Apartments for trainspotters (part 2)

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that back in 2010 an apartment block was being advertised at Caulfield, smack bang between where the Frankston and Dandenong lines diverge.

It was never built. Google Street View shows by 2014 the site was still empty, and the advertising sign was covered in graffiti.

Around 2016 the site was taken over by the Level Crossing Removal Authority for use during the Caulfield To Dandenong “skyrail” project.

But most of the land is now clear again, and in the past month or two, an advertising sign (only visible to passing train passengers) has gone up.

East Apartments, Caulfield - site

It looks to me like part of the land has been used for the skyrail tracks, which were placed slightly to the south of the old ground level tracks, leaving the development site smaller than before.

A sales office is on the site, and their web site is eastapartments.net.au.

East Apartments, Caulfield - artists impression

In nine years, the price seems to have gone up by about $100,000.

This development wouldn’t be the first homes on the site. Street View shows much older houses there in early 2010.

As I said in 2010, hopefully the new buildings’ soundproofing is good.

How big events can be a catalyst for better public transport

Despite living in a sports mad city in a sports mad country, I’m not the world’s biggest sports fan.

But as a public transport advocate, I embrace big sporting events, because it’s amazing the things they can help get done in transport.

This is only natural. Such events are often a showcase, particularly in Melbourne, and governments are keen to ensure they can get spectators in and out of the arena/venue as efficiently as possible, and while ensuring that the rest of the city continues to function.

When a hundred thousand people need to converge on a venue, you don’t want to be doing that with private vehicles.

Richmond station, Swan Street entrance, before an MCG game

This isn’t new. Historically, all of Melbourne’s football grounds and racecourses were close to railway stations. (Yes, even Princes Park, and the Brunswick Street oval in Fitzroy. No, not VFL Park.) But I’m thinking of bigger events than just regular football or cricket.

Just as events such as the Olympics leave “legacy” infrastructure, sometimes big events have helped to shake up public transport services.

The Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix started in 1996. Someone twigged that the then Sunday timetable of trains every 40 minutes on most lines wasn’t going to cut it, and they instead ran Saturday timetables (every 20 minutes) on GP day. Double the usual train frequency? Unheard of!

Subsequently in July 1999, 20 minutes became the standard Sunday train frequency between 11am and 7pm.

Up in Brisbane, for the 2018 Commonwealth Games they got a tram network extension built in time for the event, with trams running 24/7. The Brisbane Queen Street bus interchange was refurbished. And they ran the Gold Coast rail line 24/7, including 6 or more trains per hour most of the day. Mind you, it was at the expense of some other rail lines.

Speaking of the Commonwealth Games, let me focus on Melbourne 2006.

Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games - public transport summary

Melbourne’s 2006 Commonwealth Games

A raft of temporary public transport upgrades were brought in to help people get to venues, and some of them were subsequently made permanent.

Suburban public transport was included free with all event tickets, which also allowed discounted V/Line travel. PTV has a mechanism for free PT with event tickets as part of their event planning, though it’s not often used outside hosting big international conferences.

Evening trains ran every 20 minutes on all lines (normally 30 minutes) to encourage people to travel after the PM peak — subsequently many lines have been upgraded permanently until about 9:30pm

6-car trains ran from first to last train — at the time, most evening and weekend trains were 3-cars, but 6 is now standard. The new HCMT fleet is being built without intermediate driver cabs, which will allow more passenger space.

The Upfield line ran every 10 minutes as far as Coburg to support events at Royal Park

Trams and trains were extended to 12:30am every nightlater in 2006 as part of MOTC, services were extended permanently to 1am on Friday and Saturday nights, and more recently all night on some trams and all trains, which also fixed issues with Sunday trains starting too late for fun runs.

10 City bus routes ran extended hours, including the services that subsequently got upgraded to the DART Smartbus routes.

51 suburban bus routes extended to around 1am on weeknights to meet trains until the last service, to help relieve suburban station carparks

Skybus ran every 10 minutes at peak times – upgrades since then mean Skybus is now every 10 minutes throughout the day, every day until midnight

Nightrider buses ran every night of the week, not just during weekends.

