Skyrail!

There have been rumblings for a while that some of the level crossing removals might include elevated sections, but finally we have a concrete (pardon the pun) proposal to look at: the crossings along the Dandenong line, known internally as “CD9” or the “Caulfield To Dandenong Nine”. (Sounds like a music group.)

It’s become more popularly known as “Skyrail”.

The “Skyrail” name seems to have originated either with a journalist or an Opposition MP, as it first appeared in this Herald Sun article in January. I checked with the journo, and he’s not sure — it may have been the work of a subeditor — but certainly the name has stuck.

Since then the Government (MPs at least, not necessarily bureaucrats) seems to have tried to embrace the nickname rather than ignore it, and it’s handy shorthand.

Carnegie: current and proposed
Koornang Road level crossing, Carnegie, August 2015
Carnegie/Koornang Road - LXRA impression, Feb 2016

So, what do we know?

Pulling together the information provided publicly and more gleaned from discussions with the Level Crossing Removal Authority (such an unwieldy name; LXRA for short), here’s what I’ve learnt about the project.

It’s three sections of elevated track:

The first section will go up and over Grange, Koornang, Murrumbeena and Poath Roads, incorporating new stations at Carnegie, Murrumbeena and Hughesdale. This is probably the most controversial section, as it is very close to homes, due to the narrow width of the rail corridor.

The second section will go over Clayton and Centre Roads, including a new station at Clayton.

The third section will go over Corrigan, Heatherton and Chandler Roads, including a new station at Noble Park — though they come pretty much down to ground level between Heatherton and Chandler Roads. Apparently a rebuild of Noble Park station isn’t really required to do the grade separations, but they’ve decided to do it anyway, to move it closer to the local shopping centre and provide new facilities at the station.

The height is mostly between 8 and 10 metres. This is well above the 5ish metres required for road clearance, because they want to maximise light underneath the structure and into neighbouring properties. For the same reason, most of the way along, each track will be on a separate structure. It also helps assists with construction while the existing railway and roads stay open.

The extra height should also help prevent any nasty incidents with trucks hitting bridges.

Light and shadow is important issue. Minimising shadow impacts can help with growing vegetation underneath, which will make it more pleasant.

It also makes a difference to nearby residents, particularly between Caulfield and Hughesdale where some houses are very close to the line — though of course it doesn’t even come close to eliminating the impact. More on that later.

The LXRA have got a 3-D model showing the light and shadow at different times of day, using the sun’s position on 22nd September — which is apparently the standard.

The new stations won’t straddle the roads. Exits will only be on one side. This seems a shame, though most of the roads (currently) are only 4 lanes total, unlike at Nunawading or Ormond (which have got or are getting exits on both sides). I suppose sticking to a single exit may help with sight lines and personal safety.

With platform level being up to 8-10 metres from ground level, access becomes important. I’m told each station will have lifts, stairs and escalators. They will all be island platforms, which is good for safety, maximising space and access to station facilities.

So what about bus interchange? Most of the new stations would be on the eastern side of the main roads (Hughesdale the exception, it would move to the western side of Poath Road) so southbound bus stops will be on the road, next to the station entrance.

Northbound? Well it seems (at Clayton and others, it appears) they may loop around via an access road, to avoid passengers having to cross the main road. Hopefully that doesn’t add to delays too much — an opportunity there for traffic light priority. Yes, it’ll be faster than long waits for boom gates, but will it be as fast as it would be sticking to an unencumbered main road?

Update: Additional diagrams have been released that show a number of bus stops being across roads from stations (as well as other detail). This needs further explanation.

Centre Road, Clayton: current and proposed
Level crossing at Centre Road, Clayton
LXRA: Proposal for Centre Road, Clayton

The line will stay as two tracks with “passive” provision for extra tracks — the project will be in line with a longer term plan for two additional tracks later. Elevated instead of in a cutting apparently makes this substantially easier, as expanding a cutting is difficult without shutting down the line.

Edit: It’s assumed that the two extra tracks later will be for freight and express services, therefore they don’t need platforms at most stations. See also the section on Capacity, below.

The promise: reduced disruption during construction — it’s widely known that there are huge disruptions when putting rail lines under roads, particularly when there’s very little space alongside the existing line.

