Great place for a light rail line? Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway (source: Helefran)

There was an interesting opinion piece by senior columnist Kenneth Davidson in The Age on Monday, setting out some potential transport projects he thinks the Andrews Government should fund in lieu of the cancelled East West Link motorway (Now that the East West Link is gone, let’s replace it with better transport projects for Melbourne).

He endorses the government’s decision to build Melbourne Metro and proposes two other options. One is to connect the Port of Melbourne to inland ports to the north and east via rail tunnels. The other, which is the one that interests me, is to construct a light rail line from Doncaster to the CBD.

Mr Davidson says a light rail line running down the median of the Eastern Freeway is “close to shovel ready” and would cost “about $1.5 billion”.

It would be capable of carrying 5,000 people an hour at peak periods and remove the bottleneck at Hoddle Street – equal to adding 2.5 lanes to the freeway.

I must say I’ve never heard of this project. That’s really surprising because “close to shovel ready” should mean the design and engineering have been done and statutory approvals obtained. The Expression of Interest and Request for Tender processes should be well advanced.

Be that as it may, it’s an interesting notion. Mr Davidson doesn’t give any details but his mention of the freeway median implies a light rail service following the same basic route as the proposed Doncaster heavy rail line recently evaluated by Public Transport Victoria (PTV).

It could be routed the 2 km from the Doncaster Hill activity centre to the Eastern Freeway via Doncaster Rd. Unlike a heavy rail line, which would require a tunnel and underground station, a big financial advantage of light rail is that it operates on the surface.

From there, it could follow the median in the freeway for 11.5 km to Smith St, where it could join the existing tram line to the CBD. Some major structural work would be required to enter the freeway at Doncaster and to cross Hoddle St at Collingwood. (1)

That’s a 13.5 km line which, according to Mr Davidson, could be had for $1.5 billion. That estimate sounds plausible and is closer to reality than the Greens’ claim that it would only cost $0.84 billion to build 56 km of tram line extensions.

It compares well with the actual $1.6 billion it cost to build the newly opened 13 km Gold Coast G:link line. But given some of the engineering difficulties, the $2.1 billion budgeted for Sydney’s new 12 km CBD and South Eastern Light Rail might be a better guide. Either way, it’d be significantly less than the $4-$6 billion that PTV says would be required to build a heavy rail line from Doncaster Hill to Hoddle St.

Nevertheless, this is not a good idea; there are much better possible uses for the money.

The key benefit of the proposed Doncaster heavy rail line evaluated by PTV is an average 10 minute travel time saving over the existing bus service. A light rail service, however, would get caught up in traffic once it left the freeway.

It’s doubtful it would offer any speed advantage over the existing Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) bus service. DART uses transit lanes on the freeway and on some roads; it’s likely that better peak hour priority for DART buses could be provided at considerably lower cost than building a new light rail line.

Mr Davidson’s proposal isn’t likely to do much for traffic congestion, pollution and emissions either. PTV estimates that only 2% of forecast patronage for a Doncaster heavy rail line would come from drivers switching mode; the rest would substitute from other forms of public transport. A slower light rail line would undoubtedly be even less attractive for drivers.

Nor would light rail do much to promote higher density development. For a start, only 2 km is in developed areas; the rest would be cocooned in the middle of a freeway. Even then there’s urban development on only one side for most (7.5 km) of the freeway’s length.

In any event this is not a region whose residents welcome development. The City of Manningham’s population grew by a mere 0.3% per annum over 2006-11. In comparison, the inner municipalities of Yarra and Port Phillip grew 1.4% p.a. and 1.5% p.a. respectively over the same period; Melton and Wyndham grew by 8% p.a. and 9% p.a. respectively.

Manningham’s projected to grow by just 0.85% per annum over the period 2011 – 2031. That compares with projected growth for Greater Melbourne of 2.1% p.a. over the same period; the cities of Melbourne, Wyndham and Melton are projected to grow by over 4% p.a.

I’m amazed that the idea of a rail line to Doncaster continues to be pushed by progressives and public transport advocates e.g. the Greens were silent on Melbourne Metro during last year’s election but enthusiastically endorsed a rail line to Doncaster (see Would a rail line to Doncaster “really get cars off the freeway”?).

It implies that the standard of public transport infrastructure in the rest of the metropolitan area is so high that replacing Doncaster Area Rapid Transit with some form of rail is one of Melbourne’s key public transport priorities. It’s nothing like it.

The focus for at least the next decade needs to be on improving the performance of Melbourne’s rail network, not extending coverage in the established suburbs. That means initiatives like more rolling stock, modernisation of signalling, removal of level crossings, duplication of track, coordination with buses, and more. There’s a need for some judiciously selected major projects like Melbourne Metro too where the purpose is primarily to increase system capacity and reliability.


  1. Or alternatively, a light rail line could continue a further 0.8 km to Nicholson St.