What if Bentleigh had got Skyrail?

A few people have asked me about this in the past few months — what if Bentleigh had got “skyrail”?

It’s interesting to consider, though it was never going to happen.

Firstly, the timing was wrong. The Coalition had fully funded the Ormond level crossing for removal in May 2014, with designs already having determined that it would be rail under road. In late-2014 the incoming Labor government spotted an opportunity to piggyback the Mckinnon and Bentleigh crossings onto it, which made logistical sense as well as political sense — Bentleigh being a marginal electorate, they knew to have the multiple crossings removed before the 2018 election would be a plus.

It was only after the Level Crossing Removal Authority came into being that alternative strategies such as elevated rail have been considered.

Secondly, having rail over road may have caused complications at the southern end, where the rail line goes under Brewer Road, necessitating rebuilding of the road overpass.

There are pros and cons with every design. By missing skyrail, we missed out on some good outcomes.

No doubt some locals are relieved rail is going into a trench. But rather than elevated rail and a park outside their back fence, they get an impassable cutting. The jury’s still out on whether noise is worse at ground level from skyrail or trench rail.

Better outcomes from skyrail?

Murray Road pedestrian/cyclist crossinglocal campaigners are continuing to fight for this, but the presence of a storm water pipe means the project team says the only viable solution is an at-grade crossing. Will it happen? Only if the safety audit comes up green and the minister can stomach approving an additional (non-car) level crossing as part of a level crossing removal project. With skyrail it would have been easy.

More pedestrian access — apart from Murray Road, there could have been additional pedestrian/cyclist (and possibly even motorist) crossing points anywhere and everywhere. The most obvious locations are midway along Glen Orme Avenue (Ormond, where the tennis courts access is provided), connecting Foch Street and Leila Road (Ormond), Blair Street and Ward Street (Bentleigh), and connecting the car parks just south of Centre Road. Mind you there aren’t unlimited opportunities, as for most of the length of the rail line in this section, there are houses on at least one side.

More efficient train operation. Apparently it can be a difference of up to 6% of energy consumption, as stations underneath ground level require extra braking and extra power to depart and accelerate out. This will be particularly apparent with the design as planned, where the line will come back up to surface level between stations.

Better stations. With a high proportion of costs of trenched rail going into moving underground services, and bus replacements, if these can be avoided then more can be spent on the stations and other outcomes — this seems to be what’s proposed on the Dandenong line. It’s not really working out cheaper overall, but stations are getting fully-enclosed weather cover, and (at least some; it’s not finalised) escalators — none of the Ormond-Mckinnon-Bentleigh stations will have escalators, although parts of the platforms will be underneath the roads, partly enclosing them from the weather.

Future 4th track without disruption. Supposedly if skyrail goes ahead on the Dandenong line, the 3rd and 4th tracks will be able to be built largely without disrupting the initial two tracks. It’s unclear what will happen if the 4th track ever goes in on the Frankston line. It might require partial closure again to widen the cuttings.

Pictured: Nicholson Street: October 2015 vs December 2015 after tree clearing
Nicholson St, near Mckinnon station, October 2015 (from Google Maps)
Nicholson St, near Mckinnon station, during level crossing removal works

Saving more trees. While a special effort has been made to remove and store the palm trees for re-planting later, almost every other bit of flora in the corridor has been cleared away. From some angles it resembles a moonscape.

As this Dandenong line FAQ notes: One of the benefits of the elevated rail design is the ability to retain trees and vegetation close to the rail corridor. By elevating the rail line, we minimise our impact to the root systems of trees, and are able to retain a significant amount of trees within the rail corridor.

Parkland underneath. Glen Eira council is forever reminding us that they have less green space than anywhere else in the state. Some of what little green space there is in Bentleigh will be taken by car parking, to make up for a small loss of spaces at Ormond. Skyrail could have enabled more green space right along the line.

Continuous bike/shared user path. The current project will restore the bike path from Bentleigh to Mckinnon, but there still won’t be a connection from Mckinnon to Ormond — cyclists and walkers have to divert via local streets, because the rail corridor is too narrow. If it were skyrail, a shared user path could easily fit underneath.

