Extending the Epping line to South Morang/Mernda and Aurora

Let’s face it – last week’s state budget was bad for public transport. Very little money was spent, and worryingly, some of the money spent was wasted. I’m talking about the $10 million that’s been earmarked for ‘design and development works’ for the South Morang rail extension. This is an absurd amount of money to be spending on design when the DoI secretly costed the whole project at $18 million in 2003. Of course, the government lied about the whole thing and claimed the outrageous price tag of $348 million. Similarly, the Aurora line was costed by DoI at $76 million, but the government claimed a $300 million price tag to wriggle their way out of building it. Below is the Melbourne 2030 plan for rail expansions to Epping North (Aurora) and South Morang – Mernda.

So, in this post, I’m going to have a look at the options for getting rail to South Morang (and beyond) as well as Aurora, how much they would cost, and what to do with the Epping line to give these new extensions a fast and frequent service. I should point out that I think it’s terrible planning policy to allow sprawl along these corridors, but if the government is insistent on allowing it to occur (quite a lot has already been built), then rail projects in the area should be considered.

Basic extension costs

Admittedly, the $18m and $76m construction costs for South Morang will only buy basic extensions, and are unlikely to include Keon Park to Epping duplication. Using the per km construction cost of $13.7m from the Mandurah line, we find that the 3.25 South Morang extension (to Civic Drive) would cost $44.5m, and that the 5.9 Aurora extension would cost $80.8m. The Mandurah line costs are – if anything – rather too high (that project included some inner city tunnelling, underground stations, freeway widening etc which is not a factor here), but it is fair to say that the DoI costs were somewhat too low for South Morang and about right for Aurora. They are nothing like the $300m + figures the government made up.

A need for extra works?

Defenders of the state government claim that the true costs are much higher because Keon Park – Epping needs duplicating and a host of other non reasons. If you want proof, have a look here – I love ZH836301’s It’s metal on slices of concrete FFS comment. But let’s look at this logically, if we are extending services further, why should more trains necessarily be running on the existing line? (assuming that Aurora is run as a shuttle) The reality is that the single track wouldn’t be much more of a problem for South Morang services than it is for present day Epping services. Beyond that, the single track isn’t even at capacity in peak hour – have a look at the diagram below – taken from a 2004 DoI report.

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t duplicate Keon Park – Epping (I think we should), it’s just that it isn’t really an impediment to getting rail to South Morang and Aurora. It’s only 5km of single track anyway
– even if you tore the whole lot up and completely rebuilt it to Mandurah standards, it would still only cost $68.6m! My gold plated estimate is still only 32.5% of what the government claimed it would cost!

There’s probably already the need to build rail all the way to Mernda – another 8.2km from the South Morang terminus at Civic Drive. Again, using Mandurah costs it would be in the order of $112.3m. Total cost for high standard double track rail to Aurora and Mernda, as well as complete reconstruction of Keon Park – Epping would be 44.5+80.8+112.3+68.6 = $306.2m. We should remember that this is an extreme upper bound estimate and it still comes in below the government’s made up number. Coincidently, this cost forecast is exactly the same as for the Craigieburn bypass.

Service standard

I posted on a service standard for the Clifton Hill group a while back, advocating 6tph to Epping, with every second train running express Clifton Hill – Jolimont. 6tph is probably fine but if the line is to go all the way to Aurora and Mernda, it’s clear that every second train expressing 4 stations on tracks limited to 55kph won’t really cut it. Trains going this far out really need to run express beyond Clifton Hill as well. Either a two tier service is required, or some stations could be closed.

I would generally recommend against even considering inner city stations for closure in Melbourne, even when there is a tram line nearby. I’m generally in favour of keeping both heavy rail and street trams on the same corridor because they are sufficiently differentiated to not be very good substitutes for one another. But the Epping line is different, it has not one, but two tram lines running basically right next to it as far as Thornbury. Furthermore, one of them (the 112) is ripe for upgrading to high standard light rail. So for this section, we have a somewhat closer substitute for heavy rail as well as a traditional street tram.

On top of this, when we look at the AM peak patronage data for the line, it’s clear that there’s not really much patronage between Rushall and Preston at all anyway. This is probably because of such strong competition from the high frequency 86 and 112 trams. Upgrading the service standard for the Epping line would go some way to fixing this, but whatever happens there’s still going to be two tram lines competing with the rail.

