Temporary track to minimise disruptions

I think this is quite clever.

When trains or trams are partially closed for planned works, generally the less of the route is disrupted, the better.

But this is always limited by the placement of turnaround facilities. Witness the current Sandringham line closure: the major works are at South Yarra, but because (despite what was said beforehand) the infrastructure issue at Elsternwick hasn’t been fixed, the whole line is closed.

Over on the trams, they have an ingenious solution: a portable, temporary crossover. It was in use in Swan Street in Richmond (route 70) for a few days this week while tram platform stops are built:

This enabled them to terminate trams at Richmond station, with disrupted passengers able to either change to a train, or walk 400 metres to where trams could resume.

Apart from placement of the temporary track, they also needed to install some overhead wire. Of course it’s made easier to manage in this case by the road closure.

But it’s smart thinking, allowing trams to run as far as possible, reducing disruption for passengers, and avoiding the mess and cost of replacement buses.

Temporary track is nothing new. Back last century it was a common occurrence around the tram (and train) networks. But that was in a bygone era, when I suspect labour was cheap.

For long term projects, it still sometimes happens. Over Easter, the Dandenong and Frankston lines near South Yarra were ripped up and rebuilt as part of Metro tunnel works, and will be ripped up again as the junction to the new tunnel portal is built. There have also been tram tracks relocated on St Kilda Road which may need to be relocated again as the tunnel works continue.

But overall, temporary track is less common in modern times, at least on short term projects.

If only it were this easy on the railways.

Illogical obsession

Saturday’s Federal Election result might have been unexpected by many, but it underscores the Coalition’s illogical obsession with East West Link.

Well, illogical from a transport planning perspective that is. Remember, it’s got a business case that says it will lose money – unless you include Wider Economic Benefits with which the Victorian Auditor General had, and I quote: significant issues (of) plausibility.

(This was also a reminder that you can’t always believe everything in business cases.)

It’s not really free money of course. It’s money from taxpayers. It should be spent wisely.

'Lies' #EWLink

Being a money-losing project didn’t stop the Federal Coalition making a pledge of $4 billion for East West Link during the election campaign. Despite their claims, that doesn’t appear to be enough money to pay for it.

The $4b is only the government contribution – as per the 2014 business case. But the amount required is questionable given five years have passed, and there’s been some scope creep thanks to overlap with the WestGate Tunnel, and (perhaps) a proposal last year from the State Coalition to build the eastern tunnel portal further east.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

There’s also the question of whether there’s construction industry capacity to build a third major motorway project (at the same time as WestGate Tunnel and North East Link), alongside numerous level crossing removal projects and the Metro tunnel. Heavy demand tends to drive up prices.

Obviously the Federal Coalition backed EWL yet again because of politics, but it’s not really clear why they remain so obsessed with it, since it didn’t translate into swings to them around Melbourne – apart from in Aston.

Everywhere else in Melbourne, there were swings away from the Coalition – maybe not enough to lose seats, but enough to move a good many electorates into marginal territory.

To be fair on the Feds, they also made a pledge for the Kooyong railway crossing removal – which amazingly isn’t on the State’s list. (The Coalition pledge also included studies for two others: Tooronga Road and Madden Grove). This is good – except that they insist it has to be rail under, because they’ve taken the State Lib line on skyrail… as if an elevated rail line will somehow spoil the view of the nearby elevated tollway.

If the Feds can get over their obsession with EWL – which of course they won’t – there are plenty of other projects they could be contributing to, including other level crossing removals and rail network duplication, which would provide huge benefits.

If they were feeling particularly mischievous, they could take on public transport projects that the State isn’t interested in, such as suburban tram extensions. Some, such as the 75 to Knox and Ferntree Gully, would even reach into the eastern suburbs electorates the Coalition is courting.

Equally there’s an argument that a spirit of genuine cooperation would see the Feds funding projects on Infrastructure Victoria’s short term priority list.

Punt Road traffic during evening peak

It’s not as if Melbourne doesn’t have already enough major road projects underway. Two new tollways is two too many.

Yes, these motorways all have short term travel time benefits, but history shows those won’t last. And there are ways of boosting access and economic activity that aren’t restricted to people who drive and can afford tolls, and don’t so easily get clogged if they are “successful” and people actually use them.

It’s worth noting that every time the EWL has been taken to an election, it’s lost: Kennett in 1999, Brumby in 2010, Napthine in 2014 (despite the side letter, which is what triggered the huge bill for cancelling it), and Guy in 2018.

And now 2019. It seems the Coalition hasn’t yet learnt their lesson.

