SRL: all or nothing?

Suburban Rail Loop was first announced by State Labor ahead of the 2018 election. They romped it in, and the conclusion was that the project had widespread support in the electorate. Despite the cost, it was genuinely seen as a big thinking, city-shaping project.

Last week the Coalition announced they’d put the project on hold if elected in November.

Here are some thoughts on this.

Yes it’s a big expensive project.

But obviously SRL is not just one project, it’s a series of them.

  • First is SRL East (Southland to Box Hill)
  • Then SRL North (Box Hill to Melbourne Airport) – possibly developed in two halves, with the split at Reservoir
  • Lastly SRL West (Airport to Werribee, though the route for this section is very vague)

Even just the first stage is bigger than most road and rail projects, because there’s a minimum practical size for a new independent line.

It doesn’t help with cost that all of the first two stages are underground (apart from the contentious stabling yard at Heatherton). This makes it more expensive than if it was partly a ground level or elevated line.

It also looks like almost all of it will be tunnelled by boring machines, making it more expensive than if some of it was built with cut-and-cover – but this is near-impossible in built-up areas if not following major roads.

Just Stage 1?

If stage 1 gets built, but future governments don’t commit to later stages, are there benefits? Yes. Obviously the more you build, the more benefits, but even stage 1 improves journey options into Monash Uni, the research precinct and the new Heart hospital, Monash Medical Centre (hospital) at Clayton, Southland, and Box Hill – including the hospital there.

SRL is not the cheapest option to improve orbital travel, but in many ways it works better than the alternatives – certainly for speed between the existing major train lines, and capacity.

Aside from the politics, it’s probably important to remember that it’s a land use and planning project, not just a transport project. It’s about enabling further development of the precincts around the stations, and encouraging access to them by public transport.

The current station designs partly compromise the end-to-end journey times. To maximise the benefits, the stations should really be modified to cut walking times to major destinations and to other connecting train, tram and bus services.

There’s also a strong argument for additional stations – at the very least near Warrigal Road, given the opportunities for urban development in Moorabbin’s industrial area, and the long distance between stations on that stretch of the line.

SRL has very few stations by modern standards. By way of comparison, Sydney’s NW Metro has 13 stations along a 36 km route, or a station every 2.7 km. SRL East is 26 km with just 6 planned stations, or one every 4.3 km.

SRL Stage one - tunnel route and stations map

Cost blowout?

The narrative of a huge cost blow-out before the project has even really begun seems worth examination. The PBO costings are in part far higher than the SRLA (government project authority) costings.

My PTUA colleague Ben notes on his own blog that the PBO costing includes 50 years of running costs, as well as major asset renewal costs during that time, so of course it’s going to be higher.

Additionally, it appears the SRLA costing is using “present value” dollars (cost at the time of writing), but the PBO is using “nominal” dollars (the cost at the time of spending, decades into the future). I would also note that both documents are a little vague on this to my untrained eye.

Still, this could help explain why the two costings for stage 1 are very similar, but the PBO’s for stage 2 is about double. I’m no economist, but it does seem that the SRLA and PBO costings are not directly comparable.


So will the Coalition’s threat to cancel the project work?

Given the project’s popularity, I was initially surprised that the State Coalition would pledge to cancel it. But the more I think about it, the more I suspect they’d be pretty grumpy if they got into government and had to fund one of Daniel Andrews’ signature projects.

All the same, it’s a bold move. They probably thought they needed something big to get them out of the mire of repeated scandals and to have any chance of a shot at the election.

I’m not sure it’ll work, but I do think we always need a strong, competitive opposition to keep whoever is in government on track. So far, it’s not looking like it’ll be a close election, though the most recent poll was just before the Coalition’s SRL announcement.

We’ll see how the debate goes from here.

I still think that SRL, while an expensive project, is a worthwhile project. The health system obviously needs to improve, but public transport also needs a shot in the arm. Whoever is in government needs to upgrade both.

Update 24/8/2022: The Coalition followed up today by demanding that no new SRL contracts are signed before the election. This is actually a very reasonable request… though it sounds like it was unlikely to be an issue. And given the history of the East West Link side letter, they’ve certainly got some chutzpah.

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.

14 replies on “SRL: all or nothing?”

Only having 6 stations and no real catchment increase is a massive missed opportunity. I get it’s supposed to speed up connection times but this could be accomplished far cheapskate with a dedicated busway or by building it closer into the city.

I think for $50 billion no where near enough thought has been put into it and it just seems like another napkin idea like the original Rudd NBN.

