Transport - general

Nov 24, 2014

Could an Andrews government really deliver on this promise?

One of Victorian Labor's key election promises is to remove 50 of Melbourne's worst level crossings over 8 years. If it wins government it might've promised more than it can deliver

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Melbourne rail network ‘fantasy’ map showing various proposed expansions of the network (seems to have ‘fantasy’ fare zones too; both major parties have promised to reduce the importance of zones from next year)

With less than a week to go to polling day, Labor’s looking like it will win Victoria’s state election comfortably. If so, it will need to think hard and imaginatively about how it can possibly deliver in full its signature promise to remove 50 of the most dangerous and congested level crossings in Melbourne.

Labor says it’ll take 8 years (two terms) and cost $5-6 Billion to grade separate the crossings. Funds will come from the sale/lease of the Port of Melbourne and from “capturing the value” of land made available for development by putting rail lines under roads.

The key benefits from removing 50 of Melbourne’s circa 170 level crossings include improved safety and faster travel times for cars, trucks, buses and trams. Another important benefit is higher train frequencies. (1)

There’s a range of issues that need to be considered in relation to Labor’s promise. I’ve discussed some of these before – they include doubts about whether removing crossings reduces congestion or merely shifts it to the next major intersection; whether the 50 crossings have been selected, or will be sequenced, to maximise community benefits or political convenience; and the lack of hard evidence showing the benefits of the program exceed the costs.

There are some key concerns though – related to cost and funding – that go directly to the question of whether or not a Labor government could deliver in full on this promise.

The first one relates to the cost of the program. The Government says the real cost of Labor’s promise is $8.5 Billion, but of course that’s not a disinterested assessment. However Labor’s Shadow Minister for Major Projects and Infrastructure, Brian Tee, agrees with the government.

In a submission to the public hearing on the East West Link in April, Mr Tee estimated the cost of removing the first 48 priority crossings is $8 Billion. Having to find an extra $2-3 Billion would make it a lot harder to honour the promise.

The second concern is that there’s no certainty the sale of the Port of Melbourne will yield all the revenue assumed by Labor. There’s also doubt about the timing of the revenue stream; setting up the disposal process is likely to be complex and time consuming.

Another concern is the design of grade separations is potentially fraught at the local level. These are major works that are likely to change their immediate surroundings substantially. Both the cost and the timing can be negatively affected by the demands of local communities.

The difficulty for an Andrews government is there’s no alternative source of funds that wouldn’t be at the expense of something else or wouldn’t come at an unacceptably high political cost. The works could theoretically be done faster and cheaper, but in our political culture governments find it very hard to say no; it’s easier to spend more even if the money isn’t there yet. (2)

Funding would also have to compete against the promised $0.7 Billion Mernda rail extension. Most of the funding though would be required in the second term when monies will also be needed to pay for the $9 Billion Melbourne Metro Labor has also promised. (3)

The flexibility of an Andrews government would be reduced further if it has to pay significant compensation for cancelling the East West Link contract. The possibility also remains that, if the current court case goes badly, a Labor government might ultimately decide it has to go ahead with the project in some form.

If it wins the election on Saturday as expected, I think it’s doubtful a Labor government will be able to remove all 50 level crossings over two terms, as promised. I think it’ll be challenging to complete even half that number.

It’s not an easy promise to fudge either. It would be hard to claim a “substantial start” on all uncompleted ones by the end of the period because level crossing works involve too much local disruption to traffic and businesses to be allowed to linger; once started, they have to be completed expeditiously.

That’s all a political problem that Mr Andrews can worry about if he becomes Premier; maybe the electorate would be satisfied with a show of serious effort or perhaps he could redefine the promise in the 2018 campaign. (4)

The key thing I’d like to see is the justification for doing all 50 over the next two terms compared to other potential investments. But given it’s a promise, I’d also like to see a serious prioritisation of the program so that the crossings with the highest benefits – especially in terms of permitting higher train frequencies – get done first.


