Public transport

Nov 19, 2014

Are politicians putting public transport on lay-by?

Voters can’t assume that all major public transport projects seemingly promised by politicians during election campaigns will be built in the next term…or even the one after...or perhaps ever

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Forecast levels of overcrowding in the peak hour on Melbourne trains under three scenarios. The green line includes possible works improvements, including Melbourne Metro (Source: PTV - Network Development Plan)

Legend has it there was once a time when politicians running for election pretty much limited their promises to what they could deliver, if elected, during their expected term of office.

That magical era must’ve been before 1999, because that’s when Victorian Labor promised from opposition to extend Melbourne’s Epping rail line 3.5 km to outer suburban South Morang by 2003. Labor subsequently won the election and was in office until 2010 having won two further elections; however the extension wasn’t opened until 2012 (by then, under a Coalition government).

The issue in that case was delay; there was no doubt about the terms of the promise. An arguably more insidious practice is when politicians imply they’ll do something when, in reality, they’ve covered their arses with a “get out” clause in the fine print.

In the 2010 Victorian election campaign, then opposition leader Ted Baillieu gave a convincing impression of leading a party committed to expanding the rail system with new lines to Doncaster, Rowville and Melbourne Airport. But all he actually committed to was the preparation of feasibility studies (which were all duly done for around $5 million a pop).

Another technique is to promise big but avoid committing on crucial details like timing and funding. The current Victorian election campaign provides a prime example of putting infrastructure “on lay-by”.

Both the government and the opposition are promising to build their own versions of a new rail tunnel under Melbourne’s CBD. It’s a vital investment to increase the capacity and improve the reliability of the entire metropolitan rail system. (1)

Each party’s version sounds visionary and exciting and conveys the impression that if you vote for them you’ll get rewarded with a brand spanking new rail line sooner rather than later. But when the political hype is cleared away it’s evident that no matter who wins the election, neither version of the new line will materialise any time soon.

The government says it will start construction of its $8.5-$11 Billion Melbourne Rail Link in the coming term if it’s re-elected on 29 November.

However it won’t be fully operational until 2026; that’s three terms away. Moreover, the governments only budgeted $830 million over four years for the project and most of that won’t be spent until 2017. That’s less than 10% of the total cost; the rest of the money is unbudgeted in future years.

The government doesn’t appear to have a strategy for finding the money for the project either. The Commonwealth government is the usual source of big splashes of cash for major projects, but it says it won’t fund urban public transport.

And the private sector won’t invest in public transport because it doesn’t cover any of its capital costs and only around a third of its operating costs. Firms will be very happy to build and/or manage it in return for a handsome fee of course, but the government still has to find the funds to make the periodic “availability” payments.

If it’s re-elected, the government would have to make politically difficult decisions about reallocating spending or increasing revenue from taxes. Trouble is, it isn’t saying what those hard choices would be. (2)

Last weekend the Premier also blithely promised to buy 75 new trains as part of a $3.9 Billion rolling stock package, but they come into service between 2019 and 2026 i.e. not this coming term but over the two following terms. Again, how it’ll be funded isn’t explained. (3)

Labor’s version of the tunnel – Melbourne Metro – is arguably even more uncertain. If elected on 29 November, Labor says in its transport election manifesto, Project 10,000, that “$300 million will be committed to complete the planning, design and early works” for the $9-$11 Billion project.

That’s only 3% of the total cost! Moreover the need to spend an entire four year term on further design and planning is arguable; around $50 million has already been spent by the Brumby and Baillieu governments since 2009 on bringing the Metro to shovel-readiness.

There’s no timetable for the rail line in Project 10,000; nor is there any indication when construction would start in earnest or, most importantly, when the new line would be operational.

Labor is no firmer on funding than the government but at least it’s more upfront. It says it’ll put up one third of the cost and seek another third from the private sector. It goes on to say, without apparent irony, that the Commonwealth Government “will be lobbied aggressively” to contribute the remaining third.

The coyness and tricksyness of politicians tells us something about the nature of the problem and something about us. We want better public transport – especially new rail lines – but very few of us are prepared to pay the extra cost, whether in fares or taxes, that serious expansion requires.

Similarly we don’t want it to come at the expense of all the other things we expect government to do. Surveys show Victorian voters are more concerned about health, education and law and order than they are about public transport or roads.

