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FRANK Merlino is waiting for a train that never comes. For more
than 20 years he has served as a councillor in the outer-north
municipality of Whittlesea, waiting hopefully as planners and
politicians have talked up rail extensions for the patches of fresh
suburbia sprouting beyond the reach of the Epping station.
During those two decades of disappointment, Merlino has donned
the mayoral robes three times. Most recently he was mayor in 2002,
when the Bracks Government released Melbourne 2030 - the ambitious
planning blueprint that promised to make public transport services
a key part of planning and development.
The plan talked about limiting urban sprawl, channelling growth
along transport corridors with fast, frequent links to the city and
concentrating residents in "activity centres" connected by an
efficient network of cross-city bus services.
At the centre was a bold target: 20 per cent of all trips would
be taken on public transport by 2020.
Melbourne 2030 also talked about trains - about extending rail
lines down development-lined corridors to places such as Epping
North and South Morang. Merlino got excited, and he wasn't
But some time during the past three years, something changed.
"Melbourne 2030, as it concerned Whittlesea, was a very good
document," Merlino says. "The reality has been different."
Train links that seemed on the cusp of being built have been
shelved indefinitely. In their place the Government has introduced
some bus services and promised more.
Other possible new lines, to Cranbourne East, Rowville,
Doncaster and Caroline Springs, appear more distant than ever and
the Government admits that enlarging the rail network is no longer
a high priority. Instead the debate has shifted to the serious
problem of a lack of local bus services in the outer suburbs and
the Government's stuttering progress in delivering them.
Rail extensions have become seriously unfashionable. Merlino and
others say the Government's 2030 vision has not been matched with
funding nor implemented with sufficient urgency to match the pace
"The growth that is happening here at the moment is just too
fast but there is nothing the council can do," the former mayor
says. "Once a developer starts, they're not interested in waiting
for services to be funded and agreed on ... they build their houses
and get out."
Transport Minister Peter Batchelor denies the Government has
allowed its plan to flounder by failing to act quickly. "This was
always planned to be a 25-year vision," he says. "When you put it
into its proper time frame, Melbourne 2030 has barely begun."
Critics argue that in three years a promising start has been
made on the other tenets of 2030 - drawing a boundary around the
city and concentrating development in activity centres. But they
warn that the vision is being endangered by a failure to
dramatically expand public transport services and say the
Government has opted for a cheap solution using buses that is not
capable of tempting outer-suburban residents from their cars.
There's nothing much to see at the Aurora housing development, a
few kilometres north of Epping - cow-dotted paddocks, some stone
walls and the beginnings of suburban streets laced between country
But during the next 10 years 25,000 people will call this
Aurora is a stark example of the way public transport is being
introduced on the urban fringes, starker still because it is
supposed to be a flagship estate, designed and run by the
Government's own development body, VicUrban.
In promotional material, Aurora is touted as a best-practice,
sustainable development. The project's website boasts: "With its
unique sustainable features, Aurora will demonstrate a better way
of living, providing an environmentally harmonious lifestyle in one
of Victoria's, perhaps even Australia's, most innovative
Transport is a big part of the pitch to buyers. On the
promotional map a blue rectangle is marked "railway station" and
publicity material claims that every resident will be within 800
metres of the train.
The reality is somewhat different. The Epping North extension
that would serve Aurora is, like the South Morang project, on hold
After the Government broke a 1999 election promise to build the
South Morang line, a bus service - dubbed "train link" - was
introduced in late 2003. Negotiations are now under way for
VicUrban to fund and operate a community bus linking Aurora to the
station at Epping. In this supposed paradise of sustainability, it
seems likely there will be plenty of cars.
Peter Newman, a key architect of the Aurora development and one
of the nation's foremost transport planners, is scathing of the
Government's failure to deliver on its 2030 rhetoric. "If there's
no train, it undermines everything there," he says. "The whole
thing was built around that connection. You can't make Aurora work
Newman and other public transport experts say that while local
bus services and cross-town "smart buses" perform important roles,
buses alone cannot service expanding growth corridors. Railway
stations provide a simple, direct route to the city and a hub for
local and cross-town buses to feed into.
