Metro rail tunnel: The time is right

The metro rail tunnel concept is about ten years old, having first publicly emerged in late-2005.

In some quarters, it’s been seen as an unnecessary white elephant — an expensive way of providing for extra passenger capacity in the CBD, when other cheaper ways were available to cope with increased patronage.

But time has passed, and many of those cheaper measures have either been implemented, or are on the way.

Flagstaff station, morning peak

For instance, a 2007 PTUA paper, written as the patronage boom really took off and crowding became a serious issue, noted these suggestions:

More shoulder-peak services to help spread the peak load. This has happened on most lines. As an example, the 2006 Frankston line timetable had 5 trains departing Flinders Street between 6pm and 7pm, then they fell back to half-hourly — and almost no expresses after 6pm. The current timetable has 9 trains in that hour, including expresses, then trains at 10 minute intervals until about 7:35, then every 20 minutes until 10pm, before they fall back to half-hourly.

Return to service Hitachi trains that can be brought back cost-effectively. This happened, until the next point took effect in a big way…

Order extra trains — scores have been delivered since then, substantially increasing the size of the train fleet.

Run all trains as 6-cars until 10pm, 7 days-a-week — this happened (with some, understandable, exceptions such as suburban shuttle services), in fact they stay as 6-cars until the last service each night.

Simplify stopping patterns to maximise track capacity and make the timetables more legible — this has happened on most lines that had express trains. For example the Ringwood group had about a dozen stopping patterns in the AM peak — this has been reduced markedly, though the PM peak is still a mess.

More off-peak services — the longest (and thus busiest) lines now run every 10-15 minutes all day, every day. Plans are in place to spread this to more of the network… when the politicians provide funding.

More tram/bus services to feed into the rail network. Some progress where Smartbus services have been provided, and some minor tram improvements, but you’d have to say most connecting bus routes are still lacking.

The paper also criticises City Loop operation, taking aim at the midday Loop reversal (since removed on the Clifton Hill group, and rumoured to be on the way out for the Northern Loop soon), and suggests running more trains direct to Flinders Street to take advantage of track capacity — which now happens, with changes over the past few years meaning CBD track capacity is getting much closer to full.

Flagstaff station

Some (but not all) of the points raised by others in the debate (such as in the late Paul Mees’ excellent 2008 paper on the topic) are also under way, or at least being planned, including:

Improving wheelchair loading/unloading with more staff. In fact what’s happening is raised “humps” at CBD stations (and some others) allow wheelchair users to board and alight the train themselves.

High capacity signalling — now flagged to be trialled on the Sandringham line, before rollout to the rest of the network.

More efficient train designs to carry more people and speed up loading/unloading — modifications to X’trapolis trains have already occurred, and changes to Siemens and Comeng trains are under way. The next train design (initially for the Dandenong line) is likely to be a more space-efficient design from the beginning.

Moving driver changeovers out of Flinders Street — not yet, though there have been moves towards this, with driver facilities being built at the outer ends of suburban lines.

Other relatively minor changes have flown under the radar a bit, for instance after widely publicised problems with gate queues at Flagstaff, the booking office was moved to allow more gates, a bypass gate was installed for surges, and faster gates have recently been installed.

Not every suggestion has been taken up — duplication of single track on numerous lines is a problem which continues to result in delays quickly snowballing.

And some still believe double-decker trains are the answer — that’s a debate that will rage for decades to come, but the official position seems to be that longer dwell times make them less efficient than well-designed single-deck trains.

But many of the cheaper/quicker initiatives have happened. And meanwhile, the CBD (and inner suburbs) keep growing. To keep the City’s economy growing and thriving, the transport system needs to be able to keep feeding it with people — and heavy rail is the most efficient way of doing that.

I can’t speak for everyone, but the fact constructing the tunnel will take a decade, and that many of these (relatively) cheap and easy upgrades are coming into place provides the confidence that now is the right time to push ahead with the rail tunnel.

MMRP tunnel depth infographic

Tunnel benefits

On top of the other changes happening, the tunnel will bring another huge boost in rail capacity, particularly for the growth corridors to the north and west: the lines set to benefit the most are the Sunbury, Craigieburn and Upfield lines (remembering that the Werribee line is getting a boost from the opening of Regional Rail Link this year).

