Thursday, 1 May 2014

Rail Revival Study - Geelong-Ballarat-Bendigo

via Public Transport Victoria
Fulfilling an election promise, in 2012-13 the then-Baillieu government ran a feasibility study into the return of passenger rail services between Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo, called the Rail Revival Study. The Victorian Coalition like to take credit for regional rail projects without ever actually initiating them, however, so the study was incredibly biased and, as a result, it is not likely to go ahead.

Essentially, the problem, as it's been presented, is that it will cost too much and not deliver enough benefit for that price. The Cost-Benefit Ratio (CBR) is, under the standard case, 0.1 - which is not good. However, the assumptions of the study have been tweaked in such a way as to make the CBR low - blowing out the costs without increasing the benefits. It may well be that we could get 90% of the benefits for a fraction of the cost, which would make the project much more likely to go ahead.
via Public Transport Victoria
First things first - the Ballarat-Bendigo section was always facing an uphill battle. There isn't as much traffic between the two cities, the bus through Daylesford is considerably more direct, and the existing track between Maryborough and Castlemaine is so dilapidated it will need to be torn up and laid afresh (in fact short sections recently HAVE been torn up). However, several things are worth noting in this section. Firstly, all the track work that is included in the Castlemaine-Bendigo section is already needed for Bendigo-Melbourne services and therefore should not be included in the costs for this project. Secondly, the reactivations of Harcourt and Golden Square stations are totally unnecessary for either Melbourne or Ballarat services. So you can knock $210-$220 million off the price tag right there.

Really, the section to focus on is Geelong-Ballarat. The existing track is in relatively good condition, and it's the section that would see the most patronage. Win-win. However, they've similarly tried to inflate the costs without increasing the benefits here. The reinstatement of the Warrenheip Junction is, like the Bendigo trackworks, something that already needs to happen for Melbourne services, and is therefore totally inappropriate to include in these costings. Most of all, though, it's the stations that really jack up the price - they want to reinstate Bannockburn, Lethbridge, Meredith and Lal Lal stations, and build a brand new one at Bell Post Hill.
via Public Transport Victoria
Bannockburn has a population of 3500 and acts very much as a satellite suburb of Geelong, so that one is quite reasonable. It will have by far the most patronage and many of its passengers are likely to be commuters, so it will contribute the most to the CBR. But the other three country towns have a TOTAL population of just under 2000. Building a station for a town of less than 600 people will add considerably to the cost and will not appreciably add to the benefit. The patronage figures they've provided are fanciful - especially the notion that more than 20% of Lethbridge's population would use the station on an average weekday. I could maybe handle it if they reinstated Meredith for park-and-ride purposes, as it's the largest of the three and is the most centrally located, but even that is pushing it.

They also want to build a new station at Bell Post Hill in north-eastern Geelong. Given that the train would already be stopping at Geelong's central station and North Geelong station, this again seems like overkill. It certainly has more merit than most of the country reactivations, and I can see the wisdom in reserving the land for when it becomes more necessary in a decade or two, but it's really not going to add much to the CBR by adding it on day one. Which is a pity, because it's by far the best-looking design for a station in Victoria for a good century - reasonably modern, yet taking design cues from the 1880s Geelong station, rather than the modernist boxes most new stations seem to be lately.
via Public Transport Victoria
The return of trains to Maryborough and its intermediate stops was a prime example of pork-barrelling, but what's done is done so no harm there - and if you wanted to run trains between Ballarat and Bendigo, the additional upgrades listed are quite reasonable. Between Maryborough and Castlemaine, the track upgrades are mostly reasonable - as I said, it is totally unusable as it is - however reactivations of the stations at Carisbrook and Newstead have the same problem as the ones between Geelong and Ballarat. A township of only a thousand people cannot justify a railway station - not when it'll keep the project at large from going ahead, anyway.

Noel Laidlaw, an engineer from Carisbrook and founding member of the Rail Revival Alliance, has suggested that the costings for track work are quite exaggerated in places because they've been gold-plated. The standard they've aimed for is 160km/h for as much of the journey as possible, which is admirable but should not be the only option considered, given that even existing, well-patronised services don't all run at those speeds yet. Laidlaw aims a little lower than me (and some of his costings are a tad optimistic) but I think it's fair to say that if the major sections of the line ran at 100-130, and particularly tricky bits (like the dual-gauge section between Geelong and Gheringhap) ran at 80, that would be enough to get started. Increasing line speeds above 130 could be done progressively, later on, when money frees up.
via Public Transport Victoria
It's also worth noting that the CBR may have been manipulated by some of the timetabling decisions. Part of the CBR for existing passengers between Maryborough and Castlemaine was actually a negative, because they were removing the existing mid-evening bus but not replacing it with a train - obviously, either keeping that bus or bumping the train to a later time would fix that problem. The last train for Ballarat leaves Bendigo at 5:05pm, which is ridiculously early. But assuming that you only bump that train to a slightly later slot that allows people to finish work and make it to the station, a bus between Castlemaine and Maryborough that connected with a later Melbourne-bound train would cheaply fix the negative CBR problem.

To my mind, a version of the project that might have a chance of going ahead would look something like this: a service between Geelong and Ballarat, with some trains continuing to Maryborough. Initially the only stop between Geelong and Ballarat would be Bannockburn, with provision to add Meredith and/or Bell Post Hill later on if demand justifies it. Warrenheip Junction should be reinstated whether this goes ahead or not, and the track between Geelong and Ballarat should initially be brought up to approximately the standard of the Ballarat-Ararat line (130km/h max, slower in difficult sections). There should be connecting buses to Castlemaine, either from Ballarat or Maryborough (or both) until patronage grows to the point where a train is justified, which I would not expect to happen in the next 20 years. Castlemaine-Bendigo trackworks, like the reinstatement of the Warrenheip Junction, should occur ASAP and independent of this project.

Now, it's easy enough to calculate the difference in cost between my plan and the one presented, when it comes to the Castlemaine-Bendigo section - you just delete the whole darn thing. But none of the documents I've seen break down the cost to a fine enough resolution for me to tell you exactly how much, say, Lal Lal station was going to cost, or how much reinstating the Warrenheip Junction would cost - so it's harder to give a more reasonable figure for what the project's true costings would be. And obviously it's impossible to say, without access to their modelling, precisely how much the proposed service cuts would affect the benefits.

But clearly, it's worth looking into - and with the State election in November, now is the time to be asking these questions. The Coalition quite plainly got the answer they wanted to hear, but Labor and the Greens might be willing to listen, if the community asks loudly enough.

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