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Metro rail tunnel: The time is right

The metro rail tunnel concept is about ten years old, having first publicly emerged in late-2005.

In some quarters, it’s been seen as an unnecessary white elephant — an expensive way of providing for extra passenger capacity in the CBD, when other cheaper ways were available to cope with increased patronage.

But time has passed, and many of those cheaper measures have either been implemented, or are on the way.

Flagstaff station, morning peak

For instance, a 2007 PTUA paper, written as the patronage boom really took off and crowding became a serious issue, noted these suggestions:

More shoulder-peak services to help spread the peak load. This has happened on most lines. As an example, the 2006 Frankston line timetable had 5 trains departing Flinders Street between 6pm and 7pm, then they fell back to half-hourly — and almost no expresses after 6pm. The current timetable has 9 trains in that hour, including expresses, then trains at 10 minute intervals until about 7:35, then every 20 minutes until 10pm, before they fall back to half-hourly.

Return to service Hitachi trains that can be brought back cost-effectively. This happened, until the next point took effect in a big way…

Order extra trains — scores have been delivered since then, substantially increasing the size of the train fleet.

Run all trains as 6-cars until 10pm, 7 days-a-week — this happened (with some, understandable, exceptions such as suburban shuttle services), in fact they stay as 6-cars until the last service each night.

Simplify stopping patterns to maximise track capacity and make the timetables more legible — this has happened on most lines that had express trains. For example the Ringwood group had about a dozen stopping patterns in the AM peak — this has been reduced markedly, though the PM peak is still a mess.

More off-peak services — the longest (and thus busiest) lines now run every 10-15 minutes all day, every day. Plans are in place to spread this to more of the network… when the politicians provide funding.

More tram/bus services to feed into the rail network. Some progress where Smartbus services have been provided, and some minor tram improvements, but you’d have to say most connecting bus routes are still lacking.

The paper also criticises City Loop operation, taking aim at the midday Loop reversal (since removed on the Clifton Hill group, and rumoured to be on the way out for the Northern Loop soon), and suggests running more trains direct to Flinders Street to take advantage of track capacity — which now happens, with changes over the past few years meaning CBD track capacity is getting much closer to full.

Flagstaff station

Some (but not all) of the points raised by others in the debate (such as in the late Paul Mees’ excellent 2008 paper on the topic) are also under way, or at least being planned, including:

Improving wheelchair loading/unloading with more staff. In fact what’s happening is raised “humps” at CBD stations (and some others) allow wheelchair users to board and alight the train themselves.

High capacity signalling — now flagged to be trialled on the Sandringham line, before rollout to the rest of the network.

More efficient train designs to carry more people and speed up loading/unloading — modifications to X’trapolis trains have already occurred, and changes to Siemens and Comeng trains are under way. The next train design (initially for the Dandenong line) is likely to be a more space-efficient design from the beginning.

Moving driver changeovers out of Flinders Street — not yet, though there have been moves towards this, with driver facilities being built at the outer ends of suburban lines.

Other relatively minor changes have flown under the radar a bit, for instance after widely publicised problems with gate queues at Flagstaff, the booking office was moved to allow more gates, a bypass gate was installed for surges, and faster gates have recently been installed.

Not every suggestion has been taken up — duplication of single track on numerous lines is a problem which continues to result in delays quickly snowballing.

And some still believe double-decker trains are the answer — that’s a debate that will rage for decades to come, but the official position seems to be that longer dwell times make them less efficient than well-designed single-deck trains.

But many of the cheaper/quicker initiatives have happened. And meanwhile, the CBD (and inner suburbs) keep growing. To keep the City’s economy growing and thriving, the transport system needs to be able to keep feeding it with people — and heavy rail is the most efficient way of doing that.

I can’t speak for everyone, but the fact constructing the tunnel will take a decade, and that many of these (relatively) cheap and easy upgrades are coming into place provides the confidence that now is the right time to push ahead with the rail tunnel.

MMRP tunnel depth infographic

Tunnel benefits

On top of the other changes happening, the tunnel will bring another huge boost in rail capacity, particularly for the growth corridors to the north and west: the lines set to benefit the most are the Sunbury, Craigieburn and Upfield lines (remembering that the Werribee line is getting a boost from the opening of Regional Rail Link this year).

Also benefiting will be the Dandenong line, with — it’s expected — the new stations being designed for longer trains than the City Loop can cope with. Swanston Street/St Kilda Road trams will also see relief from crowding, thanks to serving stations at Domain and Parkville.

