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TO GET from his home in West Footscray to work in Abbotsford, Tom Ryan usually rides his bike. Occasionally he drives. But Ryan, who works in arts education, rarely gets the train - but not because he doesn't like public transport.
"It's disgusting, the overcrowding is just putrid," says Ryan, who is lucky enough to have an option to avoid the crush that has become the lot of Melbourne's 600,000 daily train commuters.
Skyrocketing petrol prices and rising congestion on Melbourne's roads have driven thousands of motorists out of their cars and onto trains over the past three years. About 30% more people are taking trains than three years ago.
While the growth has been strong across Melbourne, the biggest jump has come from the west, where in the past three years 13% more have piled on each year. And the system is creaking under the strain.
Since 2001, 10% more trains are late, and there has been a sevenfold increase in trains that breach overcrowding limits set by the State Government. Commuters are furious, and the State Government knows it.
Former British Airways boss Sir Rod Eddington last month released the results of an 12-month study he completed into how to improve the transport links between Melbourne's eastern and western suburbs. The Government announced the $5 million study in May 2006, as part of Meeting Our Transport Challenges. That plan stemmed from the wider metropolitan strategy Melbourne 2030, which recognised in 2002 that Melbourne needed improved - and better planned - transport.
On the release of his report Eddington had one warning for Melbourne's leaders: "Doing nothing is not an option."
But what is to be done? Eddington proposed "a generational step-up" to solve the public transport overcrowding. Along with a $9 billion road tunnel running from Footscray to Clifton Hill, he wants a new 17-kilometre rail tunnel built (at an expected cost of $8.5 billion) from Footscray to Caulfield.
The tunnel would arguably be the biggest infrastructure project in the state's history. It would also be the first major addition to Melbourne's rail network since completion of the City Loop in 1985.
The new Footscray-to-Caulfield tunnel, the Department of Transport says, will free up capacity in the centre of the city, making room for the extra passengers that would come from eventual outer-suburban rail extensions. Construction on the tunnel would start in 2011 and be complete by 2018. It would consist of twin, seven-metre-diameter tunnels, at a depth of up to 50 metres below the city, and as deep as 40 metres under the Maribyrnong River.
The tunnel would be dug in two stages: the first would be a nine-kilometre tunnel from Footscray to the Domain. The rail line would have new stops at West Melbourne, Parkville for the university, at Melbourne Central, Flinders Street, along St Kilda Road and at the Domain.
Stage two would be an eight-kilometre tunnel running from the Domain to Caulfield. To build it, only three properties would have to be compulsorily acquired - unlike the 18-kilometre road tunnel that will see up to 500 homes and businesses acquired.
Options for funding the rail and road tunnels suggested by consultants working for Eddington include running a state-run lottery, which is labelled "non-compulsory social taxation", and potentially putting in a new land tax. Others have suggested increasing the price of public transport tickets.
The public has made 75 submissions so far to the Eddington inquiry, most about public transport. Submissions close on July 15. Premier John Brumby will announce the Government's official response to the Eddington report in November.
There is division among transport experts about whether there is any need for a new rail tunnel, or if Melbourne's train system should just be reviewed so it can provide far more services on the existing track.
That scenario would be a damning indictment of the Department of Transport, which is charged with managing the system.
A report by engineers Sinclair Knight Merz and Maunsell, Transport Supply and Demand, written for Eddington's study, indicates that some simple changes would free up space on the network for far more services - and more frequent ones. Among the operational changes it suggests are: reducing "dwell times" at train stations from the current 42-second average down to 30 seconds per station; having drivers change trains at outer suburban stations instead of Flinders Street Station, which causes unnecessary delays, and; running some V/Line trains from Flinders Street, as was done until the 1980s, to free up track space around Southern Cross station. Many academics believe more should be done to make the current system carry more trains before spending $8.5 billion on new infrastructure.
The most strident of the critics against building the new rail tunnel is public transport advocate Dr Paul Mees, transport lecturer at Melbourne University.
Mees, who has examined the detailed appendices that accompany the Eddington report, says they show what he has argued for the past three years: that the overcrowding on Melbourne's train network is the fault of bad management, not an infrastructure gap.
"Every excuse the Department of Transport presents for not fully utilising the available track capacity is an example of bad management that could and should be corrected," Mees says.
"It is simply scandalous that the department wants to spend $8.5 billion of public money on unnecessary infrastructure instead of just fixing the problems."
