Use other footpath

Pedestrians — Use other footpath.

Haha just kidding, there IS no other footpath!

You’ll have to use the road or the (possibly wet boggy) grass.

Use other footpath. What other footpath?

Silver lining: it’s not a very busy road.

(Ward Street, Bentleigh. The footpath is blocked for building construction. Not many streets in this area have only one footpath, but a few do.)

Impact from road and rail shut downs

We survived! Ten days of bustitution is over… well, almost.

Just to be clear — because some of the information is either vague, misleading or missing:

  • The Frankston line is running again, including to Bentleigh station.
  • Bentleigh station will close for demolition and rebuilding in June.
  • But Mckinnon and Ormond stations are closed and demolished. There are still buses for them every 5 minutes in peak, 10 minutes daytime, 20 minutes evening. (Oddly they don’t stop at Glenhuntly or Patterson).
  • Mckinnon Road is closed today, but will re-open to road traffic tomorrow.
  • Centre Road re-opened at lunchtime on Monday, earlier than expected.

This ten days was the second major shut for the project. The third (and longest) begins in late June, for five weeks. Originally it was scheduled for January, but was brought forward in part because of work proceeding on other parts of the network.

Impact on business

During road and rail shut downs, naturally some areas need to be fenced-off for safety. In Mckinnon, to my surprise, some sections of footpath immediately to the east of the station were completely closed off, on both sides of the street. At least some of the properties there appear to be vacant, but I didn’t think it was all of them.

Footpath closure during level crossing removal works at Mckinnon

In Bentleigh, this real estate agent on the western side of the station was basically isolated. You can navigate a way into their office, but any passing trade would have fallen to zero.

Footpath closure during level crossing removal works at Bentleigh

Some businesses are at a dead end, but are doing okay – for instance at Bentleigh on the SE side, cafes like Noisette and Mama G’s seemed to have a reasonable amount of trade, in part thanks to construction workers on the project. But some local traders have said that — despite considerable efforts to promote them being open — they are at risk from going under due to lack of revenue during closures. Mad Flowers in Mckinnon claimed it was threatening their viability, and clearly the Paint Spot in Bentleigh is feeling the impact:

Paint Spot, Bentleigh - not enjoying the level crossing works closures

Given these are both reasonably busy shopping streets, this seems a little more serious than the complaints from traders when the Gardiner crossing was being removed — Burke Road has long been a traffic sewer, with few shoppers around.

Route buses

Bus routes 701 and 703 returned to their normal routes early. Potentially confusing? Not really — the alterations meant they missed some stops. It’s no big deal if they now serve them again.

Bentleigh bus stop 703

Route 626 returns on Tuesday morning when Mckinnon Road re-opens.

For this period, these three routes plus Night Bus 979 all diverted around the works zone. From what I’ve been told, none were able to pick up or drop off passengers in the diversion section — even where there are existing bus stops. This meant for instance that bus 626 didn’t serve any stops on Mckinnon Road between Jasper Road and Thomas Street, a distance of 1.6 km. For a local route serving, in part, people with limited mobility, that’s a long way to walk for a bus.

Rail bustitution

The replacement buses have gone about as well as can be expected. With my PTUA hat on, I’ve given a bunch of feedback to the organisers (including issues from further down the line than me), but clearly significant resources went into bus operations.

There were up to five staff at replacement stops such as Bentleigh, and far more at interchanges such as Caulfield. And around 80-100 buses were operating every peak. By contrast, Melbourne’s busiest tram route 96, which is about twice as long, operates with about 20 trams in peak.

Rail replacement buses at Caulfield during level crossing works

Rather than use the buses, some people migrated to other lines (including me, on one day). Some drove to Caulfield to use the paid parking ($4/day) there, delaying buses further.

Overall it wasn’t as slow as in January when North Road was closed, but trip times from Bentleigh to Caulfield (4 stops) were up to 15 minutes longer than by train.

Workable? Just about. But I would think most people were eagerly anticipating the train service getting back to normal. And few would be looking forward to the long five week shut down scheduled for June/July — most of which isn’t during school holidays.

Remembering of course that Ormond and Mckinnon station users are on buses (or seeking alternative routes) for the next four months.

Rail replacement buses at Caulfield during level crossing works

My conclusion from all of this: it’s really really difficult to replace busy train lines with buses, even when well planned, will lots of resources.

Buses as a mode are very good for some things, but there’s a huge difference in capacity compared to trains. You get to the point where there are so many buses flowing through the road system, they’re even delaying each other.

