Gone South: Is Southland Station a dud deal?

Hindsight is always 20/20. It is easy to sit here today and debate the many urban planning mistakes made in Melbourne over the decades, but the fact is there have been many.

Building a "spider" train network, just about the whole 1969 transport plan (thanks to its heavy emphasis on freeways), and the rapid pace and reach of suburban sprawl are just a few we can name. It has not all been doom and gloom - keeping our tram network when the rest of the world were tearing theirs up was a stroke of genius that has saved us from probable inner-city transport chaos.

Most of these problems took decades to recognise let alone address, whilst many are just being looked at now.

One such problem is the total lack of heavy rail links to our four biggest regional shopping centres: Chadstone, Highpoint, Knox City and Southland. Highpoint at least has a tram link, although the route to the city is painfully indirect and plagued by shared traffic problems. Discussions of extending the tram to Knox City have been in the pipeline for years, the length of the route required making it impractical.

Similarly, talk of extending the Alamein line underneath Chadstone Shopping Centre continues to pop up on a regular basis, only to disappear again just as quickly, when the realities of the required complexity and cost sink in. Worse still, sub-regional shopping centres such as Werribee Plaza, Northland, Doncaster and Airport West all suffer the same fate. How did we get it so wrong? It is an unforgivable lack of foresight.

However just like the parents that have three kids in jail for trying to ram-raid the local ATM, and one at Melbourne University studying medicine, it is time to focus on the kid that's not a lost cause; in this case, Southland.

While also built without a rail station, it does sit smack bang on the Frankston Line, right in between Highett and Cheltenham stations. First opened in 1968 as a Myer plus a few other stores, it didn't really become a major shopping centre until major expansions in 1987 and 1990. Yet plans to build a station didn't bear any real fruit until 2010, when both major political parties promised to build it when transport became an election issue.

Labor said they would build it for around $45 million, its somewhat high price tag justified by the list of bells and whistles: elevators/escalators, toilets, a waiting room and shelter covering most of the platform all features befitting of a premium station, and then some.

And then came a gob smacking, jaw dropping moment usually reserved for stuff like the announcement of a new Star Wars film: the Liberals said they would build it, with all the inclusions, for the bargain basement price of $13 million! And just like when your slightly dim-witted uncle rings to excitedly tell you that he has won $50,000,000,000 as long as he pays some Nigerian prince a $5,000 'release fee', the old adage "If it sounds too good to be true, then ..." proved to apply here too.

Ted Ballieu of course won the election and duly realised he couldn't build it for that figure, even if he used a prison chain gang to do so. Never one to admit he was wrong, Ballieu, and his successor Denis Napthine, hit upon on the idea of trying to extort the money from Southland's owners instead.

Now don't get me wrong, given they are the primary beneficiaries from infrastructure that will bring more customers to their centre, it is perfectly valid to ask them to pay for some of it. However doing that before you budget to build it would have been a more reasonable approach. Given the Liberals already promised to build it with their own cash, Southland's owners quite unsurprisingly told the government to go jump off the nearest railway bridge. All this after Napthine assured us the delay in building the station was due to 'negotiating a better deal'.

Note to self: never get him to bargain for anything on my behalf. He'd probably walk into a $2 shop with a half-price voucher and end up paying $10 for a pack of chewing gum!

Partly due to the owners reluctance to contribute to the cost, and partly due to the Government's pre-election spending spree, Napthine was forced into an embarrassing backflip last week by announcing that the station would finally be built - without all the promised features - at a cost of $8 million above originally quoted, and at least two years after the original completion date of the end of the government's first term. The bare bones version will now contain the platform, some seats, facilities for PSOs and not much else. An appalling result and grossly inadequate for what is needed.

Source: The Age

The station will service a major regional shopping centre and an estimated 4,400 passengers a day, making it the fourth busiest on the Frankston line. If we want to see true mode share shift and get shoppers out of their cars, the appropriate facilities are a must. Shoppers are not going to carry big bags of shopping down many stairs, and then stand in the rain whilst said purchases get soaking wet.

Disabled people who frequent the centre's services will struggle to access the platform, as will a demographic who make up a large percentage of the day foot traffic: mums with prams. Nor are any of these people going to run back to the shopping centre to use the toilets, if they forgot to go before they left after a long day shopping and running errands. A bit of common sense goes a long way.

Labor have yet to comment, though we can only hope their original proposal is still their position. Failure by either party to build anything other than the full monty is only going to result in an expensive retrofit/upgrade in the future. Governments may have committed many planning sins in the past, and despite much better results recently, we continue to build the odd blooper. Let's not make Southland Station one of them.

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