Proposed Melbourne Metro

There’re good reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects for major new public transport infrastructure investments in Australian cities.

Governments across the country are reluctant to increase taxes or make further borrowings. Tony Abbott says he won’t help fund urban public transport projects if he wins the September election.

Since public transport recovers none of its capital costs and only around a third of its operating costs, it’s unlikely the private sector will be interested either.

So it’s worth thinking about what might happen if key new city centre rail projects like the proposed Brisbane Cross River Rail or the Melbourne Metro weren’t to go ahead.

The Melbourne Metro is estimated to cost in the region of $9 billion. The main rationale is that the existing rail system is close to capacity and won’t be able to support anticipated growth in travel to the CBD unless the new line is built.

Much of that forecast patronage growth is premised on continuing vigorous jobs growth in the centre. (fn 1)

 

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But if the Melbourne Metro weren’t built, would Melbourne’s trains soon be like those in Delhi with passengers hanging off the sides? Would the roads be gridlocked from 4am till 9pm? Would Victoria become an economic basket case (again)?

Here’s a possible scenario describing some of the things that might (possibly) happen if the Metro were permanently shelved.

In the short term, trains and roads become even more congested, as it takes time for people to recognise things aren’t going to improve. It also takes time to adapt to new circumstances.

But in due course people always adapt. Given the Metro is completely off the table, Melburnians accept the need for other changes to the system and even (reluctantly) acknowledge that some measure of discomfort and inconvenience will very likely be necessary.

Employers start to push harder on flexible working arrangements. Many workers and students spread their arrival and departure times and do more work from home.

State and local governments prioritise available funding to small-scale infrastructure projects that support cycling, buses and car pooling.

The state government and the the train operator seek to wring more capacity out of the system. The initial focus is on initiatives like running longer trains, but as the lower hanging fruit is consumed they turn to less popular measures, like removing seats from carriages and changing operating procedures e.g. fewer express services.

The emphasis in the capital works program shifts to (relatively) low cost capacity improvements, such as improved track signalling. The pressure to find more capacity leads to improved work practices by railway staff.

Demand is also addressed. Train fares are increased in peak periods to ration available seats. Some fare concessions no longer apply in peak periods.

Parking fees in the centre increase too. A cordon-based congestion charging regime is introduced in the inner city to manage the increase in driving.

These initiatives “release” a surprisingly large increase in capacity. The downside is travellers have to cop changes, not all of which are universally popular.

Although it takes longer than was anticipated back in 2013, the rate of growth in CBD employment eventually starts to slow, reflecting the ultimate limit of the rail system’s ability to bring workers to the centre.

The CBD becomes an exclusive location for firms that place an exceptionally high premium on agglomeration. It specialises in top-tier corporate and government head offices and the upper echelons of high-pay sectors like finance, insurance and property.

Some firms that might otherwise have set up in the centre elect to locate elsewhere. They kick-start the growth of relatively dense suburban employment clusters like those common in US cities that lack long-standing and well-developed radial train systems.

Major corporates that currently locate most of their support operations in the CBD ‘export’ their back-office functions to the suburbs and regions (or further afield).

State and Commonwealth governments also move second tier functions out of the CBD and use them to seed development in politically important suburban and regional centres.

Eventually, business groups and regional lobbyists propose that traditional city centre institutions like the law courts and Parliament be removed from the CBD (all hell breaks loose!).

There’s increasing pressure to reduce traffic congestion at suburban centres (which have much higher car use than the CBD) and to improve cross-town public transport connections.

With limited scope to increase rail capacity in the centre, longer term proposals like the Rowville and Doncaster lines aren’t built. A fully privately funded rail line to the airport is completed around 2030. It operates independently of the existing rail network.

So, there are some of the possible outcomes that might apply if the Melbourne Metro weren’t to go ahead. No doubt there are more.

It’s unlikely Melbourne would be visited by the apocalypse if the Metro weren’t built. It would probably look a bit more like Atlanta than it does today, though. What that would mean for the economic, social and environmental performance of the city relative to building the Metro warrants evaluation as part of the project’s business case.

It should be noted that the Public Transport Users Association argues the government should in any case be prioritising smaller projects (like improved signalling) ahead of the Metro. It says there’s potential capacity there that can be released and argues the Metro is so expensive it would starve proposed network extensions to Rowville, Doncaster, Mernda and the airport of funding.

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(fn 1) High employment growth in the city centre is the critical assumption underpinning the case for the Metro. As I understand it rates of 4% p.a. or more are assumed. This is an aspect that warrants scrutiny.