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Cars & traffic

Aug 15, 2017


Comparison of results of Zenith and VITM modelling of trips in Melbourne in 2011 and 2031 (source: William McDougall)

The Age reports (West Gate Tunnel: Benefits deliberately distorted to support road, says expert):

The team that produced the dumped East West Link business case – repeatedly ridiculed by Premier Daniel Andrews – is the same group behind the West Gate Tunnel business case.

Certainly sounds a bit suspicious, but is it? Well no; there are problems with this project but this isn’t one of them:

  • The same “team” – transport consultants Veitch Lister and management consultants PWC – is also the one that estimated the benefit-cost ratio for the East West Link is a miserable 0.45. It was the Napthine Government – embarrassed by the tiny number – that obfuscated the real economic value of the project.
  • Veitch Lister has a reputation for getting more accurate traffic forecasts than others. The firm famously did independent forecasts for Brisbane’s Airport Link that showed those of the proponent were way too optimistic (see Who got the facts on traffic forecasts wrong?).

Nor should it be assumed that merely because both firms worked on the same project that they’re a “team” as The Age implies. The transport modelling done by Veitch Lister and the economic evaluation done by PWC require different expertise; the virtues/failings of one can’t be attributed to the other.

But that’s just The Age doing its tabloid thing. It gets meatier, though, when it reports that a former transport consultant on the West Gate Tunnel project, William McDougall, reckons:

The economic and traffic benefits of Transurban’s proposed $5.5 billion motorway through Melbourne’s west were deliberately distorted and misrepresented in Victoria’s assessment of the road.

Mr McDougall’s criticisms of the way the project’s been managed are set out in a submission he made last month to the Senate enquiry on toll roads. His specific concerns are over technical issues around the traffic modelling (e.g. ‘single distribution’ vs ‘loop through distribution’) and economic evaluation (e.g. use of a methodology given in the New Zealand Transport Agency Economic Evaluation Manual). He says the decisions taken by the Government were the result of optimism bias:

This is a polite term for what I consider to be deliberate distortion and misrepresentation of traffic forecasts and the economic benefits that flow from them. This was done on what was supposed to have been an impartial assessment of the project from a Government perspective, rather than a proposal by a private proponent or tenderer.

Mr McDougall might be right (and optimism bias is a real risk with big projects), but his specific criticisms are mostly around technical matters where there can legitimately be different points of view. The Age doesn’t give Veitch Lister’s or PWC’s version of the argument, so it’s impossible for me to come to an informed and fair view at this time on the merits of all of Mr McDougall’s points. As I’ve noted before, the Government’s VITM model (that Mr McDougall accords greater credibility) has been criticised for dealing poorly with toll roads (see Are the forecasts for the East-West Link built on dubious foundations?) .

But one problem he identifies seems unambiguous and demands further explanation. He says the average base year trip distance by car calculated by Veitch Lister’s Zenith model is a whopping 14.4 km (see exhibit). That’s far in excess of what’s known about actual trip behaviour in the base year; the VISTA household survey of travel puts it at just 10.2 km. The Government’s VITM model calculates it’s 10.1 km, according to Mr McDougall. The higher figure derived from Zenith, he says, has the effect of enhancing the justification for the project.

Mr McDougall isn’t the only one using the Senate Inquiry as a vehicle to raise concerns about the West Gate Tunnel. The Grattan Institute argues in its submission:

The Victorian government is not sourcing finance for the project in the way that is least expensive to the Victorian public

The risk of cost overruns on construction and operations – which will be borne by the Victorian public – is understated

The lack of transparency surrounding the project is not in the public interest.

The Public Transport Users Association also takes the opportunity to raise problems with the West Gate Tunnel, e.g.

This market-led proposal would significantly increase general traffic directly into the Melbourne CBD and result in higher traffic volumes and serious harm to urban amenity…

In the absence of whole-of-network pricing the significantly higher tolls for heavy commercial vehicles relative to light vehicles on CityLink may act as a disincentive for HCVs to use the (tunnel) and therefore result in failure to fully resolve the problem of trucks on residential streets in the inner west.

The hearing into the environmental effects of the project which started yesterday is likely to be exciting to say the least. The Victorian Government needs to take a deep breath, get serious, and respond in detail to the mounting criticisms of this project.


It’s not directly related to the West Gate Tunnel project, but there’s a broader point embodied in the numbers presented by Mr McDougall. The exhibit indicates the Zenith model estimates public transport’s share of motorised travel in Melbourne in 2031 at between 14.3% and 14.4%. The Government’s in-house model (VITM) puts it at 13.3%. If something close to these numbers were to eventuate, it would be a significant improvement relative to the base year figure of 9.2% – 9.5%; but the important implication is it would still be a small share e.g. under the VITM model, cars would have 86.7% mode share in 2031.

I noted earlier this year one of the key implications of this forecast outcome (see Can we have a mature discussion about the future of urban transport?):

The important message is we need to stop chasing chimeras and start tackling the issue of private transport head-on…The weight of attention and effort from politicians and lobbyists needs to shift decisively toward managing private transport better rather than wishing it away.

What action should we take? I recently outlined some suggestions here (Is public transport the only solution to congestion?).

