From Track and Signal April-June 2015 Pages 10 and 11. Reprinted with the permission of the author, and Track and Signal magazine.
The year 2014 has been and gone. From a rail freight perspective, Australia’s iron ore and coal railways worked even harder to cut costs to meet falling commodity prices, and there was growing interest in the promised Inland Railway. However, improved competitive neutrality between road and rail freight for road-user charges and track access fees remained as elusive as ever.
On the urban passenger front, Adelaide and Auckland both saw new electric trains placed in revenue service. These new trains were followed by the Gold Coast Light Rail which opened in July and took just two months to carry its one millionth passenger.
The well-designed and well-constructed Perth-Mandurah line – now seven years old – posted another year of excellent service with more than 20 million trips made in 2014.
By way of contrast, the New South Wales Government stopped train services to Newcastle on 26 December 2014. This was despite widespread community opposition supported by a NSW parliamentary committee which called for a halt to the closure, and a NSW Supreme Court decision finding that an act of Parliament would be needed to remove the line from Wickham to Newcastle.
Perhaps the most significant rail event of 2014 was when Bendigo and Ballarat trains began running on new dedicated tracks as part of Victoria’s Regional Rail Link or RRL. These tracks go from the suburban Sunshine station (rebuilt with a new bus interchange) to two new plat- forms at Southern Cross Station (in central Melbourne). In addition, Footscray station was rebuilt from four to six plat- forms and two level crossings were removed.
Another major part of RRL was the construction of a new line between West Werribee Junction and Deer Park with two new stations at Tarneit and Wyndham Vale. The new track has no level crossings. When trains start operating in the next few months on the new track, they will be running at speeds of up to 160kmh.
RRL followed the successful Regional Fast Rail project that was completed 10 years ago and allowed for a quantum improvement in passenger services on four lines: Gippsland, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.
Within five years (from start-up in 2005), patronage on these four lines had doubled. Clearly, the public like trains that are faster than cars.
After detailed planning (including a 2006 Victorian transport plan) RRL was jointly funded by the Australian and Victorian Governments with the Australian Government contributing $3.225 billion under its Nation Building Program. RRL included some 90km of new track and dedicated regional lines. Like many major projects, some compromises have had to be made. In this case, a proposed rail-over-rail grade separation at Sunshine did not proceed and will be required later as part of the Melton electrification project, as may further level crossing removals. The final cost was about $4b and several awards were made in 2014, including Infrastructure Partnerships Australia’s Infrastructure Project of the Year and a Premier’s Sustainability Award.
The benefits of the additional transport capacity created by RRL include greater reliability with fewer delays and are estimated to include taking some 45,000 cars off the roads during peak periods, with a saving of $300 million to the Victorian economy every year.
Greenhouse gas emissions are expected to fall by about 14,000t a year. Further benefits could be obtained with more and faster trains on the Ballarat and Bendigo lines.
One reason for RRL was to accommodate the growing population of Victoria. In August 2011 the state was home to 5.4 million people – almost 420,000 more than in August 2006. By June 2013 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data showed Victoria had grown to 5.74 million people. This was the largest population increase of any state or territory.
As well, according to the ABS, as of June 2013 greater Melbourne had a population of 4.35 million – an increase of 95,500 in just 12 months. The rate of growth in Melbourne is larger than in any other capital city and as a consequence it is set to become Australia’s most populous city by 2053.
Regional Victoria is also experiencing rapid change, with growth rates at the highest in 30 years. More than 40 per cent of this growth is likely to occur in Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo. By 2021 these regional cities will be home to an additional 71,000 people. Some of this growth has been due to Regional Fast Rail and RRL.
Where to next?
Melbourne’s future growth will require additional transport capacity, and this has proved to be controversial. On the one hand, there has been some support for a costly new 18km East West tollway that was favored by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the former Victorian government. Despite this support, the people of Victoria in November 2014 voted for a change in their state government, with the incoming government stating it would not proceed with the East West road project.
Later, the East West tollway was revealed to have a benefit: cost ratio of just 0.45. In the words of shadow federal Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese “that is a dud project”.
Another dubious major road proposal is the $14b 33km West Connex motorway in Sydney. This is also favored by the Abbott government.
The 2013 National Infrastructure Plan rated a Melbourne Metro proposal ahead of the Melbourne East West Link. In March 2013, the Victorian Government announced a 20-year rail plan, with the centrepiece being a new Melbourne Metro. The new line, in twin tunnels, was to be 9km long with five new stations to link South Kensington to near the South Yarra Station.
The original Metro Rail Capacity Project was modified in 2014 with a different route and fewer stations. Fortunately, the new Victorian Government has gone back to the original proposal.
New underground stations will be located at Arden, Parkville, CBD North, CBD South and Domain. These new stations will give much-improved access to hospitals, internationally significant biomedical research facilities and the University of Melbourne.
All going well, construction will start in 2018. The new metro will allow an extra 20,000 passengers to travel on Melbourne’s rail network in the peak hour, as well as relieve congestion on St Kilda Road trams.
“This is the project that solves it all: more services, fewer delays and better public transport,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said.
There is also a need for residual gauge standardisation of tracks used by freight trains in Victoria.
A broader perspective
Throughout the Asia Pacific region, metro systems (urban rail systems with some tunnels) are operational, under construction or being planned.
By way of example, the Shanghai Metro system in China was noted by Coalition front- bencher Malcolm Turnbull on the ABC TV Program Q&A on 26 July 2010 as having had just one line in 1995:
“It now has 420km of track and 269 stations, carries six million people a day and by 2020 will be twice that size. So you can have the infrastructure you want. You don’t have to be, you know, a China. You can do it if you have the leadership and commitment.”
Since 2010, 128km of new metro track has been laid with further stations being opened in Shanghai. By 31 December 2014 Shanghai had a network of 548km of track with 337 stations.
Clearly, current Australian government policies of putting more money into roads and less into rail is a case of “wrong way – go back”.
Building more motorways will induce more traffic and hence more road congestion, along with more liquid fuel use.
A more sustainable approach would be for Australia’s growing major cities and nearby regions to expand their passenger railways.
Dr Philip Laird of the University of Wollongong is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, the inaugural national chairman and a life member of the Railway Technical Society of Australasia.