Given these factors, there’s probably a case for removing Merri, Northcote and Croxton stations and upgrading the St. Georges Rd. track to do their job. To make this work, there would need to be a proper train/tram interchange at Thornbury. The 86 and 112 would use the Preston Workshops track to cross over each other – that is the northern section of the 112 would connect with the 86 and the northern section of the 86 would connect with the 112. Thornbury station would be rebuilt directly below the tram line to provide fast connections to heavy rail services. A new station like this shouldn’t really cost more than $15-20 million. The light rail line would need to run every six minutes or better in order to get average wait time down to an acceptable three minutes.

St. Georges Rd. would need to become proper light rail – that means real traffic light priority, fewer stops built to a higher standard (under cover island platforms), a decent track speed and larger light rail vehicles (like the C2 class). This concept could be taken further by building about 700 metres of tram track (for the cost of around $7.6 million) along the old inner circle rail alignment between Nicholson St. and St. Georges Rd. As at Thornbury, the lines could be swapped, with the northern section of the 96 going down St. Georges Rd. and Brunswick St. and the 86/St.Georges Rd. tram using the Nicholson St. reserve track. As above, the reserve track would need to be properly upgraded. This would better segregate street trams from potential high quality light rail, as well as better integrating inner-northern tram services with one another. The full map of what I’m considering is shown below.

I’m not completely comfortable with closing three heavy rail stations in Northcote, but even if this didn’t go ahead, the tram reforms I’m proposing are absolutely worthwhile. The cost would be low (700 metres of new track plus building/rebuilding five junctions and proper traffic light priority) and upgrades like platform stops and new trams are going to happen anyway – it’s just a matter of targeting them to the right places.

UPDATE – Below is an 800m pedshed for St. Georges Rd. as discussed. It takes in everything between Clifton Hill and Preston.


41 Responses

  1. I agree with you that it is sacriligious to be closing rail stations, but then agree with you that if ever there were candidates for it, these are they.

    This is the classic competition between VR and the MMTB that should never have been allowed to happen. If the original tramway down St Georges Rd had instead swung right at Park St and terminated at Rushall station, with people changing to the (then) Reservoir-Whittlesea line, all would have been Merri with the world.

    Look at how the stations concerned aren’t integrated with the shopping strips. These stations aren’t the same as Glenferrie, Auburn, Armidale and so on that have strip shops right next to. They have no bus routes to speak of and depend on low density walk-up traffic. I don’t recall much car parking either.

    So yes, you could express the trains and run the turn-up-and-go service standard for the area using very long trams on St Georges Rd in particular, and High St as well.

    Good call Phin!

    (BTW) I don’t know how good your software is, you could draw pedsheds on top of the existing stations and tram stops, and work out the overlap. I bet much of the area is within both pedsheds (and therefore could survive on trams).

  2. Hi Phin & Riccardo.

    Haven’t had much to say lately as I’m very busy but enjoyed a bit of a rest reading this post.

    Wrt to closing stations – would it not be better to close them (as proposed) but replace them with two stations located where the rail line intersects with Normanby Ave and Arthurston Road. These two locations would capture east-west traffic (Westgarth St is adequately covered by Westgarth Stn and hence no need to retain Rushall or Merri) on feeder buses (or trams).

    Unfortunately the tram workshops aren’t the greatest place to have a station imho – negligible east-west bus traffic to capture, negligble walk up traffic. How much would it cost to have the blue and red trams use Normanby Ave to cross instead?

    Also, what consideration have you given to undergrounding this line? Not suggesting its required/desirable now, but any improvements that complement the rail service should be designed with future grade-separation in mind.


  3. I much prefer your idea of closing some stations to either running a two tier service with ‘local’ trains carrying a lot of fresh air, or stopping trains from outer areas at little patronised inner suburban locations.

    I’m surprised that you don’t see a need for removing Rushall which is undoubtedly the least patronised stop on the is Epping line – it’s walking distance from Clifton Hill (or Merri) and is passed by a bus route running frequently (250/251).

    The significance of Bell Station will go down a bit when the red orbital SmartBus starts to replace 513 which will run via Murray Rd, Preston and no longer service Bell. Seems quite close to your proposed stop at the tram workshops – guess you could have Bell for the walk-up traffic and the other one for tram interchange.

