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.
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.