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Benefits to non-motorists from level crossing removals

I’ve touched on this before, but I keep seeing comments about it, so I think it’s worthy of a blog post of its own.

Some say that motorists are the primary beneficiaries of grade separation, and that they should be classed as road projects. Certainly motorists gain, but so do others.

Here are seven benefits to people other than motorists from level crossing removal.

Pedestrians, especially station users — at most ground level stations, there’s no way to get across the tracks (including to/from some or all of the platforms) without waiting for trains. I know from personal experience that if I have to wait at the gates for a train heading in my direction, I’ll probably miss it — unless once the gate re-opens I put on a Usain Bolt burst of energy and sprint — and a fair few other people are boarding — and the Myki reader chooses to respond particularly quickly.

At some stations you can wait an awfully long time at the gates for all the trains to clear. A Greens survey some years ago cited waits of up to 17 minutes at Yarraville station. That was before Geelong trains got moved off that line, but eventually it will fill back up with more Werribee trains.

Cyclists — if you’re cycling down one of these roads, long waits can occur, particularly during peak hour. It also adds to traffic queuing, which may make for a less pleasant (and possibly less safe) ride.

Bus in the traffic waiting for trains to pass, Bentleigh

Bus and tram passengers — Passengers on trams and buses also suffer from delays at level crossings. In fact it’s quite common for routes that cross a lot of level crossings to have severe punctuality problems, so it can affect passengers right along the route.

I don’t know if any exhaustive studies have been done, but if you compare tram routes 3, 5, 64 and 67, all four have similar mixes of dedicated track (along Swanston Street and St Kilda Road) and mixed traffic running. But route 67 is the only one with a level crossing. In the past twelve months, route 67 has the lowest punctuality figure of those four routes, and in fact every month showed worse on-time performance than the others.

Train safety and reliability — near misses and collisions at level crossings are common occurrences, and often, tragically, result in deaths or serious injury. This results in long delays for emergency services to do their work, including time to gather evidence for investigation. Quite apart from improving safety, the prevention of these types of incidents means far fewer unexpected suspensions of train services.

The Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator annual report says that in 2013-14 there were 13 level crossing collisions between passenger trains and road vehicles. 12 of these were in Victoria. There were also some 45 deaths due to trespass and/or suspected suicide, though it doesn’t break it down to which occurred at level crossings and which occurred elsewhere. They also said they received 400 notifications of vehicle near-misses nationwide.

Cars queuing across rail lines, Bentleigh

Train frequency improvements — this depends on a number of factors, including individual rail line and road conditions, and whether adjacent crossings are removed.

Perhaps the best practical current example in Melbourne is the proposed Dandenong line grade separations. They will remove every remaining crossing from the City to Dandenong, and PTV has said in the past that this is a barrier to running more trains in peak, due to the impacts it would have.

The Dandenong project will be accompanied by upgrades to signalling (using conventional lineside signalling, but still an upgrade), and other upgrades to increase train capacity, as well as frequency.

Emergency services — it’s common to see ambulances and other emergency vehicles stuck waiting for trains. This is particularly problematic where hospitals are adjacent to crossings (for example, Monash Medical Centre Clayton) but it happens in a lot of other locations too.

Better station design — many of our railway stations date back 100 years or more. Rebuilding them is a chance to incorporate newer, better designs. For instance:

  • Full accessibility — many Melbourne stations have ramps but few have DDA compliant ramps, with regard to gradients etc
  • Designing out crime — CPTED — “Crime prevention through environmental design” — ensuring all areas are easily visible and well lit, for instance
  • More shelter — many older stations have hardly any undercover space on the platforms
  • Toilets that don’t look (and smell) like they date from the dark ages
  • Passive cooling (Bentleigh’s waiting room is like a greenhouse in summer)
  • More CCTV
  • platforms which slope away from the tracks (improving safety)… the list goes on.

At Ormond, the new station is to include a second entrance on the south side of North Road, meaning people headed that way (including to/from westbound buses) can avoid having to cross six lanes of traffic.

This is not to say newer designs are automatically better — recent efforts in platform shelter have left a lot to be desired, for instance.

Mckinnon station, platform 3 being demolished December 2015 for level crossing removal works

In summary, it’s a bit blinkered to paint grade separation as only benefiting motorists. Many others, including train users, directly benefit from removal of level crossings.

They’re very expensive projects, certainly, and they need to be done cost effectively. But do bring a lot of pluses to the wider community, and it’s good to finally see progress on them.

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.

17 replies on “Benefits to non-motorists from level crossing removals”

There are two downsides.

#1, it is much longer for all train passengers to reach the platform.

Previously it was just a quick walk in from the street, now, you need to tackle a flight of steps, wait for a lift, of walk the length of two trams.

#2, especially with going under, the energy needed for trains are going to be somewhat more as they need to return to ground level as they exit the station.