    Preston is somewhere that a bit more ‘local’ patronage from places further out could be captured given it has the markets etc and the bus link to Northland, which is well used but stops too far away. Could do with a new interchange.

  4. A few things

    1. How do they get that figure for the Eltham-Hurstbridge capacity? Do they not include the loop at Diamond Creek?

    2. If (not that I would be a huge supporter of such a move) Rushall was closed then it would raise the option of re-routing the Epping line so a to remove the tight curve that is a relic of the inner-circle.

    3. If you were rationalising the stations then you would leave Northcote (its at Arthurton Rd)and a new station at Normanby Av.

  5. Actually, IMO, patronage between Rushall and Preston could really pick up in line with the November t/t change – trains will run straight to Flinders Street instead of via loop first so previous tram users to the flinders street station area of the cbd might switch to taking the train. Plus I believe an extra am up Epping is to be brought in so that could also encourage more pax take up on the Rushall – Preston corridor.

  6. One extra up Epping train and running not via the loop is not going to make people want to catch a 20-minutely train service.

  7. Many thanks for the Comments.

    Riccardo, I completely agree that the competition for passengers between VR and the MMTB was a shocking outcome and looking back on it I can’t see how the government allowed it to occur. Instead of trams and trains being complements, they have turned out to be substitutes on corridors like this one. A complete mess really… I also enjoyed the pun.

    I could add pedshed details in photoshop without too much trouble at all – just a matter of deciding what distance to make it. What distance would you suggest as appropriate? I was thinking along the lines of a kilometre or so.

    Drwaddles, you make a fair point about a station at the tram workshops having little development nearby and therefore less walkup patronage potential. Such as station would basically be interchange only. The advantages of locating it at Normanby Rd instead would have to be balanced against the need for new tram track and the slight reduction in the length of the northern section of route 86 run on reserve track. It’s a tricky question…

    Somebody, Rushall and Bell could really get the chop as well. The only reason I spared Rushall was the patronage data – available at https://melbpt.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/clifton-hill-patronage-figures.jpg
    if the red smartbus is taking Murray Rd then the case for keeping Bell is not substantial. Agree re. Preston needing a new interchange.

    Tom, I’m not exactly sure how they came up with the Eltham-Hurstbridge capacity figure, it came from an official DoI report, available at http://www.doi.vic.gov.au/doi/doielect.nsf/2a6bd98dee287482ca256915001cff0c/87775b6202195000ca256f900006e256/$FILE/CliftonHillPhaseOne.pdf

    Fullofrubbish, I’m afraid I’m with somebody on this one. A 20 minute train frequency can’t compete with trams that run more than double that frequency. To get the train to have comparable frequency and extend to Mernda and Aurora, two tier running would be required – which wouldn’t be a particularly efficient use of limited resources.


  8. Yes, I can’t see a two tier service done easily. Where would be the boundary, Preston? Reservoir is too far out and Bell would get not enough passengers. A 2 tier service would only be necessary if Whittlesea or beyond was done – because Reservoir would be a logical split.

  9. Hi Phin, long time lurker, first time poster. Have admired your work to date (with the exception of that article in Farrago that was derivative and populist).

    Anyway, I’ve thought for some time that a *really* innovative way of building rail extensions north of Epping would consist of the following steps, much in the style of the NSR extension in Perth:
    1. Compulsory acquisition and rezoning of a parcel (around 12 hectares) of land between the railway line and Plenty Road south of Cades Road and the Whittlesea station site.
    2. Relocate the present railway maintenance facility from Epping (presently on a much smaller site than at Whittlesea) to a new, purpose-built maintenance and stabling facility at Whittlesea.
    3. Remediate the workshop land (about 7 hectares) and sell it off for medium-density housing, either through VicUrban or Delfin (they’re good at remediating contaminated sites…)
    4. Reconstruct and electrify the Whittlesea line all the way to Whittlesea, but only construct stations at South Morang and Mernda stations at present, with options to re-open Whittlesea.

    However, the trains would still run all the way to Whittlesea in the interim, ensuring people respect the level crossings, etc and hopefully allowing the constructors to capture some of that lovely Auslink money to fund the grade separations promised and therefore effectively added to the Auslink grab-bag of projects.