  1. Train frequencies are currently limited by the length of time motorists are prepared to tolerate closed boom gates.
  2. Labor emphasises the financial contribution from “value capture” but it’s likely to be very small relative to the cos
  3. Labor says it’ll build the Mernda extension in its first term at an est cost of $0.4-0.6 Billion; the Greens’ estimate for its version is $0.5 Billion. I’m going with the figure estimated by Treasury under the caretaker period policy costings process for the government’s version of the proposed Mernda extension i.e. $0.7 Billion (note: Labor has elected not to submit any proposals for costing under this process).
  4. Or maybe the public would  find so many works being done simultaneously so disruptive to traffic that they’d be petitioning the government to slow the program down.
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14 thoughts on “Could an Andrews government really deliver on this promise?

  1. Martin Silsby

    There was a study done a while ago by the government that looked at the cost of replacing a number of Melbourne’s railway lines with underground tunnels, thus freeing up both the road crossings, but more importantly, the land on and around the rail way reservation.

    I cannot remember the full details, however Both the Glen Waverley and Sandringham lines would have been cash positive due to land sales. I have no idea of the exact number, but such a move would remove at least a dozen level crossings and would not cost a cent…

  2. michael r james

    So, now we will see if Andrews can stand up to Tony Abbott and his $3bn bribe/bullying. The war of words has probably already begun today (Sunday).

    The problem is that the short-termists (like AD) will indeed probably win the day, as they usually do. It will take the better part of a decade (about 3-4 political cycles in Australia) to repair & build the Metro system while any given road project, even a mega one like EWL will be able to be boasted about by the next political vote catching cycle.

    I don’t know much about Andrews but somehow I doubt he will be a true champion of PT and face up to the huge battle about fundamentals of which vision should be adopted for Melbourne’s long-term future. EWL and the absurd Tulla road-widening (probably the level crossings too) represent a dead-end, and are deadly and costly delay of the inevitable.

    Interesting that the Greens have won at least one lower-house seat, maybe up to 3. No, it can’t bring about much change directly but it is a signpost for all pollies (and commentators, AD) to pay attention.

  3. Jacob HSR

    The Reservoir level crossing removal should connect Edwardes St and Broadway. It is a spaghetti junction at the moment.

  4. Alan Davies

    Carbon Footprint #10:

    These are all suburban crossings where the value of the land isn’t that high and where there are alternative sites available. Have a look at the plan for the St Albans crossing – after allowing space for the train to descend/ascend, station, bus interchange, parking, etc, etc, there isn’t much room left.

  5. Carbon Footprint

    Surely the air rights that would be created by putting these lines and stations underground could be sold. I’ve heard that there are backers willing to pay for grade separation entirely in some locations in exchange for the rights above the rail.

  6. hk

    The history of completed rail-road separations after 1951 would average out at less than one per annum. For some people to even talk about 50 rail separation project completions in metropolitan Melbourne in less than 10 years indicates being dangerously out of touch with reality.
    Community advocacy groups such as the RACV, PTUA, MAV, MTF and TCPA need to concentrate on the values and aspirations to be met by governments and their agencies in sorting out the sequence for grade separation project implementation.
    More than one government agency employee in co-operation with consultants has addressed and written on the sequencing issue since the 1960s. It remains the same existing transport infrastructure that needs fixing. All the problems are even more serious now in 2014.

  7. Smith John

    I hate to sound like a cracked record, but one obvious way to find a few billion dollars for grade separations would be to reconsider the estimated $9 billion Melbourne Metro/ Melbourne Rail Link long tunnel proposals, and instead prioritise the alternative that gives exactly the same rail capacity increase at, I guess, no more than a third of the cost [note 1] – the Northen/Caulfield loop connection.

    See my comment at

    note 1: guess based on comparing the work needed. Melbourne Rail Link via Fishermans Bend: 15 track km of tunnel and four new underground stations. Northern Caulfield loop connection: 2-3 track km of new tunnel and no new stations; but the new tunnels do include some complicated underground junctions.

  8. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #5:

    Yes, some roads could be blocked (e.g. there’d be some candidates on the Upfield line) but I don’t think that applies to the 50 selected by Labor. These are major crossings.

  9. Dylan Nicholson

    And btw, that fantasy map still doesn’t provide nearly the density of network that will needed in the inner suburbs within 20-30 years’ time at current development rates. Some of the most densely populated suburbs – including Port Melbourne, St Kilda, Carlton North, will surely need heavy (u/ground) rail access eventually.

