If I lived in Mernda I’d be pretty unhappy that the Brumby Government (here and here) is only going to give me a bus service rather than extend the Epping rail line beyond the new station at South Morang.

Sure, it’s Bus Rapid Transit with its own dedicated 7.5 km busway (here and here). And buses will be coordinated with arrivals and departures when trains start operating from the new South Morang station.

But it means I would have to change mode at South Morang. That will inevitably lose me some minutes. Moreover, a bus is simply not as comfortable as a train.

This seems like a politically fraught decision. The President of the Victorian Planning Institute says it’s bad planning and that buses are a “dinky service”. The President of the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) says buses are “not as good as a train and are certainly not what residents are looking for”.

However I don’t live in Mernda. And I pay taxes, so I’m quite interested in public money being spent efficiently and equitably. I also understand that there are many demands on available funds, not just from other transport projects but from other portfolios like education, health and housing.

So when I stand back and take a look at this initiative I can see some positives. In fact I think this is the right decision. It’s how governments should be approaching this sort of issue. These are my reasons:

First, it saves money for other uses. How much isn’t clear. Unfortunately the Minister hasn’t said what the alternative of constructing a single rail line between Mernda and South Morang would cost. I know the Government says the 8 km Epping to South Morang extension is going to cost $562 million, but that includes all sorts of upstream works intended to improve the performance of the entire Clifton Hill rail group.

I’m confident however that the Government wouldn’t have taken such a politically unpopular course of action in a marginal seat if the cost of rail wasn’t considerably higher than bus. Given the policy of no new level crossings, a figure of around $200 million to build and operate a rail extension (including necessary additional trains) for four years is plausible. That is a big saving that could be applied in other ways.

Second, the population of the area is not that large. At the 2006 Census, the suburb of Mernda had a population of 830 and the suburbs of Doreen and Whittlesea had populations of 3,451 and 4,563 respectively. The entire population of the Whittlesea Statistical Local Area, which includes Mill Park, South Morang, Mernda, Doreen and Whittlesea, is even now only around 40,000 – and I’d expect more than half of the residents will be closer to the new South Morang station when it opens than to Mernda or any intermediate bus ‘stations’.

Of course this is a Growth Area and population will continue to grow fast. It’s reasonable that all Growth Areas should have a high standard of public transport to the city centre. However it will take some time before the population reaches a level that justifies heavy rail over bus. The Government’s decision to build the busway within the old rail reservation means the route will be protected for future provision of a train if patronage ever warrants it.

Third, even in the best of all worlds, rail to Mernda was always going to be a long-term option for whoever was in government. Labor weren’t going to build it before 2027 and the Liberals made no mention of it until this week. The Greens say its the kind of project they might do but don’t mention funding and don’t give a timeline.

The Government has however committed itself to fund the busway this coming term if it is returned. It will provide the area with a high standard public transport connection to South Morang, Epping and the city centre well ahead of what would otherwise have been the case. It’s not perfect but it’s not bad either. In fact it could be argued that at this stage the area really only warrants an improved bus service along Plenty Rd – I’d say the busway is a much better outcome for locals than that.

The PTUA says there’s a danger the “busway may rule out a future upgrade to a train”. I can understand that fear, but there’s no technical reason why this should happen – if it were, it would be for essentially political reasons. More worrying is the implication that somehow buses aren’t real public transport – it seems only trains and trams are.

That’s a worrying view. If public transport in Melbourne is ever going to increase its share of all travel beyond the current level of circa 13% and achieve the ‘the ten minutes to everywhere’ goal of the PTUA, then we are going to need a lot more buses (among other things) and many more connections where travellers change mode. Rail is expensive and new lines should be reserved for the situations where it makes sense i.e. moving very large numbers of people.

In fact the Mernda Busway underlines the dubiousness of the Government’s decision to extend the rail line from Epping to South Morang. It’s doubtful that project was ever justified on the basis of patronage. It is being built to deliver (finally) on a promise made in the 1999 election campaign i.e. the election Labor didn’t expect to win. It might have made more sense to run buses right through from Mernda to Epping, where there’s a real prospect of developing a major regional centre.

I think this is one of those cases where the Government just about got everything right except maybe the politics.