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Public transport

Apr 29, 2015

Should light rail to Doncaster be a key priority for Melbourne?

The standard of public transport in Melbourne is apparently so high that some think the city can afford to make notions like a new light rail line to Doncaster a key priority

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.

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16 thoughts on “Should light rail to Doncaster be a key priority for Melbourne?

  1. Joe Vernossi

    I think light rail (via Nicholson St with grade separation on Alexandra Pde, drae I say, as part of a road expressway) makes a hell of a lot more sense for meeting the capacity requirements of Doncaster, especially since can make it up Doncaster Hill and out to the end of Doncaster Rd easily enough.

    It’s the only form of rail I see ever making it there, but of course, as with the airport, the decision would need to wait until it is viable (ie. once, if ever, the buses can no longer deal with capacity).

  2. Aidan Stanger

    Waffler #13

    Whether it should be built and whether it’s a red herring in the context of CBD travel are two separate issues that should not be conflated.

  3. Waffler

    Aidan #13

    Its not about whether anybody would use it. It is about whether it makes sense to spend that much money for the number of people that use might it. Someone will use whatever you build, But as we only have limited funds, it is most important to spend it where it makes the most difference.

    My analogy is a home – if you put in a third, fourth, fifth or sixth bathroom, somebody will use it, but is that really the best way to spend limited funding?? Do the benefits outweigh the cost (unless you are Kerry or Rupert of course)? No would be my answer.

    And Alan #10 – if you put in a light rail it is pretty unlikely that millions would still be spent on running a parallel DART service (sadly). The resources would probably be reallocated to feeder or other bus services, which would be a sensible allocation of limited resources.

  4. Aidan Stanger

    Alan, if any commuters catch the tram all the way than it’s not a red herring.

  5. Alan Davies

    Aidan Stanger #11:

    DART should indeed be retained (and improved). Extending the Route 48 tram is a red herring in the context of this discussion about CBD travel (if it’s a good idea, then it’s for reasons unrelated to this topic).

  6. Aidan Stanger

    Alan Davies #7

    Why should replacing the express bus service be the objective? If instead they go for the more sensible objective of attracting more people onto public transport, wouldn’t keeping it running and extending the 48 tram as well be the best value option?

  7. Waffler

    Sorry Kenneth, but spending $1.5B to replace a perfectly adequate bus service (presumably the 907?) with a $1.5b light rail is nuts. We could easily spend a 10th of that on fancier/bigger buses and extra priority and carry exactly the same number of passengers. Curitiba’s bi-articulated buses carry as many passengers as an E-class tram.

    The priority changes currently being implemented in Victoria Parade should make the bus service even better (finally, no thanks to City of Yarra who are more concerned about a handful of parking spaces than thousands of public transport users, despite their supposedly green credentials!).

    And as usual steel-wheel advocates have confused capacity with demand. Sure light rail may be able to carry 5,000 passengers, but that is no guarantee it would.

    It also implies a 2.5m service frequency assuming 210 passenger E-class trams. That is four times the frequency of the current 907 bus service (if they made the bus service 2.5 min frequency, maybe I’d get a seat now and then!!).

    Spot on Alan – this is clearly not the best way to spend $1.5B (which I actually think is low as you will also need new stabling/maintenance, new park & ride spaces and something like 50-60 trams worth $300 alone).

  8. Alan Davies

    Peter Vella #6:

    If this calculated number exceeds the construction cost, then the project is financially viable, whether existing train passengers are diverted or not.

    Time savings only relate to economic viability not financial viability (unless you find a way to make travellers pay extra $$ for the time saving). But even if the BCR were positive due to the time saving, it shouldn’t follow that a project is a goer. Still need to compare with other projects looking for the available funds, as well as look at the distributional implications i.e. who gets the benefits and who pays the costs.

  9. Oz (Horst) Kayak

    “…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.” are also supported by the TCPA and friends as potentially providing a better level of PT service to more of the urban population.
    However there will be more freight benefits form investing in other than a light rail link down the Eastern Freeway.
    The economic sustainability of the Melbourne Metropolis wrt freight movements is far more important than personal travel convenience and comfort.
    Yes Melbourne needs to be livable for its residential population, but maybe more importantly Melbourne needs to be a competitive value adding employer keeping a keen competitive edge with other great cities in the world.
    Freight network system efficiency supporting our products and services can not afford to be the poor relative of the passenger network.
    The Davidson freight focused rail (or maybe even road) tunnel options need far more serious evaluation.

  10. Alan Davies

    Strewth #1:

    AIUI, est cost of extension to Doncaster Hill (approaching $1 billion) is a lot more than the est benefits.

    lomlate #2:

    Note also that Doncaster residents did not have the cost of rail capitalised into the value of their properties when they purchased.

    mook schanker #3:

    It wasn’t Kenneth Davidson who mentioned Smith St; he didn’t give any details and no light rail plan has emerged for public viewing since he published. I was the one who assumed Smith St, although I also proposed Nicholson St as an alternative (see footnote).

    wxtre #5:

    Extending (say) the existing Route 48 tram line 4 km north-east from North Balwyn to Doncaster Hill might have some cross regional travel benefits but in terms of substituting for DART it’s a no show; it’s as slow as a wet week.

  11. Peter Vella

    Thanks for the article.

    Surface BRT or LRT in an exclusive lane makes a lot of sense. Exclusive lane would guarantee very high speed which is essential, particularly during peak. Taking away the median shoulder or a lane from the freeway rather than lay track or ashphalt in the median should be considered. (NB: buses are available that have doors on both sides, and have high capacity, so the identity of the mode choice really is one of the least important aspects here.)