Climate, money and politics

I don’t often write about climate change, but here are a few thoughts as we go into the Federal election on Saturday.

But first I need to get these points out of the way:

  • Climate change is real.
  • If you think climate change is a hoax because you think you know more than the 97% of climate scientists who say it’s real, that’s up to you – but I’m not interested in your theories. Don’t bother leaving a comment.
  • Australia’s share of emissions isn’t that big, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have influence, that we shouldn’t set a good example, or that we shouldn’t make an effort with everybody else.

Okay then.

So often it seems the politics of climate change in Australia comes down to cold hard cash: the cost, the impact on jobs.

The Coalition’s rhetoric going into the election, and for literally 20 years now, has been to demand to know how the cost of reducing emissions.

They never seem to consider the cost of not acting.

No matter how much I might dislike the rhetoric, for some people it resonates, and it seems in Australia, real action on emissions reductions may continue to be resisted for this reason.

But what I think might (hopefully) get things happening is if it can be shown that actually, cutting emissions can save money.

Technology is getting cheaper over time, and this is changing the equation.

Some examples:

Power

Everyone knows the importance of affordable reliable power.

Coal subsidies are huge, particularly the costs of keeping the existing coal power stations going.

It’s even getting cheaper to build new renewables than to maintain existing coal power stations – let alone build new coal power.

Recent power reliability problems such as on January 25th were caused by coal failures. Coal is becoming expensive and unreliable.

No wonder coal is on the way out, with 13 coal power stations shut down in Australia since 2012.

Meanwhile effective large-scale battery systems have emerged that are
overcoming store and dispatch issues with renewables, contributing to stabilisation of the grid, which in turn demonstrably cuts power costs.

This means I’m not convinced anymore that clean means unaffordable and unreliable.

(People like to talk about baseload power, but what’s really important is dispatchable power – in other words, available when and where it’s needed.)

Britain recently went a week without coal power. Okay, so it included 46% gas and 21% nuclear, but they still think they can regularly get by without coal and gas by 2025.

The cost of PV panels is dropping, making both large-scale solar farms and household solar a good investment.

Given labour is becoming the biggest cost in many industries, it makes sense that over time, the once-off installation and maintenance of renewable energy generation will end up being cheaper that paying people to continually dig stuff out of the ground and burn it.

In fact the economics of it means that even people who don’t believe in climate change are jumping on this bandwagon.

Tony Pecora, the now disendorsed Clive Palmer/UAP candidate for Melbourne, who believes that the IMF and the World Bank “are pushing the idea of climate change so strongly … because having a global-based carbon taxation system is one of the most effective ways of centralising financial power” (his actual words) and yet his day job is installing solar panels!

Solar panels on a roof in Bentleigh

Cars

Meanwhile the cost of electric vehicles is dropping, with some models set to drop to the same price as their petrol counterparts by next year. That’s high-end vehicles initially, but even for models such as Toyota Camry it’s likely to be between 2022 and 2024.

The Coalition’s bleating against electric vehicles is utterly ridiculous. They’ve gone in hard against them just because Labor has decided to support them – a reminder that politicians will say almost anything to get themselves elected.

The key claim that electric vehicles are under-powered is just simply wrong. Here’s a video of a Tesla pulling a Boeing 787.

With other countries moving on this, vehicle manufacturers are also moving off petrol. Mercedes just announced half of their new vehicles will be electric by 2030, with all switched by 2039.

Electric vehicles won’t fix traffic problems, but do reduce pollution in cities, and if combined with renewable energy, will help cut overall pollution and emissions.

Transport choice

Transport investment has outcomes in emissions.

Because transport is supply-led, funding more road infrastructure results in higher emissions (especially while the bulk of the car fleet is petrol) whereas providing better public transport (particularly when powered by renewables) gives people options to leave the car at home more often, helping to cut emissions.

Victorians who consider transport infrastructure important have a stark choice in Saturday’s election. The Coalition says they’ll fund the East West Link. Labor says it’ll fund the Suburban Rail Loop.

SRL isn’t perfect. Most would agree it isn’t as important as Metro 2. And the whole concept still needs fleshing out. But I’d rather have it than EWL any day.

Follow the money

Lots of people want action on climate change, but the way the economics are going, even those who don’t particularly care will soon be choosing to buy electric vehicles and rooftop solar – because it’ll be cheaper.

And power industry investors will be building renewables, not coal, because it’ll be cheaper. The dinosaurs will be left behind.

