The level crossing on Union Rd Surrey Hills where two women in their 70s were killed on Wednesday when their car was struck by a train
The level crossing on Union Rd Surrey Hills where two people were killed on Wednesday when their car was struck by a train

Following the deaths of two people in a level crossing crash in suburban Melbourne on Wednesday, the state opposition yesterday called on the government to prioritise removal of the crossing.

It wants the government to include Union Road, Surry Hills in the list of 50 level crossings it promised at the 2014 election it would eliminate within eight years.

The Leader of the Opposition, Mathew Guy, made the call within 24 hours of the crash. He’s been criticised for playing politics, but he’s got a solid argument:

  • The Union St crossing is one of the most dangerous in the state yet isn’t on the government’s list; in 2008 it was ranked 14th in terms of safety by the Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model (ALCAM). 
  • Politics played a significant role in the composition of the government’s list. It includes some crossings with doubtful justification on objective criteria and excludes some that have strong claims.

But there are other considerations that should be taken into account:

  • While some have a poorer safety record than others, all level crossings have potential for fatalities. Even after the initial 50 removals are completed, there will still be 130 in Melbourne and over 1,700 across the state.
  • Level crossings are expensive to remove. This one would require the rail line to be rebuilt in a trench under the road or elevated in structure over the road. It would also require a new station. The likely cost is around $150 – $180 million.
  • The government took its itemised list of 50 crossings to the 2014 election. It would probably have to find additional funds to do this one. That would necessarily be at the expense of other arguably equally worthy capital works elsewhere in the budget, perhaps from education or health.
  • Assessing the priority of level crossing removals needs to take account of multiple criteria, not only road safety. Other important considerations include the contribution the project would make to improving traffic flow, improving rail operations, and improving local amenity. One of the key justifications for removing crossings is they’re a barrier to increasing the frequency of train services in peak periods.
  • There are other road projects that might rank higher than this one on safety criteria. There were 3,535 fatalities on the state’s roads in the 10 years to 2012 compared to 139 people killed by trains over the same period, including those who were struck by trains, who fell between platforms or were on trains involved in collisions (but not suicides). $150 million might give a higher safety pay-off if spent elsewhere e.g. to improve the safety of cycling.
  • There might be other improvements that could be made at much lower cost to improve safety on Union Rd. For example, the Rail, Tram and Bus union reckons train speed should be lowered from 80 kmh to 65 kmh on this section of track.

Whatever action should be taken in response to this tragedy, it must be determined after all the issues have been taken into account. It should be decided in a less emotionally charged atmosphere and after a full analysis of the particular circumstances is completed.