It is not that it wouldn’t be nice to have but it just has too many flaws. The compromise of station locations and access, the vanity of the process by which is was advanced. I love to see new PT infrastructure but I’d be much more excited about the opportunities that would arise from canning this one (MM2? Train to Chadstone? Rowville? Doncaster? Wollert?) than to see this one through for several decades.

There does seem to be some flaws in the project that should be ironed out, but it is very frustrating that it has turned into a zero sum political issue. We can either have it in its current proposed form (ALP) or we cannot have it at all (Lib).

Also the reporting recently about it is so clearly pushing a certain narrative that isn’t supported by proper analysis (such as through the blog you linked) and its not hard to see how the public is being manipulated into thinking the project is a white elephant.

I think one of the missed opportunities would be the lack of details on intermediate stations. At the very least they should earmark possible locations for future stations and align the rails accordingly for future platforms. Stations between Cheltenham and Clayton, especially if there happens to be a tram running across. Secondly, Mount Waverley should be the new interchange and not Glen Waverley.

There’s also a question of whether certain locations would be more worthwhile doing cut and cover or even elevated (both which I gather would be less costly in construction terms) – which I guess depends on what the terrain is like and how difficult compulsory acquisition would be. How difficult is this in commercial or industrial areas compared to residential?

The cost of this project is vastly underestimated, and with so few stations it seems an even greater waste of funds which could be spent on other projects.
The system should be moved inward to where the population density is greater and where it would connect with more stations and tram lines.
There also seems to be a lack of imagination on how this line could be achieved and used to greater effect. Achieving high speed and capacity doesn’t have to mean boring kilometres of expensive tunnels. Looking at other systems such as São Paulo, Medellin, or Chongqing etc. and you can see what can be achieved without tunnelling.
And does it have to be one long ring around Melbourne? If you look a other metro systems they consist of many criss-crossing branch lines with quick interchange between lines.
The SRL seems like a badly thought out vote winning vanity project that will burn cash.

Heatherton is a good site for a stabling yard. It’s a quarry, with mostly no current environmental value. Community opposition seems mostly based upon loss of planned (car accessed) sports facilities, which can easily be located on the other quarries and landfill sites in the area. I haven’t seen links to reports committing to those sports facilities yet – perhaps someone can share them?
The alternative is to displace small and medium size businesses in the industrial precinct west of Warrigal Road; a disruptive and costly exercise that many older businesses probably wouldn’t recover from. The multiplier effect of relocating or closing those businesses could be much worse in terms of impacted people.
Impacting homes is regrettable; and I do believe there should be significant compensation for those that have to, or choose to, move.

If you think back to when Napthine’s government proposed rerouting the Frankston line via Fisherman’s Bend instead of building the Metro Tunnel, it was Robert Doyle – a Liberal – who as Lord Mayor of Melbourne went on ABC Radio and declared that Melbourne Uni not getting a train station would be a “once in 100 year catastrophe for Melbourne”. He was not wrong.

I am wondering why no-one has made such a comment about Monash Clayton. It’s beyond stupid to talk about not building SRL East without also having a firm starting date for heavy rail to Monash, be it Rowville or some other line. Now that the airport’s getting a station, I think this leaves Monash as the largest trip generator in Melbourne without one. Just to remind people, it’s one of the “Group of Eight” leading Australian universities and also a major export earner.

On the other hand, I think building SRL East according to the current plan would also be a serious mistake. The location of the Monash station should be considered unacceptable, meaning further engineering work to get it closer to the campus itself. Putting the southern terminus at Southland instead of Cheltenham itself seems to me to be a free kick for Westfield and whoever owns the old Pizza Hut site on the other side of the Nepean Highway; it’s just bizarre considering Cheltenham proper is organically growing as an activity centre.

I am not convinced the technical “problems” that were said to drive these decisions aren’t solvable. We’re told the Monash station can’t be at Wellington Rd. because of EMF concerns for the synchrotron and other sensitive equipment. Yet the project has identified and costed mitigations that still have to be done, examples being shielding and moving equipment, and Monash will forever be restricted about where they can place such equipment. The laws of electromagetism being what they are, could this be avoided by putting the tunnel deeper? If it’s deeper than any existing metro anywhere in the world, so be it. We went through this with the Metro Tunnel too, with that project originally claiming cut and cover down Swanston St. was all local engineering could manage (despite the presence of BHP and RIO).

As for Cheltenham, the requirement for such a large site disappears if you build it as a balloon loop (like Kennington in London) and just need to sink a shaft for station access. Then you could use sites like the carwash on the NW corner of Station Rd and Nepean Highway. TBM retrieval would then be done at some intermediate point, say around Warrigal Rd. in the area people are suggesting a station be built. I don’t agree with the need for such a station, but you could build the box and leave it not fitted out until such time later in the century when opening it would be justified.

