Victoria’s first 21st century rail megaproject: benefits from Regional Rail Link

Victoria’s first big 21st century rail megaproject is almost complete. Regional Rail Link was started and mostly funded by Labor (State and Federal, in part as stimulus money during the Global Financial Crisis), and largely built under the State Coalition.

Construction itself is now complete, with driver training and other preparatory work happening ahead of the expected opening in April June.

The line provides an enormous amount of additional track capacity in the western suburbs… but of course this is only of use if it’s used.

So what are the benefits, and what do we know about how it’ll be used?

Wyndham Vale station, looking south

Tarneit/Wyndham Vale get their new stations and new rail line, served by some Geelong trains. The infrastructure for starting suburban diesel trains from Wyndham Vale into the City has also been provided, but it’s not clear that option will be used initially. The opening of the stations will be accompanied by a bus route revamp in the area, focussed on the new stations, which makes a lot of sense, and pleasingly have had extensive community consulation.

Geelong line – more reliable travel time in the suburban part of the journey, as V/Line trains won’t get stuck behind slower Werribee line trains. It’s unclear if the trip will take longer though — this was a subject of some controversy when RRL was first planned, and still hasn’t been clearly answered. While it’s a longer distance, the track speeds are higher than the old route, so hopefully the running time won’t be much longer.

We know the Geelong line will go to 20 mins off-peak (probably every 40 minutes to Armstrong Creek due to the single track beyond South Geelong), a move which was probably possible in the past, but will be easier to reliably operate with RRL in place. This boost was promised by Labor before the election, and amusingly matched by the Coalition, who claimed they’d been planning it all along… but they hadn’t actually told anybody about it. Ah, secret railway business.

Ballarat and Bendigo lines — ditto; more reliable travel times. Likely to be faster, particularly during peak when in the past they had to wait for Sunbury line trains. Scope for some extra services, though this is still constrained by the single track sections further out. These trains are already using the new RRL tracks from Sunshine into the City, but timetables haven’t yet been adjusted. The question will be whether the April timetable makes use of this properly, and whether V/Line get their act together at the city end to reduce or eliminate delays coming into Southern Cross, where they should now have plenty of platforms to accommodate all the incoming trains.

The 2021 draft documents suggested the three lines combined would have up to about 15 trains in the busiest hour, but the infrastructure should allow some growth beyond that.

Sunshine station

Sunbury line — apart from between Sunshine and Sunbury, no V/Line trains have to share the metro tracks anymore, meaning a virtual doubling of capacity between Sunshine and the City.

Right now (as of the last load survey in May 2014) figures show crowding on the line has eased, following a roughly 50% boost in peak services over the past 6 years, thanks in part to moving the Werribee line out of the Loop in 2008, and also thanks to the Sunbury electrification, which added stations but also added overall track capacity by removing short haul V/Line trains off the line.

However with Zone 1+2 fares having been cut by about 40% since the start ofg the year, we may see a lot more people on suburban trains across the network, so the question is how quickly will the government move to boost services on the line to cope — particularly in peak hour, but also at off-peak times when crowding can be a problem. The new Calder Park train stabling, expected to open later this year, will help with this.

Sunbury line load survey May 2014

Werribee line — again, once RRL opens the Geelong line trains will be off the Werribee line completely, and with crowding already bad before January, they’ll need to make use of that capacity to boost services.

In the past 6 years, the load survey shows the Werribee line has gone from 13 to 21 services, and in that time has gained Williams Landing station. But the line has evidently seen greater passenger growth than the Sunbury line, with far more trains above the load standard. In fact it has 46% of AM peak passengers travelling on crowded trains, the highest proportion anywhere on the network.

I’m hearing the zone changes have eased demand at Laverton, in favour of Williams Landing, but given the huge population growth in that area, I’d also expect overall patronage to keep growing.

Werribee line load survey May 2014

Williamstown line — theoretically could get a boost, but not seen as a priority as it doesn’t serve growth corridors, and the last load survey showed crowding was well below the levels seen on other lines. One would hope at least the 22 minute peak frequency shared with Altona will be fixed to 20.

Altona Loop — technically part of the Werribee line, the changes in 2011 when the third (turnback) platform at Laverton opened were primarily of benefit to the outer section of the Werribee line (early 2011 was when the line got a big increase in services). It helped add capacity for the Altona Loop stations, but degraded the service in other ways: peak hour service dropped back to an almost impossible to memorise 22 minute frequency, and at off-peak times on weekdays shuttle trains run every 20 minutes only as far as Newport.

This means that at off-peak times, if you want to travel to a City Loop underground station, you need to catch three trains — one to Newport, another to North Melbourne or Southern Cross, then a third to the Loop.

