Public transport

Oct 4, 2012

Does Melbourne need a subway?

Jeff Kennett and Peter Newman think creating a rail subway in Melbourne would be visionary, but it wouldn't address the key factors that drive public transport demand.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

35 years of Shinjuku skyscrapers in 10 seconds (From July 1969 To July 2004)

Jeff Kennett reckons Melbourne needs to puts its rail lines underground. The former Premier of Victoria says it would be the “most important infrastructure needed for Victoria’s future.”

Addressing the Australian Property Institute’s Pan Pacific conference on Monday, he said:

It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but I can assure you when you look back in 50 years, or 100 years, whatever you pay today would seem cheap. We can hardly accommodate the traffic on the surface of our community in an efficient way and it is only going to get worse.

Peter Newman, Distinguished Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University, endorses Mr Kennett’s call for a subway system. He says “it’s the kind of far-sighted thinking we desperately need in Melbourne’s politics.”

Of course it would be delightful to have an underground rail system like London’s in any of our capital cities. It could possibly make sense in Melbourne because the city has a very serious problem with level crossings.

Sydney got rid of virtually all its level crossings years ago, however Melbourne still has 170. They contribute to localised traffic congestion and severely limit the number of train services that can be operated in peak periods.

Putting the rail system underground would also provide land that could be developed or used for civic purposes. No doubt that’s of great interest to the members of the Australian Property Institute.

But Mr Kennet’s estimate of “hundreds of millions of dollars” is sheer fantasy – it’s way off the mark.

The average cost of eliminating Melbourne’s 170 level crossings is around $100 million each. The cost of constructing the proposed 13 km Rowville rail line would be in the order of $2 billion and it would be mostly at-grade (surface) and in-structure (elevated).

A rule of thumb in the US is elevated lines cost four times surface lines. Underground lines cost eight times surface lines. Costs of subways are much higher in the US and Britain than elsewhere but are more relevant to recent Australian costs.

Britain’s Crossrail cost $1 billion per kilometre and the Jubilee Line Extension $450 million per kilometre. In New York, the East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway and the 7 Extension cost $4 billion, $1.7 billion and $1.3 billion per kilometre respectively.

Assuming an average cost of $300 million per kilometre, it would probably cost in the region of $25 billion to underground all existing rail lines within a modest 10 km radius of Flinders Street station. That’s a conservative estimate though, given the cost would be increased by the number of rail stations and roads that would need to be reconstructed.

That’s a huge outlay. It’s considerably larger, for example, than the Commonwealth Government’s recession-busting national Building the Education Revolution (BER) program, which cost $17 billion. It’s the kind of money that would have an enormous impact on other budget priorities

Some of that cost could be recouped from selling development rights but I expect the revenue would fall well short of the cost. The outlays for each stage would be incurred upfront but the revenue from sales would trickle in over an extended time frame and should be discounted accordingly.

Moreover most of the land currently used for inner urban rail lines is narrow and close to existing land uses, so its development potential would be modest e.g. three story apartments rather than high rise units. There would also be pressure to reserve a lot of it for parks and community uses.

The key issue though is the operational benefits of undergrounding – i.e. the improvement in the level of service of the rail system – would be relatively modest compared to both the cost and to other potential improvements the funds might be applied to. It wouldn’t even deliver on elimination of level crossings, as only a small proportion are within 10 km of the city centre.

Mr Kennett is no doubt impressed by subway systems he’s seen in Europe and elsewhere. However as the outgoing President of the Public Transport Users Association, Daniel Bowen, says, the benefits from those metro systems don’t derive from the fact that they’re underground.

We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that for our trains to run efficiently we need them to run underground. You don’t get better rail services just by running them underground. The key is to run them frequently and to run them all day, every day and ensure they’re reliable.

What’s much more important than undergrounding is to increase the connectivity of the network and expand the capacity of existing lines to support more frequent services. That requires measures like improved signalling and elimination of level crossings.

There’s also a need for some new rail services on high capacity routes (like the proposed Melbourne Metro rail tunnel). However expansion of the public transport network doesn’t have to come primarily via expensive underground rail lines.

Australian cities already have an enormous reservoir of untapped capacity that can be exploited to expand the network at relatively low cost. That capacity is the huge existing network of roads and freeways, currently used mostly by relatively low-occupancy cars.

Road space can be reallocated to bus rapid transit and, where warranted by the level of demand, to light rail. The key requirement is that private passenger vehicles give up both road space and road priority to ensure transit isn’t unduly delayed. Drivers, of course, can shift from cars to transit.

I get why Jeff Kennett would put this sort of proposal to a meeting of the Property Institute of Australia. What I don’t understand is why Professor Newman would endorse it.

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14 thoughts on “Does Melbourne need a subway?

  1. Tom the first and best


    Also extra capacity could be added to the Dandenong line by building the tunnel section from South Yarra to Caulfield with future proofing for a city-ward extension so that the extra capacity on the Sandringham line can be used.

