TRANSPORT SERIES – MELBOURNE: A recent article in The Fifth Estate highlighted the concerns of transport experts over the inadequate planning and oversight for Sydney’s transport networks. But the release of a new Victorian report, The Melbourne Rail Plan, from Melbourne advocacy group Rail Futures, indicates that Melbourne’s transport woes could equal or surpass that of its arch-rival.
- See our story Sydney’s transport planning fundamentally flawed
Rail Futures is made up of former government transport officials and engineers with vast experience of Melbourne’s human movement needs. John Hearsch is one of them. With 50 years’ experience in public works and private consultation projects, he’s well informed on the enormous issues facing Melbourne.
“We’ve got enormous growth, which has been going on in a fairly ad hoc manner now for a number of years,” he told The Fifth Estate. “That seems to have accelerated, so we’ve got a number of parts of the city of Greater Melbourne that are under considerable stress and the public transport system is really groaning.
“On the other hand the government is wedded to road solutions, still wanting to build more freeways, which international experience would suggest is not going to solve very much, despite the very high costs involved.”
Melbourne contains about 78 per cent of the state’s population and the projections are that it will go beyond 80 per cent in the next 20-30 years. Some 2400 people a week arrive or are born in the city. But as climate change issues increasingly bite and Australia moves towards massive restrictions on emissions, Victoria seems intent on a policy of encouraging road transport solutions. As I write, Facebook has thrown up a publicity ad for Victoria’s enormous West Gate Tunnel project.
None of its various construction precincts involve public transport; mostly they’re about upgrading and widening the freeway from eight to 12 lanes. Despite the phenomena of “induced demand” that shows increasing freeways actually worsens congestion, pollution and travel times, this project will create new underground tunnels under Melbourne, a new bridge over the Maribyrnong River and an elevated Footscray Road.
Faced with such a retrograde mindset, John Hearsch says that Rail Futures formed out of sheer necessity.
We need to integrate transport and land use planning – the bureaucracy is not doing it
“In the absence of a comprehensive plan from the government, as an advocacy group we’re really filling a vacuum. There’s a number of aspects to the Rail Plan, but underlying everything is the call for transport and land use planning integration to happen in reality. The bureaucracy is not organised to do it, so transport and land use issues decisions are being taken in isolation to each other, which is completely unsatisfactory.
“There’s a need to make further substantial investments to parts of the heavy rail network. In the peri-urban and regional parts of Victoria, which are growing, there’s a lot of potential for accommodating more population.
“We’ve got reasonably good train services servicing those areas, but they need to be further improved for better distribution of the population.”
Hearsch says his group is also e advocating for new investments in light rail, what it’s medium capacity transit “somewhere between heavy rail and the tram network”.
Melbourne’s tram network is its jewel in the crown – it needs protecting and nurturing
“The increasing densification in the middle and inner suburbs is primarily served by the tram network, which is our jewell in the crown, the world’s largest network in terms of distance. The trams carried 215 million people last year, but they have been largely starved of investment, so they’re really starting to struggle now.
“There has to be far greater segregation of trams and traffic, because as the trams are mixed with ordinary traffic they work ineffectively, so it’s also one of the slowest networks in the world.”
The Rail Plan relies on Melbourne’s flat topography and existing roading grid. It is intended to retrofit the exisiting public transport network from a radial to a grid system. If this seems a radical solution, the planners remind us that only four per cent of Melbourne’s total area and 24 per cent of the population are covered by high capacity public transport. The Plan identifies five major cross city mass transit rail routes, five new tram routes across the city and twenty cross-suburban, with 13 extensions of existing tram routes.
The Plan won’t come cheap. It’s costed at $109 billion over a twenty one year period up to 2040. Rail Futures say this would still come in at less than the real costs of a freeway culture and would help future-proof Melbourne in an increasingly volatile world environment.
As NSW transport expert John Austen pointed out in Sydney’s Transport System Fundamentally Flawed, while most major cities are shaped by rail networks, the trend in Sydney, and Melbourne it seems, is to attempt to remodel them with massive roading infrastructure.
Professor Michael Buxton, former environment and planning professor at RMIT university and author of several books on urban planning and sustainability, observes that this is because the Victorian government has no integrated transport and development plan at all.
“An illustration of the lack of planning is that Melbourne’s strategic land use plan, which was released in 2016, doesn’t even mention high-rise development,” he said. “Over the past 15 years Melbourne has had development on such a massive scale that it’s now one of the six or seven major high rise city areas in the Western world.
