Rowville's public transport "black hole". Proposed Rowville rail line and catchment. The first station would be at Monash University

One of the key challenges to improving public transport in Australian cities is that almost everyone wants something glamorous and expensive, like a shiny new train or at least a light rail service. As Dr Mathew Burke points out, although the obvious low cost solution in many outer suburbs is to coordinate new feeder bus services with existing rail, it’s a hard sell. People want rails.

A classic example is the long and potted history of the proposed Rowville rail line, which was first touted in 1969 and has been kicked about ever since. The idea is to construct a 12 km spur line connecting the middle ring Melbourne suburb of Rowville (about 25 km from CBD) with the existing Dandenong line in the vicinity of Monash University – see exhibit.

Follow this link to win a copy of Andrew Leigh’s ‘Disconnected’ (two copies up for grabs). (Now closed – see GIVEAWAYS in sidebar for winners)

Rowville residents regard their region as a public transport “black hole”. It has bus services, but the centre of the region is 6-7 km as-the-crow flies from the nearest rail line (it’s equidistant from three of them – the Dandenong, Belgrave and Glen Waverly lines). Melbourne’s other well-known public transport “black hole” is Doncaster – it has a new Bus Rapid Transit system, but residents want a train.

The case for a rail line to Rowville is bolstered by Monash University’s transport problems. Thousands of students and staff catch a connecting bus to campus from the nearest station (Huntingdale) on the Dandenong line 2.5 km away. However the route is often heavily congested and, until very recently, coordination of buses with trains was poor. A spur line to Rowville would pass right by the University’s main entrance and avoid the need to change modes.

When in opposition, Ted Baillieu promised if he won the election he’d prepare a feasibility study on the rail line. Mindful of the public’s predilection for trains, when it came time to do the study, the brief focussed solely on rail. Other options like Bus Rapid Transit were excluded from consideration, as were various other routes that might be used to connect Rowville with Melbourne’s extant rail network.

I’ve questioned the value and priority of this project from before the time of the State election (see here and here). So I was keen to read the Stage 1 feasibility study when it was released on Friday. It basically reports on public consultation; designs a high-level concept plan for the line; and estimates patronage demand out to 2046.

But contrary to the clear requirements of the Project Scope document, the Stage 1 report does not provide the requested “high level costing” and nor does it provide the requested “economic analysis and risk analysis”. These are major omissions and seriously devalue the report. Why they haven’t been done is not explained satisfactorily in my view. Even so, I think the study provides two very useful insights.

First, it shows the Rowville line is unlikely to provide sufficient benefits to justify its considerable construction cost (the amount is unknown but I expect $2 billion plus). It is projected to carry 68,000 passengers a day by 2046 (the target year), which is a respectable enough number compared to what existing rail lines are projected to carry in the same year.

However here’s the shocker – the feasibility study says it would increase the share of all trips carried by public transport in the metropolitan area in 2046 from 12.6% to 12.7%. Yes, by just 0.1%. Moreover, 57% of patronage would be siphoned away from other rail lines. And the line would reduce the number of car trips on a typical weekday in 2046 by just 15,000.

Here’re the salient conclusions from the Travel Demand Modelling technical report:

With the assumed train operating patterns in the model, the Rowville line appears to have a marginal impact on motorised mode shares…The modelling suggests that half to two-thirds of passengers using the Rowville line will be drawn from other rail lines. The Dandenong line is likely to be the major contributor….While the Rowville line will reduce car travel to some extent, impacts on traffic congestion levels appear to be relatively minor.

Second, the study reveals how building new rail lines is nowhere near as simple or as cheap as is commonly assumed. The capacity of Melbourne’s metropolitan rail system is approaching its limits. A Rowville line couldn’t function effectively until system capacity is increased, particularly in the city centre, to accommodate the additional trains.

Expanding inner city capacity is very expensive. The solution is the Melbourne Metro, which would link South Kensington with South Yarra via a 9 km tunnel under the CBD, with five new stations. It is likely to cost more than the official figure of $5 billion (although some think the same objectives could be achieved for much less). The project is unfunded.

Moreover, the study also shows the capacity of the Dandenong line from Huntingdale to Caulfield would have to be increased to handle the extra trains from the Rowville line, requiring construction of an additional track, signalling upgrades and the elimination of a number of level crossings. There’s no costing for this work of course but there’s little doubt it would be very costly – one estimate of the average cost of eliminating level crossings is $100 million each.

These “upstream” costs would have system-wide benefits, so they couldn’t all be sheeted home to a Rowville line. But they’d have to be done first. Timing would depend on the availability of funding (and note that the Federal and State governments recently committed $5.3 billion for the Regional Rail Link) and construction itself would take considerable time.

What this drives home is the key priority for rail in Melbourne isn’t to expand coverage by building new rail lines to suburban Rowville, Doncaster, Tullamarine or anywhere else. No matter how attractive they might be, there’s not enough capacity in the system for them. Rather, the priority should be to increase the performance of the system as a whole.

That involves a lot of spending on unglamorous things like improving signalling, laying new tracks and eliminating the city’s many level crossings. It also involves giving spending priority to expensive but system-enhancing projects like Melbourne Metro, even though they might appear to disproportionately benefit the Green-voting inner city (although the Public Transport Users Association reckons “the idea that the Rowville line can’t be built without a $5 billion metro tunnel is nonsense”).

Overall, the appropriate solution in many situations won’t even be rail. Perhaps the most significant event in the Rowville rail saga occurred earlier this year, when the Government commenced a new bus service connecting Huntingdale station with Monash University. Route 601 buses operate on a four minute frequency from 7am to 7pm each weekday during semester, making the need to coordinate with trains academic (pun intended). The service is experiencing high patronage levels. That suggests to me that a big part of any case for a Rowville rail line has already been addressed (yet some argue high bus patronage signals the need for a train).