Public transport

Feb 17, 2015

Is it full steam ahead for Melbourne Metro (or is it hot air)?

The Victorian government says it has resumed planning for the Melbourne Metro originally begun when John Brumby was Premier. But is the government really in a position to build it?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Cut away view of what the planned CBD South station under Swanston Street could look like

As per his explicit election promise, Victoria’s new Premier, Daniel Andrews, yesterday announced the beginning of work on the revived Melbourne Metro rail tunnel originally proposed under the Brumby government.

Design and engineering work on the twin 9 km tunnels under the CBD was well advanced in 2010 when the Brumby government lost office. Further preparatory work continued for a period under the Baillieu/Napthine government, however the project was eventually amended to follow a different route and renamed the Melbourne Rail Link.

A CBD tunnel is very important for Melbourne because limited rail capacity in the city centre is a key constraint on the capacity of the metropolitan-wide rail system. It’s primarily about making the existing network operate better rather than extending coverage or promoting urban renewal.

Demonstrating that too much hype is never enough in politics, the Premier said the Metro would give Melbourne a public transport network “equal to those in cities such as New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong”. Not to be outdone, the Transport Minister, Jacinta Allan, said “if we don’t build Melbourne Metro Rail now, our public transport system will grind to a halt”.

While those claims are just silly, there are a number of important issues to think about regarding the Melbourne Metro.

  • Notwithstanding yesterday’s announcement, the Andrew’s government won’t make a substantial start on the project for at least four years. It’s allocated just $0.3 billion this term for the $9-$11 billion project. Yesterday’s commitment only provides $0.04 billion to set up a new Metro Rail Authority and do more design and investigation. Tellingly, the Premier says the business case still has to be written.
  • Funding for the project hasn’t been secured. Mr Andrews only promised before the election to “commit one third of the construction cost of Melbourne Metro Rail” directly from government revenue.
  • Mr Andrews promise was conditional on the Commonwealth contributing one third of the cost, even though the Prime Minister has said he won’t fund urban rail. A new PM or a new government in Canberra might take a different view, but that can’t be taken as a foregone conclusion.
  • Mr Andrews also promised from opposition that a third of the cost will come from the private sector. That looks straightforward, but it could be complicated if investors are concerned about how the government handles the cancellation of the East West Link contract (e.g. investors might require a higher return).
  • The ultimate cost of the project is unclear at this stage and might increase. It was $9 billion when it was submitted to Infrastructure Australia but that was some years ago; costs usually increase with more detailed investigations. The Napthine government put the cost at up to $11 billion.
  • There are already pressures to expand the scope of the project and hence increase costs. For example, Stonnington Council is calling for a station at South Yarra. That option might seem eminently sensible, but was originally excluded because it would be difficult to retrofit a station in that location; it could add as much as $1 billion to the total cost without a commensurate increase in benefits.
  • If the total cost increases, the Benefit-Cost ratio for the project will deteriorate, all other things being equal. Calculated according to Infrastructure Australia’s rules, the BCR was 1.2 at a cost of $9 billion, but at $11 billion (or more) the BCR will be break-even (or possibly negative).
  • The business case for the Metro already exists and was submitted to Infrastructure Australia. It wasn’t made public. Now that Mr Andrews has released the business case documents for the East West Link, he needs to be totally transparent about the project; existing and new documents should be public.
  • It won’t be surprising if the reboot of Melbourne Metro leads to some changes to the proposal as it currently stands e.g. to the alignment or the stations. That would partly reflect new information and new expertise but I’d expect cost issues to be a big factor. Change will also provide a convenient excuse for the delay in starting construction.

In strictly engineering terms, the Andrews government could make a substantial start on the project in this (four year) term provided it sticks to the current design. A lot of the engineering work was done under the Brumby and Baillieu/Napthine governments.

The various approvals required might routinely take up to two years, but as the Napthine government’s handling of the East West Link showed, this process can be accelerated if the will and enthusiasm is there.