For some (eg Gardiner, Springvale) they can do a lot of the construction alongside the existing corridor, and minimise shutdowns. But for narrow alignments that’s difficult. The Ormond to Bentleigh project will have something like 10-12 weeks of shut downs in total, covering numerous weekdays including peak hours.

Running buses (properly!) in peak hours is a huge operation. The recent late-January Frankston line shutdown used around 100 buses at times, and huge numbers of support staff. And that was outside university term times, so the loads were less than there will be for the big shutdown this winter.

The Dandenong line is far busier than the Frankston line, so longterm bustitution really wouldn’t be pretty, particularly as they want to push ahead and get the whole project built within three years.

The LXRA says the Skyrail design means much of the disruption can be avoided. A lot of the structures can be built around the existing infrastucture, including building some off-site. Estimates, subject to change, are that there will be perhaps 15 to 20 weekend shutdowns, with only two longer shutdowns of around 9 and 16 days — I’d hope the latter could be contained to school holidays. (Edit: corrected number of days.)

If those estimates are correct, it’s certainly a far cry from the Frankston line shutdown this winter which is expected to be around 5-6 weeks long, only partly during school holidays — and the three stations themselves will closed for up to 3 months.

Clayton: current and proposed
Clayton level crossing, April 2012
Clayton station - LXRA impression, Feb 2016

Opening up public space. 225,000 square metres, they say, or the equivalent of 11 MCGs. When did MCGs become a standard measurement of land area?

There’s extra space for parks (worth noting that Glen Eira, covering the inner section, has the least open space of any metropolitan council area). In some spots there’s potential for existing parks or facilities (such as the aquatic centre at Noble Park) to be expanded under the tracks.

Seventeen extra cycle/pedestrian crossing points have been flagged — presumably this excludes the parks, which you could also walk through.

And five new rail/road crossing locations have also been identified with help from Vicroads and councils. Hopefully they don’t become semi-arterial rat runs, and shift traffic rather than creating more. My assumption is few if any of these extra crossing points would be economically viable if road bridges had to be built across the rail line.

An extra 12 km of cycle paths will be added, linking existing sections to make a single stretch for bikes from Caulfield to Dandenong, with local councils contributing additional links to Monash University and the Gardiner Creek trial, which provides an off-road path all the way into the city.

Anti Skyrail sign on a level crossing

Urban slum? — Open space only works if people use it. As noted above, the LXRA’s claim is that by building the rail higher than needed, and mostly along separate structures, it maximises the light.

I’m not convinced by the assertion that such a space automatically becomes urban blight. Comparisons to existing elevated rail lines in Melbourne aren’t really fair, because they are decades old and haven’t been designed with these issues in mind. Comparisons to road overpasses are doubly unfair, as roads are wider, tend to be lower to the ground, and as with those older rail examples, haven’t been specifically designed for space underneath them.

If we avoided building anything that could attract graffiti, we wouldn’t build much, because just about any close-to-vertical surface attracts graffiti these days. That said, most of the structures near the ground are columns, so far less “canvas” than the retaining walls used on most past Melbourne elevated rail, as well as on most cuttings.

Any public space can become vandalised and littered. The question is how it’s minimised and managed. It could be good, or it could be bad. Will people feel safe there, or will they avoid it like the plague?

Perhaps local councils will take on the ongoing maintenance — then as with their other parks, then you’d hope these new spaces can be maintained to a similar condition. Hopefully the LXRA is thinking carefully through this.

Concerning is the pledge that the space will also be used to provide “thousands of new car parks” — I can understand why they might want to preserve the number of spots currently offered at stations, but a huge expansion of car spots is a terrible use of space, and will only encourage more cars into these busy suburban centres.

I can certainly believe that big car parks underneath the rail line might become well urban blight, much like the similar spaces underneath the Westgate Freeway.

Mile Creek — if rail is elevated, getting over the Mile Creek in Noble Park isn’t an issue. Otherwise there would have been some serious challenges doing this, especially with Chandler Road only a few hundred metres away.

The Coalition’s plan in 2014 did not include funding for Chandler Road — in fact it only included funding for removal of 4 of the 9 level crossings, with money to study the rest. Given their fierce opposition to SkyRail, I wonder if asked now, what they would say about how they would address Chandler Road? (The same goes for roads along the southern end of the Frankston line, near the Patterson River, for instance.)