A more prominent train system. Some might not consider this important. But out-of-sight, out-of-mind is a concern. At ground level or elevated, the trains are prominent. Hide them away and they are less obvious to people. Does that influence how people think about their transport choices? I don’t know.

Trains will still be visible in their trench of course, if you’re a pedestrian walking by, but less so if driving past. Hopefully good prominent signage and stations will make up for that. (I’d like to see signage include a countdown timer to the next trains, more prominent than the one we once had.)

Better views from the train. OK, no biggie, but it’s more pleasant looking out over your suburb than staring at a plain (or graffiti-covered) wall. It’s also easier to navigate if you can see where you are.

That said, the current plan is for trains to return just about to street level between stations. Roller coaster!

Train trench, Gardiner. Opened in January. Already tagged.
Train trench near Gardiner station

And then of course there’s the disruptions

Road and rail shutdowns. The LXRA claims Dandenong skyrail will involve about 15-20 weekend shutdowns, and two longer shutdowns of 9 and 16 days. Yesterday the government claimed that if it was done as trenches, the Dandenong line would require shutdowns “for 230 days during construction” and that “these closures would be between 30 hours and eight weeks long”.

For the Bentleigh project, it’s shaping up as numerous weekend shutdowns, plus 9 days (January 2016), 10 days (Easter 2016) and the big one: about 35 days (TBC; June-August). That’s a total of about 70-80 days in all, though in some cases (such over the past weekend) they closed the line for the weekend as early as 7pm on Friday.

The list of line closures so far is:

  • Third track closed (thus reducing capacity, and resulting in several cancellations daily) Mon 16/11/2015 until the project is finished in July 2016
  • Last two trains after midnight, Fri 13/11/2015
  • 1am Sat 21/11/2015 to last service Sun 22/11/2015
  • 1am Sat 28/11/2015 to last service Sun 29/11/2015
  • 1am Sat 12/12/2015 to last service Sun 13/12/2015
  • First service Sat 23/1/2016 to last service Sun 31/1/2016
  • 8:45pm Fri 12/2/2016 to last service Sun 14/2/2016
  • 7pm Fri 4/3/2016 to last service Sun 6/3/2016

And expected as the project progresses:

  • 9pm Fri 19/3/2016 to last service Sun 21/3/2016
  • Closure of Ormond and Mckinnon stations 25th March to late July 2016
  • First service Fri 25/3/2016 to last service Sun 3/4/2016
  • Closure of Bentleigh station from 4th June to late July August 2016
  • Expected line closure from 25th June 2016 for about 5 weeks

Each time, they warn of travel time increases by up to 45 minutes. During the January shutdown, lot of people gave up and drove, switched to other train lines (causing crowding elsewhere), or made other arrangements.

Closures don’t just affect train passengers — many involve closing roads, which affects local businesses. There were claims of huge loss of earnings at Burke Road, Gardiner (though it was never the busiest of shopping centres). To counter the problem, the government has organised (no doubt at considerable expense) full colour brochures promoting local shops, sent to every resident in the area, and an accompanying web site. (I notice that the site lists Milsims Games, which moved out of Bentleigh some years ago.)

Would there be fewer shutdowns with skyrail? Parts of the alignment are very tight — perhaps tighter than the section through Carnegie. The north side of Mckinnon station looks like it’s a similar width to the narrowest section between Carnegie and Murrumbeena, but it’s got three tracks in it, not two. And what you don’t want to be doing is acquiring properties if it can be helped. (For the current design it was avoided.)

Hopefully it would have been possible to stagger the construction, building elevated new rail lines above the older ground level lines while they continued to operate.

The key is minimising weekday shutdowns, especially outside school and university holidays. Weekday shutdowns require 100+ buses in operation, as well as numerous support staff — two at every station replacement bus stop, plus many more at the interchanges from first to last service. There are often temporary road markings or modifications, signage, traffic light modifications and traffic monitoring. It’s a very, very expensive undertaking. (We don’t know quite how expensive, but by comparison, recent V/Line bus replacements have cost up to $300,000 per day.)

Risk of unplanned disruptions. So far I’m aware of only one incident: on February 12th, excavation at Bentleigh for the crossing hit a gas pipe, causing a leak, with a sudden road and rail line closure for some hours. As passengers who have been caught up in one know, any unplanned rail closures are messy. Buses often can’t be got to the scene quickly, and are rarely sufficient, especially if the closure extends into peak hours.

