Where Doncaster rail passengers would come from in the morning peak, 2031. (Source: PTV Response to Doncaster rail study)

One of the two new Greens members elected to the Victorian Parliament at last month’s election, Ellen Sandell, had some interesting things to say about rail infrastructure last Friday in an interview with citizen journalism site, No Fibs.

Under a headline describing her as “a scientist sick of anti-fact politics”, she’s reported as saying:

Things that we think are most effective are, a Doncaster rail, that’ll get cars off the Eastern Freeway, it’s been planned for over 100 years. Labor’s Melbourne Metro is a good plan, we think it should be built quickly.

Melbourne Metro

I’m surprised to see the Greens are so enthusiastic about getting Melbourne Metro moving because they didn’t come across as passionate or whole-hearted supporters during the election campaign. In fact the party seemed to go out of its way to avoid openly endorsing the project.

The key policy statement on trains issued by the Greens for the campaign, Train overcrowding, didn’t foreshadow the level of enthusiasm for the Metro now expressed by Ms Sandell. In more than 800 words this is the only mention of the $9 Billion Metro:

The Greens will start investing in our train network immediately, focusing on improving services for passengers now, not only in ten years’ time if the Metro Rail line is built.

Just one mention and a passing reference at that. But the stunner is “if” the Metro is built. I’d hardly call that sort of conditional statement enthusiasm.

There’s no ringing advocacy of Metro as there is for other initiatives like removing level crossings, buying more trains, and new generation signalling. The policy seems to go out of its way to frame the Metro as someone else’s project and to avoid either endorsing or opposing it.

Nor is there any mention of Melbourne Metro in the summary of the Greens policies published in the Public Transport Users Association’s (PTUA) 2014 Election Scorecard. In contrast, Labor’s promise to build the Metro and the Coalition’s to build Melbourne Rail Link are duly recorded and critiqued.

If the Greens genuinely thought prior to polling day that the Metro should be a high priority it seems they withheld that information from the premier public transport advocacy organisation.

So the fact that the Greens now think the Metro “is a good plan” and, moreover, “should be built quickly”, is both surprising and important. (1)

Doncaster rail

On the other hand, Ms Sandell’s enthusiasm for a rail line from Collingwood to Doncaster isn’t at all surprising; the Greens promise to build it is duly recorded in the PTUA’s Election Scorecard.

But her claim that it will “get cars off the Eastern Freeway” simply isn’t true. (2)

The final report of the $6.5 million feasibility study of a rail line to Doncaster commissioned by Public Transport Victoria (PTV) was completed in February 2014. In its published response to the consultant’s report, PTV noted that by 2031 an estimated 98% of forecast patronage would be diverted from existing public transport services:

The final report includes new mode shift data, which indicates that morning peak patronage would comprise: 50% of passengers who are currently DART users; 48% of passengers who are currently travelling on other rail services; 2% of passengers who are currently travelling by private vehicle.

With forecast daily patronage of 56,000 in 2031, that 2% translates to 1,120 passengers per day, or about 1,000 car trips per day. That’s a very small pay-off in the context of the estimated cost of the line.

The study team found the cost of building the recommended option from Collingwood to Doncaster Park & Ride would start at $3-$5 Billion. It would cost an extra $1 Billion to build a tunnel to extend it to the nearby Doncaster activity centre.

Further, additional capacity would need to be provided on the Clifton Hill line between Collingwood and the city to accommodate the additional trains from Doncaster. The study team concluded that would best be done by building a new tunnel for Sth Morang services at a further cost of $4-$6 Billion (see Are all new urban rail lines wise investments?).

The low mode share isn’t surprising. The Doncaster area isn’t a particularly prospective area for generating mode shift. It’s fully built out and growth is slow.

The population of the City of Manningham grew by just 1.3% over the five years from 2006-11; that’s lower than the modest 2.6% growth it recorded over 2001-06. It’s projected to grow between 2014 and 2036 at an average of just 0.77% per annum. (see also Does the Opposition’s pitch on Doncaster rail stack up?).

It’s reasonable to conclude that many residents of Doncaster place a relatively lower value on access to rail and “selected” into the area. They didn’t pay a premium in land price for access to rail.  They’re also likely to have long-established patterns of behaviour that reflect their car-orientation.

Doncaster residents who use the train travel up to 5 or 6 km to get to other lines. However they do have the option of using the high quality Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) system to get to the CBD. DART buses aren’t as fast as a train would be, but they could be improved further at vastly lower cost.

Washup

Ms Sandell’s support for public transport is welcome, especially her endorsement of high priority for Melbourne Metro. However the Greens enthusiasm for a dubious project like Doncaster rail and it’s cool attitude towards the Metro in the election campaign is mystifying.

Even the Coalition, which holds the local state seat with a handsome margin (Opposition Leader Matthew Guy is the member), put Doncaster rail in stage 3 of its Network Development Plan, effectively fantasy-land. As far as I can see, Labor has ignored the project.

There are much, much more sensible ways to spend billions of dollars of public funds on public transport to achieve progressive environmental and social outcomes than a rail line to Doncaster. It’s not a project progressives should be promoting as a priority.

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  1. The Metro is a key way of providing much-needed extra capacity and reliability for the entire metropolitan rail system, although it’s not the only possible solution; other options have been proposed (e.g. see Should we go a bit easier on (some) broken promises?)
  2. I don’t interpret her comment literally but rather as meaning a rail line would shift a significant proportion of travellers out of cars and onto rail.