The problem for Mr Andrews is finding the money. His task will be even harder if the sale/lease of the Port of Melbourne doesn’t realise all the funds needed for the government’s signature level crossing removal program; or if the cost of cancelling the East West Link contract is as high as many expect.

The upshot is it’s unlikely construction of the Metro will get underway in a meaningful sense until the government’s second term i.e. 2018-2022. That would most likely see completion of the tunnel sometime in 2026-30.

If the electorate’s apparent preparedness to throw out governments after one term continues, the result could be Melbourne Metro never starts. It would be terrific to see a bipartisan approach, however that seems a tall order because this is one of those projects where the opposition has a distinct alternative solution to the same problem i.e. it has Melbourne Rail Link.

This is a big and strategic investment so I’d like to see the government also assess other possible solutions for expanding rail capacity (including the Melbourne Rail Link) and take account of the best of all of them. But I recognise the Metro is an explicit election commitment and governments must be wary of changing promises too much.

The key political imperative for Mr Andrews is to find the money and get digging. The pressure needs to be maintained on the Federal government. He should also give serious consideration to requiring those who will benefit from the project to contribute to the cost; the most prospective candidates are city centre businesses and organisations.

Update: Editorial in The Age on 18 Feb 2015, Andrews must get Metro tunnel on track and comment by The Age’s Josh Gordon on 19 Feb, Metro rail – keep the plans on track this time.


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27 thoughts on “Is it full steam ahead for Melbourne Metro (or is it hot air)?

  1. Joe Vernossi

    john doe: Melbourne international airport will probably need two underground railway stations in my opinion. International and Domestic with the platforms 8 hundred metres apart. Directly underneath the terminals is preferable. It would allow an easier transition for commuters from train to a flight. Underground stations are also air-conditioned and more user-friendly..

    Not at all required – the separation of terminals is insignificant.

  2. Tom the first and best


    What are the comparative station numbers and what areas do they cover in NSW? Does it include the Blue Mountains and South and Central Coasts? Are they included in the population stats you are using?

  3. john doe

    Tom the first and best #22

    Both cities have a similar population size, Melbourne only has 400,000 less people. This cannot explain the disparity.

  4. Tom the first and best


    Andrews does not come across as a courageous or innovative leader.

    The tunnel does little for the passengers on the Burnley and Clifton Hill groups. The Sandringham line gets only an operationally imbalanced through-routing with the Newport set of lines (who also get little else, mainly no Craigieburn line trains on their lines).

  5. Tom the first and best


    For an island to be valuable for housing in Port Phillip bay, it would have to be near the inner suburbs and get a rail connection. That costs money and is harder because of the closure of the Port Melbourne Line. Not to mention the environmental issues.

    Melbourne, because of its extensive tram and rail networks, has far fewer long radial bus routes that cause bus congestion in the Brisbane CBD. Bus and train tunnels are not a sensible idea in Brisbane either.

  6. Tom the first and best


    Melbourne has quite good freight segregation, except on the Dandenong and Frankston lines, which have relatively few freight trains. Partly this is because of the differences of gauge meaning that the interstate and several other freight lines are standard, while all suburban tracks are broad gauge. It is also because of a policy in the 1920s of separating freight lines in the west and north of Melbourne. The Bunbury St tunnel and Tottenham freight yards line, the Albion-Jancana freight line and the Brooklyn goods line separate freight and passenger trains in the west and north.

    It is true that quadruplication is rarer in Melbourne. This is partly because of triple track, of which Sydney has none, which is admittedly inferior to quadruple track. However quadruple track has recently expanded with the RRL now meaning there is quadruple track to Sunshine.

    Sydney does have more stations but it is a bigger city with longer lines, so that is to be expected.

  7. Socrates

    The government is clearly stalling for time. There had already been plenty of design work done to 2010. They were then ready to tender within 12 months. Any more detailed design work would notrmally be done as part of teh tender process by bidders. A business case can be written in six months at most (I have been asked to write them in half that tiome when governments were in a hurry).