Note the confusing wording in the official publication shown above — “Normal fares apply for Nightrider services” but also “Nightrider buses do not accept Metcards.” Most people would read “normal fares” as standard tickets, but I think what they meant was that old premium fares applied, though other information clarified that Games tickets included Nightrider travel. Later changes introduced standard Metcard fares for Nightrider, and nowadays, standard Myki fares apply to weekend Night Network services.

Authorities postponed retiring some old Hitachi trains – for pretty much the first time it was recognised that the fleet had to grow. Memorably they ended up buying some back from a collector.

Importantly, there was no car parking at venues, including the MCG. Many would still like to see this happen.

Some upgrades like these can’t easily be made permanent, at least not immediately, because they stretch the assets and staff too much.

But these types temporary changes prove what is possible.

The PTV Annual Report notes more than 1100 special events in 2016-17 — and as in any big city, these are alongside smaller everyday events and activities that don’t make the headlines.

Richmond station, Commonwealth Games 19/3/2006

Getting occasional users on board

Big attractions get occasional users onto public transport, using the system to avoid event traffic snarls and car park hassles, even if those people normally drive everywhere else.

An ABS survey from 2011 showed that 38% of Melburnians had used public transport in the last month — far higher than the typical metropolitan-wide mode share (18% for Journey To Work), indicating a lot of people use it for some trips, but not necessarily their daily commute. Part of that would be attending events.

Occasional use like this means more people become familiar with using the system: how and where their most convenient station is, how to use a Myki card, and indeed more likely to have a Myki card in their wallet — the Herald Sun reported in January that there are 15 million active cards out there. This means one barrier to switching to public transport more often is gone.

How significant this is, I’m not sure, but it’s interesting that the huge upturn in Melbourne’s public transport use last decade occurred pretty much straight after the Commonwealth Games.

Alongside other events such as New Years Eve, it added to the sense that public transport is of huge benefit to mainstream society, and is worth investing in.

Extra event services (when they supplement, rather than disrupt/replace regular services) can help all passengers by cutting waiting times and relieving crowding… though any regular footy goer will tell you that in many cases they need to further improve service frequencies and crowd control.

And in the longer term? While regular commuters may be grumpy at occasionally sharing their crowded train with footy fans, big events can be a catalyst for upgrades, ultimately helping in the quest for a better public transport network for everyone.

More thoughts on the suburban rail loop (Metro 3?)

Some more thoughts on the Suburban Rail Loop — which in this post, I am going to cheekily call Metro 3 for short, since it’s been proposed after Metro 1 (currently under construction) and Metro 2.

A week and a half on, many questions remain, but the idea still looks like an incredibly forward-thinking, positive concept, built on a vision of providing more people getting around an ever-busier city with viable public transport options.

And the community seems to agree. There’s been broad public support for the project.

Time and time again, it’s been shown that most people want public transport prioritised over roads, and I suspect most people are pleased to see such a forward-looking, big-thinking idea floated.

I had an impromptu chat with a senior elected figure who actually uttered the sentence many of us have been repeating for some time now: that in a big city like ours, “you can’t just keep building roads.”

Maybe, despite the current plans for two massive tollways (WestGate Tunnel and North East Link), there is finally recognition that our mass transit system is way behind where it needs to be for a city of this size.

Embankment station, London

The initial announcement was on Facebook, and reaction has been largely positive. As I see it, this is arguably the biggest city-shaping infrastructure initiative in decades. Making public transport competitive for so many more suburban trips will get more people out of cars like few other projects could.

Even the State Opposition isn’t attacking the idea, but rather questioning the ability of the government to deliver it.

There is some dissent from those who think trams or buses should be boosted instead. I’ll talk about that below.

Whether for or against, I don’t remember the Vicroads plan for a 100km long orbital outer ring road attracting this much attention.

Labor orbital rail plan

Cost

The Suburban Rail Loop Metro 3 is undoubtedly a hugely expensive project.