So there will be a lot of benefits.

But the plan isn’t absolutely perfect, and it’s inevitable with any project of this type that some trains will be re-routed, requiring people to change their travel patterns.

The government will need to tread carefully as they plan and build this project, and communicate what the design decisions are, and why they are happening.

As opposition public transport spokesman David Hodgett said in The Age yesterday, “Melbourne is growing at almost 100,000 people per year and this is an incredibly important project that we have to get right.”

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

19 replies on “Metro rail tunnel: The time is right”

Thanks again for excellent summary.
It would be good if South Yarra railway station could be part of the proposed underground system – not sure why it’s bypassed.

Notwithstanding the debate that you mention, I wonder if there has been any thought given to ensuring that the new tunnels are able to have double-deck trains through them, unlike the new lines in Sydney. It would be short sighted to only build for single deck profiles, even it it seems unlikely that it will be needed in the short-term.

@Mike, good point. It wouldn’t be as short-sighted as in Sydney given their existing double-deck system of course. I’ll try and find out.

Double-decker trains are only less efficient at single-decker stations. They could be more efficient at double-decker stations.

The tunnel will also allow, with some other upgrades between Sunshine and Melton, the electrification of the Melton line.

Re: tunnel diameter for double-deckers, remember that the cross-sectional area requiring excavation increases at the square of the increase in radius, so an extra metre or two of clearance can make quite a big difference to the total amount of spoil, concreting etc required. And don’t forget some of the clearances down there are probably going to be tight already.
So you need to be really, really sure the extra cost is going to be worth it. Not making a judgement either way, just noting.

The number and location of entry/exit points are critical to these stations being ‘efficient’.
Is it wrong to say you can’t have too many?

I haven’t seen any details on this – now that it has been decided to travel above the city loop (10m).

Being able to alight at Parkville and pop-up (via ped. tunnel) on the western side of Royal Pde (Royal Melb. Hospital) would provide the benefit of shelter, reduced number of ped. crossings at Royal Pde (pro for cars and safety) and spread the load/crush of passengers exiting at Grattan St.

More applicable at stations further south (e.g. one at fed square, one at city square, access from within Flinders st station – that covers every corner of Swanson/Flinders expt in front of Y&J’s).
Would be perfect for events like NYE, Moomba, White Night e.g. when there people lining up just to get into Flinders St station.

They don’t need to be obtrusive and majority could be stairs (?) much like the Degraves st underpass.

$$ I know but would provide significant benefits IMO.

The corridor is destined to be Sunbury+Melton+Airport to Pakenham+Clyde+Rowville which should be busy enough to demand separation from V/Line and freight services between Albion and Dandenong. Our challenge is to get the climate to a point where at least planning for those will be complete before MM opens and come on line over not much more than the following five years. I’m still betting that the Airport line will be open by 2025 because it is a soft target politically and no amount of freeway widening will sufficiently increase the Airport’s car handling capacity. And as a user of all manner of connections from the Sunbury line, I expect I will learn to live with the loss of North Melbourne. though it would be good if access was simplified from Arden to the 57.

People have also talked about adding a track from fss to scs on the aquarium viaduct. What are the pros and cons of that idea?

I’m disturbed by the apparent thinking that there is no way to build this shallow tunnel apart from cut-and-cover. Tunnelling machines can thread their way through tight spaces with very small clearances to other services. It’s been done elsewhere and tunnelling engineers know how to do it, so why push on with the idea of digging up the street to do it? The alarm it’s creating among some of the public, fuelled by the newspapers, is not going to help the project proceed. Either switch to proper tunnnelling or explain why it is impossible on the advice of tunnelling engineers. At the very least, reassure everyone that their pedestrian passage across Swanston St will not be eliminated during construction!


The other aspect of this metro tunnel I dislike besides no underground South Yarra interchange (people cannot transfer trains to and from the Sandringham line) is that there is no station at Southbank.
Southbank is one of the fastest growing areas in Melbourne. It is also the arts precinct with many events as well as shopping and restaurants. The arts precinct adds an 11.4 billion annual economic contribution to State GDP. There are 45,000 people employed in Southbank. On an average day there are 141,100 people in the study area – 13,100 residents, 46,000 workers and 82,000 visitors. The residential population is expected to double by 2031. Nearly 2000 people walk across Princess Bridge per day.