    Still an early days idea, but I was impressed with the way the short (2-3km) extension to Nowergup was built along the development corridor to provide for a future station alongside the railcar depot.

    Cranbourne might be another contender for the Nowergup treatment. A crafty DOT would be getting approval for train stabling to be built at a point along a salvageable bit of the South Gippsland line along the development corridor at say, Clyde or Tooradin and putting in Cranbourne East station to mollify the locals, while providing an axis for later expansion. Crazy I know. I think this idea has legs but needs a bit more finessing.


  10. You know, Phin, I have to agree with Loose_Shunter that your Farrago article was a bit populist. I edited it myself and at first I wasn’t sure whether it was yours, because it seemed so much broader than the issues you deal with on your blog.

    I’ve always felt you should have a regular Farrago column, if you wanted one. Then you could bring your inspiring word-thoughts to the masses.

    That’s just my opinion, though, don’t go getting a big head! 😛

  11. Phin, in regard to pedsheds, I would suggest 800 metres.

    400 metres is the design rule for local buses currently being used in the bus reviews.

    Passengers will walk further than that to ‘high quality public transport’ (eg rail or premium bus). 800 metres seems to be accepted as a figure to use (no references unfortunately, though I know they exist).

  12. Hello there,

    Stumbled over this site as I was searching for info on the South Morang extension. Having read over your posts and seeing your interest in the costings of the extensions, I pulled out the feasibility study we obtained through FOI.
    The report was written by Parsons Brinckerhoff under commission from DOI. The Age has seen this report. It was completed on the 12/5/03 and contains completed costings for South Morang and Epping North.
    South Morang had two options – one terminating on the West of Civic Drive for $11,409,000 and one terminating on the East side of Civic Drive for $18,095,000 which also includes grade separation of Civic Drive and the Station itself.
    The costing for the Keon Park – Epping Duplication is $26,451,000.

    I was on Jon Faine earlier today and he said that he would get an answer from Minister Kosky on the extension date for us so keep your ears locked onto 774 in the morning.

    Hope this adds some value to your conversation,

    Darren Peters
    South Morang Rail Alliance

  13. Agree Riccardo, I can’t see two tier running stacking up unless you take the line well beyond Mernda. If that happened, there’d probably need to be a rethink of the track layout at least between Epping and Clifton Hill and really as far as Reservoir. It could start to get quite tricky.

  14. Loose_shunter and Yosh – thanks for being honest! I just re-read the Farrago article then and in hindsight I probably would have done it very differently. I didn’t really know how to write something about public transport for people who for the most part weren’t as interested in it as I am. I suppose you learn from these things though.

    I think it would be good to move the workshops (as long as the economics stacked up), but if you took the line all the way to Whittlesea it would be most efficient to run in service trains all the way – simply because the fixed cost for building the line would be so high but the marginal cost for running the trains would be reletively low. Whittlesea locals would probably get upset too.

  15. Peter – thanks for the information. I’ll get onto drawing the pedsheds onto the map at about 800m – should have it done in the morning.

  16. Hi Darren, many thanks for taking the trouble to get out the information. Those numbers are very interesting indeed – they certainly clear up the two costs the media reports. Most interesting is the figure for Keon Park – Epping duplication – at $26million it’s very good value for money. It makes it even less clear where the government got the $348 million figure from – unless it was completely made up.

    I’ll be interested to hear what Lynne Kosky has to say about in the morning.


  17. G’day Phin,

    My comments, again with a slight parochial BananaBender slant to them.

    The DOI figure quoted for the extension is beyond ludicrous. Some comparisons from QLD, and the projects I have had exposure to due to my work . QLD is different gauge, signalling & electrification but still slices of metal on concrete, so costs can’t be too far different:

    1.Brisbane Airport Rail Link – about 9km of entirely elevated track, two stations, double track between Domestic & International, 25KV electric with close signal spacing. < $200 million in 1999-2000.

    2. Springfield line, opening to Richlands in 2011 and Springfield in 2015: about $300 million for the rail component of a combined rail/motorway project of around 14km including two stations, some serious earthworks, and getting the rail through one of Brisbane’s more complex motorway junctions.