One of the reasons widely cited for the shuttle trains (and the 22 minute peak timetable) was a lack of capacity between Newport and the City, given the need to share the line with Geelong trains. RRL will see the Geelong trains off the line, and it has been flagged many times that this would bring an end to the shuttles, with off-peak Altona Loop trains going all the way into the city — in fact Labor pledged it during the 2014 election campaign. It would help those passengers, but also ease off-peak crowding on the Werribee line by enabling the Werribee trains to run express Newport to Footscray, bypassing busy inner-city stations like Yarraville.

But with a lack of assurances from the powers that be, there are now fears this won’t happen after all, or at least not any time soon. (Do you use the Altona Loop? Click through to find out how to help the campaign.)

Jill Hennessy at MTF forum: Altona rail
Source: Metropolitan Transport Forum — video from Western Suburbs forum

Other lines indirectly benefit: the Frankston, Craigieburn and Upfield lines gain some isolation from V/Line operations which currently can snowball across the network.

So, RRL brings a lot of scope for extra services

With the zone 2 fare cuts, anecdotal evidence is that patronage is on the rise again, right across the rail network. The government is going to need to stay ahead of the growth, to avoid the politically sensitive situation of widespread packed trains that we saw in the later years of the Bracks/Brumby government.

This time, they’re a bit more prepared. RRL unlocks capacity for a number of lines, and planning work is underway to unlock capacity on other lines around the network. The key is for the funding for upgrades (and that includes infrastructure, fleet and services) to keep on coming.

You wouldn’t expect them to use all the extra capacity from day one, but they should where they have the train fleet available and the crowding is worst (eg the Werribee line and Altona Loop), as well as a plan to roll out additional service boosts over time.

Of course it shouldn’t just be directed at easing train overcrowding. Trains, like no other transport mode, have the ability to get large numbers out people out of the traffic on the Westgate Bridge and the other river crossings, if good frequent services are provided.

And remember — all-day, 7-day frequent servicesevery 10 minutes or better — are actually relatively cheap on the upgrade list, because they largely use fleet and infrastructure already provided for peak hour. Frequent services help the people who can, make more trips outside peak hours, and just like in the world’s biggest cities, help turn our train system into a mass transit solution that gets people out of cars by providing good connections between lines, and Turn Up And Go services.

  • Update 20/2/2015: The government has postponed the opening to June, blaming a lack of V/Line rolling stock due to the previous government delaying the order.

The #EWLink billion dollar booby trap

The previously secret East West Link “side letter”, offering compensation even if the contract was deemed invalid, seems to underscore just how desperate the State Coalition was to build the road — despite it being a project that:

Here’s an excerpt from the document, which perhaps surprisingly, was released by the Coalition themselves yesterday:

East West Link side letter

It’s a bit like a contractual version of Pauline Hanson’s assassination video: Fellow Victorians, if you are seeing this now, it means East West Link has been killed.

Obviously it was designed to ensure the project went ahead, even if the Coalition was voted out, and Labor tried to cancel it. A billion dollar booby trap.

East West Link: eastern section, western gateway in Royal Park

I think this is far worse than simply signing a bad contract. It goes much further, by offering a kind of insurance against its later cancellation (which, as a reminder, happens regularly).

This is veering into the territory of… how do I put this? It’s lacking respect for the electorate so much that you would force your decision onto them, even if they specifically voted against it. Remember, numerous people from Tony Abbott down declared the November 2014 election a referendum on the project.

This kind of letter says “We want this built. We don’t have a mandate for it, but we don’t care what you think. And if you vote us out, we’re going to try and force the other side to build it anyway.”

My notes from a quick skim of the #EWLink business case

Late last night, the Herald Sun unexpectedly published the entire East West Link business case, ahead of its official release today.

Some notes from me from a quick flick through:

p12 makes various high-level claims, particularly faster trips for motorists — but as we know, this benefit never lasts because traffic increases.

EWLink: Proposed tolls

p17 flags the toll prices used in the modelling: (2012 pricing) cars $5.50 in peak, $4.40 off-peak. Light commercial vehicles $8.80 peak, $7.04 off-peak. Heavy commercial vehicles $16.50 peak, $13.20 off-peak. I wonder what regular motorists (especially those with commercial vehicles) make of these toll levels?

By comparison, bypassing the city along the Bolte Bridge or the Domain/Burnley tunnels (not both) currently costs $7.06 in a car, or $8.15 for both sections. It’s only marginally more expensive for both because there’s a cap… I assume it’s unknown if a similar cap could exist where adjoining motorways are run by different operators.

p17 says the funding gap between the toll revenue and the cost of construction is $5.3 to 5.8 billion.

p39 says north-south public transport is being degraded by traffic congestion, which may be the case, but that’s because authorities have allowed it to happen by failing to provide tram/bus priority through busy intersections such as Alexandra Parade. They continue to prioritise large numbers of vehicles (single-occupant cars) over large numbers of people. It’s important to recognise that while the greater East West Link project includes tram priority measures, these can be implemented without building a big road tunnel.

p41-42 appears to be cherry-picking statistics to try and claim there’s a lot of demand for cross-city traffic. For instance the diagram at the top of page 42 implies lots of cross-city traffic, but it’s mapping out in percentage terms the demand from different directions heading to the Eastern Freeway in the AM peak — in other words, feeding into the freeway in the counter-peak direction, as if counter-peak travel is where the congestion problem is.

