Questioning the Suburban Rail Loop

Rail Future's answer to the Suburban Rail Loop project

President John Hearsch's article in the The Age, Tuesday 18th May 2021, page 23 raises the issue of unfinished and much needed public transport additions that are potentially being 'crowded out' by the Suburban Rail Loop project for which there is no published Business Case or recent costing. Click on the link or read below.......

Is the super loop getting in the way of real public transport upgrades?

John Hearsch

The Victorian government’s “Big Build” is a massive program of large infrastructure projects designed to stimulate the state’s economy by creating thousands of construction and supply chain jobs in material and supporting services.

“Big Build” includes the Metro Tunnel, airport rail, 75 level crossing removals, West Gate Tunnel, North-East Link and Suburban Rail Loop.

The final cost of all “Big Build” projects is unknown but is certain to exceed $100 billion. Other than SRL, all should be completed by 2029 and hopefully start generating the benefits on which their business cases were supposedly based.

The standout project in the “Big Build” is SRL. As far as we know, it is the only one whose overall scope and timelines remain unknown, also the only one without any known cost estimate and no business case. Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly be the most expensive of all “Big Build” projects and absorb a significant proportion of the state’s transport budget for many years.

It might take a few years after COVID-19 vaccination is widespread and Australia’s international borders are again open, but wide agreement exists that public transport usage will progressively return to pre-2020 levels and then continue to grow.

Individual daily commuting may reduce due to teleworking, but congestion will make private car use increasingly problematic. Melbourne’s principal road network has little residual capacity to absorb much additional traffic, let alone from a population expected to grow to around 8 million before mid-century.

Public transport therefore needs to bear an increasing share of urban travel demand but will only do so when more users see it as an effective substitute for at least part of what the car can deliver. Ultimately, this requires an inter-connected network of public transport services, where possible within walking distance of homes, with turn-up-and-go frequencies and easy interchange between routes enabling a far wider choice of origin and destination locations than at present.

Part of that network needs to include multiple orbital routes that provide cross-suburban travel linking existing rail and tram lines.

It is no coincidence that four orbital SmartBus routes introduced over a decade ago have stood the test of time and remain among the best patronised of all Melbourne buses. However, SmartBus has never been further developed to provide additional high-frequency orbital routes. Now, Suburban Rail Loop proposes to plough massive resources into a single corridor without demonstrating real benefits for Melbourne’s wider transport needs.

Rail Futures Institute has proposed many public transport projects that would contribute significantly to a far better connected and user-friendly network, and at much lower cost and within a shorter timeframe than SRL. Such projects remain largely absent from the government’s transport agenda.

Government budgeting is not a zero-sum game. The SRL is by far the largest, costliest and has the longest time scale of the “Big Build” investments, but is it sucking the oxygen out of the state’s capacity to fund other much-needed investments? Are lower-cost improvements being neglected while this lop-sided capital investment program in transport continues?

Critically, a priority allocation should be funding for planning City Loop reconfiguration to coincide with completion of the Metro Tunnel. This would add the equivalent of 16 freeway lanes of rail passenger capacity through the heart of the CBD. Planning should also be underway for the Metro 2 tunnel from Newport to Parkville.

Rail electrification to rapidly growing outer suburbs such as Melton, Wyndham Vale and Clyde is long overdue as is duplication of some remaining sections of single line in the metropolitan network.

Many stations, metropolitan and regional, have sub-standard passenger facilities that need upgrading and many remain non-compliant with disability access legislation.

Hundreds more tram stops with level boarding access and new low-floor, high-capacity trams are urgently needed.  Selective extension of existing tram routes to railway stations, or to connect with other tram lines and bus routes are modest projects with immediate benefits.

Much of the metropolitan bus network is poorly patronised and is performing well below its potential to be a key part of a well-connected network. It needs extensive re-design and service improvements.

Walking and cycling remain low government priorities – notwithstanding community support for safe pathways to stations – and despite their potential to encourage commuters away from short-distance driving and relieving pressure on station car parking.

Rail Futures will be searching the forthcoming state budget detail in the hope that some of these urgently needed projects are funded.

If not, the view will be reinforced that the massive funding for Suburban Rail Loop, now and into the future, is inhibiting the improvements our public transport system needs right now.

John Hearsch is president of the Rail Futures Institute.