Truck movements. Apparently 280,000 cubic metres of earth are to be dug up and moved out. Expect to see thousands of truck movements in the area, particularly during the main shutdown in June/July/August.

E.E.Gunn Reserve partly closed. Parts of this park will be closed for months to temporarily store the earth. One of the benefits of skyrail is that components can be built off-site and shipped in and assembled, like some kind of massive Ikea flatpack — and of course there’s little or no earth to dig out and take away.

Stations shut. As noted above, Mckinnon and Ormond stations are shortly to close for about four five months. Bentleigh will close for a shorter period of about two three months. (Some of this overlaps with the entire line closing for about 5 weeks.)

Bentleigh now vs what if Bentleigh had skyrail? Yeah, my Photoshop skills aren’t up to much.
Bentleigh level crossing
Bentleigh if it got skyrail

Would it have been possible?

A Vicroads contact suggested skyrail might not work over North Road, because of space issues, but a slight re-alignment might have solved that. Certainly the road overpass in Brewer Road in Bentleigh may have caused problems.

Would it have been politically feasible? I wonder if the government could have stomached the risk in the very marginal seat of Bentleigh? They may yet face a similar conundrum further south on the Frankston line.

We might never really know, but had the concept of elevated rail been considered earlier for the Bentleigh area, the potential was there for a project with far fewer disruptions, and some markedly better outcomes for locals.

Bentleigh: old real estate ads

I was looking on the State Library’s web site for material related to my local suburb, and found these old real estate ads.

This one is from back when Bentleigh was called East Brighton. It’s dated 1885. It’s the area immediately to the east of the railway station, which opened in 1881, and was renamed to Bentleigh in 1907, the year after the local post office was renamed.
Ad for East Brighton Estate (Bentleigh)
(Source: State Library, Victoria)

Note that Bent Street had that name well before the area was named Bentleigh.

130 years later, this area immediately around the station is subject to a lot of real estate ads again, as many of the houses are being replaced by apartment developments. Being close to the station is obviously still an advantage.
Bentleigh development, 2015

On the other side of the railway line, closer to what is now Nepean Highway, was the Zion Hill estate. This ad is also from 1885. Note it implies it is much closer to Brighton than it really is — it’s actually far closer to East Brighton/Bentleigh. Some real estate agents were obviously in the habit even back then of exaggerating.
Ad for Zion Hill estate, Bentleigh 1885
(Source: State Library, Victoria)

Further south east from the station was the Marriott Estate. The date is unclear, but it’s assumed to be 1920s.
Ad for Marriot Estate (Bentleigh)
(Source: State Library, Victoria)

Note again the location of the estate. If you didn’t spot the small gap in the road markings, you’d assume it was a quick walk from both Bentleigh and Moorabbin railway stations (Patterson station didn’t open until 1961), but actually it’d be at least a fifteen minute walk.

Zoom up on the photo at the bottom-left and we can see a group of “recently erected” shops at Bentleigh. This is looking west towards the railway line, from roughly where Target is now. A support for the railway overhead electric wire is visible in the background, meaning this would be 1920s or later — electrification occurred in 1922.
Bentleigh shops, 1920s

The track in the foreground was used to guide heavily laden carts full of produce going to market, and manure on the way back, one of a number of such “tram” tracks built in the area.

Here’s a similar view today:
Bentleigh, Centre Road, 2015

There’s some interesting stuff in the State Library collection, much of it online — well worth a look if you’re researching local history.

Bentleigh/Mckinnon/Ormond grade separations: Lots of detail

To their credit, the state government is initiating Stakeholder Liaison Groups for the level crossing eliminations to happen across Melbourne.

The first of these covers the three Bentleigh area crossings: North Road, Ormond; Mckinnon Road, Mckinnon; Centre Road, Bentleigh. It’s convened by local MP Nick Staikos, and members include representatives from local traders, schools, community groups and public transport users. The latter is myself, as a local and with my PTUA hat on. (Note it’s not a group just for interested individuals — there are public forums for that — see below.)

