Monday, June 23, 2008

Sorry, Sir Rod, your rail tunnel plan is just loopy

IT'S been a long time between drinks for advocates of rail in Melbourne. The last new suburban line was the Glen Waverley line, which opened in 1930. It was to be followed by one to Doncaster, but the Depression and war intervened. Since then, plans for links to Monash University, Rowville and Melbourne Airport have also come to nothing.

But things may be changing. A new Prime Minister has begun talking about urban rail and, after decades of decline, patronage is growing again.

Enter Sir Rod Eddington. His report on east-west transport proposes the biggest capital expenditure program in Australian history. Half the $18 billion is for a single road project, which Eddington's own consultant economists suggest has a benefit-cost ratio well below one — which in plain English means it's a waste of money.

The other major project is a rail tunnel from Footscray to Caulfield, and Eddington has been talking up this aspect. He has criticised, without naming, people who have questioned the need for the rail tunnel. He describes this questioning as "dangerous nonsense", a stance echoed by Melissa Fyfe in The Sunday Age last week.

How could supporters of public transport question the wisdom of spending $8.5 billion on rail? Isn't it time Melbourne put serious money into an underground line to enable more trains to run to the city centre?

The simple answer is that Melbourne has already done just this. That's what the City Loop, which cost $5 billion in today's money, was all about. It's set out in the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan, which shows the system was intended to handle much higher volumes of trains and passengers than it carries today. There were to be new lines to places such as Doncaster and Rowville, more frequent services and more expresses.

Annual patronage was supposed to reach 300 million by 1985; in fact, this year it might reach 200 million. The number of suburban trains arriving at Flinders Street in the busiest hour was to jump from 108 in 1964 to 181 in 1985; instead, it's fallen to 95. There was to be an express from Mordialloc every two minutes in peak hour; instead there's one a day.

One reason patronage is lower than anticipated is that none of the proposed suburban lines were built because the loop chewed up all the available funds. The priority now should be to start work on those long-overdue new lines, plus electrifying existing routes to places such as Caroline Springs and Melton.

But Eddington is proposing that nothing be done to serve these areas. He wants to spend all available money on a rail tunnel that will duplicate the one we already have and which won't be finished until at least 2019, giving rail managers an excuse for another decade of inaction.

What reasons does Eddington offer for not utilising the spare capacity on the system? His report does not discuss the issue at all. Instead, it compares Melbourne's rail system with the way it operated in the 1930s, showing that we now run more express services. So what? We run far fewer expresses than the loop was designed to handle, as the 1969 plan shows.

The problems that are clogging the system are set out in a consultants' report that, although available on the Eddington website, is not discussed in his report. The Transport Supply and Demand report shows there are eight in-bound tracks serving Flinders Street: four running via the City Loop, and four "direct". Each is signalled to handle a train every two minutes, or 30 an hour. This would allow a total of 240 trains an hour, but international best practice suggests running at 80% to maintain reliability. That's 192 trains an hour, or twice the current level.

The real problem is not in the Loop at all: it's in the Department of Transport and Connex. The consultants outline the poor operating practices preventing available capacity from being used, ranging from crew changes delaying trains at Flinders Street to poor internal carriage layout slowing boarding. Instead of fixing the problems, Eddington proposes giving the department $8.5 billion to duplicate the Loop, along with an excuse for doing nothing else for a decade.

That's why Eddington has missed the train.

Paul Mees is a senior lecturer in transport planning at RMIT.

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