Melbourne rail network

Unless and until the Victorian government provides the information to convince otherwise, it’s not surprising many think the planned East-West Link freeway under Melbourne’s inner north is a boondoggle (see Is there actually a sensible case for the East-West Link?)

Many argue that investing in public transport would make better sense, especially the proposed CBD to Doncaster rail line. There are superficial similarities because both the freeway and the rail line connect to the eastern suburbs.

But Doncaster rail is a boondoggle too (see Are all new urban rail lines wise investment?). Simply because it is rail does not make it a good project anymore than John Howard’s Alice Springs to Darwin rail line was good policy.

The first stage of the Victorian government’s recently completed feasibility study estimated it would cost $8-12 billion to construct a rail line from the CBD to Doncaster (1). It also found virtually all the patronage on the new line would come from the existing Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) bus service and, to a lesser extent, from other nearby train lines.

In other words it would mostly replace existing forms of public transport with a train. Further, the study concluded the reduction in car use attributable to the line would be minor. Doncaster residents would get faster trips to the city centre, but at an astonishing cost to the public.

Another popular candidate for investment is the proposed suburban rail line extension to Rowville. That would cost at least $2 billion (and probably much more) but the feasibility study completed last year for the Victorian Government concluded it would provide marginal benefits (see Do new suburban rail lines always make sense?).

It would increase the share of all trips carried by public transport in the metropolitan area in 2046 by just 0.1%. Moreover, 57% of patronage would be siphoned away from other rail lines. It would reduce the number of car trips on a typical weekday in 2046 by just 15,000.

The latest mooted boondoggle was proposed by the City of Stonnington on the weekend. Council is calling on the State Government to provide a ferry service from the CBD to South Yarra in order to boost the fortunes of the Chapel St shopping and entertainment precinct.

As none of the capital costs and only a third of all public transport operating costs are recovered in fares, a scheduled ferry service would require a significant ongoing operational subsidy. It would also be likely to disrupt recreational activities on the narrow Yarra River. That might be a price worth paying but Chapel St is already serviced by frequent rail and tram services that are the envy of most of Melbourne.

This idea that anything on rails (or water!) must be a wise and beneficial investment is a popular idea but it simply isn’t true. Perhaps anything would be a smarter investment than the East-West Link (we just don’t know!) but when funds are scarce (which is always the case) it’s imperative to find the best projects.

Rather than prioritising expansion of the rail network into areas like Doncaster and Rowville that developed without it, limited funds should be applied to making the existing rail network work better. Priority should be given to improving reliability, increasing the capacity of the existing network and complementing rail lines with a grid of coordinated bus or, if justified by passenger volumes, light rail services (see How can public transport work better in cities?).

That’s not to say there won’t still be a need for some “big projects”. At present the most plausible candidate is arguably the $9 billion Melbourne Metro rail tunnel. It doesn’t do much to expand coverage, but without it there won’t be enough rail capacity to support growth in patronage across the network and particularly in the city centre. (2)

It’s also likely planning for a true mass transit connection from the CBD to Melbourne Airport will need to start in the near future (see Trains: should the ‘where’ come before the ‘why’?). Another possible area for investment is eliminating more of Melbourne’s 170 level crossings – the Committee for Melbourne estimates it would cost $17.2 billion to remove all of them.

Cities don’t need “any old rail projects”. They need to invest in the best public transport projects.


  1. Note though that some argue the cost estimators suffer from “Pessimism Bias” (see Infrastructure: what to do about the Cleopatra problem?).
  2. The Public Transport Users Association thinks the Melbourne Metro is unnecessary. The PTUA argues that capacity can be increased by much smaller investments, particularly in improved signalling (Better signalling=more trains).