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You'd have to go back to the rail construction frenzy after the 1884 Octopus Act to find any project as big as the proposed Suburban Rail Loop. Connecting Cheltenham to Werribee around Melbourne's middle suburbs, it proved popular with voters in the 2018 election.
The premise of the SRL is sound; that is Melbourne needs much better orbital public transport. The SmartBus orbitals introduced ten years ago helped but they are too often stuck in traffic and have too many stops. They're still not straight enough and frequencies are lacking, particularly on weekends.
In ascending cost, improvements include traffic signal priority, frequency boosts, bus lanes, dedicated busways, elevated busways all the way up to light and heavy rail. The dearest of the lot is something underground like the SRL is believed to be. The ride experience between stations of this would be amazing; the nearest we have to a magic carpet around the suburbs. We just need to think about 'last mile' connectivity since stations themselves are rarely destinations.
Underground rail guarantees no interaction with surface transport so is fast and non-disruptive in built-up environments. However the trade off is that the per kilometre costs of tunneling makes even one corridor an expensive long-term project. Elevated rail costs less, provided a suitable corridor exists like along the Dandenong line. Surface rail is cheaper still, especially if you can run it through low value or underused areas like golf courses or low density industrial estates (that could eventually be redeveloped) and there aren't too many intersecting roads to grade-separate.
The basic trade-off is that for a given budget you get less underground rail than elevated or surface rail. The economics for underground only work where land values and passenger flows are very high. The high costs mean that it can't serve many places, creating a scarcity since locations with it are made so much more accessible relative to other places. That might translate to higher land values and pressure to intensify development.
An equal cost alternative might involve less heavy underground rail but an overall larger orbital network of lower cost per kilometre modes. This might be slower and have more stops. But it will make many trips faster as more benefit from a more ubiquitous network. Experts from groups such as Rail Futures have proposed a larger number of more modest projects with this approach in mind.
Both approaches have their pros and cons as you can see below.
Land use doesn't always reflect transport infrastructure provision. However having generally uneven access across a metropolitan area is likely to make accessible locations more in demand and therefore relatively more highly valued. That gives rise to pressures to increase density (and create a windfall for existing landowners).
In contrast a larger network spreads good (but not excellent) access across more areas. That reduces scarcity and lessens pressure for high densities. Medium density over a larger area might be the better use. Housing would be more diverse, with 'missing middle' row, town, villa, walk-up and low rise apartments being typical. Car use and parking would need to be contained to ensure safe and fast active and public transport in these communities.
If you wanted to intensively develop new suburban centres it may be easier to start with a few major deals with big institutions involving a small number of large sites that can be made extremely accessible through new transport infrastructure. The improved accessibility lessens competition, gives a location-based edge, induces land value uplift and probably reduces business risk. All are important if attracting customers, investors and finance is important.
In relation to road versus rail, new roads soon clog with traffic, slowing travel due to the demand they induce, whereas rail travel times are relatively constant over decades. One can thus see how a once-in-a-generation project like the SRL that delivers fast access to a few locations is compatible with long-term development and investment aims.
SRL's first stage will be between Cheltenham and Box Hill. It's expected to start in 2031. An article about this (with some dubious travel time claims) is here. What happens between now and then?
At least pre-COVID 19 there was an expectation Melbourne's population will continue to grow and traffic will continue to rise. Existing bus routes parallel to the Suburban Rail Loop, especially in the east, were already busy and had few large service upgrades for decades.
Universities in the suburban rail loop corridor have ambitious growth plans. Local housing is densifying. And local councils want more local jobs and a stronger role for suburban activity centres. Cars are terribly space inefficient, and, especially with rising land values, the spacial costs for their movement and storage are massive. And their presence in large numbers hampers urban amenity, walkability and efficient public transport, not to mention the movement of other cars when wide freeways and parking oversupply seek to funnel too many into confined suburban centres.
Preparing the ground for the SRL
What should be done in the ten to thirty years between now and when all stages of the Suburban Rail Loop opens? One answer is to improve direct bus routes that roughly parallel the SRL and serve its proposed stations. This would bring benefits including:
* Quick wins. Deliver fast mobility gains to major SRL destinations including Monash University, Deakin University, Clayton, Mt Waverley, Box Hill, Doncaster, La Trobe University, Broadmeadows, Melbourne Airport, Sunshine and Werribee to accommodate growth between 2020 and 2031-2050 when the SRL progressively opens. There are also political dividends, particularly in the east, where the SRL serves several marginal seats.