Also benefiting will be the Dandenong line, with — it’s expected — the new stations being designed for longer trains than the City Loop can cope with. Swanston Street/St Kilda Road trams will also see relief from crowding, thanks to serving stations at Domain and Parkville.

So there will be a lot of benefits.

But the plan isn’t absolutely perfect, and it’s inevitable with any project of this type that some trains will be re-routed, requiring people to change their travel patterns.

The government will need to tread carefully as they plan and build this project, and communicate what the design decisions are, and why they are happening.

As opposition public transport spokesman David Hodgett said in The Age yesterday, “Melbourne is growing at almost 100,000 people per year and this is an incredibly important project that we have to get right.”

Melbourne Rail Link: has it been properly planned?

As I’ve written already, both the Metro Rail Tunnel and the Melbourne Rail Link provide similar benefits in terms of rail capacity in the central part of Melbourne’s rail network. In those terms, they are roughly equivalent.

But MRL does have problems. For example, I think it connects the wrong lines.

Connecting lines

Both MRL and the Metro Rail Tunnel (I’m going to abbreviate it as MRT, in lieu of another convenient acronym) create an extra track pair through the city, connecting two existing lines together, freeing up capacity elsewhere. The whole idea is to isolate rail lines, to let them run independently.

MRT does it by connecting the Sunbury and Dandenong lines through a tunnel via Domain and Parkville, creating a cross-city connection.

MRL does it by connecting the Frankston and Ringwood lines through a tunnel via Montague and the City Loop, creating a connection from the south to the east, via north and west of the CBD.

Such a connection has obvious impacts on passenger movements. Let’s look at one example: Richmond.

Interchange at Richmond

Does anybody want to take the long way around?

Richmond is a major interchange, but isn’t significant as a destination at peak hour. It is during big events in the sporting precinct. As such the handling of big crowds is a huge issue, to the point where special measures are often in place to deal with the large numbers of people, particularly just after events conclude.

The current trip from South Yarra to Richmond is 2 minutes. Via MRL it could easily be 15 minutes or more. And remember, it doesn’t just affect the Frankston line — it also affects passengers at the MATH stations (Malvern, Armadale, Toorak, Hawksburn), who in the future are likely to not have Dandenong line trains stopping at their stations.

A trip from Malvern to Richmond is currently 8-11 minutes, depending on stopping patterns. Via MRL it’ll be around 21-24 minutes or more.

So then, what is the consequence of this?

Is this extra travel time enough to prompt large numbers of people to try and change to another train to avoid going all the way around?

At times of big sporting events, when the train system is trying to shift the bulk of a 100,000-strong crowd out of the MCG, will the Dandenong and Sandringham lines be completely swamped by Frankston line people trying to get home as quickly as possible?

Will people who are actually trying to make a connection from the south to the east be happy to take the 15 minute detour (say, students heading to Swinburne in Hawthorn), or will they also want to use the other lines to cut their travel time? What effect on dwell times (and thus, track capacity) would there be from large numbers of people changing trains at Richmond and South Yarra?

I don’t know what the answer to these is, but you’d hope they’ve been looked at.

Flagstaff station, peak hour

Lots of other issues – have they been studied?

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are questions about how they’d build extra platforms at/under South Yarra (something MRT never resolved, and so ruled out).

How will it get under the river? Where will the extra platforms at Southern Cross be? I expect there are solutions to these (including the sewer), but have they been worked out, and costed?

Is Montague, with scads of potential users, really more important than Parkville, which has scads of users now? If the rail tunnel can’t run north-south to relieve St Kilda Road trams, what will be done to help them cope? I can think of lots of potential ideas on that one, but it’s unclear if this has been properly thought about and measured against prospective demand.

All trains not serving all CBD stations is inevitable, but what is the likely passenger demand from the Frankston and Ringwood lines for Flinders Street, and where are those passengers likely to change? Are the Frankston and Ringwood lines likely to be well-matched as far as future passenger/train demand goes? Ditto the other pairs: Sandringham and Newport, Sunbury and Dandenong.

