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.