Level crossing removals en masse – important to get them right

I was planning on writing a blog post on the potential of close to 40+ railway stations being completely rebuilt via the fifty level crossing grade separations the state government is intending on doing over 8 years — most of which are adjacent to railway stations.

But last Thursday night’s PTUA member meeting with Ian Woodcock, who has studied this in some detail, somewhat stole my thunder.

I can’t do justice to all the great material in his presentation, but to my mind, his main points were:

  • Doing a series of grade separations makes the most sense, to allow more trains to run on a section of line (or an entire line)
  • Some of the architecture of recent stations is pretty horrible — needs to be improved
  • Integration with surrounding urban form is really important. Shops, businesses, “destinations” are vital.

Balaclava station

But his big idea was to consider elevated rail. He says it’s cheaper than trenches (the default method of grade separation) — about 1/3 of the cost.

It allows more places to cross the line, and in fact can make use of the land underneath — something which is generally not economic with trenches. It’s also operationally cheaper — trains can slow down coming up the hill into a station, and have gravity help them accelerate away as they depart.

There are old examples of elevated rail working well with the urban landscape, such as around Glenferrie station, providing good proximity for the station to the connecting trams and the shops and the university around it. Canterbury, Balaclava, and others also have elevated rail, though these were all developed many decades ago.

A more modern (Australian) example is the Sydney North West rail link, much of which is elevated through parks and suburbs.

I think he’s got a point. Elevated rail may be the best solution in some cases, and it doesn’t have to be ugly or impinge on the community if it’s done well. The cost difference alone — saving up to two-thirds — should have authorities carefully considering where it can work.

For some examples, see these designs on the ABC web site: Dream train stations designed by Melbourne students.

Proposal for Moreland station, by Evelyn Hartojo (Ian Woodcock's Dream Stations)

Closer to home: Ormond/Mckinnon/Bentleigh

Vicroads had an information tent for the North Road level crossing grade separation, at the Ormond traders festival a month or two back, and I also had a brief chat about it with local MP Nick Staikos about the same project when I ran into him one Monday morning at Bentleigh station.

The new line will be in a trench. As Ian Woodcock noted, the only two options presented to the community for this project were: rail under road in a trench, or road under rail. (Elevated rail may or may not have worked in this spot, though it would have resolved the problem with the Dorothy Avenue underpass, which looks set to close to motor vehicles and/or pedestrians and cyclists. The point is it doesn’t even seem to have been considered.)

As was already known from the information they have put out, the project is set to start major construction in 2016, with major works including a complete rail shutdown for a month in the 2016/17 Christmas holidays.

Other partial shutdowns will occur, including closing the westernmost track for a period of time, which will obviously require a modified peak hour timetable to operate. (Not impossible: it’s been done during Glenhuntly rail crossing rejuvenation works.)

What’s interesting is that Vicroads said, and Nick confirmed, that they are studying whether they can do the Mckinnon and Bentleigh crossings at the same time. This makes a lot of sense; the latter two are less challenging, narrower roads, and it would minimise the rail closures and costs.

Vicroads said they are hopeful, but it’s subject to the state Budget funding the extra two crossings. If I were Nick I’d be pushing for it, as if they can finish them all well before the next state election in 2018, it’s a better look for him being re-elected than if the job’s only half done, the stations are piles of rubble and replacement buses are running every weekend.

I guess we’ll see tomorrow (Tuesday; State Budget day) how many level crossing removals get full funding — as well as what other projects, such as Mernda rail, go full steam ahead.

Update: The State Budget provided funding for 17 crossings, including Mckinnon and Centre Roads, and the 9 crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong.

Update 19/5/2015: Sure enough, the government has announced the contracts have been awarded for these three, as well as Burke Road. All four will be rail under road.