I forgot to mention one other objection to putting the station at Southland: it means yet another an extra minute on journey times for the “fast” services which serve the southern section of the Frankston line, which have been creeping up due to timetable padding. These trains express Caulfield to Cheltenham, and would now all stop at Southland. There is a difference between 38 and 55 minutes, but PTV appear to only care about frequency.

I won’t comment on the merits of the project as some sensible discussion has been had above, however from a political standpoint I will say this: If the Liberal party had said ‘we’re going to build it, but we’re going to review the current scope and make changes where sensible/appropriate to maximise the cost-benefit. We’ll build it, but it may not look exactly as it is being presented by Labor’, I would possibly…. possibly sway my vote to them.

Instead they’ve gone the nuclear route, with no nuance, consideration, or thoughtfulness. And while I definitely think the SRL could and should be done better, I’ll take it over no SRL at all. I guess nuance doesn’t square with a nightly news report these days though.

I thought about that realstretts but I actually think that there’s so little room for nuance in politics now that I don’t think “improving the design” of SRL would cut through. They wanted to make some noise that the public might latch on to and are piggybacking off the murmurs of discontent that had built since the SRL was announced.

The SRL should be discussed, its a huge city defining piece of infrastructure and the community engagement should not only be welcome it should be proactively sought, and not in the tokenistic pretend fashion that modern day governments tend to prefer.

However the crash through approach of the current government appears to have been applied to the SRL like every other project. As a result it does appear we’re on the pathway to having a piece of infrastructure that will be an excellent addition, but also have some significant flaws.

I understand why the current government has this approach, when they came to office there was a very real sense that Melbourne’s infrastructure development was neglected and bogged down in indecision. As a result they bulldozed through on a number of projects both to address the issue but also because that was a politically popular approach.

Applying that approach to the SRL is quite troubling.

I am also surprised at the lack of any meaningful pushback against some of the cost assumptions that have now been presented as fact.

The SRLA could hardly have picked a worse site for the Stabling Yard. The former sand quarry is well into rehabilitation. One of South East Melbourne’s most important bird corridors runs through the site from Karkarook Park to the Golf Course. It is a bird-watcher’s paradise. Take the time to have a look. Our Federal Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, cannot believe that this site is going to be desecrated and made a submission to have the Stabling Yards moved to a more suitable area. The site is so perfectly suited to open space that it was designated Green Wedge ‘A’ Zone by the same government that is now placing no value upon it at all. People who appear to have no concern that the world is in a chronic global warming crisis continually label this wonderful open space as ‘cheap land’. As for the ‘other’ landfills in the area. Well the last public land fill was closed some time ago. There will be no more. It will be parkland with a noisy, 24 hour, fully lit-up, 40 hectare, train stabling yard smack bang in the centre of it!

The entire Green Wedge area from Karkarook Park down to Braeside Park is destined for a linking chain of parks. Directly across the road from the so-called ‘quarry’ is Kingston Heath Golf Course, one of only two Australian golf courses to make top twenty in the world. Many in the area do not realise that trains will run for 800m alongside Kingston Road, and at surface level, every 3 minutes, 24 hours a day. There has been a reluctance to advertise these things. There will never be another World Championship or Australian Open at Kingston Heath.

And why on earth does the alignment take a right-angle deviation at Warrigal Road, instead of continuing in a direct line to Clayton? This causes the alignment to travel an additional 3 kms through the South Eastern Green Wedge. If it did not deviate (at a rough minimum tunneling cost of $3 million per km) then it would go directly underneath the Moorabbin Industrial Zone, the ideal location for a stabling yard. An area ending at the corner of South Road and Warrigal Road would be perfect, with major roads on two sides and factories on the other sides. Noise barriers would be erected. Were any business owners spoken to? Not according to the EES. Too costly apparently, as if the long-planned open space, wetlands, plus nearly 40 hectares of sports fields for the entire south-east of Melbourne, has no value! Green Wedge land is ‘cheap’ apparently, even if it was not about to undergo a decade of being converted into an urban heat island full of steel, cement, bitumen and without tree cover. The Moorabbin Industrial Zone has many factories beyond their use-by date, and, last time I looked, there were ample properties for sale or lease. But alternatives were never properly considered. The committee overseeing the EES stated as much, recommending that all alternatives should have been properly assessed.