"Buses need a focus point," Newman says. "If they're just
wandering around, even if you've got lots of them, they can't
provide the competition with the car that's needed."
Monash University's chair of public transport, Graham Curry, has
researched whether commuters favour some forms of public transport
over others and says it is a "no-brainer" that passengers prefer
trains to buses.
"Basically people prefer trains and trams because they think
they are more reliable, they have their own right of way and are
faster," he says.
Another factor is the simplicity of train travel; even the most
ardent car driver will know where their local train station is and
where the train goes to.
Put these claims to Peter Batchelor and you get a slightly weary
look and an exhalation that just might be a sigh. "A lot of public
transport advocates only recognise and acknowledge improvements in
public transport that are fixed rail. That's just one element," he
says. "... buses are an essential part of public transport
delivery. We are putting emphasis on that area and will continue to
Has the Government shifted its emphasis towards bus services
since Melbourne 2030 was launched? "Absolutely."
Clearly there is anger that the rail extensions have not been
built. Community meetings have been fiery and a local protest group
has printed thousands of bumper stickers reading: "Cut the crap.
Give back our track."
When initially promised, the South Morang project was costed at
$8 million, a relatively small amount. Why doesn't the Government
just do it?
Batchelor says priorities have changed since 2030 was launched.
Capacity problems have been found with the rail network that will
leave it unable to carry the growing number of passengers using
existing lines if nothing is done. Fixing bottlenecks such as the
North Melbourne station and adding extra track on lines such as
Dandenong has become top priority.
Batchelor says the Epping line could not cope with the extra
passengers and services that would result from extensions to South
Morang and North Epping. Single-track parts of the line need to be
duplicated and bottlenecks removed at the City Loop and Clifton
Critics agree that capacity needs to be added but accuse the
Government of tinkering at the margins when a revolution is needed.
Rail consultant John McPherson says capacity problems should be
part of the project to extend the network, not an excuse for
"Fairly minor projects have been ignored for 50 years all around
the system," he says. "Now they are wheeling them out again and
trying to pretend they are the reasons they can't do better. It
needs to be laughed at."
The next big project on the list is a third track on the
Dandenong line - expected to cost $1billion and not be finished
until at least 2011. But despite funding a study, the Government is
yet to commit to the project.
Could Victoria afford both a bold program of rail extensions and
the capacity-building works needed to keep pace with growing
patronage? Peter Newman thinks so, pointing to Victoria's booming
economy and massive budget surplus. But with Labor likely to lose
control of at least one house of Parliament next year, and with no
guarantee that the economic sunshine will continue, some planning
experts fear the best chance in generations to expand the rail
network is being squandered.
There are other options too. In Sydney, an improvement levy is
being charged on new housing developments that will fully fund a
new rail line - acknowledging the fact that adding rail services to
a development area results in higher property values (unlike adding
freeways or bus links).
Monash University's Graham Curry points out that other states
are not so reluctant to expand. "Brisbane and Sydney have
investment policies for rail ... Perth is investing in a massive
new rail line. Even poor Adelaide is expanding its light rail
system. We don't seem to be doing anything," he says. "I'm a
supporter of Melbourne 2030 but they haven't done anything yet.
They have to commit."
Batchelor denies claims that the Government has lacked the
boldness to implement its own transport blueprint, listing among
other things the $37 million commitment over four years for local
bus services in the May budget (a commitment that is less than a
quarter of the money the Bus Association and the Department of
Infrastructure say is needed).
He admits that funding will need a substantial boost if the
ambitious goals of 2030 - particularly the objective to raise
patronage to 20 per cent of all trips - are to be realised. But
Victoria's longest-serving Transport Minister rejects calls for a
sudden push to speed up implementation of the plan. "It will
require a substantial increase in expenditure over a long period of
time, it won't just be a once in a lifetime spend that can solve
all the problems," he says.