And it’s surely evident, given the massive cost of retro-fitting infrastructure in urban areas, that cities like Melbourne can’t realistically build their way to a brighter future; they can’t put a lot of eggs in the shiny new rail line/motorway basket. They have to think much harder about ways of using existing infrastructure more efficiently and managing demand better.

None of that excuses the apparent deterioration (or is it the Pollyanna Principle at work?) in the standards set by politicians. In their defence though, I will concede I haven’t seen anything so far in this campaign from any party that comes close to this mind boggling example of bad behaviour from the 2010 campaign (See Why have the Greens dug a black hole? and Does the Greens public transport plan cut it?).


  1. The two versions have the same strategic purpose but envisage different alignments; I’ve explained the differences here: Transport plans. Are we being routed?.
  2. One option would be to tax CBD businesses that benefit directly from the rail system. That’s how Melbourne’s city loop was partly funded.
  3. The package also includes 75 E-Class trams and 24 Vlocity rail cars for VLine.


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11 thoughts on “Are politicians putting public transport on lay-by?

  1. Martin Silsby

    Origionally, Fishermans Bend was intended to be connected to the city via the Doncaster Rail line. There were a number of routes proposed, however the most attractive one included a station and Kew, and an extension to Fishermans bend. There was even a possible extension under the harbour to meet up with Newport, thus providing much needed additional capacity on the much congested Newport to North Melbourne section.

    And while John Smith does provide a number of good points, the reason the Caulfield to South Kensington alignment not just provided a significant network capacity increase, but also provided a number of additional stations to cater for higher density inner city needs. While certainly needed in the long term, such an idea needs to be part of a long term timetable to provide much needed (and publicly accepted infrastructure, such as Rowville, Doncaster and the Airport Line).

    On a different note, what is really needed to fund best outcome infrastructure, is a state based equivalent of Infrastructure Australia that is focused on state needs. Have the government committed to put in a fixed percentage of GST receipts, plus a special levy of some description (say $100 per residence per year), and have it fiercely independent. Give it the powers to borrow, and make it responsible for applying for funding from Infrastructure Australia where relevant.

    This stuff needs to be taken out of the hands of Politicians, removed from the grubby hands of treasury, and left to get the best outcome for Victorians.

  2. michael r james

    #7 Smith John at 1:57 am

    Tx for the reply.
    I gather from your new post that the (your) answer was at least partly in the first post, ie.:
    The creates the same capacity increase as the long tunnel options, but needs only about 2km of new tunnel and no new stations.

    But if I understand, Gobillino #9 doesn’t entirely agree.

    And, though I really need to see your case laid out with maps etc (I’ll check those links), the key difference appears to be the new route & new stations in Fisherman’s Bend? I’d have to say as a general comment, independent of costings, that new routes and especially the FB & Docklands type of inner city brownfield site redevelopments are extremely important for our or any growing city. IMO these require a Metro link rather than just surface transport like trams (though in some cases perhaps trams will be adequate, or perhaps the only option due to geographical factors such as at Barrangaroo and Darling Harbour?).

    Again, I tend to look at historical precedents and they all support what I say (or of course the other way around; it is why I come to that conclusion). In London they finally did the massive Jubilee Line extension to service Canary Wharf (inadequately serviced by the DLR); it was hugely expensive as it was very long and crossed the river 3 times but it was an extremely functional addition to the network: as well as linking Canary Wharf to three mainline BR stations plus Eurostar (at Stratford), and two brownfield redevo sites (Greenwich, Stratford-Olympic village; of course really 3 counting Canary Wharf). Given that taking Jubilee all this way when there were half a dozen other U lines much closer, it seemed extravagant & mega-expensive, but taking the capacity constraints on those other lines and the fact that the southern route linked up entire new previously poorly served regions east-west for the first time, they got it right. It’s the newest line but already carries 213m pax p.a. (Indeed it seems exceptional planning in the context of the usual British post-war fumbling and procrastination. Of course it had to wait for MaggieT to depart before it was approved. Economic-rationalists just can’t get their head around such big public infrastructure projects.)

    A very similar set of circumstances applies to Paris RER-A which connected major transport nodes (Gare St Lazare; Chatelet-LesHalles; Gare de Lyon; Nation; Etoile) to the then new La Defense business district. They also extended Metro Line 1 to La Defense but clearly knew that wasn’t enough (it is the busiest Metro line because it services the central E-W axis and is the reason it was recently upgraded to driverless trains and aligned platform doors–to increase capacity; same as Jubilee line at 213m pax p.a.). Unlike the Brits they didn’t procrastinate on the project and perhaps that is one reason why La Defense is Europe’s biggest financial hub? (to be fair, London is split over two sites).