    3. Salisbury to Kuraby triplication: 9.5km of new track, 7 completely rebuilt stations, 3 tracks worth of bi-di signalling, re-electrification (new stanchions). Total project: $355 million, track/earthworks: $195 million.

    4. Robina to Varsity Lakes extension on the Gold Coast: 1 new station, 4.1km of 140km/h bi-directionally signalled double track, electrification, a 300 metre tunnel: $324 million.

    5. Caboolture to Beerburrum duplication: 13.7km of new bi-directional signalled, electrified, 160km/h track. Retention of several km of the original line as a 3rd road. 4.8km of re-alignment of adjacent public roads, 4 rail bridges, one road over rail bridge. $275 million.

    Now, tell me again how much the Victorian Government should pay for a few km of single track and one new station on an existing right of way?


  18. Colin, I think Perth too spent $65m on the single station extension to Clarkson, including moving the Currumbine station to another location (which really shouold have been counted as roadworks as the move was only needed because of the freeway)

    All those BNE improvements suggest for $300m you should get more for your money, for example, Springfield would be roughly Whittlesea if done here.

  19. Colin, what’s with Robina-Varsity Lakes costing $324 million for just one stop? That sounds a bit gold plated to me.

  20. Somebody -the $324 million figure comes from a ministerial press release, and I believe it to be correct. If correct it does make Robina – Varsity Lakes significantly more expensive per km than the other SEQ projects. The things that may make it more expensive than the other projects are the tunnel, much more road relocations, a much more extensive new station & bus interchange, and higher cost of land resumptions on the Gold Coast. It does seem on the high side.

  21. Thanks for the information Colin – shows how much you can get done if you spend it wisely. I don’t think NG and 25kv should really skew the figures much – certainly not the orders of magnitude required to make the South Morang costs stack up.

    The Salisbury to Kuraby and Caboolture to Beerburrum works are especially interesting – it makes you wonder how the Dandenong third track (which isn’t happening anyway) could cost $1bn unless they were rebuilding the whole line.

    Somebody and Riccardo – the prospect of gold plating in WA and Queensland is interesting – if somewhat confusing. I always assumed gold plating was done as an excuse to not build a project (which we have made an art of in Victoria), but I wonder how QLD and WA, with their generally sensible approach to infrastructure investment fall into the trap occasionally. Just shows everyone makes mistakes I suppose!

  22. Just updated the post to include an 800m pedshed for St Georges rd. Direct link to it below:

  23. Phin,

    I should point out that your ped sheds are only as the crow flies – a truer indication is one drawn using the road network + any pedestrian shortcuts that exist. This will reduce the catchment area. However, you need GIS software to do the latter (unless you have a spare day) so it’s probably too much effort.

    I’m also starting to lean towards Bell Street being the cross-over between tram lines, with Bell Station the interchange station and having the Smartbus run straight along Bell Street. If cost wasn’t much of a barrier of course 😉

  24. drwaddles, the point of the SmartBus running via Preston is to service Northland and Preston Market. I’d say both of those are major enough to warrant the route via there 😉 – and Preston is a better location for a bus interchange at.

  25. Ah poop, I confused Murray Rd with Miller St.

    Bell v Preston v both of them now needs some more though.

  26. Thanks Dr Waddles

    I should have pointed that out too. But it is a big job and you can guestimate at the worst it is the square root of 2 minus 1 on a grid pattern (1 horiz+1vert vs the square root of 2 approx 1.4) although some streets might be blocked off. So a 500 metre radial pedshed should approximate 800 metre on foot.

    As Peter Parker would be correct to say, plus you have complications of traffic lights, barriers etc

    Anyway the message is clear to see. Much of the area is in overlapping circles, some 3-fold from three different parallel modes. This doesn’t count any cross-buses. It’s no wonder the trains don’t get used, the St G tram probably carries the longer distance pax and the High St one that shorter distance pax.

  27. Re the Robina tunnel, I think they were badly ambushed by NIMBYs, if the project had gone ahead 10 years early with no neighbours they would have got a standard $20m bridge, no worries. And also the project is now full duplication (the history in QLd was always single track with room for 2 since Cleveland was reinstated in the 80s)

  28. From a local’s perspective (I live about 200m north of Dennis, and prior to 2005 living about 300m west of Preston)

    1) Regarding the comments about the demise of Rushall – from what I’ve seen from being fairly lazy admittedly is that the 250/251 also serves Rushall’s catchment of the Old Colonialists (spelling?) Homes and the few houses in that region are better patronised than Rushall. Also bear in mind too that realigning the line from Merri south would require substantial bridge works, and knowing the DoT I’d expect the cost to be whatever Phin works it out to be quadrupled.
    The 250/251/246 also catches a lot of people from the train to a smaller extent, especially on the low side of the hill to the east, north of Separation St and around the Grollo’s houses.