Public transport

Jul 30, 2015


Alternative network, CBD detail

Guest writer Liam Egerton writes on transport strategy for London Reconnections: (1)

Melbourne is embarking on a major investment in rail capacity. It needs to address a legacy of decades of underinvestment and provide for the transport demands of a rapidly growing city.

The new agency Melbourne Metro Rail is leading the development of a $9-11 billion rail tunnel across the CBD from South Kensington to South Yarra. But what problem is the new Metro Rail tunnel trying to resolve?

The received wisdom is that Melbourne has too many passengers to fit onto too few lines. The reality is more nuanced.

The Age recently reported on the six problems ruining Melbourne’s rail network, none of which was lack of route capacity. The key inadequacies are with signalling, power supply, run-down stations and, critically, junctions where trains cross each other.

The proposed tunnel will run from Kensington through the CBD to South Yarra. So will this provide a complete new train line?

Victorian Government's planned Melbourne Metro rail tunnel

Sadly, no. The tunnel will not increase the number of lines, it merely redirects some via a different route across the CBD. This will actually reduce services on existing lines approaching the CBD. It could be a very expensive diversion.

It will also take too long. The rapid growth in rail passenger demand is expected to peak in the next 3-5 years. Melbourne needs a quicker solution, and one which is less risky in engineering terms.

The cut & cover construction of the tunnels beneath Swanston Street will entail massive disruption to the CBD over several years, including the major re-routing of trams. The economic cost of this disruption has not been specified.

So what is Melbourne trying to achieve? Let’s take a step back and consider three factors.

First, Melbourne already has five cross-city routes which can each, if operated at current capacity, provide 24 trains per hour (tph) in both directions. The City Loop can provide two routes, with three between Flinders Street and Southern Cross. That’s 240 tph trains into the CBD, plus the Sandringham line and regional V/Line services: over 50% more than at present.

The second is the aspiration of the strategic planners for Melbourne to grow its core beyond the CBD, and to integrate a network of economic clusters in the suburbs and beyond. These will need rail links, and the only rail network that makes sense is a web of cross-city lines, which links the hubs and allows the CBD to grow.

The third is the most obvious: modern metro systems provide a simple pattern of high-frequency routes which allow multiple journey options. Turn up and go, easy interchange, straightforward. Think London, Paris, Hong Kong… anywhere but Melbourne.

The key problem with the city’s rail network is not capacity. It is the configuration into the City Loop, which is throttling the city and limiting the capacity of the network overall.

It is inefficient to operate and baffling to occasional travellers or visitors. Worse, it concentrates large radial flows of commuters into a small city core, and therefore thwarts the aspirations of Melbourne’s strategic planners.

Indeed, the Loop is so strange that the Public Transport Users Association provides diagrams to show you how to navigate the network at different times. Threading trains onto the Loop also provides headaches for the train operator which, paradoxically, appears to be a major driver for the proposed new CBD tunnel.

Alternative network

The alternative network proposed in exhibits 1 and 3 above provides five routes across the city: segregated, frequent, easy to understand. Capacity is released simply by untangling the Loop. Compare it to the PTV concept map.

Currently there are five main rail routes from the south/east but only three from the north/west. So you need to build two more heading west, and initially these can be modest extensions.

The new infrastructure required is modest compared to the Metro CBD tunnel. It provides new links to urban renewal areas on the CBD fringe: to Fishermans Bend, eGate and Docklands. It is easier building rail into these now, and this will help galvanise redevelopment.

Beyond this the main infrastructure requirements are new connections to the Loop lines at Richmond and North Melbourne, a fourth track from Burnley to Camberwell and grade-separation of junctions at North Melbourne.

The game changer for the Victorian government is that this can be achieved cheaper and quicker than the CBD tunnel, and with less risk. The transport planners can identify the easiest cross-city route, segregate it and launch it as a 24 tph re-branded cross-city service. The travelling public will then buy into the strategy, and each new phase will be easier to achieve.

But the real benefits for Melbourne run much deeper, and are longer-term. Look at the London 2050 options below: a more concentrated CBD, a bigger CBD or a CBD with economic hubs?

London 2050

This is a familiar conundrum for cities worldwide. Can Melbourne leap-frog this by pursuing its current strategy of growing the CBD and developing suburban clusters?

Herein lies the problem, and this is why the Metro CBD tunnel is deeply flawed. Melbourne does not need major new rail infrastructure in the CBD: it needs it in the suburbs.

Express trains and regional V/line trains share tracks with metro routes through the inner suburbs. This is where you need to provide new lines, the priorities being the Dandenong route through Caulfield and the northern lines through Upfield/Craigieburn. Both of these are trying to shoehorn express trains into frequent all-station metro routes. It doesn’t work, and this is where the transport planners need to be focusing their investment.


  1. Liam Egerton is an experienced practitioner in strategic foresight and resilience strategy, working with NGOs, consultancy and in policy for the Victorian government

Public transport

Mar 28, 2013


What matters most - key network constraints, existing Melbourne rail network (source: PTV)

Yesterday’s release of Public Transport Victoria’s (PTV) Network Development Plan for Melbourne’s rail system is more evidence of how frustrating life must’ve been like under former Premier, Ted Baillieu. The report joins a growing list of others released since Denis Napthine took over the top job.