“What Melbourne has done is copied the Asian model of high rise culture. It’s ignored the fact that most of the US and European cities, which still remain some of the densest in the world, have medium rise development of up to six storeys, with much better liveability outcomes. So that’s an indication of just how government has dropped the ball and opened the city up to private sector development that’s not linked adequately to public transport.”
Professor Buxton has unrivalled knowledge of planning and environmental policy, having headed public and private sector agencies in the field, helped develop Australia’s National Greenhouse Strategy, and led research into the evolution of peri-urban regions. He says that the influence of the private sector has largely determined the development profile of Australia’s fastest growing city.
“The government has no overall strategic public transport plan. They’ve adopted a facilitative land use system which has empowered the private sector to make decisions about what to build and where. Often what they build is inappropriate and they’re building in inappropriate places, so what’s happened in Melbourne is the government hasn’t been doing its job. It relies on a project-based basis with no integrated public bus, light rail or tram services.
“We’ve seen a pattern of massive growth in the past 12 years, where the governments of the day allow all these new outer suburban developments and the high-rises in the brownfield sites to go ahead, and then years later tries to play ‘catch-up’ in providing services.
“Whereas by the best standards in Europe, and Asia now too, they build the infrastructure before they allow the housing to go properly in.”
Buxton says a “massive” high rise development in the CBD and the surrounding brownfield areas such as Docklands and Fishermans Bend has virtually no public transport.
“It’s been medium to high rise in the inner suburbs, a lot of townhouses and lower rise apartments in the middle ring suburbs and low density detached housing on the fringe.
The outer suburbs have serious problems, he says, with millions of people needing to commute into central Melbourne. The suburbs have relatively few jobs, so long distances are required for mainly road based travel. This is increasing the influence of unsolicited private sector road projects that result in adding a financial burden to suburban residents who need to commute long distances to work.
“[Melbourne] is increasingly relying on unsolicited road bids and private road projects which are tolled, so for a lot of the new outer urban dwellers transport is the second highest cost, apart from the cost of living and that’s increasing strains on families,” Buxton says.
“The proportion of new dwellings has varied between 30 per cent and 50 per cent on the fringe, and they’re poorly served by public transport. They’re a long way from rail corridors and often where rail corridors exist it’s a terrible service, so some of the new massive western suburbs are relying on V-Line Trains.
“They’re not even connected to the Metropolitan electrified service.”
The Melbourne Rail Plan identifies eight extensions of rail electrification for Metro services to outer growth suburbs. It stresses the need for connections to employment clusters and activity centres.
Buxton applauds that innovation. He says that the present plan for a railway loop overlooks the essential issue of crosstown traffic.
“Most of the advanced business service and research and other jobs have been kicked out of the inner suburbs, so this is a move to a poly-centric city, away from a mono-centric city, which Melbourne has traditionally been. Some of these nodes are on major public transport routes, but the planning ignores the crosstown travel issue.
“The government recently announced it’s going to start to build a circular rail route, but it’s going to take probably 40 years to complete, if they do it at all. So there is some recognition that if they move to a multi-centred city there’s got to be better connections between those centres, or most people will drive, so that will add to car travel. But by the time they complete the connecting rail corridors, Melbourne will have long ground to a halt.”
John Hearsch is cautiously optimistic that the current government is listening to the experienced people within Rail Futures.
“They’ve certainly picked up on some of our issues and in recent times made a number of commitments which we’re pleased about. So there is some expectation that some of the things that need to happen will occur not too far down the track.
“We’ve said a public transport expenditure of well over $100 billion is required over the next 20 years, and the government has already committed to quite a lot of that.”
He observes that the private sector will have a role in future developments, but only in alignment with government planning and agencies.
“One particular issue in Melbourne has been the lack of a railway to the airport. That’s now being addressed and the private sector is significantly participating. That’s costed at about $12 billion in its own right and the cost of that looks like it’ll be shared between the private sector and both state and commonwealth governments.
“We’re reasonably optimistic, but the pressures are such that at its current growth trajectory Melbourne’s not going to be sustainable without a massive investment in much more comprehensive public transport.
“At the same time, there has to be a lot more incentivisation for people to live outside Melbourne. The rail service need to be improved so people can live up to 250 km or more out of Melbourne and still commute in reasonably quick time.”