Cars & traffic

Sep 25, 2013

Infrastructure: does getting the facts right matter anymore?

The idea that those involved in community discussions about cities should get the facts right increasingly seems to be optional. Cities are likely to be better places if we strive for truth in public debates.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Alternative public transport (rail) investments to the East-West Link (source: City of Yarra)

It seems to be disappearing fast, but there’s a tradition in public debate that the truth really matters. Some protagonists value getting the facts right even when their opponents make baseless claims to win popular support.

Honesty in public discourse is an immeasurably important civic virtue, yet it increasingly seems like its value is being trashed. To me, it’s especially regrettable when even the “good guys”, whose appeal is ostensibly built on a commitment to principle, are heedless of the facts.

Take this letter, What $8b will buy, published in The Age today (Wed 25 Sep). It sets out what the writer reckons the $6-8 billion budget for Melbourne’s East-West Link motorway could buy if the money were instead spent on public transport:

The environmental group Beyond Zero Emissions suggests $8 billion would fund all of the following: Doncaster rail, the Melbourne airport link, the Melton rail duplication, the Dandenong upgrade (removing 20-plus level crossings), a game-changing upgrade of signalling technology, allowing trains to run every two minutes, and 50 new, bigger trains. Each peak-hour train can take 800 cars off the road. Let’s analyse this suite of proposals for how many ”rat runners” it would remove and how many jobs would be created.

The writer has of course selectively taken the upper bound $8 billion figure for the East-West Link, but I have no problem with that. As I recently explained here (Are cost estimates for transport projects reliable?), Bent Flyvbjerg found road projects go over budget by 20% on average. The East-West Link is largely underground and has to be constructed in a built-up area – I think it’s very likely even $8 billion will prove conservative.

The writer’s main source of information on costs is almost certainly the graph above (see exhibit) and the associated table (East-West Link alternative options – 07 June 2013) from the web site of Trains not Toll Roads.

The organisation says some of the cost estimates it cites were researched by Beyond Zero Emissions Inc but I can’t find any trace of a supporting report (1). It seems the Napthine Government isn’t the only organisation keeping technical information to itself!

But if the writer of the letter relied on the graph he was sorely mislead. The graph is total rubbish.

For example, it puts the estimated cost of the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel at around $3 billion when the widely acknowledged figure is $9 billion (I’ve seen some reporters for The Age cite $11 billion). The real estimated cost of this one project is higher than the upper bound cost of the East-West Link!

The graph puts the cost of Doncaster rail at around $2 billion, but the 2 year study undertaken by Public Transport Victoria puts the cost of a new line at $4-6 billion from Doncaster Hill to Clifton Hill, plus the same again to decouple the Sth Morang line. Some dispute these figures, however even The Greens say the cost of the segment from Doncaster Park and Ride to Clifton Hill would cost $3-5 billion (2).

The graph also puts the cost of the Rowville rail extension at around $2 billion. There’s no official estimate for Rowville and $2 billion was probably a reasonable absolute minimum a year ago, but the recently completed Doncaster study suggests a figure of at least $4 billion is more plausible.

Rowville is much the same length as the Doncaster extension but virtually all of it is either elevated or in tunnel. Most of it has to be constructed in the middle of a busy six lane arterial road.

Of course all cost estimates should be scrutinised and questioned. Bent Flyvjberg’s finding that rail projects tend to exceed estimated costs by 45% on average also needs to be factored in.

But being “careless” with the facts surrenders the moral high ground and is poisonous for civil society. It’s doubtless assumed it will bring some tactical gain however in the longer run, as so many politicians have learned, it’s usually not a sustainable strategy.

The fact is the cost of retrofitting both road and rail infrastructure in urban areas in Australia has escalated enormously in recent years (see Infrastructure: what to do about the ‘Cleopatra Problem’). No one should pretend otherwise; or worse, fabricate alternative realities.

There’s an urgent need to identify why costs are so high and what can be done about it. If the answer is not much, then it’s vital to understand what that means for the way we plan and build our cities. It’s a debate the new Prime Minister could get rolling.


  1. However I did find a fascinating recent report by Beyond Zero Emissions claiming the Rudd Government “underestimated the profits of its Melbourne-Brisbane high-speed rail (HSR) plan by $190 billion, enough to repay the capital cost of the network”. Yes, that’s $190 billion and it would all be profit! Wow!
  2. The associated table on The Trains not Toll Roads site puts the cost of rail from Doncaster Hill to Clifton Hill at a mere $1.8 billion, citing Beyond Zero Emissions as the source.
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21 thoughts on “Infrastructure: does getting the facts right matter anymore?