Mees believes Flinders Street and the City Loop could handle twice as many suburban trains as they do now. To clear up the network, he suggests running V/Line trains to the Latrobe Valley from Flinders Street.
Mees also believes that by reducing the time trains stopped at stations - often up to one minute at some stations - far more trains could run at rush hour. And he suggests train crews could change at suburban locations, rather than at Flinders Street, where trains sit for between two and 10 minutes while the driver changes to another train.
The Public Transport Users Association - which Mees headed for several years - concurs, and argues that 50% more trains could easily be run on Melbourne's existing rail lines.
"The whole prospect of building these tunnels when you have got daytime services that are so poor is just wrong," says president Daniel Bowen. "We don't have a capacity problem, we just use our existing infrastructure badly. If they go and spend $8 or $9 billion on a rail tunnel, where is the money going to come for anything else in public transport?"
But Professor Bill Russell, also at Melbourne University, believes that while there are some short-term fixes that could see more trains run, there is a long-term need for a tunnel to be built - but not Eddington's version of it. He argues an additional route from Footscray is desperately needed because it is a bottleneck. "But the Eddington proposal is a very expensive solution," he says, proposing an alternative: duplicating a rail tunnel already existing at Bunbury Street in Footscray, which is used for the standard gauge Sydney and Adelaide passenger trains and for freight. This would cut $2 billion off the cost of the Eddington proposal.
"That is enough money to make all of the outer-suburban extensions possible: Doncaster, Rowville, South Morang and perhaps electrification to Melton. If you did them they would cost about $2.2 billion," Russell says.
He agrees with most of Eddington's other rail proposals, saying the very high density of St Kilda Road easily justifies a new rail line under it. Most of all, Russell wants to see several proposals put to Melburnians to debate - and for the public to think about the city's future.
Eddington himself, in the days after his report was released, ridiculed opponents' claims that Melbourne's overcrowding could be solved via operational changes. Critics, he said, had proposed little more than "sprinkling pixie dust" on the problem to solve it.
"These people haven't run train networks, so they don't know," he says. "What they are saying is not only nonsense, but it's dangerous nonsense because it leads you to the conclusion that you don't need to build more heavy rail capacity. If you don't do this, the existing congestion problems will get steadily worse at a time when we are trying to encourage people to use public transport."
Eddington argues that even if every possible improvement is made to the existing system, Melbourne will reach its capacity by about 2014.
The State Government is believed to be surprised at the lack of public debate on the rail tunnel proposal.
Public Transport Minister Lynne Kosky, who would not say publicly whether she supported the proposal or not, instead encouraged the public to make submissions.
Others within the Government believe the rail tunnel must be built. Labor MP Carlo Carli, a trenchant critic of Eddington's $9 billion road tunnel proposal, says Melbourne needs the new rail tunnel. Carli says short-term improvements on the network will soon be overcome by surging passenger numbers.
"With the rail passenger growth up 30% in three years concentrated in the peaks - especially the morning peak - we are going to hit the capacity wall as Eddington claimed," he says. Metlink chief executive Bernie Carolan is a passionate advocate for the tunnel. He says there is no doubt Melbourne needs the rail tunnel to maintain the mobility Melburnians are used to. "We need a major transformation project to allow people to have the accessibility that they have typically enjoyed in Melbourne," he says.
The rail tunnel project is a "once in a generation" project for Melbourne, he says. Carolan says that while he supports shortterm public transport fixes, they should be coupled with a major public transport project - such as the tunnel - that will accommodate passengers over the next decade.
The Victorian Employers' Chamber of Commerce and Industry also believes the new rail tunnel should be built. "It seeks to address Melbourne's public transport congestion problems, particularly in the under-serviced western suburbs," VECCI spokesman Chris James says. "It is intuitively logical in that it seeks to include in the public transport net previously neglected areas such as St Kilda Road, the University of Melbourne and the medical precinct."
The intuitive logic for West Footscray commuter Tom Ryan is simply that train travel in the peak hour in Melbourne must be improved - and quickly. "My record so far, the times I have tried to catch the train, is missing two because I can't get on," says Ryan, who regards the bike as his first option, and the car as the second. The train, he says, is increasingly not an option. "I'd almost rather take a day off than get it."
Last year, Ryan got so angry about the situation he wrote to his local member, Labor's Marsha Thomson.
"She wrote back saying it had been noted," he recalls. "And nothing happened." Good thing then that Eddington has made his decree: doing nothing is not an option.
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