Ormond/North Road level crossing

The first meeting occurred last week, with an overview briefing from the Level Crossing Removal Authority and contractor John Holland. The representatives at the meeting were very helpful, gave a lot of information and took a lot of questions.

Below I’m going to dump a bunch of notes — both information conveyed at the meeting, and some comments from me thrown in as well.

Any errors, misunderstandings or omissions in the information below are my own.

While part of the role of group members is to share project information out to those in the community who are interested, I should emphasise that I do not speak on behalf of the Stakeholder Liaison Group, or any other members. And any journalists reading who want more information should seek it from the Level Crossing Removal Authority (LXRA).

Initial projects

The pledge was for twenty crossings in this term of government, thirty the next. (The full list is here — most of them make sense with the possible exception of Werribee Street in Werribee, unless the Metro line is extended through to Wyndham Vale.)

In the Bentleigh area, three plus Burke Road, Glen Iris were awarded to John Holland and friends at a cost of $524 million.

Two in St Albans (Main and Furlong Roads), Blackburn Road, Blackburn, and Heatherdale Road, Heatherdale were awarded to Leighton and friends at a cost of $480 million (including a Commonwealth contribution of $151 million).

Add the nine along the Dandenong line (yet to be awarded, but there is a shortlist just announced), and that’s seventeen of the twenty, with the next three yet to be determined.

The Bentleigh area grade separations is the focus of the rest of this blog post.

This project (and I think the others also) is handled by what’s termed an alliance, consisting of: LXRA, VicRoads, PTV, John Holland, KBR Construction (the designer) and Metro.

Bentleigh station and level crossing

Overall design

For better or worse, all three grade separations will be rail under road. (I hope they are actively considering other options which may provide better community outcomes more cheaply, but given the Ormond design had already advanced considerably last year, I’m not surprised all three will take this option.)

There’s to be no net loss of station parking. Some parking will need to be rebuilt, and apparently the standards now are different, with bigger spaces, so they are looking at options such as increasing spaces at Glenhuntly to make up for any loss of spaces at the rebuilt stations. This may be an issue with other grade separation projects as well.

The Dorothy Avenue underpass (midway between Ormond and Glenhuntly) will become pedestrian/cycle only. — Update: This was changed; it will remain as-is. See update links below.

To my surprise, between stations the line will come pretty much back up to ground level. One of the main reasons for this is the high water table — some fairly elaborate designs are being used to ensure drainage isn’t made any worse, and this includes identifying paths for water flow underneath the railway line, and technology to keep water out of the railway alignment where the line is below the water table.

This also helps them with the various underground utilities which either have to be avoided or moved (expensive!).

Brighton sands are also likely to cause some challenges during excavation. (See also: Melbourne geology.)

All this should serve as a reminder that elevated rail may be a better/cheaper option at some locations.

The grade of the line will be no more than 2%, to allow freight trains to continue to use it.

With the track at ground level near Murray Road (between Ormond and Mckinnon), the hope of a pedestrian crossing of the railway line appears to be dashed. They are resistant to an at-grade pedestrian crossing due to safety risks, and an overpass would have very long ramps due to DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) requirements. And I’m sure they suggested the ramps would stretch almost back to North Road. Hmmm.

Impressive sounding statistics: They’ll remove a lot of earth during the construction, with some 280,000 cubic metres taken out, and bring in 12,000 cubic metres of concrete. It’s a big project.

Plan for new Mckinnon station (as at May 2015)
Indicative plan for Mckinnon station from May 2015. Subject to change.


Ramps, lifts and steps likely at all three stations.

Three tracks maintained, with “passive provision” for a later fourth track (which similar to Springvale, seems to mean not building anything in the way of it).

Mckinnon and Bentleigh to have retail shop frontages built into the structures.

It appears bus stops will be moved closer to station entrances, which is good, though it sounds like precise locations haven’t been finalised. This is particularly an issue at Bentleigh presently, where westbound bus stops are awkwardly placed, and at both Mckinnon and Bentleigh there is no nearby pedestrian crossing to access them — with the new designs, there will be pedestrian crossings directly outside the station entrances.

I wonder if it would make sense to re-route bus 625 at Ormond — at present it runs eastbound via schools in Leila Road, but westbound via North Road, probably because the lack of traffic lights makes it impossible to make the westbound trip via Leila Road.

