Transport plans: are we being routed

The Age: Transport plans: are we being routed? May 10, 2014. Alan Davies

The Coalition won office partly due to voter dissatisfaction with the former government’s performance on public transport. But it was slow to realise the political importance of improving rail, tram and bus infrastructure.

Now, with an election looming, it’s come back with shock and awe, promising to commit an unprecedented $24 billion on new transport infrastructure. The centrepiece is a new rail tunnel designed to counter growing rail capacity problems in the CBD.

Q. The Coalition has pledged a new rail tunnel via Fishermans Bend where demand is predicted but not yet pressing – and without a business case. Cynically expedient or common sense?

A bit of both. By abandoning the existing Metro scheme inherited from Labor in favour of an entirely new route, the government has introduced a new dimension of complexity. Its belated recognition of voter concerns means it announced the new rail line before it completed the hard technical and financial work. There are a host of engineering and geological problems that still need to be addressed in detail.

That work should’ve been finalised before the government committed to the project. A key reason the cost of mega rail projects routinely blows out by 50-100 per cent is political pressure leads to key decisions being taken before the technical issues are fully worked through.

Q. How does it compare with Labor’s plans to press on with the northern CBD and Parkville tunnel route?

The government says its scheme has a number of advantages over Metro. It provides a larger increase in the number of passengers the rail network can carry in peak hour; it avoids the disruption of building new platforms in Swanston Street; and for the same cost as Metro ($11 billion) it includes an airport rail line and an interchange at South Yarra Station.

A key benefit of Metro was less tram congestion on Swanston Street; travellers could take a train instead. The government’s scheme doesn’t offer this benefit because it goes via Southern Cross Station.

The biggest drawback is the inevitable risk and delay of effectively starting again, rather than going with the shovel-ready Metro. A lot of time and money has already gone into establishing the business case for Metro. However, at this stage we can’t be sure what the new route will cost.

Q. Which suburbs and train lines will be winners and which losers?

The new scheme drops the rail stations Metro planned for Parkville and North Melbourne in favour of a new station at Fishermans Bend. This aspect isn’t critical to either route as these suburbs could be serviced by trams. Fishermans Bend though has the potential to be a much larger business and residential location.

Both schemes change the number of loop stations used by most of the other train lines. Metro delivers more services to Melbourne Central and Flinders Street than the new scheme, which favours Southern Cross and Melbourne Central. There are winners and losers on both sides; it depends on the line. The bigger change though is that, compared to the current situation, both schemes reduce use of the loop in order to increase capacity and improve reliability.

Q. Given the expense of tunnels, what will these pledges mean for other rail improvements such as extending suburban lines?

This project is essential to improve reliability and increase capacity in the city centre, but in view of the huge cost of rail, any future extensions of the network will probably be modest. Further expansions of the network will likely be bus services connecting with stations providing very frequent train services.

Q. And then there’s roads. The East West Link has been prioritised over smaller projects such as removing level crossings. Is bigger always better?

The budget defies the received wisdom that building a mega project like the East West Link crowds out funding for other priorities. If it wins this year’s election, the government says it will start construction next term on the new rail tunnel, both sections of the East West Link, as well as widen the Tullamarine freeway and remove eight level crossings.

Another of its key initiatives, the Cranbourne/Pakenham Rail Corridor Project, provides $2.5 billion for less glamorous tasks such as improving signalling and power substations, removing level crossings, and buying bigger trains.

Q. Where do bikes fit into this – could or should they become a serious form of mass-transit?

Cycling is already a significant form of transport for inner city residents of Melbourne, especially for commuting to work. If safety is improved it could continue to win mode share in congested central areas. However, as was the case last year, there’s no funding this time around for new cycling infrastructure.

Q. Voters risk whiplash from the speed and scale of policy announcements. What would a less feverish state transport plan look like?

While there are different views on what should be done and in what order, there are nevertheless large constituencies for all these projects. Many observers think we’ve fallen behind and need to build more infrastructure, not less.

Q. And in the real world … will any of these promises actually happen?

They’re promises by politicians, so who’d hold their breath? None of them are locked in or are guaranteed 100 per cent. What will maximise their chances of getting done is pressure from the electorate; the government certainly appears to think there’s a public thirst for big Kennett-like transport projects. It might be though that in four years’ time the electorate will regret the lower capital funding left over for other key areas like health and education.

Alan Davies is a planner who blogs at the “urbanist”.

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