This is by far the most important one. I’ve only had time for a quick look at the overview documents last night so these are my initial reactions, which are necessarily high-level.

I’ll look more closely at the longer supporting documents shortly. The devil is often in the detail with these sorts of plans so it’s possible I might revise my view on some aspects.

According to the Plan, the forecast task for rail in Melbourne is daunting. Average weekday boardings on metropolitan rail are projected to grow by around 4% per annum and more than double between 2011 and 2031.

The key objectives of the Plan are to expand capacity, improve coordination with buses and trams, and extend the network to new areas. How it proposes to address these objectives is organised in four stages (the time frames appear to be based on commencement, not completion):

Stage 1 – within 4 years. The pitch here is “overcoming constraints” that limit improvements to system capacity and performance. Most of these actions are already underway e.g. segregating country and metro trains, purchasing additional rolling stock.

Stage 2 – within 10 years. The star attraction is “commencing the introduction of a metro-style system”. The key initiative is the 13 km Melbourne Metro tunnel under the CBD.

It also envisages essential but more mundane initiatives, including upgrading the capacity of the Dandenong corridor, purchase of 30 trains, and installation of high capacity signalling on a number of lines.

Stage 3 – within 15 years. This involves “extending the network” and is the one the media and interest groups are most interested in. The key initiatives are a rail line to the airport and new lines to suburban Rowville and Doncaster.

It also involves purchase of more trains, a new line (tunnel) connecting Clifton Hill to Flagstaff, electrification to Melton, and further conversion to high capacity signalling.

Stage 4 – within 20 years. This stage is characterised as “preparing for future growth”. The headline initiative is to reconfigure the City Loop to provide seven separate, independently operated “metro” lines through the Melbourne CBD.

It’s also proposed a new line would be constructed from the city to the growth area at inner city Fishermans Bend, as well as extensions to outer suburban Mernda and Wyndham Vale.

A number of lines would be duplicated and quadruplicated and the line to Geelong electrified.

The main public reaction to the Plan seems to be disappointment that new rail lines to the airport, Doncaster and Rowville are at least 15 years away, possibly more.

The way The Age framed its report reflects that narrative: Major rail projects expected in 20 years. The Financial Review says there are Questions over Melbourne’s $30 billion rail plan, noting it “lacks crucial detail on implementation and funding.”

I think the first thing to do is to congratulate Public Transport Victoria (PTV) on producing a long-term plan for Melbourne’s rail system and making it available publicly. Whatever its virtues or failings might be, as far as I’m aware there hasn’t been a public plan like this for many decades.

It’s up to the government what it does with it. Although the CEO of PTV apparently mentioned a possible cost of $30 billion (not clear what stages it applies to, though), the Plan is driven by technical considerations, not funding availability.

From what I’ve read so far, there’s a lot in this Plan that makes good sense.

The centrepiece – and its greatest virtue – is the vision of a metro-style rail system. What the document sets out is a program to create a high-capacity, high-frequency “turn-up-and-go” rail network, with lines operating independently and coordinated with bus and tram feeder services.

Putting the short-term focus on improving the capacity and performance of the existing system ahead of glamorous network expansions also makes sense. That involves various less visible initiatives like corridor upgrades and improved signalling, as well as building the costly Melbourne Metro.

It’s also right to put off the network expansions to the medium term and to probably what, in effect, is the political never-never. Both the Rowville and Doncaster lines are unjustifiable (for reasons I’ve explained before) and shouldn’t be in there in that time frame, but I acknowledge they’re so high-profile they can’t be ignored.

There is however a good case for an airport rail line. It’s not likely to be needed until circa 2030 so it sits comfortably in the proposed timetable. Unlike Doncaster and Rowville, it has a compelling logic that’s unlikely to be ignored when conditions demand it be built.

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) is critical of the Plan, arguing that prioritising the expensive Melbourne Metro tunnel crowds out new rail lines. It says upgrading signalling first would increase capacity at vastly lower cost and release funding to enable the airport, Rowville and Doncaster lines to be built sooner rather than later.

As I read it, PTV’s Plan is a technical response to forecast patronage growth. It doesn’t have regard to the availability of funding but rather prioritises improvements (like upgraded signalling) according to when they’re justified on operational grounds.

The argument for bringing forward these rail lines is essentially political. If they’re not needed at this time the PTUA’s argument is largely beside the point.

Nevertheless, if it isn’t addressed in the technical report, PTV would be wise to explain better why the program of upgraded signalling isn’t proposed for faster implementation.

I’d also like to see PTV’s argument for extending rail to Mernda as late as Stage 4. It’s a major growth area and warrants a good connection to the city centre. Consideration would still need to be given to other options, though, like the former government’s proposed Mernda busway.

I’m surprised the Plan doesn’t propose any new cross-city rail lines outside the inner city. That might be because it’s thought that function would more sensibly be delivered by buses and trams (Network Plans for both these modes are due to be completed this year).

The authors of the forthcoming metropolitan planning strategy should take a good look at this report. They should be asking themselves if this centre-focused public transport Plan is consistent with their commitment to a “polycentric city”.

