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…

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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.

The old railway line to Rutherglen and Wahgunyah

On the road to Rutherglen a few weeks ago, we came across this: the old railway. Some photos below.

Apparently it opened in 1879, with passenger trains running until 1962, and freight trains until 1995. These days the nearest operating railway is at Springhurst a few kilometres away, on the main line to Albury and Sydney.

If you take a look at Andrew Waugh’s excellent VRHistory web site, you’ll see maps that show just how extensive the Victorian Railways were. By 1940, the network reached most populated parts of the state, before it contracted in the decades following.

By the way, it’s notable that some argue that not only should the South Morang line be extended to Mernda, but also another 10 kilometres to Whittlesea where it used to run. I’m not convinced. Just because there used to be a line to Whittlesea doesn’t automatically mean it should be rebuilt. The Urban Growth Boundary doesn’t extend out that far. Serving the population, not empty fields, is the priority for public transport upgrades.

The old railway line to Wahgunyah, near Rutherglen, Vic

The old railway line to Wahgunyah, near Rutherglen, Vic

The old railway line to Wahgunyah, near Rutherglen, Vic