It’s also the type of project that probably wasn’t feasible when Melbourne had just 3 million people, but has become more viable (and arguably essential) now we’ve tipped over 5 million and we’re still growing.

Cost estimates have varied wildly. Most seem to be quoting in the region of $50 billion, but the new Federal Minister for Cities Alan Tudge claimed it could be $100-150 billion — on what basis? Not sure.

Here’s a back of the envelope costing: The Metro 1 tunnel now under construction is 9 kilometres of twin tunnels and 5 stations, costing about $10 billion. Let’s assume for a moment that each station costs $1 billion, and tunnels cost $0.5 billion per kilometre.

Metro 3 as initially envisaged is 90 kilometres and 12 stations (though I would strongly argue for at least a handful more stations). Based on that rule of thumb, we’d be looking at $45 + $12 = $57b. So about $50b or less might be close to the mark, assuming some economies of scale from the bigger project, and remember that some of the route won’t underground.

Certainly land acquisition and perhaps other costs should be cheaper than in the middle of the CBD, and the Metro 1 tunnel will incur costs when train passengers are diverted around works near the tunnel portals; Metro 3 won’t have these.

There’s also talk of re-using some of the construction equipment from Metro 1 on this project.

Thomson-East Coast Line MRT, Tunnel boring machine, Orchard station, Singapore

It didn’t go through Infrastructure Victoria

Many have pointed out that the project hasn’t yet been evaluated by IV. Nor is it part of a transport plan, as required under the Transport Integration Act — at least not one that’s been published.

There has been a fair bit of planning work done on it despite this — evidently for about a year.

Technology

They haven’t really talked about the technology that could be used. If it’s a new standalone line (assuming it shares some of the alignment with airport rail, but not the tracks), there’s arguably no real reason to use the existing trains or technology.

You could do standard gauge instead of broad. You could do modern 25 Kv AC power instead of the old standard 1.5 Kv DC, which has benefits such as the number of substations required.

You could even do… driverless trains. The technology is mature, used in many cities (Singapore is shown below), and the line will be completely segregated from road traffic and — presumably — other rail traffic.

Singapore MRT: Little India station

It needs a few more stations

The western section of Metro 3 needs some detail fleshed out. At present there’s Melbourne Airport, Sunshine, and Werribee, and nothing else in between. The government’s view is that scoping out additional stations may take a little time, as that whole area is developing.

This calls for integrated transport and land use planning. In the east, the activity centres being targeted for stations are very well established. Not so in the west.

The government should be taking the lead here and mapping out where the western suburbs’ next big education campuses and shopping centres should go. Werribee East is one – where will the others be in coming decades? They should either be near existing railway stations, or planned stations on the new line.

Even in the eastern suburbs, there are some very big gaps, which means there’s potential provide more stations. Cheltenham to Clayton, for instance, is about 7 kilometres.

Where the gaps are larger than about 4 km, it would be something of a waste not to look potential additional station sites – the retail/industrial area of Moorabbin East/Heatherton at Warrigal Road would be a candidate for a station and subsequent dense development. There are similar opportunities along most of the route.

Inbound Metro train at Clayton station

Is Glen Waverley too far out of the way?

I wonder if Glen Waverley is too much of a diversion, given it already has a station, and the centre there isn’t as large as some (though it has potential to grow). Is there a more direct spot on that line it could intersect?

You can’t hit all of the major centres out that way of course. Deakin Burwood, or Knox City? The plan is for Deakin. But this raises another topic.

One ring to rule them all?

One new ring metro line won’t solve all of Melbourne’s problems. Good connections to nearby locations are vital.

Knox City is a good example. It’ll miss out because it’s too far off-course. Extending tram 75 to the centre, and upgrading the Burwood Highway section to proper light rail with Gold Coast-style traffic light priority would help a lot.

Like wise, the rail line will miss Chadstone, which is in dire need of better public transport. The government’s Chadstone-Monash light rail idea could work, again, if it’s designed for speed, frequency and capacity, with good rail connections.