One very interesting matter of detail that caught my eye was mention of the proposed rail line to Avalon Airport.  The Government promised construction would commence in this term, but PTV seems to think the government’s softened its position:

While a rail link to Avalon Airport is not part of the metropolitan network at this time, and not considered as part of this plan, the Victorian Government is committed to protecting a reservation and is currently undertaking planning and design for construction of a rail link to commence within the next five years.

That’s one promise the Napthine government ought not to be held to account for breaking. Rather, the new Premier ought to be congratulated if he abandons it.

It’s disappointing that so much of the debate about rail is framed in terms of expansion of the network. These sorts of initiatives are usually very expensive and offer marginal benefits to the system as a whole.

For example, the proposed Rowville line would increase public transport’s share of all metropolitan trips in 2046 from 12.6% to 12.7%. More than half its patronage would come from existing rail lines and it would only eliminate a microscopic 15,000 car trips per day.

For an outlay of at least $2 billion, that’s an extraordinarily modest pay-off. There are much more productive ways funding on that scale could be applied.

Given the high level of anticipated patronage growth, improving the performance, capacity and connectivity of the existing metropolitan rail network – which already consists of 830 km of track and 217 stations – should be the top priority.

As noted, I’ll revisit this topic shortly when I’ve had time to look at the detailed reports. I’m hoping they’ll provide explanation and justification, not just state what PTV thinks should be done.

One of the things I’ll be particularly interested in understanding better is the logic underpinning the patronage projections, especially the high rate of employment growth assumed in the CBD.

Public transport

Feb 22, 2013


Number of fines issued on public transport in Melbourne in January 2012 vs January 2013

I’ve written before that 13.5% of trips on Melbourne’s public transport system in the first half of 2011 weren’t paid for. The proportion on trams – where it’s easier to avoid paying – was 20%.

Last week The Age reported that 10,320 fines were issued on Melbourne’s trains, trams and buses in January (almost entirely for fare evasion). Around 7,900 of these were issued on trains, nearly double the number written in January 2012 (see exhibit).

The President of the Public Transport Users Association, Tony Morton, blames the increase on a “ticket inspector blitz on the trains”. He said:

The figures look like active targeting on the train system, which seems to be Metro’s focus….There was a period of leniency during the initial introduction of myki, but now that Metcards have been switched off, the government has taken the opportunity to clamp down on fare evasion.

While there are issues with the behaviour of some inspectors, it seems to me they shouldn’t be the main focus here – it should be travellers who don’t pay their way.

Evaders offer various justifications for their behaviour. These include the Government’s decision to turn-off Metcards at the end of December, the absence of a single trip ticket, the cost and delay associated with Myki, and dissatisfaction with late and crowded trains.

Here’s a selection of views (uncorrected) from commenters on The Age’s article, who’re all rationalising fare dodging:

  • When will a single use ticket be introduced? I forgot my myki card a few days ago and fare evaded. Why should I be expected to pay another $6 + the cost of the fare?
  • Ah those poor amateur evaders. Pick a good time to evade like peak hours where trains are packed like sardines. Always carry a Myki with credits and touch on only when you can. Survive like me.
  • Agree with above comments, my PT bill I usually around $70 odd a week. If you evade properly and opportunistically you can save much of this money. Then when karma serves you a ticket your usually way in the black so paying it is not a problem.
  • I’m with you guys. Be smart. Evade like a champ. Jump on a Pakenham line train between 5 & 6pm. Inspectors will never subject themselves to the Bangalore style of travel. Pay the odd fine if you happen to get caught, but you’ll still come out in front. 
  • The system is so ridiculously bad that my conscience has gone far beyond caring. Think of all your tax dollars that were completely wasted on Myki. Those bucks belong in your pocket.
  • This system has been nothing but trouble for me since it started. It’s just insane. I’ve been travelling free now for a month on the trams since the last problems. It’s not theft. it’s recouping my tax dollar.
  • An inefficient system is created with tax dollars (our money) then operated for profit by a private company (metro) using punitive enforcement techniques (ticket inspector goons), enabled by our legislature. What can the public do? ….. take the only course left to you and fare evade. This system is so flawed it deserves to be ignored.
  • What i am saying is that it if offensive to fine any Victorian taxpayers for ‘fare evasion’ when it has been their overwhelming generosity that has brought myki to fruition. If there is any ‘fare evasion’ going on, it’s not in the side of the passnegers.

Fortunately these don’t reflect the majority opinion, but there’s enough there to suggest civic virtue and personal morality are awfully elastic concepts so far as some Melburnians are concerned.

It’s true the system has many failings that disadvantage users and make fare dodging an easier choice. As a matter of policy, those shortcomings need to be corrected to minimise opportunistic (and strategic!) fare evasion.

But the inadequacies of the system don’t provide a moral justification for not paying. For all its shortcomings, the system offers travel way, way below the real financial cost. It’s an absolute bargain.

But even if it weren’t, it’s as unethical to shirk paying the fare as it is to shoplift or drive-off from a petrol station without paying. It’s unprincipled behaviour – it should really be called theft, not evasion.

