Analysis: the new tram route from Caulfield to Monash University and Rowville

The Premier's media release from yesterday says $3million for the new tram line to the south-east will be used "for design and planning works to examine alignments, park and ride options, stop locations, cost and travel time benefits." 

On a Channel 9 news report aired on their 6pm bulletin on Tuesday night, footage showed the Premier stating emphatically this money is not a repeat of the Rowville Rail Study under the previous government, it's to kick off the project in earnest with a commitment to build it and the planning work will tell them how much the project will cost.

From the little information that has been published thus far, we can ascertain the broad route would use (presumably) Sir John Monash drive to connect Caulfield station to Dandenong Road, then run in the media of Dandenong Road all the way down to Wellington Road and then follow that road's median out to Rowville.

Will it be a tram with tracks located on the surface in road medians, fighting for priority at intersections or a light rail system which would have some surface interaction but also its own right-of-way, segregated from traffic?  One would hope the benefits and costs of either scenario are studied when a route is determined.

One would also hope that it does not become a bog standard tram extension into a middle-to-outer suburban median like the route #75 which has to deal with all the traffic lights at intersections.

A light on the hill for the route outlined by the government is that Dandenong Road is already well set up for trams in the sense that there are long distances between major intersections and the only right turning activity is so vehicles can access service lanes between the signalised intersections.

The streetview below is typical of Melbourne's major arterials - this is one of the types of conflicts a new tram route in an arterial median must deal with.

Light rail and tram systems around the world also deploy priority signals and at-grade intersections where rail services must traverse a cross-road and this could be appropriate for cross-roads which have lower levels of vehicular traffic - for instance, Darling and Belgrave Roads would have less traffic than say Springvale, Ferntree Gully or Stud roads.

For the major cross-road intersections, the government should be opening their wallets a little more and build the new tram/light rail line with grade separation, especially if speed/time is the goal.

Even though stations are marked in the video from the Minister for Public Transport's facebook page, that could change given the statement the Premier made on route and station determination.

As frustrating as the government's media strategy of only focusing on 'announcables' without providing a bigger picture, it's left to us to tie everything together.

When we consult the draft framework plan for the Monash Nation Employment and Innovation Cluster, we see two major 'business town centres' - one located on Ferntree Gully Road and another between the to-be-built Westall Road intersection and the Springvale Road intersection on Wellington Road.

Both of these two new business town centres are surrounded by areas earmarked for further higher density employment spaces.  The scale on the image below has been cropped for image fit purposes but the circles at Monash University, Westall station and on Dandenong Road between Blackburn and Westall Roads are earmarked for 'enhanced / future activity centres' in the draft framework plan.

The draft Monash NEIC framework plan. Image: VPA

In the absence of a published network development plan for trams (or an updated version of the heavy rail plan for that matter), part of the corridor that's set to get some budget money love has been studied before - the Rowville Rail Line study.

The previous government studied both the Rowville and Doncaster corridors and although they were focused on heavy rail, some of the research from the Rowville rail study is still relevant, especially when it comes to alignment and station location within Wellington Road.

In the Rowville Rail study, the preferred corridor was fully grade separated with either sunken stations (Monash University, Waverley Park) or elevated stations (Mulgrave/Springvale Road, Rowville) following median of Wellington Road in tunnels or on elevated track.

Utilising light rail technology, as the government appears to have decided, actually gives them a capital cost advantage: trams/light rail vehicles can comfortably traverse higher grades than a heavy rail line which in some cases will negate the need for tunnels and elevated sections when you compare to the Rowville Heavy Rail alignment.

Likewise, light rail 'trains' are shorter and therefore they occupy potential conflict areas (like an at-grade intersection) for shorter periods of time and can clear stations much faster.  This aids in pushing the limits on frequency of service and potentially converging lines on potential future expansions.

Smaller vehicles running on higher-frequencies - as long as the service is still rapid - also has the added benefit, especially for the outer east as under the Rowville Rail Study (and subsequent PTV network development maps back this up) the peak frequency in a heavy rail scenario was only ever going to be a train every 10 minutes. 

A service every 4 minutes is much better from a passenger's perspective than 10 minutes - and note this is peak service, it's reasonable to expect that off-peak frequencies will be in the 6-8 minute range for trams versus a 15 minute off peak heavy rail service.

The Rowfille Rail Study was focused on connecting suburbs to the radial network - it went out of its way to exclude connecting major nodes like Chadstone - and a plus for this government announcement (regardless of the fact that context is fuzzy in the absence of a wider network development plan) as it shows the focus is on the jobs in Monash-Chadstone, not just on the CBD.

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