    So, provisional bottom line for me is that the strategic approach of new coverage is justified and perhaps inevitable & essential. In which case it is vastly better to build it sooner rather than later. Let’s take the Paris approach to infrastructure rather than the London one. When London CrossRail was last proposed seriously (in the late 70s-early 80s, same period Paris RER was built) it was costed at ≈$10bn and today it will cost $30-40bn; and as I said earlier the more important thing is the 40 years of opportunity cost that London has paid.

    Perhaps you find this kind of approach too vague or fabulist, but I actually believe it is almost the only valid or sensible means of city planning. Cost-Benefit Analyses are hopeless and usually produce the result the vested-interests want by applying narrow terms, or they are just plain too short-termist and misleading by failing to capture all the most important externalities. History has also shown that one can hardly ever over-build Metro systems, so bite the bullet and just do it. Just the other night I saw a doco that showed the extension of NYC subways way out into the literally empty areas of NY (not a house or even shack in sight), that the time-lapse shots showed develop into the modern Queens & Brooklyn urban areas. (And if we’re comparing the minimum $11bn for EWL versus similar for the most expensive Melbourne Metro scheme, there is no competition.)
    Final point. I understand what you are saying by using train paths per hour but I demur. Upgrading capacity via longer trains requires longer platforms and/or double-deck trains which for example was done to RER-A but is going to be perversely designed out in Sydney’s Northwest Metro; ie. tunnels will not be big enough to ever take duplex trains. Upgrading platforms can be horrendously expensive, sometimes impossible on existing systems. So, given that RER-A can achieve 27-30 trains per hour we know that NW Metro can never achieve RER-A phenomenal 60,000 pax per hour (in both directions) even if it ever achieves the same train paths per hour.

  3. Gobillino


    Based on the Network Development Plan, I assume that both projects (through routing two loops and MM/MRL new track pair) will ultimately be required to deliver the projected capacity requirements. In this case, the metro tunnel pair have the dual benefit of providing capacity and new coverage.

    All things being equal, I could see why there might be a desire to deliver the cheaper project first, however I’d imagine that the loop through routing would be significantly more disruptive, and in effect reduce capacity by a significant margin during construction. This would not be true of the metro tunnel (or at least far less so).

    Of course, you are just genuinely kicking the can down the road if you go with the tunnel pair first, and only through route once all of the additional capacity has been consumed.

    To my mind, this also represents one of the clear negatives of the MRL vs MM proposal. MRL involves both new tunnel AND through routing, for only the same capacity gain as MM (as John Smith mentions, the additional ‘passenger’ capacity is inflated by other factors, independent of the project itself). You then lose your opportunity for a future, relatively straight forward boost to capacity once that becomes required.

  4. Smith John

    I meant of course that the correct common unit of measurement for comparing rail capacity infrastructure projects on the existing network is ‘new peak direction train paths per hour *with the same assumptions about the signalling system*.’ And allowing for the fact that a 9-car train is worth 1.5 ‘standard trains’.

  5. Smith John

    #4 michael r james

    Q. ‘Will extra tracks crossing the CBD (meaning tunnel) eventually be required?’

    Short answer:
    A. Yes, but they do NOT require a long tunnel. The Northern-Caulfield loop connection creates a NEW through-city track pair to EXACTLY the same extent as the long tunnel, but by a slightly different route. It needs only 2-3 track kilometres of new tunnel, compared with 15 track kilometres and four underground stations for the Fishermans Bend option. It has various other operational advantages – see my comment at [note 1]

    Longer answer: Let’s distinguish two issues:
    1. increasing the capacity of the EXISTING rail network
    2. the possible long-term place-making effects of new stations at Parkville and Domain (under the former Metro Rail Tunnel) or Fishermans Bend and Domain (under the current Melbourne Rail Link)

    1. Increasing capacity of EXISTING rail lines is a strictly practical matter. The unit of measurement is peak direction train paths per hour. There is nothing visionary about this under ANY option.