A big part of the problem is the way the system’s designed. Like many other transit systems around the world, modern technology permits vehicles to operate without stops being staffed.

That saves money that can be applied instead to other purposes, like more frequent services and longer hours of operation. These sorts of improvements attract travellers to transit.

To work, the system has to be designed to make purchasing tickets extraordinarily easy. But it also relies on effective enforcement, primarily by inspectors.

Prospective free-riders have to calculate the risk – the probability of being caught multiplied by the size of the penalty.

A key reason to have a valid ticket is uncertainty about whether or not an inspector will materialise. We know from experience with RBT campaigns that a high probability of detection is a significant deterrent.

If Mr Morton has been quoted correctly, I’m disappointed the Public Transport Users Association has again elected to play the populist card by focussing on the inspectors rather than the evaders.

Complaining about inspection “blitzes” shifts the argument to the means and away from the ends. It reminds me of drivers who insist the sole purpose of speed cameras is to raise revenue.

In my view, the Association should’ve loudly condemned fare evasion on the grounds that it’s inequitable and bleeds the public transport system of much-needed revenue. It should’ve supported lawful efforts to detect evaders, not quibbled about a “blitz”.

In his comments to The Age, Mr Morton also argues that putting more staff on stations would be a better solution to the problem. I don’t agree – putting staff on stations to check tickets would be expensive.

This is 2013 – the technology exists to save hundreds of millions of dollars that can be better applied to other more strategically important transit purposes. However getting that benefit relies on effective deterrents to fare-cheating.

Let me emphasise that I don’t condone the bully boy behaviour of some inspectors. I also think it’s imperative that the temptation to evade is minimised by, for example, providing readily accessible single trip tickets (or some equivalent).

But there should be no doubt that evasion is by far the bigger moral and practical problem than inspection. If they’re effective in protecting revenue, techniques like “blitzes” are appropriate in a system that relies on, and is designed around the need for, effective deterrence.

Fare evasion is theft – it should always be opposed and offenders should always be dealt with appropriately.

Public transport

Feb 21, 2013


Sydney's CityRail performs poorly on % operating costs recovered from fares compared to other metro rail operators (source RailCorp)

In a story titled Public transport costs race past inflation for Melbourne commuters, The Herald Sun reported yesterday that “fares have risen twice as fast as inflation since public transport was privatised”.

The paper says that since 1999, the cost of commuting has increased by up to $1200 per year.

Yearly tickets have doubled in price. Monthly and weekly tickets have also risen by more than double the 41 per cent rise in inflation in this period. Rises for daily and two-hour tickets have been less steep but still outpaced inflation, jumping 52 to 80 per cent

As usual, I’m gob-smacked at how the mainstream media selectively mix up dollar and percentage figures; blithely show increases but not the starting or ending figures; and don’t show inflation over the period until near the end of the story (it was 48.5%).

I don’t believe for a moment that “fares have risen twice as fast as inflation” as the paper implies i.e. that the average fare has increased in real terms by 100% over the last 14 years (that’d be a 7% per year real increase on average!).

In these sorts of cases, the taboid approach is to identify one ticket type that’s increased significantly in price and then slyly infer the increase applies across the board.

Average fares were increased in real terms this year (6.8% nominal) but, according to this December 2011 report, train and tram fares have only previously risen faster than the rate of inflation on two occasions since privatisation back in 1999 – in 2004 and 2012.

The Public Transport Users Association took the numbers at face value. The President, Tony Morton, is reported in the Herald Sun saying:

Public transport users aren’t getting value for money….We’re now paying twice as much for a system that is by no means twice as good as it was in the 90s, and in some ways worse.

Putting aside the question of  the size of the increase, I haven’t seen any objective data that shows by how much the system is better or worse now than it was in the 90s. It would be an interesting exercise to devise a fair and balanced methodology for assessing the proposition.

Due regard would have to be given to the significant increase in patronage over recent years. The Transport Minister reckons patronage grew by 200 million trips to 536 million over the 14 years. He says many more routes now have more frequent services.

What interests me most, though, is the logic that travellers can’t reasonably be expected to pay higher fares unless they’re offered a proportionate increase in service.

This is a pretty common expectation. If you read the comments on this story, you’ll see there are even users who rely on this sort of argument to justify deliberately evading fares.

The key fact, though, is that public transport passengers in Melbourne (and in Australia generally) pay only a small proportion of the real cost of their journeys.

They pay none of the capital costs and, in the case of rail (the major public transport mode), only around one third of operating costs.

As the exhibit shows, Sydney’s CityRail recovers a similarly low proportion of its operating costs. Moreover, its level of cost recovery is very low compared to its international peer group (CoMET and Nova are groups of rail operators who share benchmarking information).

The NSW Auditor General reported last year that the average subsidy for each rail journey in the state is $10.01.

Revenue from fares is important for public transport but it’s modest compared to total capital and operating costs. An increase in fares obviously can’t lead to a proportional increase in service; not even close.

Even a relatively large one-off increase in fares, like the average 8.6% (about 5% in real terms) brought in at the start of last year by the Baillieu Government, will defray total system costs by only a small amount.

