What’s wrong with Melbourne’s public transport (Part 1): Trains

Ok, enough. I am utterly over the whinging about petrol prices. Cutting tax on petrol is not going to make it cheaper, because it will merely encourage lazy people to use more of it, which will push up the price further.

And despite Rudd giving up on it all, there is one sure fire thing that would work: stop using it. How? Invest in public transport. Make it usable.

Melbourne has an efficient, well maintained public transport system with frequent services, which lets passengers travel from A to B quickly and cheaply. (Pause for laughs)

Of course, this is only true if:

  • You live in the inner city
  • You’re trying to commute only to or from the CBD
  • You only go out late on Friday and Saturday nights; and
  • “Quickly” is never actually quantified.

If you’re unfortunate enough to live outside that zone bounded by Coburg to the north, Camberwell to the east, Footscray to the west and St Kilda to the south, then you have my sympathy. I put up with the hour long bus-train-tram commute from Melbourne’s east to Melbourne Uni every weekday for most of the 1990s before I moved to Brunswick and swore I’d never move back.

The really sad part is, my commute at the time was one of the easier ones to make on Melbourne’s system, which is extremely skewed towards radial trips. If I’d have lived in a hellhole like Knox (ok, it’s not quite hell, but Satan has a quarter acre block there) the trip would have at least half an hour added to it, simply because there’s no railway station there.

Some of the problems with Melbourne’s railway system can be neatly summed up by this map:

(See here for Wikipedia’s larger version)

As you can see, there are vast areas of Melbourne, notably the north-east (Doncaster) and the south-east (Rowville, Knoxfield) that aren’t even remotely close to rail at all.

The proposed railway line to Doncaster has now become a running joke; successive governments have reneged on promises to build it, that they made while in opposition. The problem here is one of demographics: Doncaster is a blue-ribbon Liberal party seat. The Labor party won’t build the line, because they know that the residents won’t vote for them anyway; the Liberal party won’t build the line because they know they’re a shoe-in (let’s face it, the people of Doncaster weren’t even discerning enough to kick Kevin Andrews out, federally). Memo voters: make your seat marginal if you want things done.

The result is a hotch-potch of bus routes running from various areas around Doncaster and Templestowe, down the Eastern Freeway towards the city, which then come to a screeching halt in the Hoddle St or Alexandra Parade traffic. The government claims this is sufficient, but won’t even match the bus services with those provided on a regular railway line; you can get from the city to anywhere in Melbourne serviced by a railway line after 10pm on a Sunday night, but you can’t get to Templestowe or Warrandyte, because the buses have stopped long before then. It’s no wonder people drive.

The most ridiculous thing about this is that land was set aside for the railway line. The median strip running down the centre of the Eastern freeway is wide enough to accommodate two sets of railway tracks, and was designed for this purpose. Building this line – at least out to Doncaster Rd, is a no-brainer. From there to Shoppingtown is more difficult, especially given that the land earmarked for building it was sold off back in the 1980s. This problem, however, is certainly not insurmountable.

What is more difficult, however, is ramming home the need to build new railway lines into the thick skull of the Victorian government. They have noted their opposition to building new lines time and time again, preferring to repeat the tired old line that buses are adequate substitutes. Memo John Brumby: no-one wants to travel on buses. They are crowded, uncomfortable, noisy, smelly relics of a bygone era. If anyone wants to really see what’s wrong with relying on buses as a major mode of transport, just go and stand in Sydney’s George St, at almost any time of day. The noise is almost deafening. Then compare it to Flinders St, in Melbourne.

The map above doesn’t show the large growth areas to the north of Epping (South Morang, Mernda, Whittlesea) where there is no rail transport, or to the west, around Melton, where passengers are stuck using infrequent, crowded diesel services. The Labor party promised to start building a line to South Morang in 2001, before they were elected in 1999. This has now been put off until 2021, without adequate explanation. A recent study into Melbourne’s east-west traffic plan made no recommendations whatsoever for electrifying the line out to Melton; rather it advised the construction of yet-another whopping great freeway (and a rail tunnel, the need for which certainly isn’t a top priority).

Aside from the construction of the city-loop in the 1970s, there has been no new railway construction in Melbourne since the Glen Waverley line was finished in 1930, only the occasional electrification of existing lines. What I don’t understand – and maybe some economists within my readership could explain this to me – is why, in the past, Victoria (and Australia, more generally) was able to spend vast sums of money building extensive rail infrastructure, along with some very nice, aesthetically pleasing and very expensive looking railway stations; and yet today, in the middle of a mining boom, the state government can barely be convinced to string up a few wires above a pre-existing railway line and then build the cheapest possible concrete platform alongside it to act as a station, resulting in a construction that looks like it came straight from a Soviet architect’s nightmare:

I’m sorry, I don’t believe that we can’t afford to build these railway extensions. I don’t believe that it would cost almost $350 million to extend the Epping Line to South Morang, especially when the cutting from the previous line is still there. Forward looking cities like Amsterdam are tunnelling an entire friggen metro under the city, and we can’t even build a 5km extension before 2021?

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