Despite the dramatic scene depicted in the image below, cars smashing though the fence are the least of Altona Station's problems. PTV released the numbers for daily passenger boardings a few weeks back, and unfortunately for this seaside sleepy hollow, it suffered a huge drop. A drop in popularity so large in fact, its enough to drive its most famous resident, Julia Gillard, back to Adelaide.* The patronage data, covering the years 2008/09 to 2011/12, can be found here. Its not all doom and gloom - with a bit of left field thinking, the trend can be reversed.
* fn1 - May or may not be true
The Altona Loop has had a bit of a checkered history. First opening in November 1888 as a branch off the Werribee line, it was meant to encourage the sale of land in the area. However it closed a mere 2 years later, before opening again in 1917, and then electrified in 1926 when it was taken over by the state run Victorian Railways. It was almost closed under recommendation of the Lonie Report in 1980, before instead being extended to Westona then Laverton in 1985. From then Werribee trains all ran via Altona, instead of the previous route via Paisley and Galvin.
And that's how it remained until 2010. By this stage the city loop had become horribly congested, Metro Trains Melbourne reconfigured how trains traveled to/from/through the CBD. In peak times, the Altona Loop reverted to being run as a separate line, terminating at Laverton. Services also no longer ran through the loop, and passengers have to change at Newport in non peak times. They reacted angrily to this change, resulting in the aforementioned drop in numbers:
Daily Weekday Boardings, 2008-09 to 2011-12
That's a 27% drop in passengers for Altona, 22% for Seaholme, and 20% for Westona. A damning decrease by anyone's standards; especially if you consider the sharp growth of the network as a whole over the past decade. Given the ever increasing capacity issues of the Werribee line and the City Loop, Altona Loop frequencies are unlikely to revert back anytime soon. So its time to think outside of the square.
One of the major shortcomings of the Altona Loop is that its only single track from Westona Station to the junction with the Werribee Line at West Newport. This means trains sometimes have lengthy delays at either the WN junction or at Westona Station waiting for trains from the opposite direction. Not only is Westona Station not that interesting (I think I managed to memorise every bit of graffiti on the wall there during these enforced waits, and its not like they were painted by Banksy!), it severely hampers the throughput of trains. And whilst duplication would be relatively straight forward between WN Junction and Seaholme station, the rest of the line would be problematic, with limited room between Railway St North and Railway St South. Mass compulsory acquisition would be required, and obviously not recommended.
When the St Kilda and Port Melbourne lines were scheduled to be closed under the recommendation of the Lonie Report in 1981, they were to be originally replaced by buses. After much opposition, they were retained until 1987 when they were replaced by light rail. This conversion has been a fantastic success. Not only do they provide a rapid commute time (22 minutes Spencer St to Acland St with 12 min frequency for Route 96, 12 minutes Spencer St to Beacon Cove on 12 min frequency for Route 109), they are grade separated for much of the way, meaning commutes for both passengers and motorists are less likely to be affected in peak times. In fact Route 96 is currently the subject of a proposed upgrade, meaning it will become the first route to be grade separated for its entire length - East Brunswick to St Kilda.
So this begs the obvious question: Why can't we do this in Altona?
Most of the drop off in passengers can to attributed to the frequency of service - an appalling 22 minutes in peak time, 20 minutes during the day and 30 minutes at night. This is compounded by having to sometimes change at Newport, where connecting services often aren't synchronised thus blowing out commute times even further. This is unacceptable by today's standards - most other lines have peak time frequencies of about 10 minutes or less! Most people would accept having to change if the frequency and connections were improved - something light rail could address.
As mentioned earlier, duplication would be required to improve frequency. Whilst not possible for Heavy Rail, Light Rail is a different story. Trams run on a narrower gauge, and are much less wide in size than trains. They also don't travel as quickly as trains, meaning they can pass with a smaller clearance. Tram stops are also much smaller and less complex than train platforms, thus reducing cost. If the Altona Line was converted to Light Rail between Laverton and Newport, duplication would be possible.
Running trams is cheaper than running trains, so having them run at say, 10 minute intervals would be quite plausible. With the latest trams able to hold 200 people, capacity should not be a problem, with the morning peak hour (7am to 9.30am) total numbers for Altona, Seaholme and Westona being 401, 187 and 339 respectively. New stops could even be added at Altona Meadows and West Newport, servicing areas that would otherwise need to drive to the station. In fact given numbers on the Williamstown line are similar (North Williamstown 1201 Weekday boardings, Williamstown 409 and Williamstown Beach 767) and its already duplicated, conversion all the way through to Williamstown makes sense.
This could result in untold flow on benefits for public transport in the West. The residents of Altona and Williamstown would get a faster, frequent, better connected, dedicated end to end shuttle service, running independently of the rest of the train network, and so not susceptible to delays created down the line. This would allow the Werribee Line to run trains dedicated to Werribee, rather than having to share capacity with the Altona and Werribee Lines. This would result in much more frequent services, important to a line that is one of the network's most crowded, and running through some of Melbourne fastest booming growth corridors of Williams Landing, Point Cook, Wyndham Vale, and eventually, the Werribee East development.
This would mean services would travel full time through the Paisley section of the line again, possibly justifying the reopening of Paisley station and restoring rail services to Altona North once more. And the residents of Altona Meadows and Newport West would have direct access to rail services for the first time.
And last but not least we would have the Newport Interchange. To allow passengers a quick, easy changeover to a connecting train, a new tram interchange would have to be built at Newport station. There is a prefect spot for it - currently a large parcel of land that sits south of the train station, occupied by the rail yards (shown in light blue below). With a bit of imagination and ingenuity, it could developed as a decking over the rail lines design, much like the Federation Square East Project and Sydney's Central Station. Imagine a mixture of open space, retail/cafes/restaurants and much needed housing, all serviced by an integrated train/tram/bus interchange and adding even more activation to the regenerating Newport retail district. Using good urban design principles, it could be the envy of the West. What would it look like? I'm not an architect, so I'll leave that to our caped crusader, Urban Melbourne's very own blockhead. If he dares...
Admittedly, the last part of the proposal is a little ambitious, but certainly plausible in the longer term. However the light rail proposal is not only doable in the short term but would solve an import transport conundrum that Melbourne's West currently faces. When the Libs won government in Victoria, they pledged to focus on public transport, a promise that has resulted in a proposed shiny new road tunnel. Labor has promised to release its 'balanced transport plan' by the end of the year. Lets hope that balance includes Melbourne's West!