Rather than opposing fare increases, those with a commitment to improving public transport should be arguing for a higher level of cost recovery from beneficiaries.

As I’ve noted before, that would provide more revenue to build a better system, lower the disincentive (i.e. of ongoing subsidy) to governments of building more transit, and be less regressive.

And as I also wrote previously, the rail system alone needs billions spent on things like improved signalling, track upgrades and duplications, more train sets, new rail lines, improved security, and much more. Patronage has grown at around 5% p.a. and that increases costs.

Spending more to improve the system is vital. Experience shows system improvements are more likely to lead to increases in patronage than lower fares.

Although it’s difficult politically, increasing fares significantly in real terms on an ongoing and systematic basis must be a key part of any strategy for improving public transport.

Advocacy groups like the Public Transport Users Association should understand the nexus between revenue and better services. They should avoid playing politics and leave the populist stuff to the Opposition!

To genuinely serve the interests of public transport users, advocacy groups should promote a sustained strategy of real increases in transit revenue, including via fares, tied to long-term operating and capital improvement plans.

Public transport

Oct 4, 2012


35 years of Shinjuku skyscrapers in 10 seconds (From July 1969 To July 2004)

Jeff Kennett reckons Melbourne needs to puts its rail lines underground. The former Premier of Victoria says it would be the “most important infrastructure needed for Victoria’s future.”

Addressing the Australian Property Institute’s Pan Pacific conference on Monday, he said:

It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but I can assure you when you look back in 50 years, or 100 years, whatever you pay today would seem cheap. We can hardly accommodate the traffic on the surface of our community in an efficient way and it is only going to get worse.

Peter Newman, Distinguished Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University, endorses Mr Kennett’s call for a subway system. He says “it’s the kind of far-sighted thinking we desperately need in Melbourne’s politics.”

Of course it would be delightful to have an underground rail system like London’s in any of our capital cities. It could possibly make sense in Melbourne because the city has a very serious problem with level crossings.

Sydney got rid of virtually all its level crossings years ago, however Melbourne still has 170. They contribute to localised traffic congestion and severely limit the number of train services that can be operated in peak periods.

Putting the rail system underground would also provide land that could be developed or used for civic purposes. No doubt that’s of great interest to the members of the Australian Property Institute.

But Mr Kennet’s estimate of “hundreds of millions of dollars” is sheer fantasy – it’s way off the mark.

The average cost of eliminating Melbourne’s 170 level crossings is around $100 million each. The cost of constructing the proposed 13 km Rowville rail line would be in the order of $2 billion and it would be mostly at-grade (surface) and in-structure (elevated).

A rule of thumb in the US is elevated lines cost four times surface lines. Underground lines cost eight times surface lines. Costs of subways are much higher in the US and Britain than elsewhere but are more relevant to recent Australian costs.

Britain’s Crossrail cost $1 billion per kilometre and the Jubilee Line Extension $450 million per kilometre. In New York, the East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway and the 7 Extension cost $4 billion, $1.7 billion and $1.3 billion per kilometre respectively.

Assuming an average cost of $300 million per kilometre, it would probably cost in the region of $25 billion to underground all existing rail lines within a modest 10 km radius of Flinders Street station. That’s a conservative estimate though, given the cost would be increased by the number of rail stations and roads that would need to be reconstructed.

That’s a huge outlay. It’s considerably larger, for example, than the Commonwealth Government’s recession-busting national Building the Education Revolution (BER) program, which cost $17 billion. It’s the kind of money that would have an enormous impact on other budget priorities

Some of that cost could be recouped from selling development rights but I expect the revenue would fall well short of the cost. The outlays for each stage would be incurred upfront but the revenue from sales would trickle in over an extended time frame and should be discounted accordingly.

Moreover most of the land currently used for inner urban rail lines is narrow and close to existing land uses, so its development potential would be modest e.g. three story apartments rather than high rise units. There would also be pressure to reserve a lot of it for parks and community uses.

The key issue though is the operational benefits of undergrounding – i.e. the improvement in the level of service of the rail system – would be relatively modest compared to both the cost and to other potential improvements the funds might be applied to. It wouldn’t even deliver on elimination of level crossings, as only a small proportion are within 10 km of the city centre.

Mr Kennett is no doubt impressed by subway systems he’s seen in Europe and elsewhere. However as the outgoing President of the Public Transport Users Association, Daniel Bowen, says, the benefits from those metro systems don’t derive from the fact that they’re underground.

We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that for our trains to run efficiently we need them to run underground. You don’t get better rail services just by running them underground. The key is to run them frequently and to run them all day, every day and ensure they’re reliable.

What’s much more important than undergrounding is to increase the connectivity of the network and expand the capacity of existing lines to support more frequent services. That requires measures like improved signalling and elimination of level crossings.

There’s also a need for some new rail services on high capacity routes (like the proposed Melbourne Metro rail tunnel). However expansion of the public transport network doesn’t have to come primarily via expensive underground rail lines.

Australian cities already have an enormous reservoir of untapped capacity that can be exploited to expand the network at relatively low cost. That capacity is the huge existing network of roads and freeways, currently used mostly by relatively low-occupancy cars.