But certainly the new orbital line will make cross-suburban trips more viable, in a way that the Smartbus routes haven’t been able to doand probably can’t do without dedicated lanes all the way. Upgrading the buses would be cheaper, but the politics are really difficult. The government is actually removing bus lanes along route 903 in Fitzsimons Lane.

Yes, it seems that perhaps finding billions for rail tunnels is easier than navigating the politics of bus lanes.

The importance of connections

Right along Metro 3, good connecting services will be needed to help people access the stations. This goes not just for the existing rail lines it will connect to, but also connecting bus and tram services.

Trains along an orbital route bring huge time advantages, but only if end-to-end travel time is competitive.

So frequency needs to be good, and the physical connections also need to be well designed.

Station exits

It’s obviously early days, but you can already see that they’ll need to be clever with how they design the stations and their exits.

At Monash University for instance, it would make sense to try and design it for an exit into the main part of campus, near the bus loop (hello intermodal interchange!) as well as an exit near Blackburn Road for the employment centre.

Likewise at Clayton. One exit for the station and shopping centre, another for the medical centre.

At the Airport, it’ll be important to have good connections to the Airport-City line and connecting bus and coach services, as well as exits well-placed for the terminals.

Monash University Clayton

Why not buses/trams/monorails?

There are three key things a strong orbital route needs: good travel time (speed and frequency) and capacity.

Frequency is a must. If running frequently, buses and trams might meet the capacity requirements right now, but would probably be lacking in the future. You can do intensive high frequency operation with articulated buses and trams, but it becomes very expensive in terms of drivers.

Speed: A Brisbane-style busway or light rail on a dedicated route might be able to get to 100 km/h, but not the top speed of 130 that’s being talked about. How much that matters depends on the route and the number of stations. But busways often aren’t that much cheaper than rail.

Monorails, assuming underground, wouldn’t save any money over heavy rail, and capacity wouldn’t be as good.

Remember, we’re talking about catering for demand in a city of 8 million or more people in decades to come.

Nobody ever seems to talk about ride quality, which comes into play at high speed, particularly for people travelling long distances. Well-constructed heavy rail trumps all other modes for this.

Possibly there’s an argument for a Brussels-style pre-metro line that is light rail built in heavy rail tunnels, pending a later upgrade, but it’s unclear how much money that would save.

It seems to me that only heavy rail is sufficiently future-proof for the capacity needed as the city gets more populous… you can build a rail line for long trains, but start with short ones running frequently, and build up train lengths over time.

And heavy rail is the only mode that really measures up against the main competition: motorways.

Premetro station, Brussels

Does it all have to be underground?

It sounds like the Airport to Sunshine section would share the alignment (but perhaps/hopefully) not the tracks, so wouldn’t need to be underground.

Skyrail along arterial roads would also save some money compared to underground, but most of the planned route isn’t aligned to such roads.

Can it go a bit further?

Metro 3 is promoted as connecting all major rail lines, but misses the Sandringham line. Should it also connect there? Arguably.

At the other end, if it serves the Werribee East precinct, there’s probably a case for it going a little further to connect Point Cook to the rail network.

Staging anticlockwise from east to west

Given the prime targets for stations have been identified in the east, but the west is still evolving, one can understand the prioritisation, though starting with Cheltenham to Box Hill seems to overlook that the strongest patronage is expected further north, between Clayton and Fawkner. This may be down to practicalities: Clayton may not be envisaged as ever being used as a termination point, so you wouldn’t want to build unnecessary infrastructure.

Then again, if including Sandringham, Clayton probably is a logical point for terminating trains during disruptions and works. (Hopefully there are a few such locations planned.)

Suburban Rail Loop demand - 2051 - from Strategic Assessment document

Would it really take 30 years to build the whole thing? I suppose we’ll know more when detailed planning has been done. But comparisons to the 118km London Crossrail might not be fair – as much of that line is pre-existing railway.

Travel times

The government is spruiking the speed of the trains (130 kmh) and travel times, quoting:

  • Cheltenham to Airport 45 minutes
  • Box Hill to Airport 25 minutes
  • Monash Uni to Latrobe 25 minutes
  • Broadmeadows to Monash Uni 35 minutes

Even if times are slightly longer than claimed, something close to this opens up a myriad of opportunities. For example, when my sons were considering their university options, Latrobe and Deakin were ruled out as too hard to get to by public transport. A fast frequent orbital line with good connections to existing rail lines would make them manageable.