  2. Tom the first and best


    Mees`s is not saying that the loop can handle 192 trains per hour. He is saying that Flinders St Station can handle 192 trains per hour with a mix of direct and loop services. 96 trains per hour via the loop and 96 direct trains.

    Of course the those 192 trains per hour are not perfectly distributed. I doubt that the Sandringham line will need its full share of 24 trains per hour any time soon and the Northern Group is growing strongly and will need more than its current share of 48 trains per hour (itis to get some extra capacity in the RRL project by terminating some trains at Southern Cross platform 8).

  3. Dylan Nicholson

    That’s a pretty silly argument Daryl – grade separation benefits almost everyone in myriad ways (accept of course that in some cases it’s not necessarily the absolute best use of taxpayer funds). It’s one fairly critical factor in being able to provide a PT service that’s efficient, reliable and regular enough to attract a decent percentage of current car-drivers from clogging up the roads. I don’t believe there’s a large city in the world with a well-functioning railway network that has nearly as many level crossings as we’re currently stuck with.

  4. Daryl Cheshire

    If I was part of the road lobby to try and minimise rail investment, I would insist on grade separation because that would benefit motorists and make the lines very expensive so they get shelved. Cleverly, most supporters of any rail development would support grade separation too and the padding of the cost to be later rejected in a succession of feasibility studies is inevitable.

  5. Smith John

    Melbourne has heaps of train lines already, and it’s a long way from needing new underground lines to increase capacity – yes, I’m talking about the Metro Rail Tunnel too – providing some other far less costly enhancements are done first. These are:

    – using 9 car trains from Werribee to Dandenong via Flinders St direct. Requires converting City-Caulfield to up-up-down-down running, with a new flyover at Caulfield, to avoid conflicts with loop-Frankston trains.

    – Northern Burnley loop connection: new chords from Nth Melbourne to Flagstaff and from Richmond to Parliament to make a through line from Nth Melbourne to Burnley via loop. The effect is to create a complete new through city track pair.

    – measures to reduce peak station dwell times. Capacity increase from about 20 to 24 trains per hour per track in the inner area should be possible.

    For anyone who is interested I have a more detailed paper on these options– contact grandsonofname at gmail dot com, replacing ‘name’ with ‘marjorie’

  6. Smith John

    Transport planning is bedevilled by the fact that the issues are intuitive enough to allow everyone to feel they’re an expert.

    People who are smart enough to refrain from saying that heart disease is cured by garlic (it’s not their field) have no hesitation in making equally naive statements about the cure for big city traffic problems.

    For Jeff Kennett the pet idea is ‘subway’. For Paul Barry it’s ‘Rennes metro’. For someone else it’s bus rapid transit. For someone else it’s personal rapid transit.

    For Rod Eddington in the 2008 East West Link Needs Assessment, it was the Tarneit link and the Metro Rail Tunnel (multi billion dollar projects which appeared from nowhere in his report, and to this day have no adequate published economic evaluation).

    For Nick Greiner in Sydney, it’s ‘$10 billion worth of new motorways’. (see Infrastructure NSW’s recently released plan).

    Look at any blog or newspaper transport thread, and see how quickly most commenters get bogged down on ‘we need Doncaster rail… no we need better buses… no we need a monorail to Box Hill…**

    Engineering projects that people can *visualise* always seem to trump the hard stuff about cost benefit analysis and network planning and getting the political settings right so that complicated systems with many managers can work as an efficient whole.

    All the pet ideas contradict each other (because they compete for funding, even if they are not technically incompatible), and policy ends up settling not on the best idea as a result of some rational analysis, but on the pet idea of the most influential figure or group.

    ** I made up the last one, but that’s the type of thing you do read.

  7. Krammer56

    While building subways everywhere will cost way too much (despite what MRJ thinks, the costs are real – if they weren’t there are lots of other construction companies all around the world that would be drooling over the Melbourne market and competing to bring prices down) depressing them is much cheaper (no roof, no ventilation, etc) and is the sort of treatment that would be required to grade separate the Dandy corridor.

    Past work has clearly shown the “value” of development over railways only outweighs the costs where land values are very high i.e. the CBD (maybe). A proposal some years ago to underground an inner suburban line to allow development on top found it was much more cost effective to buy all the houses next to the track to do the development.

    A simplistic global solution, such as lets build (insert pet category – subways, high speed rail, freeways) will never be the best solution – that will always be a tailored solution that aims to get best bang for the buck. Unfortunately, politicians (including Jeff) love simplistic solutions as they are easy to sell.

    My pet is also rapid bus, but even that is not necessarily the right solution everywhere. Its main benfit though is that it can be introduced quickly and is scalable – you can start with short lengths and partial treatments and build up. The key though is Daniel Bowen’s hours and frequency.