Road space can be reallocated to bus rapid transit and, where warranted by the level of demand, to light rail. The key requirement is that private passenger vehicles give up both road space and road priority to ensure transit isn’t unduly delayed. Drivers, of course, can shift from cars to transit.

I get why Jeff Kennett would put this sort of proposal to a meeting of the Property Institute of Australia. What I don’t understand is why Professor Newman would endorse it.

I’m disappointed The Age ran a story this week with the lede: “After almost 10 years in the role, Melbourne’s chief complainer about public transport has finally had enough.” The headline was just as rude: “Transport mouthpiece to step down.” Continue reading “What next for the Public Transport Users Association?”

Cars & traffic

Dec 10, 2011


Laneways of Melbourne (photo from Planning Institute - VYP Street Art Tour)

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) is keen to make the case that it costs more to travel by public transport in Melbourne than it does by car. The PTUA says above-inflation fare rises over the last decade mean public transport now costs much more than “petrol in the car” for many trips.

The PTUA might take some moral support from this op-ed in The Age this week by journalist Gabriella Costa (the paper calls it an ‘Analysis’). Like the PTUA, she also argues that commuting by car is cheaper. She says the 9% fare increase announced this week by the Government will make driving a better option. Her contention is that, “even loosely, the maths just don’t add up” for rail:

And it’s a simple equation. A Metro daily ticket from a zone 2 station into the city? $11.90 from January 1. Petrol from home to work and back? two to three litres. Parking: less than $10 a day on the city’s edge.

Ms Costa doesn’t actually do the maths, so I have. Unless she gets her petrol for free, even on those numbers it still costs less to take the train to the city than drive! Petrol at $1.35 per litre is $4.00 a day, plus $10 for parking. Even loosely, that adds up in favour of the train! But as we all know, there’s more to the financial cost of driving than just petrol and parking, so I’ll try to do a tighter estimate.

Ms Costa’s example is based on her own circumstances. I know from her article that she lives in St Albans, near Giniver station in Zone 2. By her estimate, she’s 17 km by road from where she works in the city (presumably at The Age HQ in Spencer St). I’ll assume she commutes 220 days a year after taking rec leave, public holidays, sick leave, the odd day off, a bit of work-related travel and weekends into account. If she drove to work on every one of these 220 days she’d therefore travel 7,480 km in a year.

I’ll assume she drives the cheapest vehicle you can buy new in the small car class, a Hyundai i30. According to the RACV, operating costs of this vehicle for fuel, tyres and servicing, are 16.6 cents per kilometre, giving her an annual commuting cost of $1,224. That’s conservative because the fuel component is based on a city-country average – commuting in busy traffic is thirstier work.

Add to that parking at $10 per day for 220 days and her all up cost for a year of commuting by car to the CBD totals $3,444. That’s still quite a bit more than the cost of catching the train from St Albans, even under the new fare structure that takes effect from 1 January.

St Albans is in Zone 2, so Ms Costa could buy a myki Yearly Pass in 2012 for $2,021. That would save her $1480 compared to driving. Even if she travelled every day on a myki Daily Cap it would cost $2,438 over the course of a year, still putting her ahead by $1,000 compared to driving.

And if she lived any further out the cost of train travel would stay the same but driving would cost considerably more. If, for example, she lived in Pakenham (since she mentions it in her article) her annual expenditure on driving would increase to $6,371 p.a. because it’s 57 km from her workplace. But the cost of the train would be the same as it is from St Albans, since both stations are in Zone 2.

It’s important to note that I’ve only considered variable costs, specifically parking, fuel, tyres and servicing – I’ve taken no account of the cost of owning the car. But it makes no sense to ignore standing costs, because if she doesn’t actually have a car she can’t drive to work! The RACV says the annual standing cost of a Hyundai i30 is $5,668, made up primarily of depreciation, interest, insurance and registration.

If I assume commuting accounts for half of her total annual travel by car (i.e. she drives 7,480 km to work each year as well as doing a further 7,480 km p.a. in non-work travel), then the standing costs that should be attributed to her journey to work come to $2,834.

Add that $2,834 to the $3,444 she pays for parking, fuel, tyres and servicing and Ms Costa is up for an annual total of $6,278 for the privilege of driving to work from St Albans. Remember, a myki Yearly Pass will cost much less, just $2,021, and even a myki Daily Cap will cost her $2,438 for the year. Continue reading “Does it cost less to drive to work than catch the train?”

Cars & traffic

Sep 6, 2011


Animation of US expansion from 1700-1900 - post office openings

It surprises me who’s still lukewarm about congestion pricing of roads. I’d have thought the focus on the carbon tax over the last year would’ve heightened understanding of the role of the price mechanism in managing resources better. Obviously governments find it too hard politically but even organisations like The Greens and the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) offer only heavily qualified support for congestion pricing.

The PTUA doesn’t support congestion pricing in the absence of alternatives, arguing that it would be unlikely to win community support and would be socially inequitable. It’s position is public transport must first be improved to a competitive level. The Greens take a similar view. Senator Scott Ludlum says the party believes a congestion tax “would be an unfair impost unless significant improvements to public transport and other non-driving modes of commuting, such as walking and cycling facilities, are made at the same time”.