No doubt, this project is going to cost a fortune.

If it goes ahead, and they get it right, and it’s accompanied by lower-profile (but equally important) upgrades to existing services, this could revolutionise public transport, making it a better option for a lot more trips across Melbourne – and opening up more opportunities for education, recreation and employment – and that’s got to be a good thing.

Melbourne orbital rail proposal

Okay, I didn’t see this coming.

Orbital rail for the middle ring of Melbourne, announced on Facebook this morning.

Labor say they want to build a 90km suburban rail loop from Cheltenham (by which they appear to mean Southland), Clayton, Monash, Glen Waverley, Deakin Burwood, Box Hill, Doncaster, Heidelberg, Latrobe Uni, Reservoir, Fawkner, Broadmeadows, Airport, Sunshine, to Werribee.

Some of the detail is a little hazy, and would be subject to further study, but it seems to be aimed at hitting the biggest suburban traffic generators that don’t currently have rail.

It’s unclear where (or if) intermediate stops might be located, particularly between the Airport and Werribee.

At least from Cheltenham to the Airport would be underground tunnels. The whole project would support a more polycentric city, which makes a lot of sense, enabling cross-suburban trips in a way that Smartbuses don’t quite manage, and help Melbourne develop more jobs not just in its CBD and inner suburbs, but across the greater city.

Labor orbital rail plan

Train services on both the new and existing lines would need to be frequent of course, with easy connections to and from the existing network. It would also provide regional train connections at Clayton, Broadmeadows and Sunshine.

Labor say the line would not only be Melbourne’s longest, but also Melbourne’s busiest, with around 400,000 passenger trips per day.

The project might divert some people away from the busiest inner-city part of the rail network, but would inevitably generate more public transport trips as well.

Doncaster would get rail – just not in the way most people expected… Doncaster to the City via Box Hill would become a more time-competitive option.

I wonder if they assume the orbital trains would be similar technology to the existing fleet, or something different? To support frequent services, perhaps they would build the stations for full-length trains, but initially run shorter ones.

Business case funding of $300 million will be provided if Labor is re-elected, then construction starting 2022, in a phased approach but most likely concentrating initially on the southeastern section first, with the Airport to Sunshine portion falling under the existing Airport rail project, which would share the same alignment.

And yes, suddenly some other Labor ideas make sense in context, such as Monash Uni/Rowville light rail instead of heavy — the heavy rail option would be Clayton to Monash instead.

This is Big City thinking, and should be applauded, though who knows how much it will cost and how long it’ll take to build. Billions and decades, I would expect.

It’s incredibly ambitious, which is great to see. Not that it lets them off the hook on other, smaller things like fixing Melbourne’s buses (particularly to help people access railway stations) and all-day frequent trains on the existing lines.

But if they can pull it off, it’s huge, a game changer for the city.

Mernda rail extension opens this Sunday

On Sunday I went out to see the Mernda rail extension.

The Level Crossing Removal Authority, who built it (well, it does involve new stations and grade separation of an existing disused rail corridor, so it kinda makes sense) ran a community open day, with free shuttle trains between South Morang and Mernda.

After catching a regular train to South Morang, I found a big crowd waiting for a shuttle train.

South Morang station

Mernda

Mernda was packed with people, so it’s just as well they built this new terminus to generous dimensions, with a good wide platform.

Mernda station open day 19/8/2018

I met up with Darren Peters, who headed up the community campaign that got the politicians to commit to the rail extensions (both to South Morang, then Mernda). Locals kept stopping to congratulate him – deservedly so!

Mernda station has a wraparound roof structure similar to the Dandenong line skyrail stations, but glass panels block the wind coming through. The design is less rounded futuristic, more boxy, and I’m told is meant to reflect the farm heritage of the area – still seen on a few farm buildings in the vicinity.

