The Suburban Rail Loop continues to move ahead. Phase 1 (Southland/Cheltenham to Box Hill) is now officially called “SRL East”, aiming to start running in 2035. Last week the State Government announced funding for major works to the tune of $9.3 billion, about a third of the cost.
Given the huge cost involved, I thought it would be good to reflect on some of the factors the SRL will need to really be a success. These are in no particular order.
SRL high frequency
High frequency on the SRL is an obvious requirement. While SRL will be a standalone line (enabling technology such as driverless trains), it is specifically designed to connect passengers to existing lines. This means waiting times need to be minimised.
The Business And Investment Case document released in August says that the initial services will be every 10 minutes all day, and every 6 minutes at peak times.
It also says the plan will be for later frequency upgrades to as often as every 2 minutes.
High frequency – existing Metro lines
Good connecting trains are also important. This is the other side of the equation – if passengers are connecting to and from the existing lines, there needs to be an uplift of service frequencies right across the rail network.
Imagine stepping off your every-10-minutes SRL train to find you’ve got a 20 or 30 minute wait for your connection? This is the reality at many stations at times. (It can be even longer on some other lines.)
This would not be very expensive to fix, and would have benefits right across Melbourne.
Good feeder buses (and trams)
It’s not just train connections that will be important. How do people get to the stations?
To rely on park and ride would artificially constrain patronage, so that won’t work – even if there was space for lots of parking, which there isn’t.
Better local buses are vital, for those who can’t get to an SRL station under their own steam, and are coming in a direction not served by rail.
Most buses in the suburbs around the SRL stations are laughably bad, with hopelessly infrequent, inadequate services. Many of them also have confusing, indirect routes.
Fixing it across Melbourne is important, of course. Other cities such as Houston have had great success reforming and simplifying routes, making them more direct and investing in higher frequencies, with the result being healthy growth in patronage.
Interestingly, the EES recognises the problems of relying on car access, but not the importance of bus access.
There will also be connections to trams at Box Hill, and at Monash Uni a potential future light rail (or possibly “trackless tram“, eg an elaborate bus). Trams mostly run to okay frequencies… except in the evenings, when the wait can be 20-30 minutes.
All of these connecting frequencies need to be up to scratch.
Quick convenient interchange
Easy interchange to other rail, tram and bus lines is important alongside high frequencies.
You don’t want a long walk between platforms. Easy, quick, seamless is the key – and seamless includes not having to exit through fare gates and enter again to make a train to train connection.
I’d have to say, some of the best metro systems worldwide don’t actually do outstandingly well at this. Long corridors with lots of steps and escalators are surprisingly common. London Underground is notorious for it, and Singapore can be similar.
But they still need to be minimised where possible.
Importantly, the government has committed – repeatedly (and as recently as a couple of weeks ago) – to SRL stations having paid area connections to all existing stations.
However the recent publication of detail for the Southland (“Cheltenham”) station indicated a fair distance to walk between the new and existing stations, including an overpass over Bay Road. It’s unclear if this connection will be weatherproof.
Good access to traffic generators
The same goes for access to the traffic generators adjacent to the stations. For maximum competitiveness with car travel, it needs to be as quick and easy as possible to walk from the new stations to destinations including Westfield Southland, Monash Uni, Deakin Uni and the various shops and destinations around Box Hill.
The precinct maps show some of the stations will be a fair way from the destinations they are intended to serve. It looks suspiciously as through they are prioritising what’s easier to build.
For instance the Monash Uni station will be some distance north of the campus rather than underneath the main buildings or near the existing bus interchange. The campus may gradually develop further north, but the planned station site is currently about 300 metres from the nearest campus building, 900 metres from the Ming Wing, and about a kilometre from the Synchotron.
At Southland, the SRL station will be across the road in the park, a lengthy walk from the existing station, the centre, and the bus interchange. They could move the bus interchange, but then that would be less convenient for the centre. One solution might be to build an additional bus stop near the SRL station and send some or all bus routes through it. (City of Kingston has some good proposals for the park precinct.)
All this is quite a contrast to the Metro 1 stations such as Parkville and ANZAC, which are very well-located for the precincts they serve.
The emphasis for SRL is speed of travel between a limited number of stations – focused on connections to existing lines, and major traffic generators.
But this also means long gaps between some stations. Southland (“Cheltenham”) to Clayton is about 7km as the crow flies – the actual route will be longer.
There’s talk of provision for a future station near Warrigal Road, but no commitment to actually build it.
No wonder the Heatherton locals are angry about the stabling yard being built in green wedge land – they will get all of the impact, but few of the advantages of the project.
It’s similar for other sections. The line will pass under thousands of homes, but only a fraction of these will be walking distance to a station. Even if the line got a few more intermediate stops, local connecting buses would still be important.
Walking, cycling access
So if some of the stations are distant from the places they serve, bus connections are patchy, and most people are a fair way from a station, what else can they do to improve access?
Walking and cycling access needs to be top notch. The planning documents talk a bit about providing plenty of cycle parking, which is good.
But thanks to decades of prioritising cars, the planned stations are all nearby to big fast suburban roads that are incredibly hostile to anybody who is not in a car. The intersection closest to Southland (pictured above) is utterly horrible to walk around.
Improvements in local paths (for both modes), on-road protected bike lanes, and better traffic light priority for walkers and cyclists will also need to be prioritised. Removing slip lanes would also be a plus.
All of these points have something in common. You don’t build a train line and run trains for the sake of it. It’s not just a line on a map.
If people are going to use it en masse, the experience needs to be quick, easy, seamless, and as close to convenient as possible to hopping in the car.
The differences between bad outcomes and good outcomes may require more planning effort and higher cost. But some – like better feeder services – provide huge direct and indirect benefits for minimal extra cost compared to the overall project.
Hopefully the government is looking at all of these issues, so that the new SRL line is as successful as possible.