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.
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.
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.
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.”