Dandenong line, Monday evening

Capacity — this project is part of the overall Dandenong line upgrade project. Level crossing removals enable more trains. Platform extensions (30 of them in all) will enable the longer “High-Capacity Metro Trains” that will be bought in coming years. The total is claimed to be a 42% boost to peak capacity, and that’s before any moves to high-capacity signalling. This project will include new conventional signalling.

That said, the longer trains can only be used once the Metro rail tunnel opens circa 2026, because existing CBD stations can’t handle them. There’s been no commitment yet on platform extensions for the Sunbury line, but that would also need to happen, as post-tunnel, the Dandenong line will connect to it.

But in the meantime, you can at least move closer to filling the line with trains (up from around 15 per hour now) without locking up the road system. And I think we all know the Dandenong line needs more trains.

(I’m awaiting an answer on precisely how many trains the new signalling will allow. The current theoretical headway is 3 minutes, at a maximum speed of 80-95 km/h.)

So in terms of extra passenger capacity, and new station facilities at five locations, there are some pretty good outcomes for train passengers.

Noise reduction — the LXRA are firm in saying that the noise from trains would be far less than with them at ground level. Noise barriers will apparently prevent most of the sound reaching ground level, and they plan to test them after installation to make sure they work.

They also claim vibrations from trains on the viaduct would be less than at present.

Rail safety — apparently it’s now a world standard for elevated railways to include derailment protection. Derailment beams will stop the train from falling off the viaduct if the wheels leave the track, so the effects of any derailment would be less than if it happened currently at ground level.

And the cost? There have been claims in the past that elevated rail is cheaper than putting it under roads. At $1.6 billion for the whole project, it seems reduced cost is probably not a benefit. The key difference seems to be that less of the money is going into disruption costs such as running buses, and moving underground services. (I stat I have written in my notes is that disruption costs can be up to 40% of the cost of a level crossing removal.)

Were the alternatives considered? I’m told yes, and they were significantly more disruptive during construction. And of course while debate rages, a big trench through the suburb might be “out of sight, out of mind”, but isn’t lovely to look at, and doesn’t provide many if any opportunities for extra line crossings of use of the space.

Level crossing consultation session, Carnegie, August 2015

Local residents are angry

There’s no doubt you’d be angry if you lived next to the rail line, especially if you had no idea this proposal was coming.

Even if you accept that the noise from trains will be reduced, and like the benefit of the level crossing removals and extra pedestrian/cyclist/road connectivity, there’s a huge impact from having an 8-10 metre high railway next to your house. It will fundamentally change the feel of that part of those suburbs. So does a trench/cutting, as we’re discovering in Bentleigh, but it’s less visible from street level.

Currently you might look over your back fence and see sky and some electrical wires, and a train passing every few minutes. If this plan goes ahead, instead you’ll see big concrete columns, a high viaduct above your head, and trains going past.

Is the impact bigger than having it at ground level? Visually, of course it is.

But the impact is quite different according to exactly where you are. The LXRA is very keen for people to come along to the consultation sessions happening in the next few weeks, and/or to contact them for a one-on-one discussion.

They have got a 3-D model which shows the design, how it looks from all sorts of different angles, and where shadows are cast at different times of day.

And they’ll be asking residents what options they’d like to reduce the visual impact from peoples back yards, including building high walls, and trees. Obviously that’s only going to do so much.

Should we believe their claims about noise and vibrations? They’ve got some clever people, but I think they need to get better at presenting the evidence they have that it will be better with this project built and noise barriers in place. They should quantify the noise estimates. And prove afterwards that it worked.

They’re going to need to prove that privacy screens or other measures can successfully stop train passengers gazing down into peoples back gardens.

And there is a range of other concerns from residents that needs to be addressed.

Good morning Murrumbeena Station - you haven't changed a bit. Neither have you, 278M.

If it were me

I’ve written before about living next to the Dandenong line, in Murrumbeena:

We moved into a flat just across the street from the Dandenong line. The noise isn’t noticeable after a week or two, apart from missing dialogue on the television when a freight train goes past.