In April 2002 the Department of Infrastructure compiled the
Whittlesea Strategic Infrastructure Study - a comprehensive review
of the area's transport needs.
On the first page of the glossy document, proud endorsements
from Batchelor and then-mayor Merlino sit side by side.
The study lists the South Morang extension as the number one
priority for the area. The number three priority - a new bus/tram
interchange at the area's RMIT campus - has also not been
But something interesting happens when you look at the other end
of the priorities list. At number 11 is the duplication of Plenty
Road - a project recently given the go-ahead. Number nine is the
Cragieburn bypass, already completed, while number 10 is the
upgrade of Cooper Street, also done.
It seems there may be one rule for public transport and another
for roads; that the decision to focus on bus services alone means
that roads money can be passed off as public transport funding.
Asked if the Government is doing enough, Batchelor does little to
dispel such a suggestion. He lists tram priority and bus
improvements and then says: "We have also made a priority of
substantial investment in roads that link key centres of economic
activity, particularly in the outer metropolitan area, which will
also form the platform on which public transport is going to be
Trevor Carroll, who heads the rail alliance lobbying for the
South Morang link, says that the hope offered by 2030 has not
eventuated. "The introduction of infrastructure - particularly
light and heavy rail - is lagging far behind the residential
developments. These people will suffer social isolation, they'll
have to have two cars to get around and if public transport arrives
they'll never use it," he says.
Carroll says the Government has told him patronage of the bus
service will be used to gauge whether a future rail extension is
feasible. But while Batchelor says buses are providing a quality
service for the area, average patronage - around five passengers
per service - suggest few are using it.
"It's underpatronised and it's slow," Carroll says. "It's not
accessible for people with disabilities. It's an absolute disaster
and people are voting with their feet."
Rail consultant McPherson says the Government is wrong to give
up on trains. "There's a cultural problem in government that says
this stuff is too expensive," he says. "But there's a clear
understanding in the community that we are a First World city and
we deserve an expanding electric rail system."
Frank Merlino, still waiting for his train, is no longer
optimistic. "My belief now is that rail won't come here for many
years to come," he says. "I don't think that's satisfactory. At the
moment, as soon as kids turn 18 they get a car, then it's that much
harder to get them onto public transport."
Lament of a long-distance commuter
If you live in Footscray or Fitzroy, Camberwell or Coburg and
you don't understand why public transport advocates keep
complaining about the outer suburbs, consider the story of Patrice
A year ago, the 38-year-old banker and his wife bought a house
in a new development at Mill Park Lakes, in South Morang, where
they live with their three children.
Real estate types told him not to worry - a rail extension would
soon bring the train to his neighbourhood. He now realises it's a
long way off and wonders: "How can you appeal to people to move out
here when there's no transport?"
Each day, Le Miere rises at 4.30am and prepares for work while
inner Melbourne slumbers. At 5.30 he quietly shuts the front door,
setting out on the 15-minute walk to the bus stop. The 5.50 bus
takes him to the Epping station, where he boards the next train to
Disembarking, bleary-eyed, at Flinders Street Station he takes a
tram to his workplace in South Melbourne. He will arrive there
sometime between 7.30 and 8am. Miss the first bus and the next one
is 40 minutes away. He'll be late.
"It's unbelievably frustrating but the alternative is to drive,
and with petrol prices at the moment it's too expensive," he says.
"If public pressure is not put on Peter Batchelor and the
Government, nothing will ever be done."
Le Miere says the vast majority of his neighbours simply drive
to work. "You see less and less people catching the bus each
morning - they've just given up."
At night he repeats the sequence in reverse, making sure he gets
to the Epping Station before the last bus leaves at 7.41pm "If you
can't get away from work by 5.30 you struggle to make it," he says.
"It can be tough."
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