But the site that belongs to the Delta Group, Australia’s biggest civil engineering company, was always going to host the Stabling Yard. The Delta Group knew this back in 2018 and 2019 when they bought the two biggest surrounding properties. Around 25 hectares were purchased by the Delta Group, who appeared to know about the dog-leg deviation of the alignment well before the residents of Heatherton and Clarinda, or Kingston City councillors and officers. Evidence was provided to the EES showing the land purchases. The Delta Group has extensive Big Build, rail and tunnelling dealings with the Victorian Government, and has long been involved in the Metro Tunnel and the excellent railway crossing removal projects.

It is not as if the project will be an easy one either. The site is engineered clean-fill, but that clean-fill was chosen so that nearly 40 hectares of much-needed sporting grounds, intended to be prioritized for women’s sport, could be built on a sterile, flat surface. Piles will be driven into the clean-fill yet pockets of methane gas are known to have built up, and the back fences of the closest homes are just over 10 meters from the railway tracks and maintenance yard. The WAG oil pipeline travels up Old Dandenong Road and has to be relocated. Old Dandenong Road is to be permanently closed, even though it is the main thoroughfare to the Clarinda shopping center. And, get this: the SRLA were completely unaware that an underpass was built on Elder Street South to enable traffic from Old Dandenong Road to have clear access to Clarinda, and vice-versa, when the Dingley Bypass was built. The SRLA’s entire road plans were based on an error that was not understood until it was pointed out to them at the EES. Too late now. That access is no longer considered necessary, even though millions were spent to keep it open previously.

The Victorian State government promised that they would build a Chain of Parks in Heatherton well before the Suburban Rail Loop was dreamt up shortly before the 2018 election by four businessmen chatting on an aeroplane. The project has continued to be planned on the run, with undue haste, and with zero independent oversight.

And still, residents of this area, from Cheltenham to Dingley, have no railway station. They will still drive 4.5km to Cheltenham or 4km to Clayton. And why won’t the government hand the business plan to Infrastructure Australia? Anyone who listened to the EES knows why. The project does not stack up, and much better use could be made of the billions of dollars of funding. Please slow down. Take a deep breath. And start talking to the people you represent.

I am concerned about a lot of this project. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for improving public transport and I a m generally in favour of a project such as this one , but it has massive issues that need sorting out and no one wants to listen to them. One of my issues however is not about the project itself, but one of the comments that Daniel makes in his piece above – that the project has “popularity”. I’m sorry but I have not seen this popularity you or the government speak of. Yes, of course, at the 2018 election the Government announced the project and there was a loud roar from people saying what a great idea. But that was BEFORE the issues started to be seen; BEFORE the details were released; BEFORE so many issues started to pop up.Plus, I argue, that the Government did NOT go to the election on a platform of building the SRL, rather on a platform of Health, jobs, taxes, Ambulances, Schools, transport overall, and a wide range of other policies. And the SRL. Most people I know voted for the Government because of these OTHER “more important” reasons. Not the building of the SRL. And I’ve spoken to literally hundreds of people who at the start of the conversation were big supporters of the project but changed their minds rapidly when confronted with the issues at hand. The Government has not released any polling to show the support of the project. In fact, no one has. Not the opposition. Not the media. No one. Sure, there has been a few vox pops here and there, but the questions I have seen include “Do you like the idea of”, and “How good will it be to take the SRL to the Airport when it is done”. That type of thing. Nothing indepth. Nothing substantial. Nothing, well, relevant. There hasn’t even been a study to determine if people will even use the route once in place, let alone how many. I think the problem of simply saying the project is “popular” is contributing towards building a project full of issues that once built will be extremely hard to rectify, if at all. I think it is a much idea to put the brakes on the project and have it thought about again, taking into account the issues bought forward and building the best project that can be built. We deserve it. And I make the following point as an anecdote. In Waurn Ponds (Geelong) the government took 10 years to select the land and plan and built a rail stabling yard to hold just 6 trains. This included looking at multiple locations, a full EES process where one of them main goals was to place the facility AWAY from residential areas, and this facility is only now just complete. The SRL has moved from a thought process to building in 4 years and with multiple issues surrounding it. Now, I’m not saying that the people building this project are not smart, or appropriate, or trained, or educated etc, but I am saying that if the same people take 10 years to house 6 trains, then maybe, just maybe, 4 years is just NOT enough time to iron out all of the kinks on such a big project. Lets get it right, not just built.

There’s always a cost (or a disbenefit) to not doing something, but this might not manifest itself for many years into the future.

How much have governments spent over the years removing level crossings – including the concerted efforts of the current government – because rail lines were built at level 150 years ago? Surely it would’ve been cheaper overall to have not had to retrofit – but you don’t often get that foresight, and who can tell what problems governments will be dealing with in 80 years’ time because of a lack of foresight today.

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