  8. Chris Judd

    Yeah i don’t think that Melbourne needs an extensive subway system but a few underground metro lines that connect to the main suburban network. However the main priority should be to move as many level crossings as possible with the busiest corridors such as the Dandy line the focus. The metro tunnel is a start in that it opens up newer areas of the inner urban area to heavy rail, connects to the main network providing an alternative route into town and takes pressure off the City Loop. Paul Mees has got rocks in his head if he thinks 192 suburban trains can be run through the loop especially considering the fact that there are only three track pairs on three viaducts. The problem i have with the metro tunnel is that it does not provide any additional capacity to the network that cannot be achieved by grade seperation of the Dndenong line, platform legthening and 9 car trains but just shifts it to the new tunnel (there is no room for an additional track pair between Caulfield and South Yarra). That’s why i favour the Caulfield to Footscray route since it can allow the Dandenong line to run two alternative routes into the CBD once quadded. Doncaster to Newport would be the next step decades down the track to complete the underground metro metwork i believe Melbourne may need in the long term but that’s a long way away. BRT is definetely the way to go however for the time being especially on major freeways such as the Eastern and East Link. An East Link BRT service from say Franga through to Dandy and Ringwood would provide the orbital route that so many harp on about. The idea of a bus terminal at Victoria Park Station also appeals to me.

  9. michael r james

    AD, yes, and I vociferously protested in that post too. And it most assuredly is the most important issue since it is the basis on which the vested interests purportedly make their decisions (supposedly on our behalf, hah!). And as usual you have not answer. What do you suppose someone like Paul Barry is making his comments: because anyone who visits outside the dullard anglo-world is gob-smacked by what they do and by what we seemingly find impossible to do.

    So long as these vested interests remain in positions of power (and who could possibly think it is not a gigantic conflict of interest to have Greiner as head of Infrastructure NSW??) we can never make progress.

    Only a decade ago the almost 3 km of Brisbane’s Inner City Bypass (with tunnel for 6 lanes) cost $220m. Now, just 25m of rearrangement of a road/railway costs $100m? The 5km of Brisbane’s Cross River Rail now is supposed to cost $16bn !

  10. Alan Davies

    michael r james #3:

    Er, the statement IS supported: by the link I provided in the text. Here it is again, Why do subways cost more here than elsewhere? (in fact you commented in that thread!). That article in turn gives a link to another one, Why is infrastructure so bloody expensive? The high cost of infrastructure is a complex and important issue but it’s not the topic of this post.

  11. michael r james

    Here is another part of Barry’s lament:

    [I’m no transport economist, but I am currently staying in France in a city called Rennes, and it’s blindingly obvious from here that the French have something to teach us about transport and the quality of urban life.

    Rennes is a city of 210,000 people, with another 270,000 in the outlying area. Yet it has a metro with 15 stations and almost 10 kilometres of track. It also has bike lanes throughout the city and a brilliant bicycle scheme where you can hop on a bike in one part of town and dump it in another, at any one of 83 stations. And its magnificent 15th-century centre — which is about the size of Sydney’s CBD — is almost entirely free of traffic. Its bus service is also fantastic, and linked to the metro, physically and in its fare structure. Consequently, it is a delightful place to live.

    The Rennes metro was built in 2002, and is about to double in size. So far it has cost about $650 million, which is cheap as chips. With the $70 billion that NSW spent on infrastructure between 2006 and 2011, the state (NSW) could have bought more than 100 of these.]

  12. michael r james

    [Costs of subways are much higher in the US and Britain than elsewhere but are more relevant to recent Australian costs.]

    WHY? Why make this statement and not support it. Why should construction costs be so, so different between countries? Cost of steel, concrete and labour? No. Do you think it might have something to do with the perverted method of planning and vested-interest industry insiders? Paranoid. Here is what Paul Barry writes in today’s Crikey/PI.

    [Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this world view, given the former Liberal premier (Greiner) is the man who introduced toll roads to NSW and is chairman of Bilfinger Berger, which built the M2, M7 and Anzac road bridge. But surely there must be a better way?]

    So, this is the usual story: claim PT will just cost too much so we can’t do it. Exactly as the Greiner report asserted about cross-harbour rail proposal. But they can find $30bn for just a few roads. Here is what the SMH said yesterday:

    [The Infrastructure NSW report is unashamedly supportive of more investment in roads, including bus services, rather than rail or other dedicated public transport corridors. The report argues against the idea new motorways create congestion.]

    That last bit is only about 40 years behind the times. Oh, but they will consider the hugely expensive burying of bus lanes in the inner city for the reason, wait for it: it will create more space on top for … cars. Just what our inner city needs more of.

  13. Dylan Nicholson

    If it’s true that Sydney’s largely free of level crossings, surely it’s possible to make some sort of estimate of the likely benefits of doing the same for Melbourne?

  14. melburnite

    Yes certainly the whole system doesnt have to go underground, just be grade separated, and much of the inner city and middle suburbs too are already – its the heavily used arterial roads beyond that have level crossings that need the work, an that’s where the priorities are in PTV, RACV and PTUA lists (as in your previous post Alan). But the ‘plan’ for removing them seems a bit minimal and slow doesnt it ? Only 10 on the PTV list, and only 1 (or a pair really) planned for 2013/14, no timetable for the rest, or priorities for those and not others – its hardly comprehensive or visionary.

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