Particularly in an urban environment where a dedicated right of way and priority can’t be provided, and longer articulated buses aren’t available, they just can’t cope brilliantly with Frankston line-sized crowds.

Now consider this: the Dandenong line is about twice as busy.

Minimising closures

The issues for traders and for passengers are a reminder than anything that can be done to minimise rail and road closures is a big help to the community.

No wonder there is a push for “skyrail” on the Dandenong line. With far fewer rail shut downs needed, all the benefits of grade separation can be achieved, while markedly reducing impacts during construction.

A little Bentleigh history has been uncovered

I love a bit of local history, even if it’s fairly recent.

For my fellow Bentleigh peeps — as part of the level crossing removal project, the old underpass into the station has been partially uncovered.

Bentleigh station: old underpass uncovered

It looks to have been a similar layout to Mckinnon: steps straight to the street, as well as a (probably non-DDA-compliant) ramp parallel to the tracks.

Bentleigh station: old underpass uncovered

Bentleigh station: sign in the old underpass

The underpass was filled-in in 1996. In 2005 then PT minister Peter Batchelor said “it was closed because of some deficiencies in its design, because it had problems with flooding when it rained and it had other operational issues”.

I don’t know if perceptions of risk of crime were also an issue, but despite calls for it to be re-instated, it never was… but with the entire crossing being grade separated, it hardly matters now.

Others were filled-in over the years — Yarraville is a particular one that springs to mind as now causing long delays to pedestrians. At North Williamstown, the underpass was filled-in just last year. At the time, the government claimed it had to be done to allow installation of pedestrian gates.

For those that aren’t being grade separated any time soon, it would make sense to look at whether the underpasses can be brought back into service.

Level crossing removals progressing

On Thursday the state government announced two more level crossings in their first term batch of 20: Scoresby Rd and Mountain Hwy, either side of Bayswater station. This provides some interesting challenges due to the adjacent train maintenance facility, which presumably can’t be moved. The press release notes:

They [the crossings] will be removed through a combination of lowering the rail line and raising Mountain Hwy and Scoresby Rd, which will enable trains to continue to access the maintenance yard between the crossings.

With these two, they’ve now started work on 19 of the 20 pledged:

  • Gardiner and St Albans (both initiated by the former Coalition government)
  • three on the Frankston line (Ormond was initiated by the Coalition) — more about these below
  • Blackburn and Heatherdale
  • Furlong Road, St Albans
  • the nine between Caulfield and Dandenong
  • the two at Bayswater

So they only need to fund and start work on one more and they’ll be hitting their first term target… though of course for economy they should be trying to continue to group the crossings where possible.

Bentleigh level crossing

Ormond-Mckinnon-Bentleigh aka North-Mckinnon-Centre

My local crossings are continuing apace.

The project timetable has been altered — the major works will now take place in mid-2016, instead of in the January 2017 holidays. Obviously this has implications in terms of the number of people travelling, especially students for 3 of the 5 weeks — though bear in mind most people are back at work by mid-January, so perhaps the main difference is the presence of students.

Obviously how well this goes depends on how well replacement bus services are run. More on this below.

Saving Dorothy

For residents north of Ormond and those who use the E.E.Gunn reserve, the project team has confirmed that the Dorothy Avenue underpass will retain access for cars:

Following detailed design, and extensive community consultation, we can now happily confirm that the Dorothy Avenue underpass in Ormond will remain open to pedestrians, cyclists and cars following completion of the level crossing removal works.

Through the detailed design process, the rail gradient has been improved to allow the necessary clearance for pedestrians, cyclists and cars. — October update

Apparently they sought and got dispensation for the usual (for freight trains) maximum 2% gradient between North Road and Dorothy Avenue. It’s closer to 2.5% (the normal limit for suburban trains), but this has been ruled okay for freight for short distances.

The result is that the works won’t need to touch the overpass at all. One team member described this as “Saving Dorothy”, which to me sounds like it could be a sequel to The Wizard Of Oz.

It’s good that this was achievable, and I think this makes sense — if it were closed, every time there was an event at the reserve, there’d have been a lot more traffic in the surrounding streets. And given North Road won’t have its level crossing, the number of rat-runners should reduce.

Train alterations

As I flagged in this blog post, Frankston express trains will stop all stations from mid-November. PTV were very slow at loading the timetable, but it’s there (at least for the first week) now.

A handful of trains won’t run each day, but most will. This is perhaps understandable given longer running times, but may result in crowding.