Having said that, from what was on the radio last weekend, the Greens Road in Dandenong south has had work begin. I only hope we get a nice new station located there this time too. In place of a no station at all.

Has anybody looked at the time emergency vehicles spend at level crossings, vs say cumulative effect of slowing at red lights enroute? Also, cost of LXRA program vs cost of providing more ambulance/etc depots to overcome delays caused by stuck at booms?

I hear a lot about level crossing removals being important for frequency improvements, and in some instances, they are. But for the network more broadly, they are not the most significant factor in determining service frequency. It’s not level crossings that are causing lines in the north and west to receive services only every 20 mins during the day, or poor service during peak hour. For some cases, such as on the Dandenong line, level crossing removals will play a large role in improving service frequency, but the reason why frequencies aren’t improved across a lot of the rest of the network is just that Metro, PTV and the State Government do not think it is important enough to do so. Level crossing removals are important for other reasons though, as outlined in this post.

Other advantages people have mentioned on Twitter: jobs created during the project (short term only of course); reduced noise due to train horns (which has come up this week in the media).

@Jim, I would suggest that for the average user (one inbound trip, one outbound trip per day) the extra time to access the platforms is negligible, and on frequent lines, is likely to reduce due to no delays for trains as per the post. Of course it may also be affected by the change in station entrances vs where the passenger is coming from.

@Anonymous, the key differences between red lights and level crossings is that red light cycles are more predictable, likely to be shorter, and (for emergency vehicles) can be overridden.

More ambulance depots (and fire stations and police stations) could help vehicles get to emergencies… getting the ambulance from there to a hospital would still be a problem.

@Campbell, agreed — the frequency improvement argument is most pronounced at present on the Dandenong line, though it’s also likely to become an issue on other busy lines at peak times. Agree that 10 minute all-day services don’t really put stress on crossings… see Have higher weekend train frequencies resulted in huge traffic jams at level crossings?

At level crossings with trams, abolition also speeds up the trains because they do not have be slow for the tram crossing.

To see one reason why level crossing removals are seen mainly as road projects, take a look at the level crossings in the list of the 50 to be removed. A lot of the ones being grade separated will not unlock capacity.
For example, a few level crossings past Mordialloc are due for grade separation but a lot of level crossings between Mordialloc and Caufield will remain. So those level crossings will still limit trains frequencies on the Frankston line.
Also, a lot of level crossings on trunk sections will remain. For example, Macauley road, Kensington, the only level crossing between North Melbourne and Flemington bridge is not slated for removal. Buckley street Essendon is, but not Puckle or Park street, Moonee Ponds, even though grade separation of all these would make way for extra trains to Essendon.

The first level crossing to be grade separated under the current programme, Burke road, Gardiner, was the only tram square slated for removal. The other three are not.:(

A lot of the level crossing removals are either not along bus routes or in areas where bus services aren’t that good. Other level crossings in areas with a lot more pedestrian and/or bicycle traffic, and/or more frequent bus services might not be slated for grade separation.:(

So in summary, a lot of grade separations planned within the next eight years won’t benefit non-motorists as much as other grade separations would.

I think this is why some think that level crossing removals should be classed as road projects.

Re: Better station design
Actually, I’ll put it another way, upgrading stations next to level crossings is a good opportunity to grade separate the level crossing and benefit pedestrians.
Whereever road traffic is heavy, whether its motor traffic, bicycle traffic or pedestrian traffic, grade separations benfit a large volume of road traffic, including pedestrians.

Yes, I agree. If PTV want to start services at Essendon like they stated in their plan, then it would make sense to remove the Puckle St and Park Street crossings, as well as Macaulay Road. I would argue that the line should be quadruplicated between Macaulay Road and just beyond Newmarket so the Flemington Racecourse line can be independent to the Craigieburn line. Perhaps V-lines could also utilise this link. However, by that time, V-lines would’ve probably been diverted via the Upfield line. I do think that the Craigieburn line could do with an express service, skipping Kensington, Newmarket and Ascot Vale as the journey between the outer extent of the line and the city is lofty. Furthermore, the Flemington Racecourse line would certainly benefit from a regular service, given the increase in apartments in the area. Maybe this line could service Newmarket and Kensington and allow Craigieburn trains to skip the stations. I would love to see an airport line via Flemington Racecourse, however it would be considerably more expensive than the other option. It would, however, provide an opportunity for stations at Airport West, Avondale Heights and Highpoint. This will probably never happen because of the billions of dollars required for a project of such!

+Reuben Before V-lines get diverted via the Upfield line, at lot of level crossings on that line will need to go, for example Bell street, Coburg and Moreland road, Brunswick, the latter grade separation will make way for a tram extension. This may also mean grade separating both level crossings in between. Hopefully, this will be a stage towards undergrounding of the Upfield line.

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