Why Doncaster rail line will be way off the track

Herald Sun: Why Doncaster rail line will be way off the track. James Campbell. 29 October 2014

East-West Link protesters. Picture: Hamish Blair

Those of us who have the misfortune to live under the iron rule of the comrades at Yarra Council are used to seeing posters telling us we need “TRAINS NOT TOLL ROADS” and “YES to Doncaster Rail, NO to East West Toll Road”.

Indeed, if you’ve visited Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond or North Carlton lately, you’d be lucky to avoid them.

That building a railway line to Doncaster instead of the East West Tunnel happens to be the policy of the Greens Party under its paramount leader, Greg Barber, is, of course, a complete coincidence.

On the face of it, Doncaster Rail sounds like a no brainer. There’s a huge amount of land available for the line along the Eastern Freeway, it’s been on the public transport “to do” list since the 1890s and, well, it just makes sense to build a line to relieve congestion on the Eastern Freeway. It’s also unfair on the City of Manningham that it is serviced by neither trains nor trams. But, while it might seem like a good idea, it’s actually a shocker, as a report released on Tuesday by Transport Minister Terry Mulder shows.

Doncaster Rail is a touchy subject for the present State Government. Before the previous election, while it was still in opposition, the Liberals were all for the project. On the day the election writs were issued in 2010, then leader Ted Baillieu pledged to spend $6.5 million on a study into the line. He said: “The first step is to plan it and find a route, in detail with the community, then find the funds and then build it.”

Finding the route turned out to take longer than expected. It wasn’t until March last year Mulder released a report saying the best route for the railway would be, you guessed it, along the Eastern Freeway.

This week he dropped the response to the feasibility study promised back when Americain won the Melbourne Cup.

So why is it a shocker? The first reason is that although Doncaster has no trams or trains, it is actually very well connected to the city by buses. The Doncaster Area Rapid Transit, which began its life around the time Baillieu began talking up the railway, was created by the previous government after Sir Rod Eddington had pointed out the public transport shortages in Manningham.

This year, about 3.8 million trips will be taken on it. It is reasonable to assume therefore that the majority of patronage, at least initially, on Doncaster Rail would come from the existing bus service.

Then there’s the fact that some of the stations along the proposed route to Doncaster on the Eastern Freeway would be in areas where there’s pretty much nothing at the moment but vacant space. If you build a station, no doubt they will come but, as this week’s report makes clear, in most cases they will come by car. That is to say passengers will end up driving to the new stations in order to catch the train.

LEAVING that aside, there is the question of how far out to Doncaster you build the thing. On the face of it, the most obvious place is under Doncaster Hill — but that would require tunnelling and a deep underground station, which the report makes clear would be prohibitively expensive for what it estimates would be only 600 walk-up passengers during peak hour.

Instead, it suggests the line terminate at the Doncaster Park-and-Ride with a bus connection to Doncaster Shopping Town or wherever it is people want to go to.

The final reason why Doncaster Rail is a dud is that, as the report argues, you can’t build a railway line to Doncaster without building a rail tunnel from Clifton Hill to Southern Cross station. The alternative, running the trains through the Hurstbridge lines, is problematic at the moment as that line is close to capacity, especially with the increased patronage of the South Morang, soon to be Mernda, line.

Then there’s the cost: $3-5 billion. Say what you like about the East West Link, for the money we’re spending we are at least getting a new tunnel, not just replicating a bus route.

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