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 crossing — local 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.
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!
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
- 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.)
— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) February 12, 2016
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.)
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.