  1. timmo

    Timmo to Alan
    On rereading you e/w/tunnel contribution I am more convinced my general assertion about costs v benefits was not that far off the mark.
    Of course all the figures are VERY rubbery but the governments own estimates of the whole e/w project is around $16 billion. This would ALMOST CERTAINLY blow out to $25blillion.
    The projects you listed , Metro Link, Doncaster, Rowville
    amount than less than that even on your costings.

    Lets hope we get a bit more profile on the madness of this project into the punters media, Murdock and the like. You seem better placed than me to do that

  2. timmo

    Tim mahar. To alan davies I am no expert on rail project costings and your criticisms of beyond zero emmissions may or may not be valid. However the ordinary punter like me is trying to draw attention to the bleeding “fooking”obvious 1. The whole e/w tunnel project ( all stages) is estimated to cost about $16 to 20 billion. 2. This will almost certainly blow out to $30 billion in practice. could build a shit load of public transport projects for $30 billion and take hunreds of thousands of cars off the road. What about you work out how it could be done and you write a letter to the age. tim

  3. Alan Davies

    Evidence in The Age today of how persistent misleading memes can be. This extract is from a letter to the editor from Tim Mahar, Fitzroy North. The heading is “Better value for billions“:

    What we need is initiatives to take cars off the road, particularly at peak hour. According to the group Beyond Zero Emissions, $8 billion worth of rail projects would take hundreds of thousands of cars off the road. They contend we could build a Melbourne metro link, Doncaster line, Mernda extension, airport link, and introduce the game-changing network signalling system for this price.

    It’s the same correspondent and essentially the same letter as The Age published last month (25 September) and that I refer to at the start of the article! Seems The Age either isn’t paying attention is giving Beyond Zero Emission’s numbers a push along.

  4. William Grosby

    Sigfried Giedion: Space, Time and Architecture. 1941 – “Research and statistics are not enough in themselves. They must be backed by vision, by a general understanding of the course of development today’s cities must take.” “Town planning is first and foremost a human issue: its problems are by no means exclusively technical and economic. It can never be carried on satisfactorily without a clear understanding of the contemporary conception of life.”

  5. Jacob HSR

    Socrates #15,

    The bus goes to Southern Cross. So why should the train bypass Southern Cross, go through the Metro Tunnel and terminate at an undisclosed station?

    As for “scarce PT funding”, Kevin Rudd said that Tony Abbott’s extremely generous paid parental leave scheme will cost more than $100 billion!

  6. Alan Davies

    Socrates #15:

    I very much doubt the Government factored in the cost of acquiring an apartment building in Parkville!

    Daniel Bowen did an interesting comparison of access modes to various Australian airports a few years ago, Australia’s airport trains and buses compared (some Twitter activity re his article yesterday).

  7. Socrates

    Another good article Alan, that makes the correct point that “both sides” in the transport debate (road and rail lobbies) have a poor record estimating costs when they become zealaous advocates of projects rather than analysts.

    I think Flyvjberg makes the general point in Megaprojects and Risk that the worst cost errors seem to occur in these large projects that acquire a life of their own, whether road or rail. Certainly the EW tunnel is in that category, and seems to be bearing out Flyvjberg’s theory.

    Regarding Airport rail – why??? There are so many other higher priority things in public transport that we still have not funded that should be done first. Does it really matter if people get from the airprot to the city by bus or rail, if the bus does the job well with a good level of service. Having caught it myself for work, I thought it was quite efficient. Shouldn’t we be focusing our scarce public transport investment $ on the large areas of outer Melbourne that still have quite limited PT services, rather than replacing a good bus service with a very expensive train?

  8. Tom the first and best


    And why does the airport operator get what they want? Especially when they have such a significant portion of their business in parking. All that is needed is for the Commonwealth Government to agree to a surface line.

    There will be enough space on the RRL for an airport train. This train would be faster than a suburban train. No multi-billion dollar rail tunnel needed for the airport line to be built. The report to which you link provides no explanation of why the strategic rail operations plan renders use of the RRL operationally bad. Without a reasonable explanation this cannot be trusted.

  9. Alan Davies

    Jacob HSR #12:

    The airport trains wouldn’t terminate in the CBD. They’d go through it and beyond it on the proposed Melbourne Metro line i.e. they’d be integrated with the suburban network, so it’d be possible to go from the south-east to the airport without changing trains. There’d be new stations in the CBD at Central and Flinders St.