Mernda station open day 19/8/2018

A huge amount of space is available underneath the station platform. There’s a large car park and a bus interchange on the eastern side, where buses will converge from nearby suburbs, mostly with frequencies of 20 minutes in peak, 40 off-peak.

To the west is… an empty paddock. This will be the place for the Mernda town centre.

Mernda station open day 19/8/2018

North of the station is more parking (with a second station exit), and a stabling yard to store trains between the peaks and overnight.

Mernda station viewed from the north

Mernda stabling yard 19/8/2018

New traffic lights seemed to be giving an inordinate amount of green time to nonexistent traffic coming out of the station, without actually providing much green man for pedestrians. This was resulting in traffic jams along Bridge Inn Road. Perhaps trying to get locals used to the traffic lights being there?

It’s unlikely that the line will be further extended to Whittlesea any time soon. This is the northern edge of Melbourne, and the Urban Growth Boundary shows no signs of shifting.

While there aren’t many houses in the immediate station environs, there are a few in the street north of the station, some of which look like they’re already being re-developed to medium density. And a little further away are vast numbers of homes, so it’s no wonder Plenty Road, pretty much the only road to the south, gets packed with cars at rush hour.

Hawkstowe

Heading back south, I looked at Hawkstowe station, a similar island platform design to Mernda. Already there’s a playground underneath the tracks, which reminded me of Singapore, and may be an indicator of what’s coming underneath the Caulfield to Dandenong skyrail.

Hawkstowe station open day 19/8/2018

Hawkstowe station open day 19/8/2018

Middle Gorge

And then there’s the third station…

A post shared by Daniel Bowen (@danielfbowen) on

There’s been some controversy over the name, but let’s look at the actual design.

Side platforms have been used, which is fine, and a nice wide subway connects them, reminiscent of Tarneit station.

But for some reason the building structures have very high-up roofs, which look impressive at first, but I expect will provide almost zero weather/rain protection.

Middle Gorge station open day 19/8/2018

There’s a plaza on the outbound side which is quite nice, but it also means the bus stops are a good couple of hundred metres away from the station, ensuring anybody who tries to interchange when it’s raining will get drenched. The bus stop has no shelter that I could see (maybe that will be installed before opening day this Sunday?)

Okay, so not as many buses will connect here compared to the other two new stations – it’s only route 383, which also goes to South Morang, but it’ll be about eight minutes faster to change to the train at Middle Gorge.

And the shared (bike) path coming from both directions is on the opposite side of the tracks to the bike cage, and particularly indirect from the north. Is this really the best they could do?

Middle Gorge station precinct

These concerns aside, it was great to see the community come out and see their new stations – despite the weather having been horrible earlier in the day.

Enough about the infrastructure – what about the services?

There’s little doubt the trains will be popular for those headed to destinations further down the line including into the City.

Some extra services have been added for peak hour, making for trains up to about every 6 minutes in peak.

There are no express services to speak of – the peak frequency is so intensive that there’s really no spare capacity for them. An express train would catch up quickly with the train in front. And remember, express trains save less time than you’d think – typically a minute per station skipped, while penalising people at those stations with fewer services, and leading to uneven train loads.

There are some counterpeak expresses – in the AM peak a train arriving at Flinders Street will go around the Loop, then back out in service. Some of these stop at only a handful of stations (including Reservoir for the 301 shuttle bus to Latrobe Uni), then up to Epping or South Morang to terminate and go back into stabling.

Outside peak hour, the current frequencies will remain: mostly every 20 minutes, but every 30 after 9pm, 40 on Sunday mornings (WHY?!) and hourly Night Train services overnight on Friday and Saturday nights.

In the long term, the Metro 2 tunnel will be needed to cope with continued growth on both this line and the Hurstbridge line.

Meanwhile, obviously authorities will need to watch patronage carefully and keep adding more services where they can, though there’s a limit to peak capacity between the city and Clifton Hill. The usual point applies: better off-peak services can help spread the load across the day.

But one thing’s for sure: the three new stations add richly to the transport options for people in the outer northern suburbs.