For many a year now there's been talk of a rail link to Melbourne Airport with the Albion corridor named as the preferred alignment. While an airport heavy rail link via the preferred corridor would serve the Airport, Sunshine, the city centre and most parts of the metropolitan area in the East and South via a change of trains in the city, it doesn't do much for people living in the north and working at the airport, let alone cater for passengers accessing the airport.
On top of origin/destination trips to the airport's terminals, the airport master plan foresees significant non-aviation development and employment sprouting on the outer edges of the land it controls between Melrose Drive and the Tullamarine Freeway, notwithstanding the large amount of semi-industrial employment already in the region.
Essendon Fields is seeing ongoing commercial development, most notably in recent times with Linfox moving in, and Moonee Valley have currently zoned the area to the west of Matthews Ave as Business Zone 3 which allows for mixed-use residential and commercial uses. Urban Melbourne even has its eyes on development in this very precinct: see 83 Matthews Avenue.
Suffice it to say residents of Moonee Valley, Darebin and Moreland - areas where many people who work at Melbourne Airport reside - wouldn't directly benefit from a heavy rail link. These residents either have to travel into the city to catch the skybus (or in future the train) back out to the airport or play roulette with infrequent bus to bus (and rail to bus) connections; the only exception to this rule is the frequent connection between the Craigieburn line and Airport smart bus connection at Broadmeadows.
From the current terminus of route 59 at Airport West, new tram track would be built along the western side of Melrose Drive into the airport zone.
In order to not play havoc with existing vehicular traffic from the current terminus, the tram track would be elevated across the Matthews Ave/Dromana Ave/Melrose Drive intersection at the main entrance to Westfield Airport West, remain elevated across Mascoma Street and the Albion corridor rail line and then would transition to an open trench in order to have a clear path underneath the Malvern Avenue/Western Ring Road/Sharps Road interchange.
Between the Western Ring Road and Melbourne Airport, save for a short 200-300m section of Melrose Drive, the tram track would be laid at grade in the median that currently separates the northbound Melrose Drive traffic lanes and the service road. All sections where the tram track intersects with streets would be signalised and only triggered as trams approach the crossings, effectively giving light rail services priority.
From Trade Park Drive right up into the Airport lands - and where the new Tullamarine freeway exit intersects with Melrose drive - the trams would run in the ample space beside Melrose Drive and then switch to the Melrose Drive median up to Service Road and the Melbourne Airport Terminals.
The total length of this route is 6.3km, 350m of which is in an open below-grade trench and 550m is elevated at Airport West.
Using the short section of track which currently hosts the route 8 on Moreland Road, this idea would see both ends of that track extended west and east.
The first new track section from Essendon would run from where the existing route 59 trams turn out of Fletcher Street into Pascoe Vale Road down to the Moreland Road intersection and then turn eastward and run all the way to Moreland Station, where the existing tram track ends at Brunswick tram depot.
Engineering issues which would need to be dealt with along this route: Moreland road descends moderately from Pascoe Vale Road and the general road corridor narrows over the Moonee Ponds Creek Bridge, this would need to be widened.
Similarly Moreland Road at Moreland station on the Upfield line would need to be grade separated - that's aken care of as it's already on the current government's map of 50 level crossing removals - but for the most part, Moreland Road is quite wide (parallel parking, bike and a single traffic lanes in each direction) and somewhat similar in profile to other roads in the area which have trams running on them.
This section of new tram track would measure 3.9km in length, connect/interchange with 3 existing tram routes (59, 55 and 19) and connect with 1 rail line (Upfield).
Running on the existing tram track from Moreland Station across Sydney Road to Nicholson/Holmes Street the new track would be laid in the centre of Moreland Road and then across the Merri Creek along Normanby Avenue to St. Georges Road. From this point the route would use the existing track in St. Georges Road and Miller Street and Terminate at Thornbury junction in Miller Street.
There's an opportunity near the terminus to remove the existing Thornbury rail station and rebuild it 300m north in order for a) the station to be closer to the junction and b) directly interface with this new light rail route.
The width of Normanby Avenue from the Northcote Golf Club across St. Georges Road and into High Street is narrow and a straight route to High Street would need to include a grade separation. There is just one short 500m section of Normanby Avenue which would require some kind of tram prioritisation if the existing St. Georges road track were to be re-used.
This section of new track from Nicholson Street to St. Georges Road measures 1.6km in length. 1.4km of existing double tram track would be re-used for the Northern Light Rail line and from the St. Georges Road/Normanby Ave intersection to Thornbury junction. The new service would connect with 4 tram routes (1, 8, 11 and 86) as well as 1 rail line (South Morang).
The 2011 census data shows that the Hume - Craigieburn area (where the airport is located) is the employment destination for:
Interestingly, the Hume - Broadmeadows area which stretches from Gladstone Park (where this Light Rail line would go) over to Broadmeadows itself is the destination for:
The Moonee Valley - West region stretches from the Maribyrnong to Avondale Heights. The overwhelming majority of employment in this region is centred around Essendon Fields/Airport and Airport West.
It sees 2550 or 20% of its local residents work in the same region. 985 or 8% of its employees travel from the neighbouring Moonee Valley - Essendon region and 531 people or 4.3% travel from both the Brunswick and Coburg sub-regions of Moreland.
If we assume 75% of employees living in Darebin/Moreland/Moonee Valley work at/near the airport, 35% of employees from those LGAs are travelling to the Gladstone Park-Tullamarine area for work and 90% of the people are travelling to Essendon Fields/Airport West for work, then that totals approximately 8,000 employees traveling to a work place destination in the vicinity of this light rail line.