  10. Dylan Nicholson

    Of course a cheap and truly radical way to remove level crossings is to simply block the road. I’m sure there’s a least a few intersections where that would be the sensible call!

  11. Aidan Stanger

    I eventually found it here but it gives no clue to how the costs were estimated other than the range being 140 to 165 megabucks. But I’d expect the range to be 40 to 165 megabucks (the Bakewell Underpass in Adelaide being an example of what can be done at the lower end of that range).

  12. Alan Davies

    Dudley Horscroft #1:

    Agree that sequencing on a line-by-line basis is essential. Higher frequencies for trains won’t be realised unless all crossings are removed.

    Aidan Stanger #2:

    Here’s a media report on Brian Tee’s claim, “Under-funded” Labor plan to remove level crossings. LMA’s web site should have submission.

  13. Aidan Stanger

    Alan, is the actual submission to the public hearing on the East-West link available? I’d like to see how that $8 billion figure was arrived at.

  14. Dudley Horscroft

    Certainly prioritization should occur – but rather than only considering individual crossings, there should also be consideration of lines. A line with heavy train traffic could perhaps benefit more from crossing elimination than a lightly loaded line, even though the costs on the light line may be far less. Also may be better to do all crossings on one line to start, and then line by line.

    Possibilities are put rail down, put road down, put rail up and put road up. Shifting the road either up or down means considerable disruption to the nearby shops or residences – totally undesirable. In general, unless the crossing is in a field (or the like) where there are either no or few shops/residences to be affected, the rail should be moved. (Also possible, if the crossing is in an industrial area where raising the road will not affect nearby premises – I think there are probably few cases of this in Melbourne.)

    So that leaves either raising or lowering the rail line. In many cases there is a station immediately adjacent to the crossing – not surprising – either the road is ‘attracted’ by the station or the station is ‘attracted’ by the road. This makes lowering the line both complicated and expensive. The alternative is to raise the rail line.

    Picture if you will, a typical scenario. Station adjacent to the main road, which carries a tramway. Adding temporary by-pass rail lines within the rail reservation so as to provide room for a cutting could be possible, but very expensive. Best is to temporarily single track the rail line through the station area and a short distance either side. One line, and one platform can be removed. A ‘bridge’, from existing rail level over the main road and tramway and back down to rail level the other side, can be built with minimal disruption to either train or tram or road traffic, using the site of the removed track and part of the reserve. Single tracking means that the timetable must be adjusted so that up and down trains call alternately at the station and, more importantly, KEEP TO TIME! But of course this they should do anyway. A new platform can be built centred over the road, either with side platforms (easy but needs more escalators/lifts, etc) or an island platform – which does not need to be 10 metres wide! Roughly a 5 metre wide platform will be OK – this leaves room for a single escalator, about 1.2 metres wide, plus platform 1.8 metre wide alongside the top of the escalator. Ticketing areas, ancillaries like waiting areas, toilets, newsagent, coffee shop, etc, under the platform and tracks. Lift a bit further along the platform – standard Sydney lift will suffice. There are no diesel tractors pulling luggage trolleys around these days, so clearances in way of these obstructions only need to be sufficient for mobility scooters. When the overhead track, platform and station offices are finished, that becomes the single track, and the rest of the ground level trackage can be removed and the other track built. Past the passenger areas at ground level, the underside of the bridge can be used for car parking, if desired. One escalator each side of the road, up one side, down the other. Tram stop under bridge, suitable platforms so passengers alighting can do so safely, traffic lights arranged so that when a tram has unloaded passengers, the lights turn red so they can cross safely.

    No, or absolutely minimal, disruption of underground utilities; ramp up to station and ramp down means energy saving. Probably can be built in half the time taken to excavate a cutting and put rail lines and a station in it, and at about a quarter of the cost.

    Can it be done – yes. In 8 years – probably. Will it be done – depends on how firm Andrews is in enforcing the promise on his Minister of Transport and Vic Rail.

    Andrew’s worst promise – in transport terms – is to delay the Airport rail link till after the crossings have been fixed. This is nonsense, it should be done now. Direct line from Southern Cross station to airport using existing tracks, upgraded track, and a short bit of new track to the Airport station, even if a temporary station pending building a new convenient one.

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