Is DONcaster rail, is good?

With the federal election now done and dusted, its almost hard to remember a time when Tony Abbott wasn't PM. For those of us who actually miss the spin, gaffes and broken promises of an impending election (aside from the ones our esteemed PM still provides), never fear - the state election is only 12 months away - even less if Geoff Shaw manages to alienate yet another subsection of the Victorian population before then.  For those of you who would rather stick pins in your eyes than endure another campaign, there is a light at the end of the tunnel (and not the East-West kind) - the next election has promised to be fought with a strong focus on everyone's most cherished everyday experience - public transport!

Whilst public transport was an issue at the last state election (remember Ted Ballieu's war cry to 'fix the problems'?), that will pale into insignificance compared to the role it will play in the 2014 poll, thanks to everyone's favourite boondoggle - the East-West tunnel. Having won the last election promising a raft of rail projects, they quite inexplicitly back flipped and decided to build a road tunnel instead.  Whilst the common perception is that it will do nothing to ease congestion, and with no business case to even justify its existence, the government's motive to pump $8 billion into it is the biggest mystery since the 1980s asked 'Who shot JR?'.  Whilst it has provided opposition leader Daniel Andrews a much needed bat to whack Premier Napthine around the head with, the tunnel's location has also provided plenty of ammunition for one of the Greens' and PTUA's favourite obsessions - the Doncaster Rail Line.

The PTUA's and Greens' obsession with Doncaster is the stuff of legend.  In fact, if Doncaster Rail was a person, they'd both be charged with stalking.  Whilst the benefits of the Melbourne Metro and high capacity signaling are obvious, they continue to bang the Doncaster drum with monotonous regularity.  The romance of it makes for a great sob story - 'The people of Doncaster have been waiting 90 years for this' we're constantly told.  Anyone would think that Doncaster is a remote village that has to wait for a twice a week horse and cart service to visit the big smoke in Melbourne.  The much improved DART bus service is all but forgotten when it comes to talking about existing alternatives. So is a Doncaster rail link really needed? Or even viable for that matter?

Doncaster should be, in theory, the perfect rail project.  With a ready made reservation down the middle of a freeway, there are no debates about underground or overground, route or compulsory acquisitions; important factors when retro fitting rail through brownfield sites; but the list of negatives are just as striking.  Whilst a freeway makes for an obvious route, no one actually lives on a freeway. The distance to housing is even more pronounced in the case of the Eastern Freeway, as much of it runs through parkland. This means walk up patronage is already reduced, removing one of the major draw cards of catching public transport in the first place.  To address this, large park and rides would be be required at EVERY station (5 are planned), not just at the terminus at Doncaster Rd or Doncaster Hill.  Not only would parkland be consumed to build them, patronage is also restricted by the size of the car parks.  This in turn removes motivation to catch the train - 'Why bother driving to the nearest available car park? I may as well drive all the way in...'.

The 2nd major problem is cost where some ridiculous figures have been bandied about to build it.  A report by Curtin University, RMIT and engineering firm Arup claims it could be done for the bargain basement price of $840 million, whilst the PTUA claim they could build stage 1 to Bulleen for a paltry $100 million.  Melbourne's most recent completed rail project, the South Morang extension, cost $498 million, for a 3.5km extension with 1 new station and no tunnels (though there was a grade separation at Cooper St).  Doncaster is a 12km line with 5 new stations and major tunneling involved at both ends; the Doncaster Hill tunnel being especially tricky as it requires an uphill tunnel that would be the deepest in Melbourne.

This makes those quoted figures look absurd.  Hardly surprising given the $840 million figure was based on Perth's Mandurah rail line - a project built almost 10 years ago and through predominantly greenfield sites. The PTUA figures are just downright irresponsible - in the current environment of high infrastructure costs, it's most unlikely they couldn't even build the incredibly complex interchange at Collingwood for $0.1 billion, let alone the track, wires and station.  I'll run the length of the entire rail line naked if they could build it for under double that figure!  More sensible quotes seem to start at $3 billion (Collingwood to Doncaster Park & Ride) and go up to about $11 billion for the whole shebang (to Doncaster Hill + tunnel from Clifton Hill to Southern Cross).

Complicating matters further is the issue of patronage.  Some outlandish claims have been made here too; one study even claiming that the Doncaster line could carry about 100,000 passengers a day equating to 20,000 per station, somewhat unlikely numbers for a predominantly suburban line with no interchanges.  As a reference point, the network's busiest non loop station is Footscray, carrying about 15,000 a day and it's a major metro rail/vline/tram/bus interchange.  Furthermore the recently completed Doncaster rail study showed a train would actually take few cars off the road, with the majority of passengers coming from the previously mentioned DART bus.  Regardless of the numbers, just running trains to Doncaster would put extra strain on the Clifton Hill - Flinders St section.

The South Morang Line is already bursting at the seams, and with South Morang now the fastest growing suburb in the country, its thirst for capacity is only going to get bigger.  Compromising this with a new line that will carry a questionable number of passengers is simply a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.  The only way to avoid this is to build the Clifton Hill to Southern Cross tunnel, which will probably be needed to de-couple the South Morang Line regardless.  But of course, this tunnel can't be built until the Melbourne Metro tunnel is built first.