Throw in the wholesale integration with 7 tram routes plus 3 rail lines and the potential pool of passengers for this light rail line for travel to Melbourne airport will no doubt increase.
The new light rail line - let's number it route 60 - running from the Airport to Thornbury via Essendon Station, Fletcher Street and Moreland Road could start with 10 minute off-peak, 8 minute peak and 20 minute late night frequencies. All new stops along the line would be accessibility compliant and services would be operated with E-Class trams.
Even though the journey would take over an hour from the city (remembering this isn't the main aim of the light rail line), there would be merit in extending the route 59 trams the extra 6km to Melbourne Airport. Using the current timetable as an example, that would mean 8 minute frequencies in off-peak times, 6 minutes in peak and 20 minute frequencies at night. Between Essendon and the Airport when combined with the new route 60 there would be an extensive amount of services.
According to the current route 59 timetable, from Fletcher Street and Pascoe Vale Road - where the new Moreland road extension would connect to the existing network - the journey to the terminus at Airport West Shopping Centre takes 18 minutes in off-peak times. This route travels mixed with traffic on Fletcher Street, freely via the Mount Alexander Road median, mixes with traffic on Keilor Road through the popular Niddrie shopping strip and then on its own separate track alongside Matthews Avenue up to the shopping centre.
By way of eliminating a future tram bottleneck, the existing track between Matthews Avenue and the Tullamarine Freeway should be grade separated at English Street: the Tullamarine freeway interchange with Matthews Avenue / primary entrance to Essendon Airport / Essendon Fields.
Using the Keilor Road to Airport West segment - a distance of 2.5 km - as a guide, the current timestable states this journey takes 5 minutes. Given much of the extension north of Airport West SC would be in a dedicated corridor and measures 6.3km, the journey time from Airport West to the Melbourne Airport would take in the region of 12-15 minutes. This allows us to calculate journey times on route 59 as follows:
|Melbourne Airport to Airport West||12 minutes|
|Melbourne Airport to Niddrie||18 minutes|
|Melbourne Airport to North Essendon village||23 minutes|
|Melbourne Airport to Essendon Station||26 minutes|
|Melbourne Airport to Moonee Ponds junction||34 minutes|
|Melbourne Airport to Flemington Bridge station||45 minutes|
|Melbourne Airport to route 59 terminus - Elizabeth/Flinders Street||Approximately 1 hour|
For route 60 as there is no precedent on an east-west route for estimating travel times however I'll use route 55's timetable. Melville Road, which Moreland Road intersects with, is of a comparable width and sees a similar volume of traffic throughout the day. From Smith Street to Bell Street - the entire length of Melville Road where route 55 runs - measures 3.25km. The current timetable for route 55 sees this segment's journey time at 9 minutes; this allows us to provide a journey time estimate for route 60:
|Melbourne Airport to Melville Road (interchange with route 55)||33-35 minutes|
|Melbourne Airport to Moreland Station / Sydney Road (interchange with route 19 and Upfield line)||39-41 minutes|
|Melbourne Airport to Thornbury Junction (interchange with route 86 and South Morang Line)||47-49 minutes|
|Essendon Station to Brunswick (Sydney Road)||12-14 minutes|
|Brunswick (Sydney Road) to Thornbury Junction||11-13 minutes|
|Essendon Station to Thornbury Junction||23-27 minutes|
You'll note on the map there are two red lines: one from Airport West slicing through Essendon Fields and heading to the North Essendon village and a second red line running from North Essendon village to the Pascoe Vale Road / Moreland Road intersection via Glenbervie. They only exist to illustrate how new areas could be opened up for direct light rail services and would allow a more direct route 60 service to operate while interfacing with the existing route 59 in North Essendon and Airport West.
From Airport West Shopping Centre the tram track would stay elevated and cross the Tullamarine Freeway and then use the Wirraway Road median where just before the aviation zone starts, the track would enter a 1.1km tunnel and traverse the airfield and surface next to the DFO Essendon Fields. From there, another short section of elevated track above the Bulla Road freeway interchange would then deposit the track in the Bulla Road median where it would join up with the existing route 59 track.
From Mount Alexander Road, to the south of the North Essendon village strip, new track would divert down Glass street then cross the top of a newly rebuilt and sunken Glenbervie station and turn south onto Pascoe Vale Road and then east onto Moreland Road.
These two new routes marked in red on the map measure 4km and 1.65km respectively. The existing route from Airport West via Matthews Avenue, Keilor Road, Mount Alexander Road and Fletcher Street measures 6.5km plus another 500m to connect to Moreland Road.
5.65km versus 7km with the shorter route servicing Essendon Fields directly - specifically the southern end with its major retail uses and the northern end with its commercial focus - and providing a higher quality tram to rail connection at Glenbervie (passengers wouldn't need to walk 300m like they do at Essendon station for a connection).
One of the best sources of discussion on this topic is from this 2008 blog post. The author used the Box Hill, Vermont South and Docklands Drive tram extensions as an example and when you place the figures in that blog post through RBA's inflation calculator, the capital cost of constructing tram track - on road mind you - turns out to be $13.4 million per kilometre in 2014 dollars.
From the same post, the author asserts that the operational cost of running the tram network is (in 2014 dollars, thanks to RBA's inflation calculator) $1.1million per kilometre.
The original order of 50 E-Class trams by the State Government in 2009 cost $300 million according to this 2014 Age article; I'd estimate that 30 trams would be required for the new route 60.
Alternative route 60 track:
Lead image credit: Wikipedia.