Cumulative benefits and costs including dependent infrastructure upgrades - upper project cost estimate (source: Infrastructure Victoria)
Cumulative benefits and costs including dependent infrastructure upgrades, proposed North East Link motorway – upper project cost estimate (source: Infrastructure Victoria)

The Age gave a lot of prominence on Saturday to a report that the Andrew’s government’s newly announced North East Link motorway would “shift 25,000 rail passengers a day to cars”.

The $10 billion North East Link will create “an estimated reduction in train boardings of 25,000 on an average weekday”, according to Infrastructure Victoria. That is the equivalent of shifting about one in 25 train journeys across Melbourne from rail to road. The government argues the road will cut congestion. But a report has found it will “compete directly with sections of the metropolitan rail network, principally the Hurstbridge, Mernda, Upfield and Craigieburn” railway lines, leading commuters to opt for cars.

This is a motorway so we should expect there’ll be more driving, but 25,000 sounds extraordinary given the North East Link itself will carry 100,000 vehicles a day. The preliminary economic appraisal prepared by Infrastructure Victoria acknowledges the claim, stating:

Analysis indicates that the project would contribute to a small increase in car trips and reduction in public transport trips across the network…This is reflected in an estimated reduction in train boardings of 25,000 on an average weekday.

So, is it as bad as it sounds? At the outset, it’s useful to make clear that few of the train travellers would literally shift to the North East Link. Infra Vic’s report doesn’t go into details, but it’s more likely most of them would start driving on the arterial network because the new motorway would draw traffic away from existing roads and so make them less congested. That’s unexceptional; the same happens with any substantial road improvement that changes the relative “cost” of rail vs road e.g. clearway extension, traffic light priority, level crossing removal.

Some other points to consider:

  • 25,000 boardings is a pretty small number in the context of the 1,073,438 public transport trips made on an average weekday in Melbourne (about 1 in 50 trips) and microscopic compared to the average 12,249,250 total weekday trips by all modes. One reader wrote to The Age yesterday; “I would suggest that the reported ‘reduction’ in train boardings with the North East Link is so small as to be absorbed into the estimation error of any travel forecast”.
  • Those who change from train to car would do so because it’d make them better off; they’d get a faster trip.
  • The motorway is in any event estimated to give public transport users $419 million (NPV) in benefits due to factors like reduced crowding and improved bus reliability.
  • The estimated benefits to users would significantly exceed the negative externalities associated with the motorway (by nearly 15 to 1), including those due to the reduction in train patronage.

There are always various positive and negative changes with any large project, whether road or rail. The key thing is to look at the overall net outcome of the entire investment.

Infrastructure Victoria says that after accounting for negative externalities including pollution, emissions, crashes, and foregone exercise from walking to public transport, the motorway is estimated to give a benefit-cost ratio of 1.4 – 2.4 (increasing to 2.2 – 3.1 when wider economic benefits are included, as they should be). It says while there’d be a small increase in car trips, aggregate time spent travelling on the road network would fall.

The headline “North East Link to shift 25,000 rail passengers to cars” doubtless triggered a reflexive and satisfyingly negative response from many in Fairfax’s target market, but as I wrote last week (Is this motorway obviously a really stupid idea?), it’s critical to understand this is the suburbs.

It’s extraordinarily hard for public transport to provide an attractive alternative to cars in a low density environment where activities are dispersed e.g. public transport’s share of all weekday trips is 9% in the middle ring suburbs and 6% in the outer suburbs (the figures for trains are 6% and 4% respectively). Moreover, the North East Link is for orbital travel – it’s part of the ring road – whereas Melbourne’s legacy rail system is radial, designed around the concentration of activities in the centre.

None of that means the North East Link is necessarily a worthwhile project; in particular, there are still significant environmental risks that need to be evaluated carefully. But as ever it pays to look at the entirety of any project.