To put this project in the same measuring scale as the EWL, where is the business case, cost/benefit study for this project? And how does it stack up to Infrastructure Australia’s methods for CB analysis, that was so widely used to pan EWL?

@Tom, “Double-decker trains are only less efficient at single-decker stations. They could be more efficient at double-decker stations.”

I’m not sure what you’re referring to here. Can you point me to a picture or example of this?

@Dave (1), really good point about the additional cost from bigger tunnels. And it’s worth remembering that Melbourne can’t just start using double-deck trains. On most lines we have lots of underpasses/bridges that would need to be modified to cope with them. I seem to recall there are also concerns about the large number of level crossings, and what happens if a car hits the lower deck of a train.

@wxtre, isn’t most of Southbank (including all of the arts precinct) within a 5-10 minute walk of Flinders Street? And much of the rest of it (though not all) would be a 5-10 minute walk of Domain.

(PS: It’s Princes Bridge. Most of these things are named after blokes!)

@Ahmad, the raw Benefit Cost Ratio was 1.17 for the rail tunnel (0.45 for the EWL road tunnel) Including Wider Economic Benefits, it was 1.9 for the rail tunnel (and for the EWL road tunnel was 0.8, later revised up to 1.4 by including other projects such as the Tullamarine widening).


Raw BCR:


How the EWL BCR increased:

Why can we not do an elevated railway?

Make Melbourne more like an Asian city, and it should cut the cost of the project somewhat too.

We could have competitions into how to design each of the bridges. It could be built behind the buildings.

We should always be building everything to be large enough to handle double deck trains. Just because we can not on all lines now, should not be what stops us from working towards the future.

As for the Hitachi trains being reactivated. My understanding is, they are being stripped before being disposed of as an empty shell. Preservation groups such as Steamrail are taking useful parts of them before final disposal. Therefore, I am not sure if any of them can in fact enter service again?

I heard the planners in Sydney doing are doing the opposite and moving away from double decker trains as they are not appropriate for frequent stop metro services.
In terms of BCR for MM1, I wonder if all the factors of improved amenity, less traffic and accidents, more frequent services and lower pollution levels are factored into the BCR as that would greatly skew any BCR advantages towards a public transport project over a road based one. Another problem with BCR’s is that they are based on assumptions and future predictions of population and economic growth which can be difficult to quantify.

Dave: You’re correct regarding the square of the diameter, but only if it is a circular tunnel. This is not the case where cut-and-cover is used.

Philip: I’m surprised at your claim. I can’t see how a tunnelling machine cutting a hole big enough for a train could “thread it’s way” through the various services that I’m sure would be under Swanston Street, and do so safely without the street above collapsing into the advancing tunnel, given how close under the surface it would presumably be.

Two main comments:
One more “cheap option” that should be looked at is to provide flying junctions at Clifton Hill and Caulfield. According to the discussion at the PTUA email list some time ago, the congestion actually occurs at these places. I also suspect that Ringwood could do with a flying junction, and Camberwell could do with an extra platform, to terminate Alamain shuttles (or … terminate shuttle trains at Riversdale and build a paid-area access path between there and East Camberwell, effectively making them one station).

I should point out that many stations in Asian cities are larger than the footprint between Riversdale/East Camberwell, and Blacktown (Sydney) station would be about the same.

Also on “other options”: we need to push much harder for high-speed signalling – if only because the existing system is falling apart.

The other comment: I think we should keep a deep tunnel on the table. Any disruptions to Swanston St would be prohibitive, and I’d like to see numbers on the costs of Swanston St disruptions, the increased cost of deep stations, and the savings (?) from using a Tunnel Boring Machine. The way I see it, deep stations are fundamentally OK, provided there are lots of long escalators (as opposed to the lots of short zigzag escalators shown in the diagram). We need 4-lane escalators: slow/fast lanes in each direction, for each set.

Hey Daniel, I have had a look through quite a few of your posts and give them a big LIKE. I note one of your critiques in May 2014 about the effective joining of the Dandenong & Sunbury lines. Do you think this is still an issue with the MRT project. Given rail lines, and stations in particular, should be located within proximity to “frequent destinations”, I think the Montague station might have been a challenge and given it’s own residential catchment surrounds are limited (would it have been closed on weekends like Flagstaff ?). My thoughts are what we also need are cross suburb lines, like a Sunbury line to Broadmeadows line (or stations in between) via Tullamarine. This would involve tunnelling but geologically I understand it will be much safer and predictable terrain…..or maybe this is for the next rail project !

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