    Your cost estimate of $1.6 B is the same as Beyond Zero Emissions’s estimate, but they’ve also added a further $0.476 for risk and contingencies.

  10. Jacob HSR

    Where would the Airport trains terminate if they go through the metro tunnel?

    I think platforms 15 & 16 were meant to be used for the airport train. Of course they now say they will be used for RRL trains (only?)

    Just about every recently built airport train goes from a massive CBD station to the airport. I dont know why they should backflip on the plan to use platform 15 and 16 for the airport train. Or do they want this to be yet another thing that we do “differently” to the rest of the world.

    They also have check-in facilities at the massive stations.

    * Heathrow Express – starts at a station with 14 platforms.
    * Johannesburg Airport train – starts at the biggest station in Africa.
    * KLIA Ekspres – starts at the biggest station in Malaysia.
    * Munich – seems to start at big stations with 9+ platforms. They wanted to cut down the journey time to 10 mins with a Maglev, but costs escalated to €3 billion.
    * Delhi Airport Express – starts at New Delhi Station with 16 platforms.

    Hong Kong and Singapore airport trains dont terminate at massive stations though. But they were not recently built.

    My cost figure is based on construction costs of $100m/km. 16km x $100m = $1.6 billion. The Regional Rail Link is costing $112m/km.

  11. Alan Davies

    Jacob HSR #10:

    Good luck with the aerotrain. The report done for PTV indicates the airport owners want an underground terminal with 1.3 km of access track in tunnel. Also need to consider the additional journey time for an aerotrain – the recommended East Albion route option will already take 50% longer in the off-peak than the existing SkyBus service.

    As well as the new double track from the airport to East Albion, the route also requires a bridge over the Maribyrnong and grade separations at the Western Ring Rd, Airport Dve and Sharps Rd.

    A grade-separated flyover is required for the new line to connect into the existing Sydenham line at Albion. I think $2 B would be an absolute minimum.

    The costs between Albion and the CBD (e.g. tunnel, stations) are loaded on to the Melbourne Metro, so that will certainly keep the cost of the airport line down. But of course you can’t pick and choose as the graph implies because to build the East Albion route for $2 B would require the $9 B Metro to be built first.

  12. Jacob HSR

    The Airport Rail link can be built for $1-2 billion though. Using the Regional Rail Link tracks and the Albion Goods Line corridor.

    Dont tell me that the RRL tracks will be at full capacity as soon as the RRL opens!

    There is only 16km of track to be laid from Sunshine Station to MEL Airport.

    And the Airport station does not have to be underground. It should be overground and connected to T4, T2, T1, with an Aerotrain.

  13. Tom the first and best


    The seniors concession is a rort and should be scrapped. Aged Pensioners can get concession tickets, and that should not change. High income people over 60, who are not working full time, have no need for a concession. There should be a review of concession entitlements to make sure that all those who do need it (students and apprentices on low incomes) are given it. The extra revenue, not given in extra concessions, should be retained by the public transport system.

  14. Bill Bunting

    On the cost of infrastructure, I’ve said it before and I say it again, the real problem is our tendering system. Contrary to the expectation of keeping costs down I believe that it has an effect of jacking prices up.

    Cost testing is important but testing every project or part thereof requires a huge amount of inefficient overcapacity which must be recovered in each tender process. This is a reality for every tenderer and is therefore automatically built in to the costing psychy.

    A better approach is to offer a degree of tenure for efficient performance providers. This has the effect of giving well organised businesses time and the incentive to develop ever more efficient practices and make better use of equipment investments with subsequent lower charge rates.

    The current method actually promotes the very inefficiency that it is supposed to prevent.

  15. Bill Bunting

    Someone made a great comment the other day. He challenged the thinking behind giving travel concessions to the elderly in preference to the young work beginners.

    This makes great sense. Yes, “oh, the elderly”, but these are people who have enjoyed the best economic period in our civilisation’s history and retire with housing, assets, and income secured, largely…or as much so as it will ever be.

    This refers to the 60 to 75’s. Travel concessions for this group should be handed to the 16 to 24 year olds. There is an assumption that these people are supported byu their parents in their needs. Not so I suspect. Furthermore as employment for the young becomes more difficult and of shorter duration there is a very good argument to assist this sector. Then there is the probability that in encouraging the young to use public transport they might just carry that through further into life by comfort and habit.

