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Go West - Should We Move The Melbourne Metro Tunnel?

When the Wall came down, thousands cheered as the bulldozers moved in. Millions more tuned in on their televisions to watch this once in a lifetime event. The Wall had divided the city in two for years, leaving it to develop almost completely different cultures.

People would stop and try to peer through the cracks, trying to remember what a unified city was like. Finally, that time was coming to an end. The population would finally remember how the other half lived; long lost relatives would be reunited with much emotion.

It was the pressure of these long awaited scenarios that made the leader sweat profusely as he stepped forward towards the podium to make an announcement that everyone was so desperately wanting to hear.

"The Melbourne Metro is complete! The Great Wall of Swanston St can come down!"

Mass hysteria ensures, as the crowd cheer as loudly as they've never cheered before. Crying true tears of joy, they have their street back.

Denis Napthine's comparison of the Metro tunnel's planned Swanston St works to the Berlin Wall are nothing short of absurd, and ranks amongst the worst excuses to not upgrade public transport this state has seen. Hardly surprising, given he has only ever given tacit support of the project, through clenched teeth like a kid telling his mum how much he loves Brussels sprouts.

The Premier even tried telling us that Tony Abbott had softened his stance on funding the Metro, only to be immediately rebuffed and told he had no such intentions of funding any urban rail project, anywhere. "Roads are a sign of progress" Abbott reiterated, a view talked about in great detail in his conservative manifesto, Battlelines.

The 1950s rang, they want their infrastructure policy back.

Of course, this most backwards of philosophies has helped Napthine push his favourite barrow, the East West Link. Thinking that people would jump for joy at the announcement of another freeway, he wrongly assumed that the Melbourne Metro project would have disappeared into the background never to be spoken of again, just like the Multifunction Polis and the Grollo Tower before it.

But, shock horror, it turns out Abbott isn't the messiah, and his philosophy is completely outdated. Those pesky voters want a functional public transport system after all! With internal polling showing the current Spring Street Government in real trouble in November, an ever increasingly desperate Napthine resorted to relentlessly beating the Metro with a stick, in the hope that if he could scare enough people away from it.

It sounds like a plot from a bad stalker movie.

And so here we are: Swanston St will be the new Berlin Wall. The Metro was first mooted back in 2005, with the previous Labor Federal government setting aside funding for it in last year's May budget. So despite years of research and planning, Denis Napthine has suddenly come to the realisation that the route is all wrong, and that we need to start all over again. Six months out from an election, no less! Phew, lucky we have Denis to save us from impending disaster.

So is there method to this madness? Let's analyse the three options:

The Russell St Option

Basically the same as the original route, except rather go from Melbourne Central, under Swanston St to Flinders St Station and then under the Yarra to Domain, it runs under Russell St instead, with new stations on the corner of Russell and Latrobe, and Russell and Flinders.

This would still require mass disruption along Russell St, but admittedly it doesn't have the same foot or tram traffic of Swanston St. While this would be a positive, there is one major drawback. The Metro is meant to achieve three major outcomes: greater frequency of trains, greater reliability through decoupling of lines, and greater connectivity between lines.

A Russell Street route would inevitably require passengers to walk a whole city block to catch a connecting train. Not only is this a huge inconvenience (especially for the disabled and elderly) it would pose a further challenge in having to build an underground walkway to connect them.

In a day and age where we are bending over backwards to make using public transport easier, this is a definite no-no.

The Fishermans Bend Option

This is the option thrown up by Napthine as the preferred alternative - moving it west. Given the Premier has released little information about the actual path I assume the route would utilise existing track to Southern Cross, then run under the river with stops at Fishermans Bend and Port Melbourne before joining the original route at Domain.

Given the government had previously failed to promise to build a station in Fishermans Bend until after most of the housing was built, this would be a step forward. However the main benefit of this option is meant to be a much reduced cost owing to avoiding the CBD, which logic would dictate the opposite would be true given the potentially longer tunneling required. The tunnel would still need to go under the Yarra, at quite a considerable depth.