    So why wait four years? Answer: first because Tony Abbott will clearly not give any federal money for rail (Gee that BMW sponsorship hsa done the trick, we don’t even have an Australian car industry to protect any more.) Second, Victoria is not game to borrow it, despite interest rates being at record lows. Andrews has whimped out.

    So the wait continues for every commuter to the Melbourne CBD.

  8. hk

    The London Crossrail Tunnel excavation of 4.5 million tonnes is well underway forming the biggest manmade nature park in Western Europe using Wallasea Island on the edge of the Thames Estuary.
    Even if the spoil from the Melbourne rail tunnels only produce 2 million or so tonnes of material, there is enough fill to create an island or two in Port Phillip Bay. The islands, whether used as nature reserves or leased to developers will increase the capital value of the State of Victoria. The capital value could defray a portion of the new rail infrastructure costs.
    One has to wonder why in Victoria, a richer State than Queensland, no discussion is underway that combines bus and rail tunnels as proposed for Brisbane.

  9. john doe

    Tom the first and best #18

    Melbourne does have more suburban railway lines than Sydney. But Sydney has more railway stations and dedicated freight lines similar to London. They have more quadruple track many of the train stations are 4 platform where in Melbourne this is limited to the inner city Edwardian stations.

  10. Tom the first and best


    Sydney started earlier in building underground railways because it was a city well before the railways (nearly 70 years) and the land was not available for the railways in the city centre. When underground railways became available Sydney then connected up its city centre to the rail network.

    Melbourne in contrast built a rail network before the city grew and got it into the middle of the city. Melbourne has focused on building capacity in its above ground rail network. In 1920 there were only 6 tracks through Richmond, 4 between Flinders St and Spencers St and 2 across the river to Footscray.

  11. Tom the first and best


    The tracks in South Yarra and Prahran are most bellow ground level already and where they are not it is because of the topography. Lowering the tracks further would be excessively expensive. There are ample opportunities to build over the tracks, at their existing height, where there are currently bridges over the track and/or streets running alongside the tracks.

    Putting the stations underground would not be a good idea. They are currently quite good stations and lowering and undergrounding them would make them darker, more cramped, more expensive to run and less accessible.

  12. Smith John

    Sorry to sound like a cracked record whenever I comment on this issue, but here goes: the Northern-Caulfield loop connection, described in PTV’s 2012 Network Development Plan, would provide MORE rail capacity increase [1] than the Melbourne Metro long tunnel, for, I guess, about a fifth of the cost (say $2 billion versus $10 billion)[2].

    When you compare costs as a ratio in this way, size does matter. The bigger the amounts, the more the budget constraint matters. If you’re about town and feeling peckish, maybe the difference between a $10 foccaccia and a $2 chiko roll is not a big deal. If you’re looking to move house, the difference between a $1 million mansion and a $200,000 batch is a big deal (for most of us, if not for Gina Reinhardt).

    Why are our politicians so reckless in committing prematurely to projects that are ridiculously expensive and hopelessly poor value-for-money compared with the alternatives? [3] My guess is there are at least two things going on:

    1. They like the machismo of being associated with ‘visionary’ projects, and in our culture, where public discourse about urban planning matters is so impoverished, ‘very, very expensive’ is regarded as a simple proxy for ‘visionary’. Doubts about whether the project is good value for money compared with the alternatives can be dismissed as dull bean-counting.

    2. I suspect that at a deep level many people simply don’t understand very big numbers. Like the apocryphal congressman at a hearing on the defence budget: ‘But admiral, a billion here, a billion there, and before long you’re talking real money!’

    For example: how many large level crossing grade separations has Melbourne managed to build in the last decade – like the $159 million Springvale Rd project? Maybe two or three?

    A $10 billion tunnel is like SIXTY Springvale Roads. The idea that it will actually happen any time in the next decade is laughable.

