Victoria's Premier Denis Napthine says "We are a public transport government"

No doubt stung by the critical reaction over its commitment to build the East-West Link freeway, the Victorian Government is promoting its successes in public transport.

Yesterday the Premier, Denis Napthine, told Parliament “we are a public transport government” and tweeted a list of achievements that includes providing an extra 1,078 trains services each week and 3,400 additional bus services.

One of the items on his list is “$400 million to remove level crossings”. This is a big issue in Melbourne because there are around 170 level crossings in the metropolitan area.

The host of the local 7.30 Victoria program on ABC television, Guy Stayner, yesterday challenged the Premier’s claim. He tweeted:

$400m to remove level crossings does not improve trains. These are road projects!

On the face of it that seems like a reasonable interpretation. Since it’s traffic that’s stopped by level crossings, not trains, the benefits from grade separation appear to accrue entirely to cars and trucks.

It’s not that simple though. The Minister for Planning joined the fray, tweeting that “some level crossings are speed limited. Their removal helps train timetables and network congestion.”

That’s doubtless true, but a more important point is that removing busy level crossings benefits public transport, since buses and trams are also delayed at crossings. An even stronger argument is that level crossings limit train frequencies.

According to the RACV, (herehere and here) a number of Melbourne’s busiest level crossings are already closed to traffic for a total of 30 minutes or more in the busiest hour of the morning peak. It’s likely this is close to what’s politically acceptable in terms of traffic delays.

So contrary to Mr Stayner’s claim, eliminating busy level crossings benefits both road and rail users. Mr Guy says removing crossings on the Dandenong line would “up train movements from 18 to 30 an hour”. He says that’s equivalent to an additional 10,000 passengers.

However if Mr Stayner is only talking about a single crossing, he has a point. The benefits for rail won’t come from removing just one or two crossings if it still leaves even one choke point. In order to increase train frequencies all level crossings on a line need to be grade-separated (or closed permanently).

$400 million is enough to pay for removal of around three major level crossings. To make the claim that this money provides significant benefits for public transport, the Government needs to show it’s part of a strategic plan to eliminate all crossings on a key capacity-constrained rail route like the Dandenong line.

Of course it also needs to show it intends to use the additional capacity, once it’s liberated, to increase train frequencies.

The benefits for traffic flow of removing major level crossings aren’t necessarily large. In some cases it just shifts traffic congestion to the next choke point a little further down the road. Benefits in time saved can consequently be small relative to the cost of constructing an overpass or underpass. That sort of scenario is one reason road authorities argue for major new freeways.

Mr Stayner subsequently asked how the Government proposed to split the $400 million between road and rail. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that question (many projects have benefits that cross portfolio boundaries) but there certainly shouldn’t be any double counting.

As regards Mr Napthine’s claim that “we are a public transport government”, his opponents will no doubt delight in pointing out that many of the initiatives he’s claiming, like the $5 billion Regional Rail Link, were initiated by the former Labor government.

That’s unfair in the sense that all new governments inherit their predecessors live programs and new projects they initiate have a long lead time. Mr Napthine can also point out that the Government consciously chose to continue with the Regional Rail Link.

Nevertheless, the Government’s credibility on public transport is in doubt. It needs to find a way of demonstrating it’s at least as committed to investing in public transport as it is in roads (but please, no boondoggles).