Interestingly the Ormond traders may campaign for a lower speed limit on North Road once the level crossing is gone, so their shops aren’t a blur in motorists’ windows as they pass. This makes sense as a traffic calming measure — the Bentleigh shopping centre is a 40 zone from 7am-7pm, and Mckinnon has no signage, and therefore is 50 (the default speed limit in built-up areas — though I suspect many people treat it as if the limit is 60). It sounds like VicRoads is resistant to a lower limit on North Road though. It’s now 60, though once was 70… but it is flagged under the SmartRoads scheme as a priority pedestrian area, though it’s also part of a preferred traffic route.

There will be limited provision for possible future decking of the rail line. (I would note that while this is often talked about, there so far have only been very limited examples where it’s actually proven to be economically viable.)

Bentleigh, being a Premium station, will get Myki fare gates. Ormond, being a Host Station, will get provision for future Premium status, including gates, but for now will have standalone Myki readers. Mckinnon (neither Premium nor Host, though you sometimes see Host staff on duty there) will have standalone Myki readers and it sounds like it may have only limited provision for later upgrade.

One consequence of the gradients is that the station platforms will go under the roads, which helps provide extra weather cover.

I asked if it also allowed the option of an extra station entrance on the other (southern) side of the road. Initially they cited DDA requirements — the need for more long ramps and lifts. I pointed out that DDA access was via the other entrance. After all, not all access points into a station (or any other building) need to be DDA-compliant, otherwise stairs would no longer be allowed, at all. They changed tack and said that a second entrance causes issues with sight lines for passive surveillance for staff (including PSOs), as well as staffing issues for gates. They may have a point.

(There are times when it seems to me that DDA is used by some organisations as a convenient way of dismissing an option that they don’t want to provide.)

Plan for new Bentleigh station (as at May 2015)
Indicative plan for Bentleigh station from May 2015. Subject to change.

Construction schedule

Traffic modelling tells them chaos would break out if they tried to close North and Centre Roads at the same time. Fair enough. Instead, they’ll stage things in such a way that at least one of them is open.

They’re also wary of closing half of North Road at a time and building the overpass in halves… it sounds like it has more cons than pros.

There are likely to be numerous weekend closures over the life of the project. During road closures, it’s likely that pedestrian access will be made available across the tracks (after all, trains won’t be running). Obviously buses will need to be re-routed as well, and they’re in discussions with bus companies about this.

So, the indicative schedule at the moment is:

Note: the schedule was later modified, with the major construction during July 2016, and completion of the project in late 2016.

July/August 2015 Test works
September/October 2015 Piling works, using some fancy new technology to avoid lots of noise called a “silent piler”, though they noted it’s not exactly silent!
2016 during winter school holidays Centre Road closed for 9 days.

Sounds like they are planning for early decommissioning of one track (the “up”, or westernmost track I believe) immediately after the Caulfield Cup in October 2016, which will obviously mean some timetable changes to deal with the current use of three tracks in peak. (It’s been done recently during major level crossing works at Glenhuntly. From memory they made the expresses stop at the MATH stations, and the stopping trains ran express. That meant no need for overtaking.)

November 2016 Close Mckinnon station and demolish. You’ll still have the option to walk to Bentleigh or Ormond!
December 2016 Close and demolish Ormond and Bentleigh station (with the line left open). Tip for Bentleigh peeps: for the time the station is closed but the line is open, it’s not too far to walk to Patterson, and since the January 2015 changes, the fare is the same.
27 December 2016 Close the line completely for 34 days and do major works.

Given the locations where trains can be shunted/reversed, I’d expect the section of the Frankston line from Caulfield to Moorabbin to be closed during this time, with “bustitution” (substitute buses) running instead. Given this is one of the busiest lines, I’m hopeful they will put some thought into where people are going, and not simply try to replicate the train service with the buses, which often doesn’t work well due to local road layouts.

One idea successfully used on the Regional Rail Link project was to provide cross-town links into other railway lines, where connections can be quick — linking the southern half of the Frankston line from Moorabbin through to Brighton Beach, with extra Sandringham line trains, might be an option for instance.

End of January 2017 Line re-opens — but not the stations just yet!
End of February 2017 Stations re-open, minor works continue.
Mid-2017 All works complete — well before the 2018 election!