* Makes SRL real. Long term projects can invite cynicism as to whether they are really happening. Especially where completion is decades off. The early introduction of 'SRL SmartBuses' makes the project look real and boosts confidence. And it would be affordable given that you can do a lot with say a $20 or $30m spend per year (small compared to the $300m budget for planning alone).
* Prepare the ground by changing movement habits now. Even though SRL opening is a fair way off it's already desirable to rewire how people see their city. This includes the 'mental maps' of millions of Melburnians that shape their thoughts as to accessible places to live, study, shop, work, or establish a business. Then when SRL opens there will be established movement patterns that can switch over and guarantee success almost from Day One. As proved with the successful orbital buses, well promoted 'SRL SmartBuses', could be a good way to establish SRL-friendly movement patterns.
* Boost overlooked high patronage services. Some of Melbourne's busiest bus routes in Melbourne's east haven't had substantial frequency upgrades for decades despite serving key destinations and, at times, crowding problems. They happen to roughly parallel the SRL and justify upgrades even before SRL was thought of. The increased development impetus due to the SRL make service upgrades more important than ever. Some were discussed here.
The rest of this post will discuss high patronage potential bus routes near the Suburban Rail Loop alignment and how they can be improved to prepare the ground for SRL.
South east section (Stage 1)
This is the first stage of the SRL. The portion between Clayton and Box Hill contains the highest population density and the most intensive land uses. Key destinations along the loop include Monash Medical Centre (Clayton), Monash University, Deakin University and Box Hill (which has large hospitals, shopping centres and educational institutions nearby). It's no accident that bus routes in the area are amongst Melbourne's busiest even if it's common for them to come only every half hour.
No bus route exactly parallels the SRL. None of the main routes that go near it have a particularly intensive peak frequency (every 10 to 15 minutes is about the best). The SRL stations are a long way apart. This means that even after SRL opens many buses will still be needed in the area.
What if you wanted to prepare for SRL Stage 1 by improving local buses for the reasons outlined before? There are three or four routes you would need to upgrade. I discussed some of this in a previous Useful Network post.
Key SRL-paralleling bus routes involved are the 733, 767, 201 and 737, probably in that order. All parallel parts of the SRL in the east, especially what is likely to be its busiest section. See the map below.
All these routes have above average patronage on a boardings per hour basis. Even in gross passenger numbers routes like the 733, 737 and 767 carry more people than higher frequency routes. Despite significant growth of institutions such as Monash University and density around places like Box Hill their basic off-peak frequencies have remained at approximately half-hourly for thirty years or more. Thus they much need a 7-day service boost.
Here's a quick rundown of how you might upgrade the four routes involved.
201 Box Hill - Deakin University EVERY 10 MINUTES. Currently runs every 20 minutes. This is poorer than other university shuttles (which are every 10 minutes or better) and a bad match with trains (a 15/30 minute pattern on the Belgrave/Lildale lines interpeak). An interim upgrade to every 15 minutes or better is possible by incorporating the duplicative 768 route into an improved 201. However real turn-up-and-go service requires a 10 minute or better service. This is a very cheap upgrade, requiring just one extra bus to be run on weekdays only. More here.
733 Box Hill - Clayton 'SRL SMARTBUS' UPGRADE. This route actually goes further to Oakleigh but it overlaps other routes or has limited catchment on its last section. Box Hill - Mount Waverley - Monash University - Clayton is the busiest section that we concern ourselves with here. During peak times it runs approximately every 15 minutes, dropping to half-hourly off-peak and on some of Saturday. Sunday service is just hourly. As you saw from the graph above patronage per bus operating hour is exceptionally high and crowding can be an issue. Its Box Hill to Clayton section deserves an upgrade to every 10 minutes peak, 10 to 15 minutes interpeak and 20 minutes or better on weekends. Along with extensions to operating hours this could form a high quality SmartBus type service on a busy corridor. If an additional southern connection from Monash Clayton is desirable an option exists to extend the 733 SmartBus south to Moorabbin/Brighton via the existing Route 824 alignment.
737 Monash University - Knox City 'SRL SMARTBUS' UPGRADE. This route goes further to Croydon though it sometimes goes away from main roads beyond Knox City. It parallels the Suburban Rail Loop between Monash University and Glen Waverley. It's a good patronage performer. An upgrade to a SmartBus level of service with longer operating hours is desirable. Peak frequency could be 10 minutes, interpeak could be 15 minutes (matching trains at Glen Waverley) and weekend every 20 minutes (also meeting trains). This is about twice as good as the current 30 minute weekday off-peak and 40 minute weekend service. Service levels beyond Knox City could be considered separately as part of a Knox area network review.