My lasting memory is that the main impact of living by the line was the noise. The visual impact was that we saw the trains go by the window, but you get used to that, and eventually it’s meh, who really cares?

If the rail line was high up off the ground, then I’d have been looking out of the window at static columns instead. Assuming less noise and vibration, I personally think, in that context, I wouldn’t much mind. But we didn’t have a private garden to try and enjoy.

Everyone is different, every property is different, the impacts on each are different, and opinions are different. It’s very easy to see why residents are angry.

More info

Thanks for the comments so far. Keep them coming — I’ll answer those I can, and will try and get clarity from the LXRA on the others.

Update 12/2/2016: More detailed designs have been released of each site. This raises questions about the continuity of pedestrian/cycle paths and the bus stops (mostly northbound) in relation to where pedestrian crossings will be provided.

LXRA: Murrumbeena station - proposed design, February 2016

For instance in this image of Murrumbeena:

  • One bus stops in Railway Parade — this would be the 624. The westbound stop is across the road from the station, with no nearby crosswalk.
  • The 822 is moved entirely into Murrumbeena Road, which is good, but access to/from the northbound stop requires going south to the crossing there.
  • They’ve actually put an arrow indicating the bicycle/pedestrian path from the west, but led it straight to the main road! Those people too would need to divert south to cross safety, and how do cyclists navigate the station precinct, particularly the car park, to keep heading east?
  • The potentially impressive station forecourt doesn’t seem to face the way pedestrians would be approaching, mostly from the north or south along Murrumbeena Road, or from the east. Only bus passengers changing from a southbound bus (not likely to be as useful as other bus connections) would approach from that direction.

Most of the other stations are similar (only Clayton seems to propose the northbound buses running around the station). This needs clarification… and, it appears, some revisions to the design.

How many tracks?

“Skyrail” blog coming in a day or two, but first another related issue to cover: How many tracks is best?

Single track can work for very infrequent rail services, but in a suburban setting, with frequent services, causes problems.

Witness the Altona Loop — the single track (with passing loops) severely limits the number of trains that move through — a maximum of three trains per hour in each direction. Even during normal operations, trains have to wait for each other at passing loops (the photo above is at Westona).

Any little delay can quickly escalate, so Metro often have trains bypass this section altogether, leaving 44+ minute gaps in the middle of peak hour. The latest Track Record quarterly report says this happened 393 times in the year to September 2015.

Single track really has no place on a modern suburban train network. Puffing Billy? Sure. But not Metro. Yet it persists on the Altona Loop, and lines to Upfield, Hurstbridge, Lilydale, Belgrave and Cranbourne.

Double track is obviously the default, allowing trains in both directions without causing delays. Express running (including for long distance trains) can be tricky to manage — the Dandenong and Cranbourne lines manage this, but at peak times the V/Line expresses are little faster than the stopping trains.

Glenhuntly station in the fog, June 2005

Three tracks was fashionable in Melbourne up until the 1980s, with prominent examples on the Ringwood and Frankston lines. Expresses can overtake slower trains in one direction only.

The catch is that since the 1990s, the amount of inner-city stabling has been reduced markedly, so all those trains need somewhere to go between peak hour runs. This is problematic with three tracks — in the morning the single outbound track gets congested; this can result in delays and clogged level crossings, and may be problematic when aiming to connect outer suburban centres like Dandenong and Ringwood with express trains (in both directions) from the inner city.

Four tracks is now what they’re moving to when building for extensive express running. Separate track pairs can isolate different lines and/or keep stopping and express trains apart.

City to Footscray expanded from two tracks to four in the 1970s. With Regional Rail Link, it expanded again to six.

So when you look at lines like the Dandenong line, remember: it’s two tracks now (and the “Skyrail” will initially also be two tracks). But planning and provision for future expansion will be for four tracks, not three.

Build it up, tear it down: your taxes at work

You’d always hope that governments aim to minimise spending waste, and part of that is forward planning, so for instance you don’t do upgrades to something that is about to be replaced.

Our local station at Bentleigh has received numerous upgrades over the past year or two. Some are part of the $100 million Bayside Rail Upgrade (initiated by the Coalition in May 2013), some are part of bigger rollouts across the rail network.

