Rail Futures Institute’s Melbourne Rail Plan 2019-2050 (MCT is Medium Capacity Transit e.g. light rail)

It’s hard to pin down what’s truly “visionary” from what’s merely “a nice possibility”, but Victoria’s Rail Futures Institute’s promised Melbourne Rail Plan 2019-2050 looks a lot more like a game-changer than the Victorian Government’s headline election pledge to build a suburban orbital rail line through Melbourne’s middle-ring suburbs.

The Institute’s Plan proposes construction of a high-frequency rail ‘grid’ network to serve Melbourne’s expansive metropolitan area. The key elements are 6 new cross-city heavy rail routes, 15 new light rail routes, 8 outer suburban electrifications, 28 new tram routes, and 13 tram extensions. These would be supported by expanded feeder bus/tram services.
The Plan is estimated by the Institute to cost $109 billion over 21 years, including rolling stock.

It’s not perfect, but the Melbourne Rail Plan does a number of things well. I’m not going to discuss the merits of the individual track proposals because the information provided by the Institute is skimpy at best, but there are positive things to say about the plan as a whole.

First, it’s a plan for building infrastructure over the next 20 years; it’s not an immediate Government commitment. It’s lacking in detail at present, but since it’s only a plan, that can be filled in over time as the various components are assessed in detail. Following analysis, some of the initiatives might be accepted, others amended, or some might be rejected. The key point is it’s a plan.

That’s in marked contrast to the $50 billion rail loop, which the Andrews Government has committed to without analysis. It’s promised to spend a whopping $300 million to develop the idea in its next term if it wins the state election in November and commence construction by 2022. The Federal Opposition has promised to tip in an additional $300 million for the business case if it wins next year’s national election i.e. there could be $600 million for devising a business case to support a decision that’s already been taken.

Second, the Melbourne Rail Plan isn’t a one trick pony; it’s a comprehensive plan for a heavy rail, light rail and tram public transport ‘grid’ covering the whole metropolitan area. The Government on the other hand seemingly eschews the idea of a strategic framework, preferring ad hoc projects like the rail loop i.e. a single suburban line with 15 stations. The state bureaucrats might be quietly thinking in (somewhat) bigger terms, but the politicians apparently aren’t (see Leaked rail plan shows few extra services for regional commuters).

Third, the Plan sensibly specifies priority initiatives that would “deliver immediate benefits”, rather than focussing solely on the more glamorous new-builds that politicians find so attractive. The Institute says the “urgent projects” are rail electrifications, additional train and tram rolling stock, one rail duplication, tram track improvements, one rail extension and one tram extension. In other words, the Plan recognises the immediate priority in Melbourne should be getting the basics right, even if they’re relatively unexciting by the usual political measures.

But the Melbourne Rail Plan isn’t without shortcomings.

First, like the Government’s loop promise, there’s no information on the benefits. For example, there’s nothing on estimated levels of patronage, on how travel times might improve, or on the forecast change in the level of car travel. Nor is there any way of assessing if the stated cost figures are reasonable or not; as the Institute is a lobby group, they should be treated with caution.

Second, and again similar to the Government, there’re no initiatives to address excessive car use by making driving less competitive relative to other modes. The Plan would make public transport much better for those who use it, but it won’t drive significant mode shift away from cars in the absence of a policy that suppresses car use e.g. congestion pricing. It’s a mistake to assume that traffic congestion by itself will be enough to make driving unattractive compared to public transport, even when the latter is much improved.

Third, the Institute doesn’t say what else would not be funded in order to pay for the required capital and operating costs of the Plan. For example, what potential initiatives would be foregone in the other two big budget areas, Health and Education? Of course, this is a problem with the way both the Government and the Opposition present their project promises, too.

Fourth, while the Plan is multi-modal in the sense it covers the range of track-based public transport, it only makes passing reference to the infrastructure requirements of other modes like buses, bicycles, walking and cars. Most importantly, there’s no budget provision for these other modes, even though most of them will be required in their own right and even though the Plan would drive demand for some of them. While the “out” here is that it’s specifically a rail plan, all parties need to take an integrated approach.

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The Rail Futures Institute has made an important contribution to the public debate on transport. It might’ve had a larger impact had the Institute got around to releasing its promised detailed report, which still bafflingly remains in hiding. The Melbourne Rail Plan, as revealed in summary form, highlights the failure of both the Government and the Opposition to release to the public a comprehensive multi-modal Plan (you can call it a “vision” if you want) for how transport might be addressed as the metropolitan area grows.

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