And this is the real problem: the Metro Rail Tunnel project has its faults, but has had years of study (much of it published) done into it, part of a broader network development plan that studied not just where the tunnels would go, not just the number of trains flowing through, but also the effects of different upgrades on where and how passengers travel.

MRL in comparison has come from nowhere. There’s a complete lack of evidence that it’s gone through the kind of thorough study and planning that a multi-billion dollar project should have to get to a point where the State Government is funding it*.

Maybe in the few months since the project materialised, all these questions have been resolved. Maybe. But it doesn’t look like it.

That doesn’t bode well for avoiding cost blow-outs, nor for Melbourne getting the best solution for the billions that will go into it.

  • *The State government might claim MRL is fully funded, but the budget allocations so far are minimal — $40m this year, $50m in 2015-16, $140m in 2016-17, $600m in 2017-18. So around 90% of the cost of it is as-yet unfunded. It could easily slip off the funding radar after a couple of years, in the same way the Metro rail tunnel has.
  • In comparison the East West Link, you know, the road they said before the last election they weren’t even thinking about building, is being pushed along. For instance, the western section has $3.2 billion against it by 2017-18.

Rail tunnel plans compared

There’s plenty of confusion over the various rail tunnel proposals. The Coalition is pushing theirs, Labor’s saying they’ll stick to the original plan.

On the bright side: The major parties aren’t arguing about whether a rail line should be built, but which route it should take.

Not the Hyperloop, just the plain old Loop. But at least this one is real and works.

Both schemes appear to achieve the goal of separating the major train lines as they reach the city centre, in particular the Dandenong and Frankston lines (currently sharing the Caulfield Loop), and the Sunbury, Craigieburn and Upfield lines (currently sharing the Northern Loop). Some lines would still share, but it should be plenty of capacity for several decades’ growth.

Here’s a comparison of the current situation, with the two schemes:

Current (post-RRL) Metro rail tunnel (PTV until 2013) (Labor) Melbourne rail link (PTV now) (Coalition)
Current CBD rail (with RRL) Metro rail tunnel Melbourne rail link
Claimed additional capacity 24 trains, 20,000 people per hour
(but see below)
30 trains, 35,000 people per hour
New stations Domain, Parkville, Arden Domain, Montague (alias Fishermans Bend)
Additional underground platforms Flinders Street, Melbourne Central South Yarra, Southern Cross
How will each line operate? (Current is most of the time, future is likely to be consistent.)
Newport (Werribee and Williamstown) Direct to Southern Cross, Flinders Street, Richmond, then to Frankston Direct via Southern Cross to Flinders Street, then to Sandringham Direct via Southern Cross to Flinders Street, then to Sandringham
Sunshine (Sunbury and eventually Airport) City Loop (Northern Loop tunnel, shared with Craigieburn and Upfield) Via Metro Tunnel: Footscray, Arden, Parkville, Melbourne Central, Flinders Street, Domain, Caulfield, then to Dandenong Direct to Southern Cross, Flinders Street, Richmond, South Yarra, Caulfield, then to Dandenong
Craigieburn and Upfield City Loop (Northern Loop tunnel, shared with Sunshine). Some peak Craigieburn trains direct, sharing tracks with Newport. City Loop (Northern Loop tunnel) City Loop (Northern Loop tunnel)
South Morang and Hurstbridge City Loop (Clifton Hill Loop tunnel) City Loop (Clifton Hill Loop tunnel) City Loop (Clifton Hill Loop tunnel)
Camberwell (Belgrave, Lilydale and Alamein) City Loop (Burnley Loop tunnel, partially shared with Glen Waverley), Alamein PM direct from Flinders Street City Loop (Burnley Loop tunnel) Richmond, then via City Loop to Southern Cross, then Montague, Domain, South Yarra, and to Frankston
Glen Waverley City Loop (Burnley Loop tunnel, shared with Camberwell), AM direct to Flinders Street Direct to Flinders Street Direct to Flinders Street
Dandenong (Pakenham and Cranbourne) City Loop (Caulfield Loop tunnel, partially shared with Frankston) Via Metro Tunnel: Caulfield, Domain, Flinders Street, Melbourne Central, Parkville, Arden, Footscray, then to Sunshine Caulfield, South Yarra, Richmond, direct to Flinders Street, Southern Cross, North Melbourne, Footscray, then to Sunshine
Frankston Direct to Flinders Street, Southern Cross, North Melbourne, then to Newport. Some in peak via City Loop (Caulfield Loop tunnel, shared with Dandenong) City Loop (Caulfield Loop tunnel) South Yarra, Domain, Montague, Southern Cross, then via City Loop to Richmond, then to Camberwell
Sandringham Direct to Flinders Street. Direct to Flinders Street, then to Newport Direct to Flinders Street, then to Newport