But in coming months the station will be completely demolished as part of Labor’s level crossing removal, meaning a lot of wasted money on infrastructure with a very short lifespan.

Other stations such as Mckinnon have also been getting similar upgrades, but for the most part they have wisely not installed lots of new upgrades at Ormond (which the Coalition included in their smaller level crossing removal program announced in August 2014).

What happened when?

Here’s a timeline. This lists just the upgrades at Bentleigh station. Many other stations to be demolished have got similar upgrades — and numerous less visible upgrades have occurred that aren’t at stations.

May 2013
Coalition Premier Denis Napthine and Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder announce funding for the Bayside Rail Upgrade project at Bentleigh Station. (Yes, I gatecrashed.)
Press conference at Bentleigh station, 5/5/2013

Also in May 2013, the PSO pod was built next to the station. It would be demolished less than three years later, in December 2015.
PSO box at Bentleigh under construction, May 2013

July 2013
PSOs start duty at Bentleigh.

February 2014
The station is repainted — as per the old Red Dwarf gag, perhaps it was a change from Ocean Grey to Military Grey?
Repainting Bentleigh station

April 2014
A “rainbow” status board is installed, one of a handful trialled initially ahead of a wider rollout.
Bentleigh station: "Rainbow" network status board

May 2014
Passenger Information Displays (PIDs) installed on platforms 1/2 — very handy; it provides a countdown timer to the next train without having to use the Green Button, and unlike the Button is usable by those with hearing difficulties.

Also in May 2014: tactiles installed along the platform edges.
Old vs new: tactiles going in at #Bentleigh station this week.

August 2014
Coalition announces funding for Ormond (and 3 other crossings) to be grade separated.

September 2014
Labor pledges to grade separate the Bentleigh crossing if they are elected in November.

October 2014
Crime Stoppers display installed
Bentleigh station Crimestoppers display (October 2014)

November 2014
Labor is elected.

At this point, there was no firm timeline for grade separation at Bentleigh, other than sometime in the next 8 years — though the smart money was on it being done before the 2018 election, so it was likely that anything added from now on would have a pretty short lifespan.

December 2014
Pole and shelter installed for a PID on platform 3 — the PID itself has never turned up, so this structure will eventually be removed having never been used. It’s assumed that some works to wire up the PID were also done. Here it is pictured in February 2016, level crossing construction underway.
Bentleigh station - new PIDs mounting to be removed

Extra Myki readers on platform 3, and widened exit gate — this was a bottleneck for years.
Wider entrance and more Myki readers on platform 3 at Bentleigh

January 2015
New platform markings and tactiles indicating wheelchair boarding places.

And the level crossing got new pedestrian crossing gates — not sure why these changed. Unlike the old ones, the emergency gate buttons can be pressed from outside, which hardly seems ideal. The “Another train coming” and red man signs disappeared, presumably because they had been part of a trial, were non-standard, and had never been rolled-out elsewhere. Here’s how it looked before:
Bentleigh level crossing

February 2015
Additional shelter on platforms 1 and 2 — useful for helping people spread along the platform when it’s wet, though the height of the shelter means rain that’s not strictly vertical still tends to get in.
New platform shelter under construction at #Bentleigh station. #MetroTrains

May 2015
The state budget provided $2.4 billion in funding for Mckinnon and Bentleigh level crossings to be grade separated at the same time as Ormond (as well as funding for others; a total of 17 crossings in all).

From this point, it may have been wise to pause upgrades at Mckinnon and Bentleigh, but they kept coming.

The Bentleigh level crossing got cross-hatching — even Ormond got this, and since then it appears to have popped up on numerous crossings around the network. One would hope it’s now standard on all level crossings, and not too expensive to implement — though it’s not a cure-all for cars queuing on the crossing.
Cars queuing across rail lines, Bentleigh

June 2015
New CCTV monitor in the station waiting room.
Bentleigh station: CCTV camera and display (June 2015)

What else got upgraded?
Over the last couple of years, other (less visible) changes included upgrades to power/overhead wiring (not that you’d know it today), signalling, station lighting and CCTV, track, and reprogramming of the level crossings (to cope with faster acceleration of X’trapolis trains) — all of these upgrades have occurred right up and down the Frankston, Williamstown and Werribee lines.

