This is what the Government says Centre Rd Clayton could like once the existing level crossing is removed
This is what the Government says Centre Rd Clayton could like once the existing level crossing is removed by placing the rail line on a viaduct

It looks like sticking rail lines up in the air rather than below ground level might be a political loser for Victoria’s Andrews Government

The Age reported yesterday that federal Labor MP Mark Dreyfus and state Labor MP Tim Richardson might suffer electorally as a result of the Andrews Government’s so-called “Skyrail” project: a plan to eliminate nine level crossings on the Dandenong line by putting rail over roads (viaduct) rather than under roads (trench).

If that’s right and it leads to the Government dropping the viaduct solution in favor of an open trench, it could have ramifications that extend well beyond this particular project and beyond removal of level crossings more generally.

It could damage the prospects for using viaducts to build entirely new rail lines and busways in (say) a location like this or one like this. Elevation is generally a much cheaper way of retro-fitting completely new transport infrastructure in urban areas than the most likely alternative, deep tunnelling. (1)

The hostile reaction to the Andrews Government’s proposed viaduct/s is in large part being put down to poor consultation. My own dealings with the Level Crossing Removal Authority Fortress reinforce the view it’s not well equipped for that task, but I doubt that’s the main story.

I think the key problem is the Government miscalculated the preferences of residents. It focussed its case mostly on the additional 22.5 Ha of public open space it claims elevation creates compared to trenching. Potential savings in capital costs and from less disruption during construction weren’t given as much prominence.

But it seems residents don’t value additional open space as much as the Government and its urban designers think they do or should. If the political reaction is right, they apparently don’t think eleven MCGs worth of open space is enough to make up for the downsides – real or imagined – of elevating an existing rail line.

Ask people if they want more public open space and they’ll invariably say yes; after all if there’s no downside why not? Surveys almost always leave out that everything comes at a cost.

Make the cost explicit – as has happened in this case – and enthusiasm for open space falls sharply. We know this from property values; dwellings facing parks command a premium, but go back even a short distance and the premium mostly disappears.

This isn’t surprising. Dwellings in Australian suburbia mostly have a backyard, courtyard or balcony. Residential streets are wide, have nature strips and are relatively quiet.

As I noted recently, Melburnians already have access to a lot of public open space compared to residents of other great world cities. It’s one of the reasons Australian cities sprawl so much (see Should we deck over motorways to provide more urban parkland?).

Put another way, it seems a lot of residents don’t view their suburban landscape with the same degree of distaste as urban designers do. They don’t think it’s so boring, featureless, placeless and lacking in public amenities that elevated rail is worth the price of “repair”.

Those who live far enough away that they won’t see or hear the viaduct might also think the promised open space is too far away to be of practical use to them. Their sympathies lie with those living adjacent to the rail line – “there but for the grace of God go I”.

I think the Government would’ve been better advised to give more emphasis to the other benefits of elevation over trenching i.e. capital cost savings and less disruption during construction. Many more residents than those directly affected would be inconvenienced by having to use connecting buses for a significant period. (2)

For those like me who see great potential in elevation for future projects there’s still some grounds for optimism. Building an entirely new rail line or busway on a viaduct (say somewhere like here) wouldn’t replace an existing rail line, so the benefits would be more obvious. In particular, residents could see they’re getting increased accessibility which very likely wouldn’t be possible if they were to insist on more expensive tunneling.

Update 18/3/2017: This interesting site, Passy’s world of mathematics, puts the area of the MCG including grandstands at 6 hectares and the area of the grassed playing surface at 1.7 hectares. So if we accept that people think of “the MCG” as including grandstands, the area of land liberated by Skyrail is just under four MCGs.

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  1. Trenching, which is cheaper than tunneling, is an option in the case of level crossing removals because the line already exists.
  2. If it turns out there’s no capital cost saving (which could be the case given no information’s been released on this aspect) then the Government has staked a lot on one basket of eggs.