So you can see, the biggest difference is that under the new plan, the Dandenong and Sunshine lines are connected aboveground rather than underground… and the Frankston and Camberwell lines are connected via two of the City Loop tunnels.

A few other notes:

Capacity: I’d been wondering why the new Melbourne Rail Link plan was claiming so many more passengers able to be carried (35,000 per hour) than the older Metro Rail Tunnel plan (20,000).

I had to dig to find any kind of justification for the higher figure. I eventually found this sentence on the PTV web site: The project will also enable the delivery of 30 additional peak hour services across the network, moving 35,000 extra passengers. — so it appears the total figure is using a higher figure of 1,166 passengers per train. In other words, it assumes the new high-capacity trains being ordered for the Dandenong line upgrade will be used — even though the initial order will only be for 25, and they won’t be enough to run the full Dandenong to Sunshine service. (They won’t run via the tunnel, but the tunnel will enable that service.)

Interestingly, the 2008 Victorian Transport Plan originally quoted a figure of 40 additional trains, carrying 40,000 additional passengers. Clearly all of these figures are a little rubbery.

Perhaps somewhere there’s a better justification for them. If so, I’d love to see it.

Edit: It seems the MRL project assumes higher-capacity trains and high-capacity signalling, whereas the older Metro rail tunnel figures assume neither. This of course means that the comparison is not really valid — either project could have both, one or none of these.

Which plan is better?

This is a hard question. In an ideal world, the old plan is probably slightly better. It may be more disruptive during construction, but that would be temporary. Notably a few months ago the government said perhaps two years of construction in Swanston Street… now they’re saying anything up to 5-10, in an attempt to talk up their version.

The old plan would serve both new (Arden) and established (Parkville) precincts, and both better than the proposed Montague station, which is flawed, serves Fishermans Bend.

Montague/Fishermans Bend is a Jack of all trades, but a master of none. It isn’t really close enough to the casino and exhibition precinct to be more convenient than the trams. It’s so far from where most of the new development will be that it’ll have to be supported by connecting trams. In which case… why not just stay on the tram a few more stops to the city? Why bother changing at the station to a train that arrives in an unknown number of minutes?

Update midday: It’s been pointed out that there are at least 9 developments planned within a short walking distance of the proposed Montague station. Which is not to say a beefed-up tram service couldn’t cope with that.

If Parkville isn’t to be served by a station, then as Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has identified, buses and trams will need boosting. The first step here would be re-programming traffic lights to give them more green time — both the 401 shuttle bus and the trams get a lot of red at the moment — and the next obvious step is to enhance the lights to detect approaching buses/trams and give them the green. Make the trips from the nearest stations faster, and help boost the frequency, particularly of the 401 bus, which suffers from long queues at peak times.

The old metro tunnel plan has more lines running through the centre of the CBD, where the retail and business core is located, and all lines still connecting at Flinders Street (for now; later stages of the PTV plan, decades in the future, moved away from that). The new plan has more lines running via either Melbourne Central or Flinders Street, but not both. It would emphasise Southern Cross for interchanges, which is perhaps no bad thing given how congested Flinders Street can get at peak times.

The newer tunnel plan has an interchange at South Yarra, which the old one didn’t — a clear advantage. But the new plan also results in much longer trips, roundabout for people from Frankston going to Parliament or Richmond, unless they change trains (twice for Parliament). For other CBD stations the travel time is probably comparable… except Flinders Street of course.