    There is an urgent need for quicker, more cost-effective capacity increases. If you have an alternative project that can give 80 per cent of the benefits for 20 per cent of the cost, what’s not to like?


    note 1: ‘more’ capacity increase: both options effectively add a track pair from the west, by bypassing the present chokepoint where the Craigieburn and Sunbury lines merge to the Northern Loop. The Northern Caulfield Loop Connection also increases capacity on the Burnley Relief/ Glen Waverley line, as it creates a through city track pair from Glen Waverley to Sunbury, removing the constraint of terminating trains at Flinders St.
    Enhancements that are sometimes mentioned to confuse the picture, like resignalling or using longer trains, could be done in either case and so are not relevant to a comparison of the basic options.
    The tunnel is not necessary as a prerequisite to running longer trains on the congested Dandenong line. Longer trains could run from Dandenong to Werribee via Flinders St with works that would cost probably in the hundreds of millions range (including a new flyover at Caulfield to avoid conflict with Frankston trains) – still only a tiny fraction of $10 billion.

    note 2: guess based on comparing the scope. Long tunnel: 18 track/km of new tunnel plus 5 new underground stations. Northern Caulfield Loop Connection: about 3-4 track/km of new dive and tunnel and adjustments on the surface, with no new stations. I acknowledge that the NCLC will have a higher per kilometre tunnelling cost because of the complexities of joining new to existing tunnels underground.

    note 3: like the debacle over the ‘north west metro’ in Sydney in the dying days of the former Labor government, c2009-10. Adopted from a minister’s thought-bubble; wasted $500 million on planning and property resumption; and abandoned, all within a couple of years.

  13. john doe

    Jacob HSR #12

    Melbourne international airport will probably need two underground railway stations in my opinion. International and Domestic with the platforms 8 hundred metres apart. Directly underneath the terminals is preferable. It would allow an easier transition for commuters from train to a flight. Underground stations are also air-conditioned and more user-friendly..

    Gavin Moodie #14

    There is article in Urban Melbourne about extending the Alamein line to Chadstone and Oakleigh. similar to the old outer circle alignment you may be interested read.

  14. Gavin Moodie

    I don’t quite understand why ‘A CBD tunnel is very important for Melbourne because limited rail capacity in the city centre is a key constraint on the capacity of the metropolitan-wide rail system’. The link was to a bloody video, which can’t be skimmed or slowed easily, which didn’t explain the point fully. Furthermore, the vid seemed to concentrate on extending coverage, tho the cbd tunnel apparently isn’t mainly about extending coverage.

    Is this the argument?

    1 Public transport works best when a train originating at Craigieburn, for example, goes all the way thru to Belgrave and turns around at Belgrave or goes around the city loop rather than stopping at Southern Cross to return to Craigieburn.

    2 There aren’t enough tracks thru the city or around the loop to increase services to Craigieburn, Belgrave, etc.

    3 Therefore more tracks have to be built thru the city, around the loop or another loop has to be built.

    I presume point 1 is now an immutable law of public transport planning.

    But why wouldn’t an alternative be an outer circle rail line, as Melbourne now has various ring roads? That is, rather than reinforce Melbourne’s radial rail network why not start changing the shape of the network to be more like a spider’s web?

  15. Jacob HSR

    Zealand Island in Denmark with a population of 2.5 million is getting a 200km/h railway.

    Go figure.

    A 60km line from Copenhagen to Ringsted. And a 115km line from Ringsted to Femeren.

    How slow are the trains in Australia again?

  16. Jacob HSR

    john doe #9,

    Forget Heathrow, look at OR Tambo Airport. It had 18.8m passengers in 2013 and it has a purpose-built 160km/h rail link to the CBD.

    MEL Airport handles 31m people. And the station for MEL does not need to be underground. Just build it overground and have an Ultra PRT to take passengers from the station to Terminal 4, Terminal 3, Terminal 2, Terminal 1.

    In Europe they are building the 55km Brenner Base tunnel for €8.59b that will allow trains to go up to 250km/h.

  17. mook schanker

    I couldn’t imagine a Business Case being presented with a BCR of less than 1, they will always re-jig it to make the desired outcome. Since they already have this BCR outcome from the existing BC, it should be a doddle…..

