Metropolitan and major activity centres (source: Plan Melbourne)

In the first of a series elaborating on his proposed $80 billion Building Australia Fund, guest writer and transport consultant, Dr Garry Glazebrook puts the case for a Melbourne “ring” rail line using light metro technology: (1)

Melbourne has well-developed radial rail and tram networks focusing on its CBD, a legacy of rapid growth after the Gold Rush when rail technology was the dominant form of urban transport in cities.

The CBD is also relatively centrally located within the metropolitan region, with new development spreading north and west to balance the East and South-Eastern suburbs. It’s also relatively unconstrained compared to cities such as Sydney and Brisbane, and the addition of Melbourne Docklands and Southbank in recent decades has provided ample space for residential as well as commercial development.

However Melbourne’s rapid growth is generating major congestion on both road and rail networks. The heavy rail network is close to capacity, while the tram network suffers from partly sharing road-space with traffic.  There is a growing gap between opportunities available to people living in the inner city suburbs and the those in the outer suburbs, who are facing increasing commute times to reach the job-rich inner suburbs.

Accordingly Plan Melbourne identifies a number of centres outside the CBD where activity needs to be focused. However, making the plan viable will require a significant upgrade to the accessibility of these centres by public transport. This suggests a need for one or more  “ring metros” which can complement Melbourne’s strong radial public transport networks. This will allow public transport to take some of the radial trips currently concentrated on the road system.

London has long had its “Circle Line”, which is a form of inner ring; a few cities, such as Berlin, Tokyo and Moscow, have had ring metros some distance out from the city centre for many years. Others such as Shanghai and Paris have recently built or are building such circumferential systems – in the case of Paris, two rings, using both metros and light rail. (2) (3)

However for such a strategy to be effective, such a “ring metro” needs to have certain characteristics:

  • It needs to operate at high frequencies throughout the day – typically headways of 3-4 minutes – since many people using it will be transferring from the radial network.
  • It needs to have well-integrated interchanges with the radial train and tram networks, as well as with major bus routes.
  • It needs to operate in its own right of way and be grade separated from roads and existing public transport systems so as not to cause delays to its own patrons or to the rest of the transport system.
  • It needs to have reasonable capacity (e.g. 3,000 – 10,000 passengers per direction per hour in peaks) to accommodate current travel patterns and potential growth, especially as the sub-centres themselves grow in importance.
  • It needs to be relatively low cost to build and operate, and to be capable of staged construction.

In terms of potential rights of way, several possibilities exist:

  • Alongside or in the median strip of existing circumferential freeways.
  • Underground (probably in cut-and cover tunnels), especially as they approach the key centres.
  • Above ground where the environmental impacts are acceptable and the corridor space is available.

Taking these factors into consideration suggests the ideal system would be some form of  automated light metro rather than the traditional train or tram systems used in Melbourne.  It is likely that the vehicles used in such a system will need to be relatively small in length and cross section, able to climb significant gradients and negotiate tight curves, and operate automatically on short headways (down to 2 minutes).


Examples of such systems overseas include the VAL system developed in France and used in a number of countries; SkyTrain in Vancouver; and the Docklands light railway (DLR) in London. There over 50 cities world wide with “light metro” systems, some of which would have the desired characteristics.

In Vancouver the Skytrain system operates underground in the city centre like a traditional metro, but is largely elevated elsewhere, with stations integrated into high-density activity centres. In London the DLR was able to utilize some existing underground and above ground rights of way near the Central Business District, but again was largely built on new above ground structures through the Docklands area, where it was also integrated into major new development.

In the case of Melbourne, the existing ring freeway system offers some potential for minimizing the impacts of any new ring metro. However unlike freeways, which ideally skirt major centres, the ring metro must penetrate to the heart of such centres and interchange with existing stations if it is to be useful. Thus some underground sections and stations will be required.

One of the advantages of a light metro with automated trains is that a network can be built up over time, providing high frequency services across a variety of routes, minimizing interchange times. This is how both the Skytrain system in Vancouver and the DLR system in London have developed.


The cost of any “Ring Metro” for Melbourne will depend on its extent and on the technology used. Light Metros typically have lower axle loads, shorter trains and stations, and driverless trains, which make them significantly less expensive per kilometre than conventional rail like Melbourne’s new 9 km Metro tunnel or the new Sydney metro – the latter is costing approximately $200 m – $300 m per kilometre, and is mostly underground.

Assuming a mix in the order of 50% surface in freeway reserves, 25% in other surface or above ground locations, and 25% underground, a typical average cost of $150 million per kilometer suggests a likely capital cost of the order of $10 billion for a 66 km ring light metro for Melbourne. Such a system could connect centres such as Frankstown, Dandenong, Monash, Box Hill, Latrobe, Epping, Broadmeadows, Melbourne Airport and Sunshine.

In this context, the lower operating costs and relatively high speeds (compared with street-running light rail) of an automated light metro should mean that farebox revenue should be capable of covering 100% of operating costs, with the potential to fund a component of the capital costs. In addition, application of land value capture mechanisms at key centres on the route would provide further opportunities for recovering part of the capital costs.

Subject to more detailed assessment, it is assumed that the project could return 50% of the capital costs, with the remainder covered by the proposed Building Australia Fund.

Thus it is assumed that the Building Australia Fund would invest of the order of $4 billion on this project over a fifteen-year timeframe, commencing in 2020 to allow time for necessary planning and design of the route, selection of the most appropriate technology, etc.


As noted, construction of any “Ring metro” would need to be staged. It is suggested that the first stage could include a number of the key centres identified earlier, as well as Melbourne Airport. In addition to interchanges with radial rail and tram routes which cross the ring route, additional park and ride stations could be built on the ring metro for people accessing the system by car or bus. This could allow many people to access Melbourne airport without adding to road congestion on Tullamarine Freeway. Assuming typical spacing between stations on the ring metro of 1 – 1.2 km the system would be able to average 40 kph or more, making it much faster than Melbourne’s trams and competitive with car-based travel for many circumferential trips.

In addition to integrating the ring metro with other transport modes, the opportunity to add medium density housing along the ring metro route, as well as higher density nodes at key centres, should also be taken. Close integration with land use is a key to the success of any public transport system achieving its potential to transform the urban fabric of the city and to maximize the urban accessibility benefits public transport can provide.

See also Building rail connections across the suburbs and What should we do about the airport?


  1. For a copy of the full “Building Australia Fund” report and Appendix (containing details of key projects) contact Dr Glazebrook at [email protected]
  2. A ring metro system for Perth was proposed by the ALP in Western Australia, and is now a centrepiece of the incoming State Government’s transport plan.
  3. See Metro rings and loops for a more complete discussion of circumferential public transport routes