Both projects appear to provide the benefits of separating out the lines, thus reducing conflicts and providing capacity.

And as I said the other day, the revised Coalition plan is nowhere near as bad as what was at one stage proposed. And the Coalition claims it will be cheaper and easier to build — that the reduced cost makes the Airport line affordable. But unlike the old tunnel plan, it appears little in-depth planning has occurred, so it’s hard to say precisely why this is the case.

Tenders, contracts and work are unlikely to have started by the November election, leaving Labor to switch to the old route if they get into power.

So I guess it’s up to you, voters.

And one thing’s for sure: late last year, Labor probably thought they had the Coalition on the run in the key policy area of public transport. Not any more — the Coalition have pulled out policy after policy in the last few months, leaving Labor dramatically outbid.

Clearly Labor will need to beef up its public transport policies to re-capture the agenda.

There’s plenty of other stuff that needs doing that both parties could look at: duplicating single track lines like Altona; clearly pledging the goal of trains every 10 minutes; all day every day; suburban tram extensions to connect up the network to railway stations; more Smartbus routes, and more services on existing routes; upgrades to regional services, including V/Line train frequencies to big cities such as Shepparton and Warrnambool; implementing the terrific (but unreleased) PTV bus plan to give middle and outer suburbs high quality frequent public transport… the list goes on.

See also: Melbourne Rail Link: has it been properly planned?

Revised (and renamed, again) rail tunnel plans – not as bad as first thought

The metro rail tunnel has been renamed again. What has been at various times “Metro 1+Metro 2”, “the Metro Tunnel”, and the “Metro Rail Capacity Project” is now “Melbourne Rail Link”.

The plans for the revised version are not as bad as first thought.

Rail map showing re-designed rail tunnel (May 2014)

The Frankston line will run from South Yarra to Domain and Montague (Fishermens Bend), then to underground platforms at Southern Cross, then into the City Loop (which will have to have modifications to the Caulfield and Burnley Loops to handle trains in both directions) via Flagstaff, Melbourne Central and Parliament to Richmond, then out to Ringwood (and vice-versa).

As oldtimers will know, Montague used to have a railway station, on the Port Melbourne line before it was converted to light rail in the 80s.

The Sunbury/Airport line will be through-routed aboveground to Dandenong, via Southern Cross and Flinders Street. This presumably means that any plans for 9-car trains would require extension of aboveground platforms only. I would think it also puts in doubt the Airport line’s planned 25 minute trip, if those trains have to share the rails with stopping Sunbury line trains (rather than the RRL tracks as I first thought) — which can take up to 20 minutes between Sunshine and Southern Cross.

The Werribee/Williamstown lines will be through-routed aboveground to Sandringham.

So, barring expansion, the six Viaduct lines will be for the Clifton Hill Loop (1 track), the Craigieburn/Upfield lines (1 track), the Sunshine to Dandenong line (2 tracks) and the Newport to Sandringham line (2 tracks).

Presumably the two tracks from South Yarra to the city that become free will be used for V/Line trains and/or freight, in line with the vague plans known to be around the place for extra track from South Yarra to Dandenong for this purpose. They might have to share viaduct tracks through to Southern Cross.

This government video attempts to explain it all:

Lots more detail and glossy brochures on the project web site

The good news is that it appears the new design for the tunnel will include a station/interchange at South Yarra, which the old one didn’t have.

It still trades off Fishermans Bend (potential high-density residential in the future) for Parkville (actual high-density residential, education and medical, right now). And it doesn’t even serve Fishermans Bend properly — as this blog from Jason Murphy shows, the proposed station would be right on the eastern edge, well beyond walking distance for many residents.

There’s some talk of upgrades for Swanston Street-corridor trams to compensate for the lack of station, but little detail. It might work, with high-capacity trams and true traffic light priority that means trams never get a red.

Obviously ensuring the new tunnel links into the City Loop fixes some the problems with the previous version of the plan, though it’s unclear how long it’ll take passengers from the Frankston line to reach the city coming in via Montague.

