Distances Melburnians walk to bus and train stops (data derived from VISTA)

As with any change, the Victorian government’s revision of the proposed Melbourne Metro rail tunnel (now named Melbourne Rail Link) will have some positives and some negatives. How they’re balanced is what matters.

So far, much of the informed public discussion of Melbourne Rail Link (e.g. see here and here) has focussed on issues like inadequate planning, the inevitable delay while new designs are worked up, the impact of operational differences, the accuracy of the cost estimates, the contribution to relieving tram congestion, and the abandonment of the planned Parkville station.

Over at ABC 774 local radio, Mornings presenter John Faine’s main focus was on practical issues. In this interview with the Premier (audio), Mr Faine argues the route of the proposed train to the airport is questionable because it’s “the most indirect route imaginable…you’d struggle to contrive something less direct to get there”.

He says the route via Footscray and Sunshine stations is two sides of a triangle, not the hypotenuse. “Are you seriously suggesting”, he asks the Premier, “that this is a viable, sustainable, workable airport rail link?”

He also reckons the proposed new Montague rail station to serve the Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal Area is located too far from it to be useful. It’s not even in Fishermans Bend, he says; its real purpose seems to be to serve Crown Casino!

Now there are real and important issues with the Government’s new route, but Mr Faine’s concerns aren’t among them.

So far as the proposed airport line is concerned, it is indeed geographically indirect. The reason for that is so it can use the reserve between Albion and the airport set aside by the Bracks government and thereby avoid the cost of tunnelling.

But it doesn’t matter how circuitous the route is when viewed on a map. Trains aren’t like cars; they have their own dedicated right of way so they aren’t held up by traffic.

What matters is time; how long it takes to get from the airport to the city. According to the Government, that will be 25 minutes. That figure’s the same as the estimate in the airport rail feasibility study prepared by consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff.

The train journey between the airport and the CBD will take five minutes longer in the off-peak than the 20 minutes it takes at present on SkyBus. But it’s much shorter than the 40 minutes SkyBus currently takes in peak periods when roads are congested.

The new plan for the airport line also has it stopping at Southern Cross and Flinders St stations, as well as stations on the Pakenham/Cranbourne line in the South Eastern suburbs. That sounds like a competitive proposition.

The roundabout route is a non-issue; it’s the one recommended by the feasibility study and adopted by previous governments. A far more important issue is whether the airport train service will match SkyBus’s exemplary frequencies and span of hours.

In regard to the location of Montague station, I think Mr Faine is confused. It doesn’t matter that Montague isn’t in the suburb of Fishermans Bend; what matters is that it’s most certainly located within the formally designated Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal Area.

The planned station is located at the intersection of Montague Rd and the existing 109 tram line. That’s pretty much in the dead centre of the most easterly Precinct (also named Montague) of the four that comprise the Renewal Area.

There’re already a number of new developments in the Montague Precinct and more are planned. Most importantly though, the Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal Area is part of the Capital City Zone and is likely to be developed at high commercial and residential densities.

The Government says the station will interchange with improved tram services. It’s also within walking distance of most of the rest of the Renewal Area and the district around the Convention and Exhibition Centres.

There’s been some criticism of the location on the basis that travellers won’t walk any more than 800 metres to use a rail station. That’s based on a planners rule of thumb of uncertain origin; but it’s way out of line with what actually happens in Melbourne.

As I discussed some time ago (How far do we walk to the station?), half of Melbourne’s train travellers already walk more than 800 metres to get to the train station. A quarter walk more than 1.3 kilometres! (see exhibit).

The distance people will walk to public transport depends on a range of factors, including the time they’ll spend at the destination, the time/speed of the trip, the purpose, and the availability of alternative modes.

The classic case is the journey to work. Travellers are prepared to walk further to trains for their commute because it’s a non-discretionary purpose; they’ll be at their destination for an extended period, usually upwards of seven hours; and most train commuters work in the city centre where driving is much less competitive due to traffic congestion and parking charges.

People are prepared to walk to the train; the location of Montague isn’t the fatal flaw that some might wish for. If Melbourne Rail Link has one it’s more likely to be something like under-estimation of costs due to inadequate prior planning.

It’s important in any event to appreciate that the non-CBD stations – whether Parkville or Montague – are not the core rationale for either Metro or Melbourne Rail Link.

The two schemes need to be compared primarily on how successfully and cost-effectively they increase rail capacity in the city centre; and how well  they contribute to improving the reliability of the network.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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