Whilst the Doncaster rail line is hardly on my Christmas wish list for 2013, I'm not saying we should throw it on the eternal scrap heap.  It may very well be viable, even necessary down the track with the current number of apartment developments being proposed for Doncaster itself, demand could eventually outstrip the capacity the DART buses can deliver.  The Clifton Hill - Southern Cross tunnel will already be built, ensuring the Doncaster wont take capacity away from the South Morang line (or Mernda line by then, or hopefully Whittlesea line), allowing money to be used for the necessarily large park and rides.  And as was recently suggested, maybe the Eastern Freeway will be tolled, providing the bulk of the required funds for the project, as well as an extra incentive for people to use the train instead.

Doncaster, Rowville, Melton electrification, Mernda Extension are all great future projects, but to use some of Paul Keating's terminology, the Melbourne Metro Tunnel is the 'Black Caviar' of transport projects.  It is the only project that benefits the whole network, whilst transforming it into a true rapid transport network.  It could be argued that high capacity signaling would also be universally beneficial, however we wont see its full potential if we don't remove the bottlenecks that only de-coupling will provide.  In a day and age where high infrastructure costs reduce us to picking winners, the Melbourne Metro tunnel must be our first priority - not a disproportionately expensive suburban line with dubious benefits.

Whilst the Greens & PTUA's hearts may be in the right place with its unconditional support of public transport, choosing to back populist projects over more necessary ones is hardly helping the cause.  The only way we can stop misconceptions like the East West tunnel is to be united on its opposition.  The public has spoken loudly in its support of public transport over roads - its time the PTUA took one for the team and supported all those voices, not just a select few.  Bring on the State election!


Further reading



James Adams's picture

"demand could eventually outstrip the capacity the DART buses can deliver."

Demand has already outstripped capacity of the DART buses, at peak period at least. On more than one occasion, I've been told by the bus driver to not get on the bus and wait for the next one, as his is full. Of course, the next one shows up and a couple dozen people behind me also get left behind.

Doncaster rail shouldn't be framed as an alternative to the EWL, because it's not; that's Melbourne Metro's role. But Doncaster rail is a serious project that is getting the unfair label of a "populist project".

The study team's estimates were through the roof, and they provided little to no description of how they got their numbers. It simply can't be taken as fact, and the South Morang line decoupling is a separate project that needs to be done in its own right; that can't be included in the cost of Doncaster rail.

Speaking of South Morang, the PTUA have an interesting article about that project and why it had such a huge cost for what it was:

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Alan Davies's picture

"...and the South Morang line decoupling is a separate project that needs to be done in its own right; that can't be included in the cost of Doncaster rail."

My recollection is the Doncaster Rail Study says decoupling will be needed in the medium to long term irrespective of whether or not Doncaster rail is built. So if a line were constructed to Doncaster, it should bear whatever cost is involved in bringing decoupling forward. Depending on the time involved, that could be a very large part of the full cost of decoupling.

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Martin Mankowski's picture

Correct. South Morang runs through some of the country's biggest growth areas and will become very capacity hungry in at least the medium term. Given Doncaster is not feasible without the tunnel, there are only 2 options here - build the cost of the tunnel into Doncaster, or wait until after the tunnel is built. Personally, I back the latter - the former is just too cost prohibitive.

As for the DART bus demand, the great thing about buses is they are scalable. Its much easier to add extra bus services, and much cheaper(!), than to build and operate extra train services. Expanding the bus service could easily be done in the short term, and solve any current capacity problems.

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Matt's picture

Firstly you have grossly ignored a significant amount of works included in the "Clifton Hill Group Upgrade Project" also dubbed the South Morang Rail Extension Project. There was three new stations not one (Epping and Thomastown were totally rebuilt), 7km of duplicated track, a duplicated bridge over Merri Creek in Clifton Hill and the recently installed new stabling at Eltham and upgrade of signaling between Greensborough and Hurstbridge.

"It is the only project that benefits the whole network, whilst transforming it into a true rapid transport network."
Exactly how does Melbourne Metro benefit the Clifton Hill group?

"It could be argued that high capacity signaling would also be universally beneficial, however we wont see its full potential if we don't remove the bottlenecks that only de-coupling will provide."
So we spend approx $1.5b duplicating tracks and replacing century old signaling to release an enormous amount of capacity in the system or we can spend at least $9b on Melbourne Metro but still retain century old signaling and single track sections?

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James Adams's picture

"My recollection is the Doncaster Rail Study says decoupling will be needed in the medium to long term irrespective of whether or not Doncaster rail is built."

My recollection is exactly the same. Of course, what the Doncaster Rail Study says and what's the truth are certainly not identical. Just like myself and Matt have said above, it's unfair to bundle the costs of separate projects into one package like was done with South Morang. Majority of the cost was not for the extension and new station.

Just like majority of the so-called cost for Doncaster rail would not be for the extension, but for Clifton Hill decoupling (which I don't deny needs to happen first). It would be like bundling the cost of Melbourne Metro and Rowville rail into one, huge $16 billion+ package as one needs to happen before the other.

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