What this means in practice is neither organisation has much to say in favour of congestion pricing – neither could be regarded as a staunch advocate of this potential reform. I think that’s a real pity because congestion pricing and improvements in public transport go hand-in-hand. They are the veritable horse and carriage – you won’t get one without the other.

Cars are a very attractive transport option, especially in our dispersed cities. But even the streets of a dense city like Manhattan are full of cars. We could wait generations in the hope that land use changes will make Melbourne so dense that cars will necessarily become a minority mode. Or we could ignore the probability that motorists will shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles or to ones powered by alternative fuels and instead bet that higher fuel prices will drive cars off  Melbourne’s roads.

But waiting and hoping aren’t a good basis for policy. Realistically, we can’t expect Australians will forego the private benefits of a car unless they’re forced to. The only reason most CBD workers don’t drive is because they can’t – traffic congestion and high parking charges rule driving out. Even so, around a quarter of CBD workers in Melbourne still drive and that proportion rises pretty rapidly to 50% and higher once you move even a few hundred metres away from the city rail loop. It would be a bit hard to argue they make this choice because public transport isn’t good enough.

Investing in public transport without simultaneously constraining the car will only achieve a modest increase in public transport’s existing 15% share of all motorised travel in Melbourne. Consider that Melbourne’s train, tram and bus system would cost an unthinkable amount if we had to build it from scratch today – hundreds of billions of dollars – yet 85% of motorised trips are still made by car. It should be obvious that simply providing the infrastructure isn’t enough.

Congestion pricing is the only way to reduce the considerable competitive advantage cars have over public transport (in most situations) within a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost. It’s therefore the only way to significantly increase public transport’s share of motorised trips. Of course good public transport has to be in place at the time congestion pricing is introduced. But what The Greens and the PTUA are missing is that you have to positively and enthusiastically embrace both.

The efficiency case for pricing is very strong and rejected by few. It’s the only practical way to manage traffic congestion. Its great virtue is that it prioritises travellers according to the value of their trip purpose. It also reduces accidents, as well as transport-related emissions and pollution.

The key concern of those with misgivings is the equity implications of congestion pricing. I don’t think it can be doubted that richer people will be better placed to buy road space. But I think there are a number of other issues that also need to be considered here. Continue reading “Do public transport and road pricing go together?”


May 22, 2011


Real bike security!

It’s with some regret I report I’ve let my membership of Bicycle Victoria (BV) lapse. I had a call last week from one of BV’s sales people asking me if I would front up $150 to continue my family membership for another year. I said no.

In 2009 my family membership was $120. Last year it jumped to $135, this year it’s $150! That’s more than 10% escalation per annum. Why is this sort of increase necessary? I could downgrade to a two person household membership for $125 or a one person membership for $105 but in my opinion that’s still too much — and in any event I wanted a family membership.

I know some will say that’s what effective lobbying and community education costs in this day and age. What’s a hundred and fifty bucks, they’ll say, in the scheme of things when you compare it to the good works BV does? I know the “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” argument. And some will say I’ve lost access to BV’s third party property insurance and legal defence services. But it’s still too much.

Most every non-profit I see these days is a “professional” organisation with the culture that implies – relatively high salaries at the top, expense accounts, frequent travel, and so on. Many function in part as out-sourced providers of government programs so perhaps it’s not surprising that they tend to mimic public sector standards and practices. While I have no reason to doubt the competence and dedication of BV’s staff, I fear it’s becoming more about bureaucracy than bicycles.

Have a look at BV’s web site to see just how many paid staff BV has. This is a big organisation. Annual revenue is $11.7 million. There’s the CEO and seven general managers. Then there are seven teams. There are five staff in the Ride2School team, seven in the Facilities Development Team, six in the Riders Team, four each in the Finance and the Publications teams, five in the Events Team and three in the Rider Services Team. Some of these staff are supported by “behaviour change” grants to deliver particular programs on behalf of government. Perhaps some of them are part-time, but I don’t think there’s any doubt this is now a big organisation.

My interest in supporting BV is not how big it can get, but what it can do to improve conditions for cyclists. The key to that is lobbying state and local governments and educating the community about cycling. That’s a task that requires a coordinator to act on behalf of cyclists because it can’t be done by the market. So we need a BV in some incarnation. But like so many organisations, BV seems to have grown to take on a raft of other functions, many of them aimed at generating more revenue – in fact membership fees now make up only 19% of BV’s revenue. But more revenue for what?

The 2009-2010 Financial Statement and the 2009-2010 Annual Report indicate that close to half of BV’s expenditure goes on conducting rides. These are a big focus of attention – they account for 48% of expenditure (and 58% of revenue). That’s nice, but my membership fees aren’t needed to conduct operations that cover their costs and could in any event be mostly left to the private sector. Nor am I interested in forking out $150 a year so the government has an organisation that can deliver behaviour change programs on its behalf or so that BV can provide consulting services on a commercial basis. And quite frankly if it wasn’t “free”, I wouldn’t choose to buy the bi-monthly Ride On magazine, which is essentially a promotional vehicle with little solid content. Continue reading “Is Bicycle Victoria (membership) worth it?”