Climate Summit cartoon
by Joel Pett, December 2009

So I suspect climate change action will come, with of course plenty of other benefits from cutting pollution.

But this is not an excuse for our political leaders to do nothing. On the contrary – they should be pushing harder for change, to help us ride the wave, not swim against it.

It’s not just good for humanity, it can also ensure that Australia doesn’t miss out on opportunities to be at the forefront of a huge technological shift as the world decarbonises.

More action needed

So the good news is that money will force progress.

The bad news it it won’t be enough.

The science says CO2 needs to get down to a level of 350 parts per million to stabilise the climate. It’s just gone above 415, the highest in human history.

Something has to happen, and quickly.

It’s all very well for us to just follow the money to cleaner energy and reduced emissions, but stopping dangerous climate change should be a higher priority for our political leaders and policymakers.

Vote well, Australia.

Wall insulation

Improving my house’s heating and cooling and energy efficiency is an ongoing project.

This week it was wall insulation.

Obviously this is best fitted when the house is built, but in a house built circa 1930, the only way is to retrofit it.

They do this by drilling small holes in the walls all the way around the house, then spraying in filler stuff into the wall cavity.

Insulation installation

They’ve filled the holes, but they’ll need sanding and painting, which leaves me somewhat regretting I didn’t do this before I got the house painted in 2015. Not to worry, but for now the house looks like it has measles.

Last year’s winter gas bill (covering 15th June to 15th August) was a whopper, at $489 ($7.87 / 354 MJ of gas per day) – similar to 2016. (In 2017 we were away on holiday for some of winter.)

I’m hoping that by getting the new insulation in time for winter, the gas bill for winter this year can be reduced quite a bit – hopefully daytime warmth can be better retained into the evening and overnight.

It might be a while before the investment (not insubstantial) pays off, but already there’s a noticeable difference, which is good.

Future options around the house include:

  • double-glazing on the windows
  • under-floor insulation
  • PV panels for the roof
  • replacing gas cooking with electric
  • replacing gas central heating with more reverse cycle units
  • and one I learnt about recently which seems like an easy no-brainer: a balloon in the fireplace.

Weekend traffic

A short rant.

It’s Saturday, and I’m driving in heavy traffic.

I’m making a trip that’s impractical using any other mode, alongside thousands of others, many also making trips impractical using any other mode.

It’s not about options along that particular stretch of road. It’s about the whole transport network, supporting people’s trips end to end.

On an overpass I see a train go by. It’s so crowded people are standing. Weekend frequency on that line: 20 to 30 minutes.

If a road suffered 20 minute delays, it would be shown on real-time maps as a major delay. On Melbourne’s rail network, that’s the standard wait between trains on Saturday on most lines, and has been for decades. And they’re crowded.

And 20 minutes is a good frequency on the weekend PT network. Most suburban bus routes are hourly. An hour in the car is a long trip, but it’s the wait just between buses for so many areas.

Weekend traffic

Decades of road building made suburbs car dependent. Decades of neglect and cutbacks in public transport left no other options. Weekend traffic congestion in our city is a totally expected outcome.

As I drive, I look at all the cars, my own included, stuck in the traffic, all burning energy. It just makes me angry.

Giving people viable options is not about billion-dollar infrastructure. Better infrastructure helps (especially in the areas of walking, cycling and tram accessibility), but the biggest change needed (whether money is spent on infrastructure or not) to just get PT running more frequently right through the day, every day.

All possible with the current assets.

As it stands, if they ran the road system like they do public transport, two-thirds of freeway and arterial traffic lanes would be shut outside peak hours.

Waits of 20, 30, 60 minutes are simply not good enough for a city of our size.

Fixing it in every suburb, not just some, will provide options, and more people off the roads.

But when will the decision makers do it?

Update Monday 11am: the Victorian Parliamentary Budget Office has published a cost estimate of a Greens policy: trains and trams boosted to every 10 minutes until 9pm, 7 days-a-week. For trains this came out at around $200m per year (less $50m additional fare revenue). For trams about $50m per year (less $10m additional fare revenue).

Nobody wants to doubt the PBO, but the train figure in particular is higher than some other estimates – for instance Infrastructure Victoria came up with $150-185m “on the basis of service kilometres alone”, but transport insiders believe it would be far lower.

Did the PBO simply try to extrapolate out existing per kilometre costs as IV did, ignoring that existing assets would be used, and some staff (for instance on stations) don’t need to be boosted to run more trains? Unfortunately it’s not really clear from the document.

Update Tuesday 7:30am: The Age: Trains, trams every 10-minutes on every line to cost just $200m a year