    That certainly has been the case for my daughter doing uni in Melbourne. The original plan was for her to have the “little red car” down there, but once she became comfortable with the trams the desire to have a car went away. And on top of that she organises her accomodation with moves to preserve her access to good public transport.

    Think about it. It was, by the way, a 75 year old who made the suggestion.

  16. Waffler

    Robert #5 is right – the real problem is the lack of any real investigative journalism or incredulity in our media. Get the media boffins to create a vaguely plausible story, repeat it often enough and you can rely on the papers to print it as news without any fact checking or barely a hint of disbelief. Or they trot out academic media tarts who will happily sprout any inane and unjustified one-liner to get their name in the paper.

    The average punter has no idea whether the EW link will cost $2 or $10 billion, whether that spend is worth it or whether there is a better option. No info has been provided and the papers have generally printed whatever press release has been produced basically verbatim, so how is anybody to know better?? When rubbish gets peddled often enough eventually enough people will believe it (as history has shown all to well).

    It doesn’t help when the most organised and vocal opponents (Trains not Toll Roads) are peddling an equally silly way to spend billions for no real value in the Doncaster Rail line.

    Without our supposedly independent and professional media and academia doing their jobs and really testing the vacuous claims of politicians and interest groups what hope have we got??

  17. Robert Merkel

    I’d argue that BZE are the flip side of the propaganda outfits of the political right.

    They’re “if your opponents are prepared to just make stuff up to confuse an issue, what’s wrong with fighting fire with fire?”

    Back on the question, there does seem to have been a more general acceptance that fact-based debate is unimportant; there are no consequences for “truthiness”. Tim Dunlop pointed the finger at the media’s decline in preparedness to call bs when it hears it.

    I don’t think it’s that simple, but in any case the nonsense that surroundings transport infrastructure constings is just one symptom of a very broad problem.

  18. Professor Tournesol

    Good article until the last sentence, LOL. As if our new PM would ever start a worthwhile debate about something important! Wishful thinking.

  19. Alan Davies

    Strewth #1:

    There’s no doubt governments need to be much more transparent, but I don’t think that’s the key issue here. Neither that nor differences in resources explain the outlandish claim that Melbourne Metro would only cost $3 billion. That’s just politicking of the worst kind. It gives the moral high ground to the Government! And it’s not necessary – there are plenty of other reasons to be doubtful about the East-West Link.

    Wilful #2:

    I think Beyond Zero Emissions’ claim that east coast HSR would return $190 billion profit was amusing though. It’s like they’re really The Onion or a ‘green’ version of creationists.

  20. wilful

    Unfortunatley Alan Beyond Zero Emissions are a bunch of fantastical confabulators – very few of their figures can be relied on. They have stated that Australia could move to 100 percent renewable energy in a decade. More than cursory scrutiny of their figures shows that calling them optimists is a disservice to optimists. They pull rubbery figures out their arse all the time.

    Which is a pity, becuase if they were genuinely credible they could do a lot of good.

  21. Strewth

    Again Alan, what all this debate shows is that the transport planning culture is so opaque in most of this country that no-one really has any idea what the true ‘facts’ are.

    It used to be that public transport improvements were ignored simply because transport planning was run by the road lobby. Nowadays it’s not the road lobby exclusively, but official planning still operates in a space walled off from the public and in thrall to powerful interests. This ensures that the full information necessary to rationally defend an alternative agenda is withheld from those who might challenge those interests.

    The one partial exception to this is in WA where community leaders such as Prof Peter Newman have managed to change the culture with the help of proactive political leaders. There’s a world of difference now between the information Transperth provides to the public and the little that emerges from transport departments in the eastern states.

    And so in Victoria, the State Government’s monopoly on planning expertise has been marshalled in defence of the East West Link, and no-one, whether from the City of Yarra, Eastern Transport Coalition, MTF, PTUA, BZE or an ordinary citizen writing to the Age, has the technical resources to detail an alternative that will be fully acceptable to the bean counters. The way our system works, any such ‘credible’ alternative would have to come from the State Government itself, and this will not happen.

    So you’re quite correct that all alternatives proposed to the EW link have this technical Achilles heel, but short of changing the government there isn’t actually anything the defenders of alternatives can do about it – because the crucial ‘facts’ are hidden behind closed doors and Cabinet confidentiality. I don’t think this means the opponents of the EW link and supporters of public transport are obliged to give up though.

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