Undoing all that good work

December 2015
The PSO pod (built in 2013) and the Parkiteer (built in 2009) were demolished.
Bentleigh station: December 2015: Parkiteer and PSO pod are demolished

The rest will come down in due course. At Mckinnon, platform 3 has already been demolished — including new fencing from earlier in 2015, and extra Myki readers and PIDs added in the last few years. Bentleigh, Mckinnon and Ormond will all be completely demolished by mid-2016 for rebuilding in their cozy new trench.

Apart from those three stations, in the next couple of years, similar Bayside Rail Upgrade changes will be removed as part of grade separations at Carrum, Bonbeach, Edithvale, Mentone, and Cheltenham. (Plenty of other stations expected to be rebuilt have also had recent upgrades, but perhaps not to the same extent as these along the Frankston line.)

I’m told the extra shelters can be fairly easily moved to other stations, which is good. But what of the other changes?

Some of this gear is pretty expensive. For instance you can’t put a conventional TV screen in a public area. It needs to be industrial-strength, so the same design can go into an unstaffed station. The cables can’t run across the floor, they have to be properly secured.

Some equipment needs to be installed outside train operating hours, so you have to pay the staff overnight penalty rates. Or you might need additional staff as lookouts for safety reasons. Some upgrades, particularly to signalling, track and power, need to be done during a planned train service shut down, costing even more money.

What’s the cost of all this?

How many thousands of dollars worth of improvements, varying from brand new to only a few years old, will be lost during demolition? How many other stations could have had those upgrades instead?

Of course, the timing was such that some of the upgrades happened before it was known when the station would be demolished.

But it underscores that forward planning really isn’t our forte in Victoria. I’m certainly not saying I don’t welcome the level crossing removals — they have a lot of benefits — but it shows how politics intervenes to produce these types of outcomes.

The Bayside Rail Upgrade project has been usurped by the Level Crossing Removals. And so the ship of state turns to lurch in a new direction, at the inevitable expense of taxpayers.

Value capture over rail lines

I’m still planning on a blog post about level crossing removals / elevated rail — after digesting all the information released today on the Dandenong line crossings.

This is just a quickie to address a specific related topic: Value capture above railway lines, specifically when tracks are dropped below road level, the idea that you can develop above them, and that can pay for the level crossing removal.

I like the idea. It’s great in theory.

There have been lots of proposals to do it, perhaps the most ambitious being “Operation Double Fault“, a plan from ten years ago to deck over the entire inner portion of the Glen Waverley line.

The Age/Media House building, Collins St, 2010 (Source: Wikipedia)
Media House — Source: Wikipedia. I stretched this photo vertically. The original looked too squished to me.

But there are very few recent actual examples in Melbourne:

  • Federation Square — a high-profile government project obviously, so I’m betting money was no object
  • Media House (The Age building) on Collins Street/Spencer Street — on the edge of the CBD, where land is very valuable
  • Shops on Chapel Street, South Yarra — where land is valuable and retail income would be substantial

None of these three included the cost of moving the railway. This was already done (though consolidating rail lines and platforms underneath was done in conjunction with building Federation Square).

The other thing they have in common is that they were all done in inner-city or city centre areas where the cost of land is huge, which may have made them more economically viable.

Construction of the decks for Media House and Federation Square caused impacts to train services. I don’t recall if Chapel Street was the same.

Shops in Nicholson Street, Footscray were built in a similar manner, but that was in the 1920s.

Off the top of my head I can’t think of any other recent examples. Maybe someone can point to some.

So while it’s a great idea, to me it doesn’t seem that the economics stack up, at all, otherwise we’d see far more of it.

Blog template

After the mess of the last attempt, and noting the large number of people reading on mobile devices (phones 39%, tablet 10%), I’ve switched to a plain but hopefully more mobile-friendly blog template.

Here is a photo of some people doing geeky things to test the pictures.

Computers at Pax

I’ll probably do some tweaking, but any feedback on how it looks (particularly on phones and tablets) is very welcome!

Update: Testing a photo from Flickr:

Melbourne city, viewed from Regional Rail Link near Tarneit

11/2/2016: The ads aren’t really in good spots on mobile — this requires some customisation. But most of the other mobile layout looks pretty good.