Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Misguided Metro Rail Capacity Project

Seemingly willing to promise almost anything to win Public Transport points after sticking too stubbornly to the unpopular East-West Link, the Coalition have been announcing as many rail projects as they possibly can. Some of these are just re-announcing things that were already going to happen, like the delivery of individual trains. Some are projects the government has been promising for years without actually making progress on, like Airport Rail. Some of them are fantastically worthwhile projects I am very glad the government is doing, like the St Albans Grade Separation or the Mildura line Standardisation (more on which soon). And some...well, some are just desperate.

The recent announcement of the Metro Rail Capacity Project (MRCP), which would replace the Melbourne Metro, would fall into the last category. The original Melbourne Metro project was designed to do several long-overdue things. It was to increase capacity in the CBD for the Sunbury (slash Airport slash eventually Melton) and south-eastern lines, thus taking pressure off the City Loop, and it was to serve the areas to the north and south of the CBD that have outgrown the trams that currently serve them - the Parkville hospital/university precinct in the north, and the Domain in the south.
The original Melbourne Metro (via PTV)
The new project does pretty much none of this. It doesn't really go into the city properly - it goes in a big parabola to the south of the city, just grazes it as it comes into Southern Cross, then uses City Loop tracks to travel out the other side. It doesn't add as much capacity as the Melbourne Metro project would, because it effectively only does half the job - it puts south-eastern trains onto new tracks, but just diverts Sunbury trains out of the Loop onto the existing viaduct between Southern Cross and Flinders Street. It serves the Domain, but it does nothing for Parkville, and nor has the government made any suggestions that would even partially compensate, like extra trams.

Melbourne Rail Capacity Project (via Dept of Transport, Planning & Local Infrastructure)
In many ways it's actively a negative - passengers from the south-east who currently have direct access to Melbourne's most-used stations will either have to take a long detour via Fishermans Bend, which will add considerably to their journey time, or change trains at South Yarra - which will very likely lead to South Yarra being overloaded with people making that change. Sunbury line passengers will get a direct service to Southern Cross and Flinders Street, but will not be able to access any of the Loop stations without changing trains, which leads to the same problems. It's true that neither line would have access to the whole Loop under the original Melbourne Metro, but both would have access to Flinders Street and Melbourne Central, the first- and close third-most popular, and would be able to interchange at stations big enough to handle it.

Fishermans Bend may well need a railway line - that much is true. But there are three main problems with including Fishermans Bend in this project: One, it totally ruins the other benefits of the project, as described above. Two, though in an ideal world we would build PT before or as the area develops, the current backlog means it's a lower priority than existing areas (and since it's tunnel-based it won't save money to do it now). And three, the station would be in entirely the wrong spot. As the superbly named Thomas The Think Engine points out, the station would be right on the eastern edge of the suburb, which means it won't provide much coverage to the areas it's meant to serve, and most of the area it will serve is already well-served by the 109 and 96 trams.

What should Fishermans Bend's service actually look like? Well, there are many competing opinions - like PTV's own Network Development Plan, which has suspiciously disappeared from their website, or simply another tram like the one the Government themselves are proposing - but all the reasonable ones involve their own line (possibly through-run to Mernda or similar) because while it may one day be big enough to deserve its own train line, it's not going to be a popular enough destination to justify making everyone make a big detour to pass through it.

PTV Network Development Plan
Another thing worth noting - one of the more contentious decisions with the Regional Rail Link was that Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong trains would no longer stop at North Melbourne. North Melbourne is currently a big interchange, not only for suburban trains (ie the Loop) but also for the 401 bus, which travels to the hospital/university precinct. Implicit in this decision was the idea that the vast majority of people coming from those country lines could change at Footscray (which has been reimagined as a big interchange with RRL) to Melbourne Metro, which would take them to the same places - either the university precinct or the CBD. They jumped the gun, of course, but it actually does make a lot of sense to do it that way. This cohesion is lost with MRCP.

The government have put together quite a good video explaining the rationale for the project. The whole "untangling of the City Loop" thing, in terms of making a more sensible system (not in terms of adding capacity) is, while long-overdue, mostly independent of either version of this project, and is a topic for another day. But the biggest problem with the video is that everything they say this project does, the original Melbourne Metro does better, and with several other benefits to boot. This really is policy on the run.

The one advantage of this project over the original is that it has an interchange at South Yarra. The original version rejoined the existing network just after South Yarra, which meant fewer interchange options (no more Sandringham line) and cut the large catchment around the station itself.

Clearly the growing scent of the ballot boxes is making the Coalition nervous. But why this project, done in this way? I suppose this is a result of simultaneously not wanting to be seen backflipping, but also really really needing to backflip. They realised too late that they needed to do a Melbourne Metro, of a fashion, but had spent so long criticising it that they'd dug themselves a hole they couldn't get out of. Making Fishermans Bend a new growth area is sort of their pet project, so I suppose it seemed natural to combine the two and ape a cohesive vision for the city, but it is too sloppily put together to really achieve that.

Nonetheless, some of the criticisms they aimed at Melbourne Metro do require a response. The main one was the disruption that would be caused by ripping up Swanston Street. First things first - there has been no final word on how construction would actually go. The City Loop was constructed by tunnelling, not by cut-and-fill, and the suggestion is that the Melbourne Metro tunnels would have been deeper than the Loop - so it's quite probable that there would be very minimal disruption to Swanston Street, possibly just a bit as required for the construction of the new stations adjacent to Melbourne Central and Flinders Street.

But even assuming they did go for cut-and-fill, and tore up sections of Swanston Street for months at a time - it would be painful in the short term, but this is a once-in-a-generation project. Stuffing it up would have consequences that could haunt us for a century, so it is imperative that we get it right now.

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