Bentleigh level crossing

Where to from here?

All these details are of course subject to change as planning progresses.

A public forum has been set up: 7pm Wednesday 29th July, at Mckinnon Secondary College.

It’s not confirmed yet, but I believe the plan is for a drop-in info session the next day, or soon afterwards. I’ll post details here when that’s confirmed.

It’s exciting to see this project (and others) moving ahead. Removing the level crossings really will make a difference — whether you’re on foot, on a bicycle, in a car or a bus. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve missed my train due to a long wait at the gates.

How they handle the disruptions of course will be critical, especially for the extended closure of the stations and rail line.

Later updates: October 2015 / November 2015

I love Bentleigh

Do you want to do this thing, they asked? For a weekly feature in the local paper.

“Sure!” I said… all I had to do was nominated places (mostly restaurants) in my neighbourhood that I like. Easy, and it might help push the cause.

I got my photo taken in one of the local parks. You can’t tell from the picture, but I was crouching uncomfortably to get the flowers into shot, and it was starting to rain. But the photographer was a cheery bloke who made it work.

Fairfax Weekly Review 3/6/2015

This seems to be part of the Fairfax local paper strategy of filling its pages entirely with lifestyle pieces rather than news. It ended up basically being a plug for all my favourite local businesses.

I think I may have given a bigger plug to the Frankston line’s 10 minute services than PTV or Metro have managed since they were introduced.

House prices in Bentleigh top $1 million – I couldn’t afford it here now

I mentioned the other day that it’s coming up on ten years since I bought my house in Bentleigh (hence the flurry of maintenance).

In that time, the prices here have gone through the figurative roof.

Median house prices: Bentleigh vs metro Melbourne
(Source: RealEstateView)

I didn’t think to save the data at the time, but this document tracks median house prices around Victoria from 1998 to 2008.

In 2005, the median in Bentleigh was $501,000. By 2007, it had shot up to $713,750.

There’s a gap in my info for a couple of years, but it got to about $910,000 by June 2010, before rising and dipping and dropping back to about $765,000 in December 2011.

As you can see from the graph, since then it’s climbed steadily: Figures in The Age recently indicate 14.4% growth in the past year, to a dizzying $1,003,000.

So not only has the median price now gone up about a million dollars, but it’s also doubled in the not-quite-ten-years since I bought.

I should note that although I own a house, it’s on a half-block of land, having been subdivided about ten years before I bought it. The rear garden is a mere courtyard, and it’s really only two-and-a-half bedrooms — all of which means I paid less than the median price.

The increase since means I lucked out on a good investment. Not that I’m planning to sell.

But it also means if I were house-hunting now, I’d be priced out of the suburb I’ve come to know and love.

And with my kids almost grown, I really wonder what the implications are for them and their peers.

Will the next generation be stuck as renters? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s nice to have the option to buy.

The alternative is to buy much, much further out, in suburbs with less amenity and walkability.

Bentleigh East is more affordable than Bentleigh, but is less walkable. Although the street layout is pretty good, access to amenities is reduced: Walkscore says 59 in BE vs 75 in B. And BE is mostly well beyond walking distance to the train network. Even then it’s not much more affordable — only about 10% cheaper, with a median price still over $900,000.

As others have pointed out, the capped public transport fares mean that if train/city access is your priority, it’s now better to look down the line than across from it. Think about travel time, rather than distance as the crow flies.

How long to the city? Metropolitan Town Planning Commission map circa 1920.
How long to the city? Metropolitan Town Planning Commission map circa 1920 — See blog post

For instance, along the Frankston line, spend another 10 minutes on the train (instead of fighting your way into the station car park every morning, or battling with hopeless feeder buses or facing a long walk) and you can be in somewhere like Edithvale, Chelsea or Carrum, at a cost of about 40% less than Bentleigh.

I’m sure it’s similar on other lines — though beware of train service frequency. For instance, out from Sunshine is quite good towards Sydenham, but the trains to Deer Park are hopelessly infrequent.

Of course there are other factors such as proximity to friends and family, crime levels, access to schools and shops and parkland.

And it’s still expensive of course. If you’re house hunting, or will be in the future, I wish you the very best of luck.