But previously PTV types have said that reconfiguring the City Loop would cost lots of money and mean some Loop tunnels would be out of action for years at a time. Has a way around this been found? Or is it somehow okay to disrupt tens of thousands of train passengers for years, but not okay to disrupt Swanston Street?

The question still must be: why the re-design when so much work had been done on the old scheme? Why has the PTV plan, only released last year, been chucked out the window? Could it be that the Coalition didn’t want to build a project originally proposed under Labor? That’s no way to design multi-billion-dollar city infrastructure projects.

And why miss interchange with Flinders Street? Why through-route two lines from the same side of the city?

Many questions need answering.

See also this follow-up blog post: Rail tunnel plans compared

Metro rail tunnel realignment – what a stuff-up #SpringSt

UPDATE 7:30pm: The government has released details which vary from the assumptions in this post. See this followup post.

Oh lordy.

As some have feared, it looks like the Napthine government is about to stuff-up the metro rail tunnel, which is proposed to connect the Sunshine/Sunbury and Dandenong lines.

The Herald Sun reports:

WORK on a rail tunnel between Southern Cross Station and South Yarra will begin in 2016, the State Government will announce.

The announcement of the tunnel, which will include stations at Fishermans Bend and the Domain, will be the centrepiece of a big-spending election year budget.

We’ll know more details once this afternoon’s State Budget is released, but it looks like this (probably unofficial) map produced by Liberal-aligned “SpringStSource” in February may turn out to be correct:

Possible metro rail tunnel alignment (from SpringStSource)

This is fraught with problems.

First, the pros:

It avoids digging up Swanston Street. From what I understand, this is a real option, with the originally planned route running just under the surface down the street. For instance, trains would come through Melbourne Central Station at roughly concourse level.

It would serve Fishermens Bend, which the government plans to be a major residential area within a few years. In other words, the Coalition’s version of the Arden precinct. But given the construction time might be 10+ years, presumably other options need to be provided in the meantime.

It would solve the problem of getting the very busy Sunbury and Dandenong lines onto their own tracks.

But the cons are huge, and heavily outweigh the pros

The key one: It bypasses the city centre. Two of the busiest lines would miss most of the CBD… you know, where a lot of those people actually want to go! The only CBD stop would be Southern Cross, which at present gets only about 16% of all CBD boardings.

This in turn would place a lot of pressure on connecting train/tram services, guaranteeing continuing problems for the “last mile” of many CBD workers’ trips if using those lines.

And bypassing the big hospital and university precinct is a huge missed opportunity. And in fact trips to that precinct from these two lines would become positively painful, particularly if, as on the diagram, there would not be a stop at North Melbourne.

While it would serve Domain, it would not do so in such a way that can provide any real relief to regularly overcrowded St Kilda Road tram services. (Yes, it’s true that big tram upgrades and better priority would help resolve this, but it’s unclear if this could be a viable long-term solution.)

It’s a looooong detour for Sunbury passengers going to Domain (perhaps even longer than their current journey), or for Dandenong passengers going to the city (even assuming they want the Southern Cross end).

So in summary, it solves a couple of problems, but creates many others. And it’s unclear if it would be any cheaper.

The original planned alignment has a big problem in the disruption it would cause, but that would only be temporary. Other than that, it ticks all the boxes.

I’m assuming we’ll know for sure what’s planned when the Budget hits this afternoon.

But if the above is correct, this is madness. If you’re going to spend billions on a major rail tunnel, do it properly.

With construction not scheduled to start until 2016, no matter who gets power in November, they’d be well-advised to review this option and switch back to the original alignment… or at least a better one.

  • I’ll be watching from afar today. I had planned to join in the Spring Street shenanigans, but instead will be in Shepparton at a funeral for my good friend Tony’s mum, who passed-away suddenly last week. RIP Lois.

UPDATE 7:30pm: The government has released their plans… it’s not as bad as thought. The Frankston line will run via Domain and Fishermens Bend to Southern Cross, then into the City Loop (which will have to have modifications to handle trains in both directions) to Ringwood. The Sunbury/Airport line will be through-routed aboveground to Dandenong. The Werribee/Williamstown lines will be through-routed aboveground to Sandringham. This video explains it:

See this followup post