Size of Clayton/Monash precinct (jobs) relative to the six designated suburban CADs

Sooner rather than later, the Baillieu Government is going to have to prove its credibility on public transport by making substantial progress on one of the rail lines it has promised. And I have an idea for where it should start.

The easiest candidate is the promised Avalon rail line because its cost is estimated at only $250 million. But as some commentators have pointed out, including me, this would almost inevitably be a jumbo white elephant. It could be a real political liability too.

If good sense prevails, the Federal Government will refuse to contribute to the project and the Government will be off the hook. The private operator might also refuse to contribute to a properly designed financial model.

The other promised rail lines – to Rowville, Doncaster and Melbourne Airport – are all subject to studies. They will all be very costly to build to an acceptable standard but it’s unlikely the electorate will be bothered by the fine print or the cost. It’s likely that as far as they’re concerned, a ‘promise’ is a promise.

I’ve indicated before that none of these lines, on the face of it, seem ready for the green light just yet (here, here and here). Unless new information is introduced or the projects are redefined, it seems to me that any objective study would have to conclude they won’t be ready for funding for some time, probably not until after 2020 (it wouldn’t be politic for any government to come out and say ‘no’ outright).

But I think the Government will have to show serious progress on at least one of these lines by the time of the next election. In my view, the preferred candidate should be the Rowville line, but in an amended form.

A rail line from Huntingdale station to Rowville probably made sense back in the sixties because it would’ve serviced not only Monash University, but also Waverley Park. The VFL’s massive stadium held nearly 80,000 fans and generated severe traffic congestion. But it’s now been turned into an up-market housing estate.

A key transport issue in this region nowadays is the 3 km connection along North Rd between Huntingdale station and the main entrance to Monash University. By itself this very likely only warrants better bus services and improved coordination with trains on the Dandenong line, rather than a new rail line.

However there could be a stronger case for rail if the Clayton/Monash precinct were designated as a major suburban activity centre – that is, as one of the Central Activities Districts (CADs) created in 2008 in Melbourne @ 5 Million in recognition of the polycentric geography of employment in Melbourne.

As I’ve noted before, the Clayton/Monash precinct is by far the largest concentration of employment in suburban Melbourne (here, here and here). It has three times as many jobs as the largest of the six existing CADs – Box Hill – and fifteen times as many jobs as the smallest CAD. There are as many jobs within a 7 km radius of Clayton as there are in the CBD (a significantly smaller radius than any other suburban centre).

A new rail line could potentially service Monash University, CSIRO and the various business parks in Notting Hill, Clayton, Mulgrave and Glen Waverley. More ambitiously, it might also service the Monash Medical Centre and the commercial and industrial areas around South Clayton. It could potentially be a suburban centre on the scale of Chatswood or Parramatta.

The critical point about the Clayton/Monash precinct is that it has proven itself to be attractive to business. Moreover, it already has major generators of demand for public transport. It seems a much more logical location for growth than some of the other CADs and retrofitting rail could enhance that potential.

Rather than being recognised as the obvious leading candidate, the Clayton/Monash precinct was overlooked when the six current CADs were designated. This is primarily because it was expedient to rebrand six of the existing centres under the Transit Cities program as CADs rather than undertake an objective assessment of which locations made logical sense and, if necessary, improve public transport to them.

It also reflected an underlying view that centres were by definition very compact with a perimeter no more than 400 metres radius from the station. This revealed a misunderstanding of the way jobs locate in Melbourne – many larger suburban concentrations of employment have a relatively large footprint.

A Rowville rail line that serviced the Monash/Clayton precinct could take many forms. It might be a spur line or a loop from the Dandenong line or it might connect to the Glen Waverley or ElAlamein lines (or possibly connect all three). Fortunately, the most concentrated activities in the region are closest to these rail lines, meaning they could be serviced first and the remainder of the line to Rowville could be scheduled for a later start.

Clearly this is a proposition that would need detailed evaluation, hopefully as part of the Rowville rail line study and as part of a wider evaluation and review of all the CADs, both existing and prospective. It also highlights the importance of looking at the broader opportunities inherent in all the proposed rail lines the Government has committed to study.