncaster rail from being built.

    The combination of a “West Gate” rail bridge and enabling Doncaster would look very good politically, but Dandenong still has issues. Perhaps those trains will now only run direct from Flinders, which will achieve the same effect of loop decoupling. Workers living along that route can get to Parkville or Domain from a single interchange – to a Tram. A grade separated tram route at that.

    I’m hoping they’ve come up with a good idea based off rethinking what’s necessary (eg changing the promise from a direct heavy rail link to Avalon to a much cleverer light rail interchange with Bag dropping), and this isn’t some asinine political move. I always expect the latter with Napthine.

  • 4
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Daniel Loudon #3:

    Maybe Abbott will come to the party with funding for a new road/rail route from the west?

  • 5
    Iain L
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Alan,
    Great article.
    #Daniel Loudon. The idea of a link from Newport through Fishermans Bend seems plausable in that it may be able to attract ‘value capture’ benefits as you note, but additionally may be able to seek federal funding as a freight rail link out of the Webb Dock area. Quite how a high frequency passenger metro and lengthy diesel hauled freight trains might share underground lines is unclear. Nevertheless, by linking the Altona/Werribee routes u/g from Newport via Fishermans Bend across to the Jolimont group a similar level of capacity uplift in the system could be achieved.

  • 6
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    A cynic might ask which companies will be developing Fisherman’s Bend, and whether they will be donating any money to the Liberal Party!

  • 7
    Daniel Loudon
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    #4 Tony Abbott wouldn’t be caught dead funding a rail project.

    There appears to be a freight rail line going directly from Newport northwest through to Sunshine and therefore the Albion freight line that’s been mooted for an Airport link, so that could come into play as well. This would largely bypass existing suburban rail but could also unlock potential for stations serving South Kingsville and the Tottenham industrial area.

    The apparent leak (here: http://www.springstsource.info/revised-ptv-melbourne-metro-map/) seems to be a plan that goes into Fishermans Bend then straight back out again. It’s believable coming from this government.

  • 8
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Has any serious feasibility study been done for a line from Fisherman’s bend to Newport? It’s not inconceivable that it would make more sense to go over the river rather than under it. Either way it would definitely be in the ‘kill two birds with one stone’ category – trains between Newport and Southern Cross are already seemingly over capacity at peak-hour, which becomes immediately evident whenever there’s any sort of cancellation.
    FWIW, I’d probably agree that the disruption that would be caused by digging up Swanston St for 2 years would be bad enough that the any additional expense involved in boring vs cut & cover or moving the route mostly under Russel St would be well justified. But ultimately what’s being proposed is only a fraction of what will be needed if Melbourne continues to grow the way it has been for the next 50 years.

  • 9
    Tom the first and best
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    7

    That route is no real surprise. It starts the tunnel at about Southern Cross (minimising tunnelling north of the river and using as much existing track as possible), includes Fishermans Bend and then to Domain and the South Yarra terminus that the current government decided on.

    The middle station in the tunnel being called Port Melbourne is a bit interesting though. It is probably more of a South Melbourne Station.

  • 10
    Gobillino
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    One would hope its Sth Melb rather than Port. If this alignment ventures too deep into Fisherman’s Bend it runs the risk of trying to do too many things and none of them well. Domain in particular becomes too inconvenient for all but Caulfield group lines, which means most would still interchange at Flinders for a tram.

    Would HAVE to provide interchange opportunities at Nth Melb (schematic suggests not but I assume that’s an error) and Sth Yarra (existing Melb Metro proposal doesn’t)

  • 11
    Stephen
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Pro forma for this benighted country, where one is not permitted to present public transit as a democratic and necessary part of the civic fabric in a world-class city, but only as part of another get rich quick scheme for developers.

    Same thing is happening with the Canberra light rail.

  • 12
    Jason Murphy
    Posted February 22, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Planning rail and development at the same time is awesome.
    But that shouldn’t mean you stop planning rail to areas that were developed over 100 years ago (I refer here to Parkville and the area around my Alma Mater).
    This is clearly a delaying tactic and truly, we should be able to have both a FIshermans bend line and a Parkville line.

  • 13
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 22, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Jason Murphy #12:

    There’re plenty of plans. Stage 3 of the PTV’s Network Development Plan envisages the Sth Morang line will extend to Flagstaff/SXS via a new station at Parkville (and thence to Fishermans Bend in stage 4!). Stage 3 is “within 15 years” and stage 4 “within 20 years”. Hmmm…The Network Development Plan appears to have disappeared from PTV’s site.

