I’ve written before in passing about the freight train from Hastings that heads up from Frankston at about 5pm each weekday, clogging up every crossing along the line, until the pinnacle: it crawls across Glen Huntly Road at about 5:45pm, right in the middle of rush hour.
As you can see from this video (shot just before the third track closed), the combination of freight train and tram tracks means the crossing closes for several minutes. An outbound suburban train had arrived as the freight train approached, resulting in a long queue of people to exit the station. By the time the freight train had cleared the crossing, and the passengers got to cross, the next outbound suburban train was approaching.
In this view, you can’t see the effect on the cars and trams, but you can see many pedestrians/passengers get held up — and their delay is just as valid as those people in vehicles. It also affects cars and buses and more pedestrians on nearby Neerim Road.
The freight train might be able to be re-scheduled to outside peak hour, but the delays occur all day, as even suburban trains have a 20 km/h limit on this crossing. This results in long queues of pedestrians, trams and cars, and slows even express trains down to a crawl.
More crossings to be removed
The other week, the government announced another 8 crossings off their list on the southern end of the Frankston line would be removed, starting in 2018. Initially I thought this might mean barely any crossings left on the line, but in fact there’ll still be 19 — there are a lot of crossings!
Is getting rid of them enough to allow a big boost in services on the line? Probably not quite — not while the Glenhuntly crossing with its 20 km/h train speed limit remains, with no main road crossings for a kilometre either side.
On Sunday the government announced another four crossings to be “fast-tracked”. One is in Sydenham and one is in Williamstown North, on the Altona Loop — which can’t get more frequent trains while it remains mostly single track.
The other two are on the single track Cranbourne line — frustratingly, they’ll include provision for rail duplication but not actual duplication — which really would permit more frequent trains, and improve reliability. This is a real missed opportunity — if you’re closing the line and doing a bunch of work on it, why not piggyback on that and fix the single track problem at the same time — at least between Lynbrook and Dandenong, as the last remaining crossing in that section is being removed. (There are two others in the section that includes Thompsons Road.)
Last night at the PTUA Meeting, Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan was asked about this specific point, and replied that they would look for opportunities to piggyback track duplication projects on top of grade separations. Evidently in this case it’s not happening.
(Marcus Wong has a good blog post with some detail on the Cranbourne line crossings.)
How to prioritise level crossing removals
Level crossings are expensive to grade separate. Some can just be outright closed (this occurred at some spots on the Upfield line in the 90s) but inevitably most need to retain road access. And they’re big projects, so they can’t all happen at once. There are several ways to prioritise them.
The ALCAM model (Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model) which I’ve talked about before evaluates risk, and takes into account factors such as the numbers of trains and vehicles, and visibility. If you’re prioritising due to safety, this is the list to use.
Another strategy is to do crossings along a specific line, which can then open up that line for lots of extra services. This method is being used on the Dandenong line — the plan is all the crossings between Dandenong and the City will be gone within a few years, and in fact also the crossings out to Sydenham (it looks like some smaller crossings will remain on the way to Sunbury), for when the two lines are connected via the Metro rail tunnel.
This can save money and reduce disruptions to the rail line, particularly by doing adjacent crossings at the same time.
Some will want to prioritise rail and road-based public transport. The PTUA in 2010 suggested doing all the tram/train crossings, plus those used by Smartbus and other busy bus routes.
Other people will want to prioritise road traffic. The RACV has a priority list from 2013 which I’d assume highlights those on the busiest sections of road, though they don’t really make it clear. A different RACV list from late-2014 says it highlights crossings in their red spot road user survey, and those with poor safety records.
Obviously politics is a factor. Piggybacking Mckinnon and Centre Roads onto the North Road removal project was a no-brainer in terms of reducing cost per crossing and future disruptions, but also happily for the government they’re all in the marginal electorate of Bentleigh.
(By the way they’ve just confirmed the new Ormond station will include an entrance on both sides of North Road.)
Politics might explain why Glen Huntly Road has missed out. It’s in the non-marginal seat of Caulfield. But train passengers from all the marginal seats down the Frankston line get delayed at Glen Huntly Road on every single trip, so politically it would be of benefit — you could speed up those trains and run more of them. (You’d have to do Neerim Road as well, as it’s only 300 metres away. A new station could sit between the two, providing good connections to connecting bus and tram services on the two roads.)
The VicRoads document says they set the priority by taking into account road network operating objectives (tram routes, priority bus routes, preferred traffic routes), travel time savings and vehicle emissions savings (hmm, I wonder if these are proven to be of lasting benefit?) and safety (using incident history).
Naturally the above differing methodologies have a lot of overlaps. For instance a list based on risk is likely to include some of the busiest (for trains and cars) crossings.
Labor’s strategy was probably a mix of the above — taking in politics, good planning for traffic flow, and rail corridor considerations (the Dandenong line) — but we may never really know. A mix is valid of course, but you’d always hope that politics isn’t the main factor. Most voters are smart enough to know that safety is really important, and that their local quiet crossing probably isn’t as important for removal as That Really Busy Crossing on the other side of town.
Ultimately it’s politics that gets these projects funded. Of course, limited emphasis on other factors is bound to be a risk when the priority list is prepared by a political party, with limited access to government resources.
For better or worse Labor are indicating they will stick to their list of fifty, despite some less than fully logical choices, such as Werribee Street in Werribee, which since RRL opened sees very few trains. (That one is also on both the RACV lists.)
A better way might be for the politicians to pledge to fund the highest priority crossings from a specific, independent evaluation, such as the Vicroads study or the ALCAM list, or taking PTV’s guidance on the best road/rail corridors to address first.
In any case, I hope as these projects get completed, people can see the benefits — fewer bus/tram/pedestrian/cyclist delays, fewer traffic delays, more reliable train services — and the momentum is there from all sides of politics to keep the grade separations coming.
- PS: If you missed last night’s PTUA Annual General Meeting, you missed a great Q+A with PT Minister Jacinta Allan. Join now and don’t miss the next one!