A diagram on page 41 does look at AM peak from the Eastern Freeway, and like previous studies shows little traffic heading to the west of the city — 2% to the south-west (eg Newport area), 6% due west to Footscray and beyond, 7% north-west to around Essendon and beyond. The vast majority of traffic is heading to the CBD and inner north.

In comparison, here’s the screendump from VicRoads traffic status web site this morning (8:16am, peak hour). The camera image shows counter-peak the Eastern Freeway seems to be free-flowing. It also shows free-flowing traffic most of the way across to the west (in both directions), again underscoring that the east-west route isn’t the main problem; as per the page 41 diagram, it’s traffic going into the CBD and inner suburbs.

EWLink: Realtime traffic on Eastern Freeway and Alexandra Parade, 15/12/2014 8:16am

p100 forecasts traffic rampup to % of steady state volume: 91% by month 6. 96.5% by month 12. 100% by month 22. I wonder: Is this in line with recent experience?

A NSW Auditor-General report on Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel (see page 32) found that projections of 80% initially, and 88% after a year were about double the traffic levels that actually eventuated. Brisbane’s Clem7 and Airportlink tollways, and Melbourne’s EastLink had similar problems.

Note that in East West Link’s case the taxpayer bears the risk.

p165 Whoa! The construction cost is much much higher than theoretical revenue of $112 million/year (56x) relative to Citylink (8x) or Eastlink (20x). The average construction cost is also much higher per kilometre than those projects.

p168 The assumed tolling period is 40 years.

p176 Benefit Cost Ratio of stage 1 is 0.8 (eg it costs more than it makes) when “Wider Economic Benefits” (WEBs) are excluded. Including WEBs is 1.3-1.4.

Update: The earlier estimate, using the methodology preferred by Infrastructure Australia, came out at just 0.45. In later versions of the document, the methodology changed and the estimate rose to 0.8. The version released by the Herald Sun has the higher figure, and it’s been speculated that someone supportive of the project dropped that version to them deliberately to pre-empt reporting of the lower figure. Josh Gordon at The Age has some nice analysis of how the figure grew from 0.45 to 0.8 with some WEBs, and then to 1.4 by including other projects such as the Tullamarine Freeway widening, and even Wider WEBs.

WEBs are notoriously wibbly-wobbly in their calculation, and often controversial. For instance it’s not clear how they claim $2153m in agglomeration economies (specifically “growth in Melbourne’s competitive central core”) when the tollway doesn’t directly serve Melbourne’s central core.

It also claims a lot of benefits from travel time savings, but as I’ve already noted, we know these never last.

Compared to the 1.4 the road gets with WEBs, the metro rail tunnel (which is also an incredibly expensive project) apparently got 1.9. And compared to the 0.8 for EWL without WEBs, the metro rail tunnel got 1.17 — so at least it isn’t loss-making when evaluated without possibly dodgy WEBs.

p193. If they built the road elevated rather than underground, the BCR (excluding WEBs) would still only be 0.9. It’s only by building it as a surface road (eg a ground-level motorway, thus obliterating large areas of the inner-northern suburbs) that you can get a BCR above 1: 2.6 to be precise.

EWLink costs and revenues

p209 summarises the revenues and outlays, and if I’m reading this right, seems to show toll revenue of about $200m per year against availability service payments from the government to the operator of about $345m each year. I assume by June 2023 that’s the “steady state”.

If the toll revenue doesn’t get that high, then taxpayers foot the larger bill. And remember this is only stage 1.

p211 ponders the state privatising the road later — that is, selling the toll revenue stream, presumably to offload the taxpayer risk in case revenue flops in the future.

I’ll keep dipping into the document as I get time in the next day or two, and may add some points as I find them.

Hopefully when there’s an official release in the next day or two, the PDFs available will be searchable — it’ll make finding things a lot easier!

And presumably there’s more detail coming as well — for me one thing that stands out is the courageous predictions of quick growth in tollway traffic and revenue, in the face of recent experiences with other Australian tollroads.

And I’d love to see detail on the modelling assumptions that show how well the traffic would flow if the revenue targets are met. It still strikes me that these massive tollroad projects can be profitable, or provide for free-flowing traffic, but not do both.

Update: The official release of documents has now occurred.