    The PTV response paper shows 2% forecast patronage is clawed from cars, 50% who are DART bus users already, and 48% who are already catching the train apparently. Page 6 has the graph you refer to (1)

    If ‘ex existing train’ people are using the new rapid transit service (note, mode-neutral term here), it is because they perceive a benefit in doing so. What could that benefit be? Maybe it’s simply closer and hence there are time savings. If there are time savings one could value this time, discount etc to work out what the overall time-saving were in dollars.

    If this calculated number exceeds the construction cost, then the project is financially viable, whether existing train passengers are diverted or not.

    My basic point is that rather than looking at where the passengers came from, we should look at whether the project will result in net time savings or not, and calculate the Net Present Value (NPV). The existing rail infrastructure on other rail lines is a sunk cost; in addition operational costs on other lines are essentially fixed (the trains on the other lines must run whether they have 50 pax or 500 pax regardless).

    Secondly, I had a look on Google Maps at where the ‘other rail lines’ are and it is difficult to believe that these ‘diverted rail passengers’ are using the Belgrave/Lilydale lines or Hurstbridge Line. These lines are at least 3km away (often more) from the Eastern Freeway. A good walk-up catchment is 800m, so these other rail lines are quite far outside the Eastern Freeway walk-up catchment.

    Thirdly, how was the patronage calculated? Did they just draw 800m circles around the proposed stations in the Eastern Freeway median? Toronto (Canada) boosts patronage on their rail lines by having high frequency buses connect to train stations. Perth has taken this concept and adapted it to Australian use, making rail viable in in low density environments. (2) Indeed the rail lines in Perth would be unviable if it were not for their feeder buses.

    For example, page 20 of the Perth document I link below states “Perth’s low density settlement, limits numbers who walk to a train station, to a max of 500 daily.” A full investigation would consider the whole transit system patronage (feeder bus AND walk up), not just the walk up pax to the rapid transit stations.

    In summary – there are many reasons to be concerned about the studies done, they’re not entirely convincing, tunneling is unnecessary if buses or LRT are used, there appears to be a large benefit (time savings) from diverted rail pax, there are questions on how it is possible existing rail pax would be ‘diverted’ given the existing rail lines are far away and well outside walking distance, what methodology was used to calculate the patronage, and why busway or light rail modes were not considered.

    There is a large groundswell of support for Doncaster Rail, however I think the proponents’ cause would be greatly advanced if they stopped specifying the mode, considered BRT and LRT alternatives, and made getting improved transport, rather than getting heavy rail, as their end-goal.

    Finally, it should be permissible for residents in any area to hold a referendum and vote themselves a levy, land tax or another measure to raise funds for said cause if they want to. This method is a common financing method in US cities for transit projects.


    (1) Doncaster Rail Study Response

    (2) Application of a commuter railway to low density settlement
    Peter Martinovich, Public Transport Authority of WA

  12. wxtre

    The Balwyn Rd/Doncaster Rd tram could be extended to Doncaster. That would be temporary/interim fix until a heavy rail line can be constructed along the freeway. A light rail on the freeway is not the best option. It appears to another compromise. If infrastructure is to be built it should be done properly planning for one hundred years with population growth forecasts in mind.

  13. mook schanker

    Whoops small correction in comment 3; Coalition feasibility study, should have stated ‘transport options’ rather than ‘heavy rail’.

  14. mook schanker

    Kenneth is certainly not the first to suggest light rail for Doncaster and studies have been conducted though nothing like the heavy rail feasibility study instigated by the Coalition, which, mind you had terms of reference specifically ‘excluding light rail’, nice one Libs…

    Not withstanding any business case (& broader network strategy), light rail makes sense for Doncaster, its a much cheaper alternative with depots and existing assets in near reach. Technically, the gradient up into Doncaster is no fuss for a tram unlike heavy rail which would require a significant cutting to alleviate gradient issues. Also heavy rail the other end would be a very costly exercise with tunneling in an urban environment.

    Kenneth is wrong on Smith St though, way too congested, much better to run tracks up to Nicholson St where that lines capability is currently under serviced. Route 96 will also be the future ‘premium line’ which would also nicely align to a Doncaster ‘speedy’ service.

    Now lets see if this concept makes it into feasibility….

  15. lomlate

    Why not let residents decide?

    There are two broad options. Let residents vote on a land tax to pay for the line, or let residents vote on a change in density of the suburb as a quid pro quo for the line.

    When residents inevitably vote against both proposals the issue can be put to bed.

  16. Strewth

    Can’t help but agree on the light rail question Alan. The reason for running any form of public transport via the Eastern Freeway route is to provide a rapid transport connection between the inner city and the Doncaster/Templestowe region that avoids congestion on the road network. With conventional rail, you connect into the existing network at Victoria Park and continue on to the city bypassing the traffic. But light rail has the same problem as the DART buses – every route into the city faces the congestion and traffic lights that make trams and buses slow everywhere else.

    It’s not quite as silly a proposal as building a full-scale train line that terminates at a car park and avoids the regional activity centre, the way the PTV feasibility study proposed. But it’s similarly hampered by failure to recognise what rail is really for: it’s not just to look good or boost people’s real estate values; it’s to boost the ability of public transport to compete with car travel at a regional level and not just a local level. To do this it needs to have a fully segregated ROW, which we’ll only get at the city end by digging more tunnels or by maxing out the utilisation of the existing heavy rail network. It also needs to provide direct links to major activity centres, coordinate with local transport networks and not rely on car access for the bulk of its patronage.