The former Labor government went to the 2010 election promising to build a busway to Mernda. It won the seat but lost the election. Now its back in office with a commitment to build a rail line

The Promise

One of the Andrews government’s key election promises is to extend the South Morang rail line to Mernda. It’s the only expansion of the rail network the new government has promised to do in its first term.

Public Transport Victoria’s Network Development Plan has the extension at least 20 years away, but Labor promised from opposition to have the line operating in around five years.

Labor’s election costings provide $400-600 million over four years to complete the project, which includes two new stations and follows the alignment of the old Whittlesea rail line for 7.6 km (the old rails were removed in 1970).

Both the Coalition and the Greens also promised to build the line and submitted their proposals to Treasury for costing during the election campaign.

Treasury costed the Greens proposal at $630 million, noting that it provides for one station and does not include funding for stabling. It estimated the Coalition’s proposal, which includes two stations and associated car parking as well as train stabling, at $700 million. (1)

Labor hasn’t released any information on how it arrived at its cost estimates. The Coalition’s promise was also for two stations so its estimate of $700 million, which has at least had Treasury’s ruler run over it, is more plausible.

The busway option

What’s especially interesting about this proposal is that the former Labor government led by John Brumby went to the 2010 election with an entirely different plan. It promised to build a busway between Sth Morang and Mernda rather than a rail line (see Is a busway right for Mernda?).

Melbourne is well known for its trams, but long haul bus services aren’t a novelty. Both Melbourne Airport and the Doncaster region are connected to the CBD by frequent bus services with dedicated lanes in some locations.

Labor’s idea was to construct a 7.5 km two lane road for the exclusive use of buses along the old rail alignment. Buses would be coordinated with train arrivals and departures at Sth Morang station and would convey passengers on the busway and thence along suburban routes throughout the Mernda area.

So what are the key differences between the two approaches?

The capacity advantages of trains aren’t relevant in this case; Sth Morang and Mernda are literally at the end of the line. In any event, SkyBus shows buses can easily deal with passenger volumes well in excess of anything ever likely to be encountered in Mernda.

A station at Mernda should reduce the average driving distance of ‘park and ride’ travellers but that’s a relatively minor benefit compared to the cost. The main difference between the two approaches is travel time.

Those who want to drive to their nearest station would have to drive further to Sth Morang station under the busway option than they would have to with a Mernda station. A train should be considerably faster between these two points in peak periods than a car caught up in traffic.

Those who travel to the nearest rail station by bus would likewise travel further under the busway option. An important difference though is that the busway would be much faster than a bus in traffic, especially with automatic priority at the four intersections along the route.

It probably wouldn’t be as fast as the train because it could have more stops, but the difference would only be a few minutes.

Advantages of busway

While it wouldn’t be as fast as rail, the busway has a number of advantages.

The principal one is the capital cost would be an order of magnitude lower than rail. Grade separations wouldn’t be required as they are for rail so it could be built for less than $50 million, including interchange facilities, rolling stock and stabling. (2)

Another advantage of buses is they can pick up passengers at stops along the route, whereas additional stations cost around $30 million each. Buses can also operate at higher frequencies and so give Mernda residents better access to the community and shopping facilities at Sth Morang.

Buses can’t usually offer the same level of speed or comfort as trains, but the exclusive right-of-way would allow buses to close a lot of the gap. It would also enable larger and more spacious buses to be deployed on the route.

Washup

Both options provide the community with a good public transport option and an alternative to driving for some trips. The key issue, though, is the huge difference in cost between the two.

I’m hard pressed to see how the time savings for a relatively small number of residents, both existing and projected, justify shelling out an extra $650 million for trains instead of buses, at least at this time.

That extra $650 million would go a long way toward funding other public transport improvements such as the 20% extension of the tram network advocated by the Greens/Public Transport Users Association.

Or it would allow a much more ambitious program of suburban bus improvements than the new government’s high profile four year $100 million suburban bus initiative. It would also make a handy contribution to the shortfall in funds needed for Melbourne Metro.

Politics

This isn’t rational policy-making of course; it’s rational politics. Labor went to the 2010 election promising a busway instead of a train line and, while it held the seat, it got a swing against it and lost government. That experience tends to focus politicians on realpolitik.

I find it disappointing but I get that parties with a real prospect of winning government have to make compromises and trade-offs. They can’t promise pie in the sky without any accountability like minor parties can; there’s a reasonable prospect they’ll win the election and actually have to find the money.

There’s also some comfort in knowing it’s not a super expensive boondoggle like the East West Link, Doncaster rail or Rowville rail; these are all multi $Billion projects. Nor is it in the same class of stupidity as the Coalition’s promise at the 2010 election to build a rail line to Avalon Airport.

At the end of the day Mernda rail is an election promise and was promoted by the three largest parties so it’s going to happen. Nevertheless, it’s important to know what premium we’re paying for this inherently political decision and what the rest of the state is foregoing to fund it.

It’s disillusioning though that a small party like the Greens, which had no chance of taking government at the election or winning this electorate (the Greens candidate got 7% of the primary vote in Yan Yean), also promised rail to Mernda rather than something like the busway option.

On the Greens costing, $650 million would pay for over three quarters of its tram extensions plan.

Progressives should be calling for better public transport, not just better trains.

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  1. I can’t provide a link to Treasury’s costings anymore because they were taken down on the Monday following the election; they provided a source of information, albeit imperfect, on infrastructure costs.
  2. In fact I’d expect the cost of a busway to be considerably less but I want to be conservative.