As now, some trains will run direct, some via the Loop. (I’m writing this on a train. I can overhear someone on the phone claiming they will all run direct and he’ll have to change for the Loop with heaps of other people. He’s in for a pleasant surprise.)

PTV has a brochure about service changes, though there are multiple errors in the map (they show the old 626 route, and show tram 64 curtailed at North Road). Confusingly it also has the Sandringham line shown in grey — blue would make more sense, since it’ll still be running. The car parks are in the wrong positions, as well.

I’m told a new version will be out shortly; hopefully it fixes these problems.

Bustitution

After the taster of bus replacement services a couple of weekends ago, the arrangements are being reviewed. Bus stop locations are being reconsidered — some apparently were put in without much time available. Sounds like many will move closer to the main road intersections, which was the main problem with them.

They’re saying that during the peak of replacement services, some 100 buses will be deployed between Caulfield and Moorabbin, with 75 normally in service, and 25 on standby. That should be quite a sight to see, but it indicates the scale of moving the usual Frankston line peak loads, and how many cars a rail line keeps off the roads in peak hour.

Instead of express and stopping buses, all buses will stop on demand (eg press the buzzer for your station). I think this makes sense — it will speed up loading and despatch considerably — just fill and despatch the buses as people arrive — and prevent passenger confusion. When I sampled it, the express buses were only seconds faster than the stopping buses.

Apparently overall the main road route has been well-received, as it’s much more efficient, though there are some concerns about those with mobility challenges getting from the station. Some kind of on-demand taxi service is being considered.

They’re also working on more traffic light green time for buses (particularly a problem southbound at North and South Roads) and temporary clear ways.

Some traders are worried about the reduction in activity around the stations during this time. This hasn’t been very apparent on weekends, but I suppose weekdays are a different story.

Level crossing removal works near Ormond

New stations coming soon

A few other design issues are moving towards a conclusion, for instance the Murray Road issue and whether a south side entrance can be provided at Ormond Station (hopefully at least for platforms 1 and 2 — platform 3 isn’t nearly as important, as under normal circumstances it is barely used, and providing it may be difficult due to the local streetscape).

It’s great to see this project progressing. For locals, remember to stay up to date via the official web site.

Update

Honestly, sometimes I despair. No wonder the bloke on the train thought there will be barely any Loop services during the level crossing works — this poster (snapped by Andrew at Mckinnon this morning) purports to show the modified timetable. What it instead shows is just the modified express trains. This means about half the services are missing — almost all the Loop trains.

Incorrect Frankston line works timetable seen at Mckinnon Station

You just wonder sometimes if anybody checks this stuff before it goes out.

I’ve passed this back to the project team to get it fixed.

Update 10pm — another, similar poster seen at Flagstaff at 6pm implies Frankston line trains won’t run through the Loop during peak.

Incorrect poster for altered Frankston line services during level crossing removals

I’m told the Mckinnon poster has been removed already… not sure about other stations.

In some ways this issue isn’t new — I’ve seen other notifications in the past that focus solely on the additional/altered/removed services. But passengers don’t think like that. They need to see the changes in context. Displaying timetables like this which only show half the services is just pointless and misleading.

Update 9/11/2015 — Metro continues to display these misleading posters — they’ve appeared at more stations and online over the weekend. I’ve heard multiple reports of people (including Metro staff) reading them and concluding that they show the train timetable whereas they actually show just the altered services.

After all, if it looks like a timetable, it must be a timetable, right?

Apart from missing all the short services originating from Carrum, Mordialloc, Cheltenham and Moorabbin, it doesn’t even show all the trains departing from Frankston: the 7:07 and the 7:30 aren’t shown, because they’re not altered.

And just to underscore the lack of thought that went into this, the fine print at the bottom adds this irrelevancy: the disclaimer about bicycles, surfboards and dogs not being permitted on buses. What buses?!

As I said: useless and misleading.

The Murray Road conundrum: can a crossing be provided?

As I’ve touched upon in previous posts, there are numerous technical hurdles with the Bentleigh area level crossing removals.

Via the stakeholder group I’m learning that a lot of the cost with any removal where the railway line is dropped down under the road is related to carefully moving all the services that are buried — gas, water, phone, electricity and no doubt others. A lot of the cost is also in “occupations” – shutting down the rail line and providing replacement services.

My previous post on the project has a lot of detail on the overall project, if you’re not familiar with it, but one issue has come up repeatedly which hasn’t been resolved:

Can a pedestrian crossing be provided at Murray Road?