    And more detailed costings from subsequent design phases are irrelevant to the BCR as the Business Case is the front end strategy document (well after the options analysis). The BC of course will have P50 and P90 ranges to estimate the according risks.

  18. john doe

    I would prefer to see a second orbital outer underground loop with railway stations at Domain, South Melbourne, Southern Cross, Queen Victoria Market, Parkville and Fitzroy connected to Clifton Hill and South Yarra. The Eddington project doubles up on existing stations Flinders Street and Melbourne Central. People could easily change at Clifton Hill and South Yarra or Southern Cross.

    Also quadrupling main train-lines to decrease travel times and increase capacity such as the Dandenong line to enable decentralization like in London and Sydney who have dedicated freight lines.

    Transport is an issue with high-density development. There should be mandatory contributions from developers as well as the federal government to pay for underground rail infrastructure upgrades

  19. john doe

    Melbourne is substandard in building rail infrastructure comparatively to other similar cities.

    In Sydney they are building the (NWRL) and in London (Crossrail) underground railway lines. Sydney have been built many underground railway lines

    Sydney has constructed:

    The City Circle (1920/30s) – Town Hall, St James and Museum.
    The Eastern Suburbs line (1979)- Redfern, Central, Town Hall, Martin Place, Kings Cross, Edgecliff and Bondi Junction.
    The Airport Line (2000) – Green Square, Mascot, Domestic Airport, International Airport.
    The Epping to Chatswood rail link (2009) – Epping, Macquarie University, Macquarie Park and North Ryde.
    The NWRW (2019) – Castle Hill, Showground and Norwest.

    Melbourne has constructed
    The City Loop (1981) – Flagstaff, Melbourne Central and Parliament.

    Brisbane and Sydney both have airport rail-lines with domestic and international railway stations. Perth is building an underground airport railway. London Heathrow airport has five underground train stations one for each airport terminal. Melbourne does not have one underground airport railway terminal.

  20. Alan Davies

    Scott Grant #4:

    Quite right; always happy to be corrected. Describing it as “a disturbing lack of numeracy” seems a bit excessive though.

    Graeski #6:

    He seems to think public transport is a collectivist plot.

    Nightingale John #7:

    Cost increases in the planning stage tend to arise mostly from factors like increases in scope due to political pressures eg a station at Sth Yarra; and reality pouring cold water on overly optimistic early “estimates” designed to win approval for the project.

  21. Nightingale John

    You note that if the cost increases, toward $11bn the BCR will fall toward negative. But why will the benefits remain static while costs increase? Inflation alone accounts for some of the cost increases, by which the benefits also increase. Other increases would be due to increased road congestion costs and other increases in real resource costs from population increase, as well as increases in expected usage.

  22. Graeski

    Was there any reasoning behind Tony’s refusal to fund urban rail projects? Seems a strange thing for an “infrastructure PM” to rule out.

  23. Dylan Nicholson

    Not *necessarily* negative, but I’d think a project to drop bombs on the city is almost certainly going to have a negative BCR!

  24. Scott Grant

    I know it is being pedantic, but I point out, again, that a ratio of less than one is not “negative”. To call it “negative’ betrays a disturbing lack of numeracy.

  25. Mendoza

    Is there an opportunity for the private sector to gain the land currently occupied by tracks in South Yarra/Prahran in exchange for sinking them in a tunnel with combined underground stations?

  26. Tom the first and best

    Having a South Yarra station on the new line would be very useful for those transferring to the Sandringham line and people between Malvern and South Yarra. The main issue is that building platforms and and entrance would be very tricky.

    There is also the preferability of the tunnel ending at Caulfield rather than South Yarra because of the limited space for building extra tracks between Caulfield and South Yarra as well as the desirability of being able to have the Malvern-Hawksburn stopping trains running on different tracks to the Frankston line expresses.

  27. Dylan Nicholson

    The sad thing is that by 2030, at current population growth rates (especially in and around the CBD) what’s being proposed as the “Melbourne Metro” is going to already be obviously far short of sufficient. As far as finding money goes, there’s hardly ever been a better time for governments to borrow it…

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