Secondly, as no part of this route runs directly under the path of a road, it would almost certainly mean that none of it could be built cut and cover. So how exactly would this route be cheaper? That's not even taking into account the cost of all the planning which would have to start again from scratch.

To top it off, it doesn't even run through the part of the city which would likely attract the most passengers. A conceivable by-product of the project would be to help alleviate tram overcrowding along St Kilda Rd/Swantston St, not add to it!

The Swanston St Option

And that brings us back to the original plan. First officially announced in 2008 as a result of the Eddington report, the tunnel was originally meant to run from Footscray to South Yarra, before being respectfully pruned to a South Kensington to Domain route. Its proposed stations were strategically placed:

  1. Arden - The site of future urban renewal.
  2. Parkville - Situated right at the junction of the hospital precinct and Melbourne University, this would conceivably become one of the busiest stations in the network.
  3. CBD North/CBD South. Critical interchange points with the two busiest stations in Melbourne, allowing passengers to change onto every other line. Note to the station naming gods - please let common sense prevail and make these stations additional platforms of Melbourne Central and Flinders St, rather than calling them something else so that no one makes the connection that they are actually on top of each other!
  4. Domain - Major tram interchange and gateway to the St Kilda Rd business and residential precinct.

And this is only the first part of the PTV heavy rail plan. The second proposed tunnel, running Clifton Hill-Parkville-Flagstaff-Southern Cross-Fishermans Bend, will add some much needed extra capacity to the South Morang Line, a line which currently terminates in one of the largest growth areas in Australia.

In turn, this would free up capacity on the Clifton Hill-Flinders St section, allowing the possible future addition of a line to Doncaster. At the other end of the line, the whole of Fishermans Bend could be serviced, rather than just the northern precincts as proposed by Napthine, which misses the section with the highest planned density: Wirraway.

The route has undergone much rigorous analysing. First proposed in an independent report, it's backed by PTV, Infrastructure Australia and many transport experts and advocates. Almost all of the planning has been done, with IA labeling it 'Ready to proceed'. Napthine is well aware of this, and up until now has been one of those supporters, at least in theory.

Yet, despite 3 years of government, it has taken him until now to realise the route is all wrong, and needs to be thrown out with the garbage. Rather spending his energy on sourcing some funding, he has shown it petty regard, foolishly implementing deliberate time wasting strategies like a new name (Metro Rail Capacity Project) and proposing alternative routes that are painfully inferior. All in a naive attempt to garner support for the real apple of his eye - The East West Tunnel.

Reality check Mr Napthine - you can't make people buy a Ford by teaching them to hate Holden!

Much has been made of ripping up Swanston St, but does it even need to be built cut and cover? More importantly, can it be? Given Melbourne Central station was built cut and cover itself, wont the metro have to go underneath it anyway? The same at the Flinders St end - won't it have to go fairly deep to tunnel under the Yarra? This argument seems to be yet another red herring in a long list of excuses not to build it.

Political agendas aside, Victoria will be poorer for not building the Melbourne Metro in its current form. Public transport patronage has increased dramatically over the last 15 years, and we face decades of crush capacity if we don't address it correctly now. We only get one chance at this - it's not like we can rip up a tunnel if we get it wrong.

To loosely quote Pink Floyd, every delay, every loony alternative, every excuse, is just another brick in the political wall.

2 comments

Adam Ford's picture

the fisherman's bend option is surely bridge over maribyrnong from Altona line, rather than via southern cross which would cost a fortune??
question then becomes how you bring that line into cbd. pity we can't have sansridge rail bridge back.

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James Adams's picture

The plan is that the tunnel from Southern Cross to Fisherman's Bend could eventually be extended underneath the Yarra/West Gate Bridge to Newport Station, creating an express route for Werribee trains.

And nice analysis in the article, except the original plan was for the Metro to run to Caulfield, not South Yarra.

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