    2) Merri sees a lot of school traffic from Northcote High, don’t know what effect that will have, but from my observations it was by far the busiest for commuters of the four stations. Northcote even though served by the Route 508 saw very few people, and Croxton was less.

    3) Bell serves as a park and ride station – the former goods yard on the Up side is vacant and from memory serves ~400 cars/day.

    4) Also, Salta were supposedly redeveloping Preston Market and moving it closer to the station in 2004, I recall a few Leader articles mentioning this, but work seems to have stalled.

    Interestingly in early 2007 I quoted a research fee for a historical analysis of the former VR South Morang station site and the Whittlesea line, although the fees the organisation I charge are not onerous compared to sending a researcher to PROV and letting them fend for themselves, it was quietly not proceeded with. Usually I find that a good indicator of what DoT want to do is when I get emails from environmental assessors asking for the historical land use of X or Y station.

    By the way, likes your blog. Between Riccardo and yourself, it looks like rail advocacy and planning has sensible voices from the rail-enthusiast community.

  29. Many thanks ninthnotch. The local perspective on the intricacies of a line is often the best one. I live on the Hurstbridge line too, but I catch the Epping line now and then and my (much more limited) experience appears to have been similar to yours. I seemed to notice Bell also having a bit of school traffic, but they all seemed pretty quiet compared to Preston.

    Very interesting re DoT looking around (it tentatively) for historical information on South Morang etc. They seem almost surprised that their failure to build the line has become a political problem for them. I wonder if they’ll bring the project forward given the fuss that’s been made about it.

  30. Riccardo, drwaddles and Somebody, sorry I didn’t reply about the pedshed issue sooner. As you say, it is only as the crow flies, but until I get my hands on some better software the circles may have to do. What would you think about using less than 800m circles to represent 800m pedsheds in future?

  31. Yep – as I suggested, on a grid pattern the error is 2-sqrt(2) so try 500 metres? If streets are completely blocked off the error is worse but I doubt this would be a problem.

    A paper from WA suggests that 800m pedsheds are reasonable for heavy modes (because the ped will take into account that they are getting better service and are less likely to have to change en route).

    What your map easily reveals is three-fold overlap in many places based on parallel, and therefore competing, routes. I would even suggest that in MMTB days the trams were probably competing, and when few people had cars this was probably an indulgence the system didn’t need.

    And if the train had behaved more like a tram service (short interval stations, turn-up-and-go, cheapish fares) you could have got rid of the trams.

  32. Also if you are comfortable with trig you can try 1/TAN() rather than Pythagoras.

  33. Did the Dol take in compensation payouts required for citylink and the cost of the extra trains using the extra portion of line required? I have no doubt that the Government has in their typical way overcosted public transport, but the Dol figures seem very low.
    I recently heard that the entire reason we don’t have a rail link to the airport is because the feasibility study had to take citylink compo into account. (phin i probably won’t read your blog for a while, so if you could please send me a copy of your response by email that’d be good)

  34. actually. would the citylink compo scheme even work for epping? i mean. people living in epping working in the city would have to take western ring road and citylink but would people in south morang do that too?

  35. […] to Ivanhoe and south to Caulfield – Splitting some of the St. Kilda Rd. routes into shuttles – Reconfiguring routes 86, 96 and 112 to segregate street from light rail running, improve connectivity and enable faster running on the […]

  36. make go to whittlesea

  37. I think at this point that would have to be on the cards since it looks like they might finally push through Morang ASAP now it’s becoming a big issue, then Mernda in the next few years, and Whittlesea following, unless they do it all in one go.

    I’d like to see Aurora as part of this, but suspect they’ll just go the one direction…

  38. […] The Age claiming the works are budgeted to cost $650 million, shock is the only appropriate word. I did a post a while ago about the prospects for extending the Epping line which details some of the original cost […]

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