Some more thoughts on the Suburban Rail Loop — which in this post, I am going to cheekily call Metro 3 for short, since it’s been proposed after Metro 1 (currently under construction) and Metro 2.
A week and a half on, many questions remain, but the idea still looks like an incredibly forward-thinking, positive concept, built on a vision of providing more people getting around an ever-busier city with viable public transport options.
And the community seems to agree. There’s been broad public support for the project.
Time and time again, it’s been shown that most people want public transport prioritised over roads, and I suspect most people are pleased to see such a forward-looking, big-thinking idea floated.
I had an impromptu chat with a senior elected figure who actually uttered the sentence many of us have been repeating for some time now: that in a big city like ours, “you can’t just keep building roads.”
Maybe, despite the current plans for two massive tollways (WestGate Tunnel and North East Link), there is finally recognition that our mass transit system is way behind where it needs to be for a city of this size.
The initial announcement was on Facebook, and reaction has been largely positive. As I see it, this is arguably the biggest city-shaping infrastructure initiative in decades. Making public transport competitive for so many more suburban trips will get more people out of cars like few other projects could.
Even the State Opposition isn’t attacking the idea, but rather questioning the ability of the government to deliver it.
There is some dissent from those who think trams or buses should be boosted instead. I’ll talk about that below.
Whether for or against, I don’t remember the Vicroads plan for a 100km long orbital outer ring road attracting this much attention.
The Suburban Rail Loop is undoubtedly a hugely expensive project.
It’s also the type of project that probably wasn’t feasible when Melbourne had just 3 million people, but has become more viable (and arguably essential) now we’ve tipped over 5 million and we’re still growing.
Cost estimates have varied wildly. Most seem to be quoting in the region of $50 billion, but the new Federal Minister for Cities Alan Tudge claimed it could be $100-150 billion — on what basis? Not sure.
Here’s a back of the envelope costing: The Metro 1 tunnel now under construction is 9 kilometres of twin tunnels and 5 stations, costing about $10 billion. Let’s assume for a moment that each station costs $1 billion, and tunnels cost $0.5 billion per kilometre.
SRL/Metro 3 as initially envisaged is 90 kilometres and 12 stations (though I would strongly argue for at least a handful more stations). Based on that rule of thumb, we’d be looking at $45 + $12 = $57b. So about $50b or less might be close to the mark, assuming some economies of scale from the bigger project, and remember that some of the route won’t be underground.
Certainly land acquisition and perhaps other costs should be cheaper than in the middle of the CBD, and the Metro 1 tunnel will incur costs when train passengers are diverted around works near the tunnel portals; SRL won’t have these.
There’s also talk of re-using some of the construction equipment from Metro 1 on this project.
It didn’t go through Infrastructure Victoria
There has been a fair bit of planning work done on it despite this — evidently for about a year.
They haven’t really talked about the technology that could be used. If it’s a new standalone line (assuming it shares some of the alignment with airport rail, but not the tracks), there’s arguably no real reason to use the existing trains or technology.
You could do standard gauge instead of broad. You could do modern 25 Kv AC power instead of the old standard 1.5 Kv DC, which has benefits such as the number of substations required.
You could even do… driverless trains. The technology is mature, used in many cities (Singapore is shown below), and the line will be completely segregated from road traffic and — presumably — other rail traffic.
It needs a few more stations
The western section of SRL needs some detail fleshed out. At present there’s Melbourne Airport, Sunshine, and Werribee, and nothing else in between. The government’s view is that scoping out additional stations may take a little time, as that whole area is developing.
This calls for integrated transport and land use planning. In the east, the activity centres being targeted for stations are very well established. Not so in the west.
The government should be taking the lead here and mapping out where the western suburbs’ next big education campuses and shopping centres should go. Werribee East is one – where will the others be in coming decades? They should either be near existing railway stations, or planned stations on the new line.
Even in the eastern suburbs, there are some very big gaps, which means there’s potential to provide more stations. Cheltenham to Clayton, for instance, is about 7 kilometres.
Where the gaps are larger than about 4 km, it would be something of a waste not to look potential additional station sites – the retail/industrial area of Moorabbin East/Heatherton at Warrigal Road would be a candidate for a station and subsequent dense development. There are similar opportunities along most of the route.
Glen Waverley too far out of the way?
I wonder if Glen Waverley is too much of a diversion, given it already has a station, and the centre there isn’t as large as some (though it has potential to grow). Is there a more direct spot on that line it could intersect?
You can’t hit all of the major centres out that way of course. Deakin Burwood, or Knox City? The plan is for Deakin. But this raises another topic.
One ring to rule them all?
One new ring metro line won’t solve all of Melbourne’s problems. Good connections to nearby locations are vital.
Knox City is a good example. It’ll miss out because it’s too far off-course. Extending tram 75 to the centre, and upgrading the Burwood Highway section to proper light rail with Gold Coast-style traffic light priority would help a lot.
