Is Napthine about to stuff up Melbourne’s Metro?

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Crikey: Is Napthine about to stuff up Melbourne’s Metro?. Alan Davies. 20 February 2014

It looks depressingly like the Victorian Government might be about to compromise the first major new electrified rail line in Melbourne in 40 years by addressing the wrong problem.

Proposed route of Melbourne Metro. The Victorian Goverment wants to design a new route

It’s hard to fathom what’s going through the political brain of Victoria’s Premier, Denis Napthine.

On the one hand he’s desperate to improve the Government’s credibility on public transport matters before the election due on 29 November this year. He’s already said publicly that the Government, like the Opposition, is committed to building the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel.

Following a spate of headline firm closures in recent weeks, he’s equally desperate to show his Government has a plan for creating new jobs and stimulating economic activity.

Yet on the other hand, he came out this week and stated publicly that the Government is now looking at alternatives to the planned route of the Metro. At first he presented it as a matter of choosing the best alignment through the CBD, but it now appears the planned Metro route is dead.

He’s not saying what the alternative is but the key option appears to be a rail line via the Government’s massive urban renewal project planned for industrial Fishermans Bend. That would require an entirely different route to that proposed for the Metro (see exhibit).

Given the East-West Link motorway is proceeding with alacrity, it’s not surprising the Premier’s announcement has been interpreted as a lack of commitment to building public transport.

The Metro has been under development for five years and prior to the change of government was in Infrastructure Ausralia’s top ‘ready to proceed’ category. Any alternative route will require considerably more time for investigation and engineering design.

It seems a key driver of the Government’s rethink is a determination to reduce significantly the estimated $9-11 billion cost of Metro. The time required to prove up and design a new route would be convenient too, as it would give the state budget breathing space to accommodate other priorities like the East West Link.

Further, since the Government will have to provide new transport infrastructure to support Fishermans Bend anyway, it might be thinking it can kill two birds with one stone. The fact that Metro is the brainchild of the former Government, whereas Fishermans Bend is the Coalition’s idea, might have some bearing too.

What the Premier should not lose sight of though is the key rationale for Metro; it’s to increase the ability of the rail system to bring travellers into the CBD, especially from the north and west.

Its primary purpose is to address looming capacity constraints that would otherwise limit the potential of the city centre to continue growing.

That role is emphasised by Metro’s (new) official name; the Metro Rail Capacity Project. According to Public Transport Victoria:

The new name better reflects the significant capacity benefits that the project will provide to the Sunbury, Upfield, Craigieburn, Pakenham, Cranbourne, Sandringham, Frankston, Werribee and Williamstown lines. On day one the project will enable an additional 20,000 passengers to travel on Melbourne’s rail network in the peak hour…

Another virtue of the current plan is its near “text book” design. Rather than deliver travellers to a single station, the planned route under Swanston St delivers them to the middle of the CBD. There they can connect with other train services, as well as trams, at the two busiest stations on the entire system, Flinders St and Melbourne Central.

This route will also help relieve the severe tram congestion currently experienced on Swanston Street and St Kilda Rd. In addition, stations planned at inner city Parkville, Arden and The Domain will facilitate development at higher employment and population densities.

City of Melbourne Lord Mayor (and former Coalition leader), Robert Doyle, is adamant the Parkville station should be built. He told The Age:

We need that underground station (as it would be) right in the heart of where our new cancer centre will be, our research precinct, the University of Melbourne, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Royal Women’s Hospital, it’s just crucial that we service that with a large underground rail station.

There’s an argument for promoting Fishermans Bend ahead of (but not instead of) these areas; they’re already serviced by trams and further development will inevitably be constrained to a degree by existing uses.

Fishermans Bend is effectively a greenfield site with enormous capacity; it’s projected to accommodate 80,000 residents and 40,000 jobs. Development should be easier than in an established area.

The key issue with any alternative route, though, is whether or not it satisfies the central objective of overcoming capacity constraints. The Government argues other proposed lines like rail to the airport can’t be built until the capacity problem is solved.

Dr Napthine insists the Government is still committed to that objective, but it’s not clear how it could be achieved by a Fishermans Bend route. It’s also hard to see how it could cost significantly less but still offer the same high level of accessibility within the CBD and interchange with other stations as the currently planned Metro alignment offers.

An alternative route might well cost less, but travel time savings and patronage levels feed into the benefits; the Government must ensure the BCR remains positive.

Despite what Dr Napthine says, I suspect the Government has already made the decision to abandon the planned route of Metro. The debate about alternative alignments through the CBD (Swanston St vs Russell St) appears to be a red herring; the new route might include Southern Cross and possibly even Flagstaff but it probably won’t go near the traditional centre of the CBD.

Major new rail lines are rare in Australian cities, especially in the city centre. Melbourne’s underground loop was started in 1971 and completed in 1981 (1). It would be an enormous loss to stuff it up with a politically-driven solution. Fishermans Bend needs its own solution.

Ironically, the best political course for the Government at this stage would probably be to show real enthusiasm for Melbourne Metro. It could further improve its credibility on public transport by going a step further; use the inevitable disruption in Swanston St as the basis for a comprehensive overhaul of the inner city tram network (see Is this a real tram network?).

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  1. Update: The Regional Rail Link is currently under construction. It’s not part of Melbourne’s electrified metro network because it’s primary role is to serve regional populations (it’s diesel). It will however stop at some western outer suburban stations and the metro network will benefit by the transfer of regional services on to their own tracks.

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