Photos from last week

The hi fi box was a big hit with my niece (and nephew)
The box is a hit with my neice

Having obtained a government-provided “boarding pass” (they were handed out with some MXs — I missed out but managed to get one via Kev, who saved it for me), I went searching for the airport rail link. Strangely enough it wasn’t listed on the network status board.
Searching for the Airport rail link

A while back I bought some shirts from that Charles Tyrwhitt mob who advertise a lot. Pretty nice shirts, and I’ll probably buy more from them. One thing’s for sure though, they WILL send you promotional catalogues and emails afterwards. You won’t feel neglected.
Charles Tyrwhitt promotional mail

The channel 7 news the night following the Endeavour Hills stabbing. You know things are serious when they’re doing five live crosses for one story.
Live crosses following Endeavour Hills stabbing

Just a bunch of trams rolling down the road? Not quite — if you look closely, they’re going the wrong way, heading north along the southbound track. They were headed by a Yarra Trams car with flashing lights. There was an underground fire at the corner of William Street and Flinders Lane, and Yarra Trams decided to move the trams backwards rather than have them stuck for an indefinite period. For reasons that escape me, this is known in tram circles as running “bang road”, and is rare enough that Marcus Wong shot video of it.
Trams running backwards up William Street

For some months now this signage at Bentleigh station (and others with more than 2 platforms) has been incomplete. Despite repeated queries over several months via Twitter, it hasn’t been fixed. (I’ve been querying Metro, though they apparently need to chat to PTV to get it resolved.)
Incomplete signage, Bentleigh station

Here’s how packed some CBD trams can get — really testing the new E-class trams’ theoretical capacity. Now, how packed will it be from January when free CBD tram rides are introduced? Packed enough, I suspect, that I told a PTV survey person several weeks ago that, in all honesty, the change is likely to reduce my use of CBD trams — remembering that I have a Yearly Myki, so if I opt-out due to increased crowding, my paid rides will have been replaced by freeloaders.
Packed CBD tram

Spotted in Bourke Street one lunchtime.
'Lies' #EWLink

Seddon and Yarraville both have campaigns against paid parking on at the moment. I’ve gotta say, having had the need to drive to both recently, and having spent ages (particularly in Yarraville) looking for parking, I think I’d prefer having a price signal to discourage people from staying longer than necessary and/or to go without their cars (both centres are quite well served by public transport).
No Paid Parking campaign, Seddon

Lois Lane in Yarraville. No sign of Superman. Or Clark Kent, for that matter.
Lois Lane, Yarraville

On the western suburbs train lines, there’s only a service every 40 minutes on Sunday mornings. This is the result: the 10am train from Footscray to the city, packed to the gills. The Show is on, but even after North Melbourne, plenty of people stayed on board going into the CBD. Not every square centimetre of floorspace was occupied, but it’s not good enough when the rail system has plenty of spare capacity, and should be trying to attract extra trips. High time extra trains ran on Sunday mornings.
Werribee line, Sunday morning. Trains 40 minutes apart.

Both South Yarra and Footscray have six platforms. Sadly only one of them has live information on the concourse for all six platforms.
South Yarra station concourse
Footscray station concourse

In the past few days rubbish bins have been removed at Melbourne’s major railway stations. Apparently the transparent design wasn’t considered secure enough. Here’s what they looked like. (I snapped this pic last week to email in to Crikey, whose people had apparently never seen/noticed them. Crikey didn’t use it, but The Age did.)
Transparent rubbish bins, Flagstaff station

Four minutes? Impossible!

I can’t help noticing that when traffic is relatively light, this sign on Kings Way always it’s 4 minutes to Williamstown Road.

4 minutes to Williamstown Road

This seems as optimistically unlikely as those old Citylink travel time promises. Google Maps reckons it’s 7.7 kilometres, and estimates a travel time without traffic of 6 minutes.

The speed limit along the freeway and over the Westgate bridge is 80 km/h, which by my calculations makes it just under 6 minutes if you were able to consistently do the speed limit for the whole distance. To do it in 4 minutes you’d need to be zooming along at about 115 km/h.

The estimate to get to the Western Ring Road seems a little more accurate.

Of course the very reason these signs are needed is because travel times on the roads can vary widely. In peak hour they are crowded and slow… in a city the size of Melbourne, this is inevitable, because it’s simply not efficient to move people in ones and twos in their cars.

Vicroads figures just released show that traffic continues to get slower… and that’s despite a multitude of motorways having been built, extended or widened over the last decade. This graphic from the PTUA:

Despite billions spent on roads, traffic is still getting slower.

In a big city I contend that it’s probably not possible to fix road congestion. But is it possible to reduce overall average travel times for everyone (not just motorists)?

Well yes it is. Vancouver’s managing to do it. How? By not building motorways, but upgrading public transport instead. The more people are off the road, the better.