    Imagine there are two options for this:
    Option A (long tunnel) delivers say 25 new peak hour peak direction train paths at cost of $10 billion dollars. [note 2]
    Option B (Northern-Caulfield loop connection) delivers EXACTLY THE SAME 25 new peak hour peak direction train paths at cost of say $2-3 billion.

    Why wouldn’t you choose option B? You SAVE $7 billion which you can use for many other good public purposes that can be as visionary as you like.

    2. Place-making possibilities of new stations: Let’s assume these new stations cost $7 billion. That’s the same $7 billion as above, being the extra cost of building the more expensive instead of the less expensive option purely in order to have the new stations (that is the ONLY benefit of the more expensive option because, remember, both options create EXACTY THE SAME capacity increase on the existing rail network).

    Is it worth it? At the very least there should be some cost-benefit analysis considering this issue in its own right. To my knowledge this has not been done. I would argue that the inner urban renewal areas can be equally well served by public transport, at vastly less cost, by enhancing the tram system. Here I come back to the point that people just don’t understand how big big numbers are. With that $7 billion saved you could do an ENORMOUS amount of good to the overall public transport network in many other ways. [note 3]

    Note that the options I’ve suggested do not close off any other options and do not in any way hinder building a long tunnel later when it’s needed.

    note 1: More details on request to [email protected] replacing ‘name’ with ‘marjorie’
    note 2: The government has made various inflated claims about the capacity benefits of the current Melbourne Rail Link, compared with other options, apparently by rolling in possible enhancements like higher capacity trains or signalling. These could be done on the existing tracks in any case and so are irrelevant to a comparison of options. The correct common unit of measurement is train paths per hour.
    note 3: Like, for example, build SEVENTY major rail grade separations at $100 million each.

  6. michael r james

    It is the substance. It is the (ie. your) ideological notion of short-termist economic-rationalism that has creeped me out for years. The almost cliched but true and evident problem of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

    Instead of the #5 reply (which I consider quite untrue) I note (again) that you haven’t addressed anything I wrote. Nor any of the other recent posts. Perhaps you can’t find answers that measure up?

    I just put in an effort (#4) to present historical background on two comparable projects in two world cities and the finances, politics and logistics of them, attempting to put the Melbourne Rail tunnel project in some kind of meaningful context. Instead of attempting to answer the question (of what should or needs to be done for a city predicted to be 7 or 8 million by mid-century), all you can say is you were creeped out? I think you’ve proven my point.

  7. Alan Davies

    michael r james #2, #4:

    You’re starting to creep me out. I feel like I’m being stalked in your last four or five comments. How about you just stick to the substance and leave the personal references to the unabomber?

  8. michael r james

    #3 Smith John

    I’m not a Melburnian so not well versed on this topic, however when I read suggestions like yours I don’t see any long-term total network planning vision anywhere.

    It may well be that you could save some costs by lengthening trains and platforms. And maybe they should and will be done either way. But answer this: do you believe that extra tracks crossing the CBD (meaning tunnel) will eventually be required to create sufficient capacity on the rail network?

    If the answer is yes, then explain how your “solution” is any solution at all, and whether saving some outlay now doesn’t just kick the can down the track and why it wouldn’t meanwhile become even more expensive when it finally gets done?

    It is always easy to come up with schemes to save a bit of money in the short-term, and sure you can label it “cost effective” though long-term that is highly questionable. AD is an expert at that. Such an approach to infrastructure development would keep any growing city in the dark ages.
    I can think of any number of large-scale (hence very expensive) transport projects that were controversial where any number of “cheaper” accountants solutions were proposed. Other than Bradfield’s Sydney Harbour and Storey bridges (both of which had outrageously ‘excess’ capacity for the era; and for very little extra the Storey bridge could have had 8 instead of 6 lanes!) the Channel tunnel and Paris RER line A come to mind.
    Line A was the first (of currently 6) in the RER heavy-rail lines under Paris opened in the 70s. It was considered immensely expensive at the time, because of all the other sub-surface works it had to be a bored deep tunnel. In fact it was partly inspired by plans devised for London in the 50s that were never implemented.
    Today RER-A is the busiest commuter rail line in the world carrying 100m pax p.a. spanning 110 km deep into suburban Paris. Incidentally it was built with very long platforms and high tunnels (no doubt at further “unnecessary” cost) but which has allowed successive capacity increases in train length and conversion to double-deckers.
    The irony is that 40 years later London is finally building its equivalent, explicitly modelled on Paris’ RER-A , the CrossRail project. It will cost at least $30-40bn by the time it is finished. But the headline cost is only one thing and maybe not the most important. What do you think was the real opportunity cost to London in delaying for half a century a project which its planners, if not the accountants and assorted bean-counters, saw was going to be necessary? Incalculable. (Perhaps one may have to have lived in both cities to understand this.)