Murray Road, Ormond

Ormond (Map: Melway online)

Murray Road sits midway between Ormond and Mckinnon stations, which is one of the longest sections of track in this area that has no crossings.

While the road has the same name on both sides of the railway line, it appears the road was never joined, or perhaps it was joined only before the railway line was built in about 1880.

The history is hazy, but I’ve heard numerous accounts (including a blog commenter) of a pedestrian underpass having been there in the past — possibly an informal crossing which was really part of a creek/flood plain running underneath the tracks, which is clearly shown in this MMBW plan of the area.

Murray Road crossing - MMBW

Apparently the underpass was filled-in in the 1980s when the third track was added, and any trace of it has since disappeared, with the local roads having been fully sealed over the top, and houses built right up to the line on the western side.

The only real indicator I could see is a small park on the western side with obvious water-related infrastructure present, with manhole access to pumps, floats, vega and penstock.

(What is a Penstock, anyway? Oh — Wikipedia says it’s a “a sluice or gate or intake structure that controls water flow, or an enclosed pipe that delivers water to hydro turbines and sewerage systems.” And a vega? It might be this: “a meadow located within a forested and relatively small drainage basin”.)

Murray Road, Ormond: Penstock

Because of this underground water and the pipes that carry it, the level crossing removal project has to build the line back up to street level between the new Ormond and Mckinnon station underpasses. And this appears to be the key problem in providing a pedestrian crossing.

Above, between, below?

Not unreasonably, the government doesn’t want to build at-grade pedestrian level crossing. The project is focussed on removing level crossings, not building new ones. In fact there’s a government policy of not providing new crossings, and the project team says the only way it would be done is if the Minister for Public Transport specifically approves it, based on advice from the relevant authorities.

The safety record for at-grade crossings isn’t great, though it seems to me the big problems occur where they occur on busy streets, particularly in busy shopping centres and adjacent to railway stations.

Putting in an overpass appears to be problematic, with issues of privacy from views into back yards, and a lack of space to build ramps that would be required to make such a structure accessible. The project team says acquisition of public and private land would be required.

But what about an underpass?

Space is tight, and DDA (ramp) access is obviously an issue, but some local campaigners believe it should be possible to provide an underpass alongside the existing water pipes, either parallel or at an angle across the line.

Apart from the water pipes, there’s also a high pressure gas line somewhere there, and the project team says flooding would be likely to be an issue, with installation of a flood wall being necessary.

There might be impacts on the eastern (Cadby Avenue) side of the line, but this could be an opportunity to use a traffic-calming road chicane to slow down cars — chicanes are common around Glen Eira, with several in nearby streets.

There are concerns that an underpass might have to have blind corners, reducing visibility and safety. But these are not an insurmountable problem — mirrors and effective lighting can be used to improve visibility.

Theoretically another option would be to lower the rail line at this point instead, but the project team says that too would not be practical due to the cost of relocating services, particularly the storm water drain.

Murray Road, Ormond

Why would a crossing be useful?

To the west, Ormond Primary School is on Murray Road. To the east, there is Joyce Park and the northern end of Mckinnon Secondary College. And in fact a few years ago, a pedestrian crossing on Jasper Road was built close to Murray Road.

Providing an east-west route on that alignment would bring a vast improvement to mobility for those walking or cycling in the area, and is likely to reduce car use for local trips which are currently impractical on foot.

It would certainly be a lot safer for cyclists, who currently have little choice but to use the nearest main roads. North Road is a traffic sewer, with no bike lanes. Mckinnon Road is quieter and with bike lanes, but as local member Nick Staikos noted recently, narrow bike lanes that are full of parked cars aren’t very useful as bike lanes. Mckinnon Road doesn’t actually have a great safety record — there have been multiple bike vs car accidents recently.

What the outcome will be isn’t really clear. One would hope the project team are doing their best to explore every option to see if a crossing of some kind is possible.

A huge project like a grade separation shouldn’t be planned in isolation.

This has the broader point about level crossing removals having a big (positive) impact on local communities, and that they should be considered as part of broader transport and land use planning for these areas.

No doubt there are similar cases right across Melbourne, where grade separation should provide an opportunity to provide more places to get under or over the rail line, to improve amenity and access.

Notably, none of this would be a problem if the line was being elevated. Perhaps that was never going to happen here, given the housing in close proximity to much of the rail line and the North Road (rail under) plans having progressed well before the decision to include the other two crossings, but there are some clear lessons here for other locations.