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The crash site (via Luke66683251)
Ballarat Station is right next to Lydiard Street, and the level crossing there is unique in Victoria for its heritage swing gates. Approximately a century old, the gates cross the railway line by default, allowing cars through, and swing around to cross the road and allow trains through when required. At various points in past decades, there have been proposals to replace the heritage gates with more modern boom gates, but the people of Ballarat have been pretty adamant that the gates form part of the heritage aesthetic of the station precinct and they want to keep them for as long as possible.
Late on Saturday night, a V/Line passenger train ploughed through the heritage gates at speed, severely damaging them and only coming to a halt beyond the Doveton Street level crossing, several hundred metres away. The investigation into how this happened will take time - given the stopping distance it seems clear that the train ran through Ballarat station at some speed, but it's not yet clear why. Regardless, though, the extensive damage to the heritage gates will mean we need to think about what the future of this crossing should be.
Ballarat's level crossings
The Victorian government's Level Crossing Removal Program is an incredibly worthwhile one, grade separating level crossings throughout Melbourne (1). These are all dangerous and all cause congestion - if to varying degrees - and the current program represents a huge step towards eliminating all of them. Hopefully it becomes a rolling program, where more are removed each term of government until they're all gone.
But there are quite a few regional crossings that are dangerous and congested as well, and eventually attention is going to need to turn to these. Within the built-up area of Ballarat, there are eight - and it's probably worth a detailed look at all of them at some point, but given Saturday's incident, clearly Lydiard Street is the one we need to focus on now.
The status quo
The Lydiard Street crossing is a very constrained site, with Ballarat station and the heritage Armstrong Street bridge immediately adjacent along the railway line, and a number of heritage houses and commercial properties adjacent along the road. The status quo, with the manually-operated heritage gates in use, combined with the fact that Ballarat Station is the only place trains can pass each other in the area, meant that the gates are very slow to operate and that they stay closed for long periods of time in the peaks - when two trains are passing each other, the gates will generally close well before the first train arrives, stay closed while both trains are sitting at the platforms, and not reopen until the second train has well and truly passed through. Even setting aside the damage caused by this accident and what will probably be a very expensive exercise to repair the damage done, they are very difficult and expensive to maintain compared to modern boom gates.
So what are our options, and what are the pros and cons of each?
Ballarat Station and its heritage gates in 1967 (via John Ward)
Reinstating the heritage gates as-is
This option would bring us back to the status quo. It'd be fairly expensive, both in the sense of repairing the existing gates and in the sense of ongoing maintenance costs. We'd still have the negative aspects we currently have, including long closure times for each train movement, poorer reliability than more modern gates, and the potential for crashes that is inherent in any level crossing.
On the plus side, it would retain the heritage of the station to its current standard.
Replacing the heritage gates with modern boom gates
This would be by far the cheapest and easiest option. It might arguably also mean a small improvement in safety.
On the other hand, it wouldn't represent much of a safety improvement - any level crossing is dangerous, and boom gates wouldn't eliminate that risk. And from a heritage/aesthetic perspective, it's not a great outcome.
Rail-under or rail-over grade separation
Any option that involves moving the rail line is essentially not feasible. Trains need slow, gradual inclines and there is simply not enough space for the line to go far enough up or down after leaving Ballarat station. It's clear that the line will need to remain at-grade.
Road-under or road-over grade separation
Sinking the road into a trench would also be extremely impractical. Cars can handle steeper grades than trains, but you still can't drop them too steeply - you'd need to start the descent about 100m away from the rail line. This would mean turning Doveton Crescent, Ararat Street and Market Street into dead-end roads, and would block vehicle access to the station forecourt - meaning no more coach bays, and no more cars or taxis at the kiss-and-ride.
These streets and the station forecourt would still be accessible by pedestrians, but the trench would act as a barrier for pedestrians filtering across Lydiard at any point except the signalled crossings. It's hard to say how this might go from a heritage perspective - you'd still have fairly unimpeded views of the heritage station from the footpaths, and from say the Provincial, but there's no denying it'd be a massive change to the ambience of the precinct.
A road-over option would be quite similar to a road-under option in most of its outcomes, but with the added negative of placing a dirty great bridge in front of the station. This would be absolutely hideous from a heritage and aesthetic perspective.
Using the heritage gates to block the road permanently
In this scenario, the heritage gates would be repaired, placed across the crossing in the "closed" position - ie blocking cars but letting trains through - and fixed permanently in place (2). Pedestrians would continue to use the adjacent crossings, which have more modern barriers that are activated when trains pass through; but without the association with the slow road barriers, they would be closed for much shorter periods of time every train movement than they are now.
This would still require the gates themselves to be repaired, but the mechanisms for opening and closing them would not need to be repaired - nor would they need to be maintained in the future. So it's one of the cheaper options on the cards. It would maintain the heritage look of the precinct - it would honestly be almost indistinguishable from how it looked last week.
It would mean permanently stopping vehicle movements over the crossing, which some people would no doubt be upset about. But in all honesty it probably wouldn't add to local congestion - at peak times the crossing is already closed for substantial periods of time anyway, and if people know for certain that it's closed they can route around it in advance, crossing the corridor at Armstrong or Peel Street (or Doveton, Macarthur, etc depending on where they're coming from). There are residents in that first block of Lydiard Street north of the railway line who would no doubt welcome the reduction in through-traffic hooning past the front of their houses.
Buses theoretically use the crossing now, after finishing one route and before starting another, but in practice this doesn't happen a lot of the time. Many buses go over the Armstrong Street bridge in order to park in the layover bays on Ararat Street between runs; and of course, when there's a train coming through the crossing they often go via Armstrong in order to avoid waiting. In any case, once the bus interchange is built, this will become a non-issue.
If the government were adamant that they wanted to leave the road open and grade separate it, road-under is probably the best option. But it'd be hugely expensive - not only would you need to do the extensive grade separation, you'd need to completely reconfigure the coach bays to the north side of the track. And for all that money, not great outcomes.
While I'm sure the government will be tempted to replace the heritage gates with more modern boom gates, this would not be significantly safer than the status quo - and quite frankly, the people of Ballarat won't stand for the heritage downgrade.
All in all, I think closing the crossing and fixing the heritage gates in place is the best option at this point. If this crash hadn't happened, it would have made sense to maintain the status quo for the foreseeable future - but now that it has, and we're presented with a choice of how best to spend our money, this seems to be the best option. Cheap, safe, good for amenity - a good result all round.
1. Some of the crossings are listed as "Non-Metro" because they're beyond the electrified Metro trains network, but they are all located in suburban Melbourne.
2. EDIT: I knew I'd seen this actually done in a few places before but I couldn't remember exactly where - Daniel pointed out there are some examples on the Upfield line. Looks like Barkly, Phoenix and Tinning Streets are good examples, though their heritage gates don't look quite as nice as Ballarat's.
This article first appeared on the-iron-road.blogspot.com
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