  9. Smith John

    Alan: ‘Both the government and the opposition are promising to build their own versions of a new rail tunnel under Melbourne’s CBD. It’s a vital investment….’

    Agree if you amend to: ‘A significant capacity increase [not necessarily a new long tunnel] is a vital investment….’

    Both long tunnel options are hugely expensive and not well justified in comparison with other projects that could yield a similar capacity increase for a small fraction of their estimated $9-11 billion cost.

    More cost-effective capacity projects in the medium term would include:
    – Platform extensions etc needed to run 9-car trains from Werribee to Dandenong via Flinders St. The works in the inner area would be complicated but are certainly doable. Running longer trains has the important advantage that it adds capacity without significantly increasing level crossing closed time.
    – Join the Northern and Caulfield loops with new underground chords at Flagstaff and Parliament in order to run trains from Craigieburn to Frankston via Melbourne Central. The creates the same capacity increase as the long tunnel options, but needs only about 2km of new tunnel and no new stations. It is described in the PTV Network Development Plan, but accorded a low priority for reasons that are not explained. [note 1]

    I think part of the problem with politically fashionable megamegaprojects is simply that people don’t understand very big numbers. Your comment is revealing: $300 million promised for planning and design is only 3 per cent of a $9 billion project.

    $9 billion is a LOT of money that can have other worthwhile uses if you choose the alternative that gives 80 per cent of the benefits for 20 per cent of the cost. Always think opportunity cost.

    note 1: How the redevelopment areas around the proposed new stations should be serviced by public transport, if the long tunnel is not built, is a separate question. I would argue that it can be done more cost-effectively on the surface with suitable upgrading of the tram system.

  10. michael r james

    AD continues to try to slur the Greens who are the only ones who have honest policies. He should focus on why transport and urban planning policy is so lamentable and one-eyed in Australia:

    Parties fail on donation reform
    Royce Millar, November 19, 2014
    Companies contracted to build the Napthine government’s contentious East West toll road are among the many political donors hidden from the view of Victorians as they prepare to vote in next week’s election. Financiers Capella Capital and Spanish-based energy and infrastructure firm Acciona are key members of the Lend Lease-led East West consortium. Both companies have contributed to Liberal and Labor coffers through attendance at fund-raisers and/or membership of the parties’ fund-raising bodies since the 2010 poll.
    Mounting public anger over the lack of transparency has led to strident calls for change, including from former federal Liberal leader John Hewson.
    In the absence of laws in Victoria, The Age asked all four major parties – the Liberals, Nationals, ALP and Greens – to open their books and allow voters to see who is funding their current campaigns. Only the Greens agreed to do so. Only the Greens have promised reform in this area.
    The Age specifically asked Labor planning spokesman Brian Tee to name the developers who had attended fund-raisers at which he had been the drawcard. He refused to do so.]

    As to funding mechanisms for ambitious, long-overdue infrastructure projects in Australia, estimated to be as much as $700 bn, of course there are possibilities. And cheaper than any private toll road/tunnel because it will be via government bonds or loans. The funding and returns on completed projects points to the absolute necessity of the public retaining most of the development rights (above & around stations etc) rather than the usual developers and other rentiers enriching themselves on what is created by us collectively. (The giant shopping centres above Tokyo major Metro interchange stations is an example.)

  11. hk

    Fortunately there are more and more blog sites, such as The Melbourne Urbanist, that cater for informed and thinking readers. The raising of the level of public policy debate requires more than just infotainment articles as a starting point. The problem as perceived by many seekers of information looking for decision support system data is that most leaders, particularly politicians in our community, dumb down the information any sensible person expects. Some say, politicians starve the thinkers, meaning the general educated public is to be starved of the “oxygen”: to enable those serving one interest group, ideology or another to manipulate outcomes on their already determined agenda.
    Advocacy groups and their representatives, whether the group be organizations such as the Trades Hall, RACV, PTUA or TCPA need to all share the same information sets to enable them to comment on policy, while at the same time reflecting the special interests of their membership and hopefully wider and general community expectations and values.

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