Like wise, the rail line will miss Chadstone, which is in dire need of better public transport. The government’s Chadstone-Monash light rail idea could work, again, if it’s designed for speed, frequency and capacity, with good rail connections.
But certainly the new orbital line will make cross-suburban trips more viable, in a way that the Smartbus routes haven’t been able to do — and probably can’t do without dedicated lanes all the way. Upgrading the buses would be cheaper, but the politics are really difficult. The government is actually removing bus lanes along route 903 in Fitzsimons Lane.
Yes, it seems that perhaps finding billions for rail tunnels is easier than navigating the politics of bus lanes.
The importance of connections
Right along the route, good connecting services will be needed to help people access the stations. This goes not just for the existing rail lines it will connect to, but also connecting bus and tram services.
Trains along an orbital route bring huge time advantages, but only if end-to-end travel time is competitive.
So frequency needs to be good, and the physical connections also need to be well designed.
If traffic lights worked like public transport timetables…
Would you expect anybody to use this road? pic.twitter.com/octXTqQwd2
— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) July 1, 2018
It’s obviously early days, but you can already see that they’ll need to be clever with how they design the stations and their exits.
At Monash University for instance, it would make sense to try and design it for an exit into the main part of campus, near the bus loop (hello intermodal interchange!) as well as an exit near Blackburn Road for the employment centre.
Likewise at Clayton. One exit for the station and shopping centre, another for the medical centre.
At the Airport, it’ll be important to have good connections to the Airport-City line and connecting bus and coach services, as well as exits well-placed for the terminals.
Why not buses/trams/monorails?
There are three key things a strong orbital route needs: good travel time (speed and frequency) and capacity.
Frequency is a must. If running frequently, buses and trams might meet the capacity requirements right now, but would probably be lacking in the future. You can do intensive high frequency operation with articulated buses and trams, but it becomes very expensive in terms of drivers.
Speed: A Brisbane-style busway or light rail on a dedicated route might be able to get to 100 km/h, but not the top speed of 130 that’s being talked about. How much that matters depends on the route and the number of stations. But busways often aren’t that much cheaper than rail.
Monorails, assuming underground, wouldn’t save any money over heavy rail, and capacity wouldn’t be as good.
Remember, we’re talking about catering for demand in a city of 8 million or more people in decades to come.
Nobody ever seems to talk about ride quality, which comes into play at high speed, particularly for people travelling long distances. Well-constructed heavy rail trumps all other modes for this.
Possibly there’s an argument for a Brussels-style pre-metro line that is light rail built in heavy rail tunnels, pending a later upgrade, but it’s unclear how much money that would save.
It seems to me that only heavy rail is sufficiently future-proof for the capacity needed as the city gets more populous… you can build a rail line for long trains, but start with short ones running frequently, and build up train lengths over time.
And heavy rail is the only mode that really measures up against the main competition: motorways.
Does it all have to be underground?
It sounds like the Airport to Sunshine section would share the alignment (but perhaps/hopefully) not the tracks, so wouldn’t need to be underground.
Skyrail along arterial roads would also save some money compared to underground, but most of the planned route isn’t aligned to such roads.
Can it go a bit further?
SRL is promoted as connecting all major rail lines, but misses the Sandringham line. Should it also connect there? Arguably.
At the other end, if it serves the Werribee East precinct, there’s probably a case for it going a little further to connect Point Cook to the rail network.
Staging anticlockwise from east to west
Given the prime targets for stations have been identified in the east, but the west is still evolving, one can understand the prioritisation, though starting with Cheltenham to Box Hill seems to overlook that the strongest patronage is expected further north, between Clayton and Fawkner. This may be down to practicalities: Clayton may not be envisaged as ever being used as a termination point, so you wouldn’t want to build unnecessary infrastructure.
Then again, if including Sandringham, Clayton probably is a logical point for terminating trains during disruptions and works. (Hopefully there are a few such locations planned.)
Would it really take 30 years to build the whole thing? I suppose we’ll know more when detailed planning has been done. But comparisons to the 118km London Crossrail might not be fair – as much of that line is pre-existing railway.
The government is spruiking the speed of the trains (130 kmh) and travel times, quoting:
- Cheltenham to Airport 45 minutes
- Box Hill to Airport 25 minutes
- Monash Uni to Latrobe 25 minutes
- Broadmeadows to Monash Uni 35 minutes
Even if times are slightly longer than claimed, something close to this opens up a myriad of opportunities. For example, when my sons were considering their university options, Latrobe and Deakin were ruled out as too hard to get to by public transport. A fast frequent orbital line with good connections to existing rail lines would make them manageable.
No doubt, this project is going to cost a fortune.
If it goes ahead, and they get it right, and it’s accompanied by lower-profile (but equally important) upgrades to existing services, this could revolutionise public transport, making it a better option for a lot more trips across Melbourne – and opening up more opportunities for education, recreation and employment – and that’s got to be a good thing.
Update: Removed most references to Metro 3. The term hasn’t caught on; it just made it more difficult to read.