  • 14
    Carbon Footprint
    Posted February 22, 2014 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Crying crocodile tears about the effect of digging up Swanston St when are busily planning to rip and gigantic hole through Royal Park as well turning Alexandra Parade into a 15 lane chasm screams A grade hypocrisy.

  • 15
    Martin Absalom
    Posted February 23, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t get too worked up, this plan, if the schematic above is right, can’t possibly be implemented. As I see it, Dandenong line customers heading for the current Loop stations (Parliament and Melbourne Central in particular) aren’t going to travel miles out of their way just to change at the city anyway. They are going to change at Caulfield, putting a lot of pressure on the Frankston line and Caulfield station. Without significant upgrades, or running Frankston trains all stations after Caulfield, I can’t see how they can put on enough trains to make this work.

    Instead, would it be possible to divert the Sandringham line at Balaclava or Windsor through to Domain and then terminating around the Arts Centre, with a direct link to Flinders St(as with the present metro station idea). The metro could then run into tunnel after Richmond, thereby alleviating the need to build a Yarra crossing, which seems to be one of the main cost issues.

    I do think that digging up Swanston St does give a good opportunity to look at the overall PT system and give an opportunity for a bit of a makeover.

  • 16
    Smith John
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    It’s a bit unclear what the provenance is of the ‘revised Melbourne metro rail tunnel’ map that Daniel Loudon linked to , but it looks like an April Fool’s Day joke.

    I struggle to see how a rail line from Footscray to South Yarra could serve Fishermans Bend AND the Central Business District with anything like a sensible route.

    ‘Spaghetti’ routes might be OK for outer suburban buses, but not for a $10 billion 100-year city shaping rail project.

  • 17
    Austin M
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I think the whole Swanston Street issue is a massive engineering exercise but still a bit of a red hearing issue for the for the project overall.
    For starters a number of the trams could terminate at or just short of Melbourne Central and Flinders Street with through connection being provided with a slight extension of the tram network down south bank boulevard to utilise the queens bridge Yarra crossing (I think yarra trams want to do something like this anyway to reduce tram routes on swanston). Elizabeth Street will also still provide a nearby alternate for north south tram trips between Flinders Street and Melbourne Central.
    Secondly there would likely be disruptions for 2 years but not a full 2 year closure. Logically they would be done like many of the rail lowering/grade separations we are seeing (that often require a kilometre + of work either side). Effectively service relocations, bored piles and crossheads would be done either side whilst in normal operation along the whole length. Then in one summer shut down large earth moving equipment would bulk out between these piles (over a few weeks to a bit over a month). Following this precast beam placement would occur and the pouring of a deck slab (another few weeks) and finally the road and tram tracks reinstated above (another few weeks). The final fit out of the tracks below would then be undertaken with normal operation above.
    For the record my alternate would be a big S through the city. From metro1 university station have a station somewhere between parliament and Melbourne central (Russel/Lonsdale cnr), then another station between southern cross and flinders (Collins/Williams cnr), then onto fishermends bend before heading back to stations at south melbourne, stkilda road and south yarra. It should allow for a bored tunnel alternate to be adopted and would deliver significant coverage whilst not adding to much extra running length/time. It would also allow reasonable interconnect with only a short 1-2 block walk or tram ride to the other major stations in the cbd.

  • 18
    Tom the first and best
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    16

    This new tunnel (as shown in the allegedly leaked map) is not proposed to start in Foostcray, but just North of Southern Cross and the go under the Yarra, through Montague and South Melbourne to the existingly proposed location of Domain Station and then to just South of South Yarra station. Not a particularly roundabout route but not the best CBD access.

  • 19
    hk
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    “Hmmm…The Network Development Plan appears to have disappeared from PTV’s site.”
    Such chess type moves makes one wonder whether meaningful evaluations are underway by land-use and transport strategists employed by government.
    Maybe advocacy groups such as the Property Council, the PTUA and the RACV should be using commentary sites such as The Urbanist, The Age etc to reflect community values and expectations to assist in determining evaluation criteria of the various options available
    It would appreciated by intelligent Australians not to be treated as if we were in a mushroom farm. Starving advocates for sensible planning of oxygen is not sound long term strategic practice for any Government and its agencies.

  • 20
    Gobillino
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    It’s still there. Was actually pretty hard to find even 6 months ago when i tried to track it down. A google search will take you there though

    http://ptv.vic.gov.au/about-ptv/ptv-data-and-reports/network-development-plan-metropolitan-rail/

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