Casual observers of transport investment in Melbourne could be forgiven for missing the bigger picture with the quick succession of recent announcements by the Minister for Public Transport over the past few weeks.
The series of announcements which began on February 16th dealt many of the technical components required to produce what the Melbourne Metro Tunnel project aims to achieve: a giant high-frequency rail line from two different ends of the city, right through the middle.
To date, the overwhelming majority of projects announced by the Victorian Government have been about shovels in the ground or manufacturing things; the 50 level crossing removal projects and the new dedicated train fleet that will start on the Pakenham/Cranbourne-Sunbury lines are the best examples.
Up until this point as well, the Victorian Government has been happy - and has effectively got away with it - to use quite an array of buzzwords from the rail world. TUAG (Turn Up And Go) services, High Capacity Metro Line (does that mean Metro as in the operator or does metro mean métropolitain?), HCS (High Capacity Signalling) and so on.
What does this mean? Here's my take.
The announcement on 16th of February continued the shovels-in-the-ground theme, stating that platforms on the Pakenham-Cranbourne lines will be extended. I assume that a similar package will be announced at some point closer to the completion of the Metro tunnel (as the Sunbury line stations will need to be configured in the same way as the Pakenham/Cranbourne line is about to be).
Due to the nature of platform screen doors that you find in other metro systems around the world - the doors are in a fixed position and only open when a train is stopped in the right position at a platform - having a dedicated fleet of trains is going to allow the Melbourne Metro Tunnel stations (Arden, Parkville, Melbourne Central, Flinders Street and Domain) to have them.
I put a question to one of the Minister for Public Transport's aides: the Pakenham/Cranbourne line station platforms are set to be lengthened, however what about platform heights? Will platform heights be augmented to allow higher accessibility for wheelchairs/prams regardless of where a passenger is located on a station platform?
Existing platforms that are being extended will retain the same platform height and the new stations that are getting built as part of the level crossing removal projects will be built to the current standard: 1170mm above the rail head.
"The High-Capacity Metro Trains (HCMTs) will be built to a similar height as X'Trapolis trains, but it's worth noting that floor heights of a train vary in operation depending on the number of passengers on board", the Minister's aide said.
The design of the new HCMTs is still, presumably, being finalised - ditto for the platform extensions - however, we may see a more widespread roll out of the wheelchair ramps we see at City Loop stations now.
Pakenham/Cranbourne (and eventually Sunbury) line trains are about to be orphaned from the rest of the network, and despite platform clearances still required to cater for V/Line and Freight trains, there would appear to be a bit of wiggle room for the design of the new station platforms to match up - as best it can - with the new HCMTs, thus making it possible to completely roll out the wheelchair ramps to all stations on the line.
Because if trains are going to be running as frequently as the Victorian Government has said, minimising driver delays will be paramount and providing a uniform experience at each and every station for those who require the use of a wheelchair is the right thing to do.
From the same announcement on the 16th of February, it was stated: "more than 70 kilometres of overhead power lines will be rebuilt, 20 substations will be built or upgraded, and a section of track in South Dandenong will be duplicated to boost reliability and support more services."
New and upgraded substations point to further sectorisation of Melbourne's rail network: it's likely a precursor to a voltage change in the overhead wiring in order to run the new, longer, trains operating on higher frequencies. This was also foreshadowed in the Melbourne Metro Tunnel business case document suite.
Will the Pakenham/Cranbourne-Sunbury line join the Brisbane, Perth and now Adelaide rail networks and switch to alternating current (25kV AC) or will we remain an Edison acolyte and stick with direct current, but at a higher voltage like the networks in Italy and Belgium? (Melbourne & Sydney rail networks operate at 1500V DC; Italian and Belgian mainline networks use 3000V DC).
From a passenger's perspective, the voltage used in the traction system matters little, however it would be a marked, technical, change.
The most recent piece in the enormous jigsaw puzzle that is the Melbourne Metro + Level Crossing Removal + HCMT project was the Minister announcing on Tuesday, via her Facebook page, that bids for the rail systems package have been received.
Up until this point, it's all been about physical things: the new trains, the extended platforms, the level crossing removals, the tunnel, the new substations, the new catenary. The rail systems package includes more physical things, however it's the train control and safety system embedded within the HCS - High Capacity Signalling - component where the quantum leap (in context of how we manage rail operations) will occur.
Maintaining a level of scepticism when jargon is thrown about by government is always healthy, and now two years on, all the components required to take two century-and-a-half year old rail corridors and blitz it into the realm of standard modern rail practice are all pointing in the right direction. Yet there are still some unknowns.
On the new power/traction components: will we start to see the roll out of line-side infrastructure to support storing energy generated by a regenerative braking system on the new trains?
As base-load power supplied to the rail network is predominantly supplied from coal power plants, this type of system is an economic plus as well as an environmental cost saving measure. The savings come from storing energy generated by trains braking on the line which can then be fed back in - less demand for power, in theory, reduces the overall power bill and it follows with less power required to operate the rail network, that's less coal burned - hence the environmental cost saving.
On intermodal integration: an unrelated announcement also recently made by the Minister for Public Transport was that bus operator contracts are-a-changing. Our first 'High Capacity Metro Line' can't just be fed by people parking cars at stations or riding a bike to a station, those people who live further than a comfortable walk away from a station need an alternative to driving to the station.
On the eastern side of this new High Capacity Metro Line, high-frequency bus routes exist in some places which interface well with rail services: the smartbus routes (which are sadly the exception, not the rule). Will we see more of these routes to the East and west of the city connecting with the new metro line and running on better frequencies to create a much wider, true, intermodal network?
How can this fit with an emerging decentralisation agenda? Specifically: the Monash National Employment Cluster is partially serviced by the High Capacity Metro Line (Springvale, Westall, Clayton and Huntingdale stations) but what of the 'last mile' into the precinct? Is the VPA factoring in a major bus route overhaul as part of its planning work?
On where the network will get its power from in future: back in January the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change (Lily D'Ambrosio) announced, to much surprise, that the Victorian Government will "voluntarily surrender renewable energy certificates matching the amount of electricity used by all of Melbourne's trams". In short, the power required to operate the tram network will come from renewable sources in future.
Is the same thing on the cards for the heavy rail network?