767 Box Hill - Chadstone - Southland 'SRL SMARTBUS' UPGRADE. This route aligns with the SRL between Box Hill and Deakin University. Much of the 'heavy lifting' can be done with the 201 express as mentioned earlier but the 767 is still needed for intermediate stops and on weekends. 767's big benefit (that replicates the SRL) is it's the only direct connection from Deakin University to the south. It also provides a handy feeder to the Glen Waverley line and connection to Chadstone Shopping Centre.
Route 767 is less direct south of Chadstone, often serving local streets. However there is currently a poorly served but potentially strong bus alignment down Murrumbeena, East Boundary and Chesterville Rd via the new East Village development at Bentleigh East. The northern half feeds into the Dandenong line while the southern half provides connections to jobs at Moorabbin and shopping at Southland. It doesn't exactly replicate the SRL but is the region's strongest corridor between the Frankston train line and the 903 SmartBus.
A suitable upgrade could be to improve the 767 to a SmartBus between Box Hill and Chadstone, with a desirable direct Southland SmartBus extension in conjunction with reforms to local routes like 627, 701 and 822. Again current frequency is 30 minutes off-peak so a SmartBus upgrade would approximately double the number of services operated.
North east section
This segment will happen later. Possibly Stage 2. Or Stage 3 if the Airport - Sunshine portion is done earlier. However the later start makes it important to think about buses as these will be the only means of orbital transport for much longer.
Like in the east no one bus route directly follows the SRL's alignment. The routes most similar are the SmartBus orbitals (901, 902 and 903). However in their current form they miss the important La Trobe University cluster and are indirect to Melbourne Airport. Also missed by them is Reservoir (of local rather than regional significance) and Fawkner (not significant except for an Upfield line connection).
The map below shows how minor changes and extensions to existing routes can deliver orbital service to the most significant stops as a precursor to the Suburban Rail Loop. As most of the key routes involved are existing SmartBuses the costs for this section are low.
Here are the routes involved (from east to west):
903 Mordialloc - La Trobe University EXISTING SMARTBUS WITH EXTENSION. Route 903 is currently an orbital linking Box Hill, Doncaster and Heidelberg (just like what the SRL will do) before ending up at Altona. However from Heidelberg, unlike the SRL, it currently goes west rather than north to La Trobe University. This change would split the 903 at Heidelberg and extend the eastern portion to La Trobe University to mirror the SRL.
The western portion of the 903 between Heidelberg and Altona would become another SmartBus, something I've called the 904. If amalgamated with the 527 it could be cheaply upgraded to operate every 10 minutes between Heidelberg and Coburg as discussed here.
An option exists to extend the 903 from its new La Trobe terminus west to Reservoir. However it would then overlap the 561 and the 301 university shuttle. While the university shuttle could be deleted the off-peak SmartBus frequency (15 minutes) is inferior to the 10 minutes the shuttle offers. The cheapest possibility could be to leave the 903 terminating at La Trobe University and simply upgrade the 561 on weekends when the university shuttle does not operate.
536 Glenroy - Reservoir ROUTE EXTENDED. The SRL is planned to connect Reservoir with Fawkner. However there is no direct road connection. Of all the stopping points on the SRL Fawkner is likely to be the least active since it has no significant attractions (apart from a cemetery). Reservoir is more active but still largely of local interest. For completeness and to provide a basic level of east-west mobility it is suggested that the popular Route 536 (which starts at Glenroy) is extended from Gowrie to Reservoir via Campbellfield. This could replace Route 558 in the Reservoir area and permit a convenient same-stop connection for those travelling from Broadmeadows to Reservoir (as the SRL will eventually enable). As part of the extension Route 536, one of Melbourne's busiest bus routes that doesn't run Sundays, would gain longer operating hours and seven day service.
902 Chelsea - Melbourne Airport EXISTING SMARTBUS BUT MODIFIED. Route 902 is distant from most parts of the SRL but is parallel to it. However it gets nearer to it in the Keon Park - Broadmeadows area before getting more distant nearer Melbourne Airport. To make the 902 SmartBus more like the SRL, the following swaps with the 901 SmartBus are suggested:
a. 901 and 902 termini swapped so that 901 goes to Airport West and 902 to Melbourne Airport. This provides a simple and direct east-west connection from the Reservoir area to Melbourne Airport via Broadmeadows. The swap would not remove SmartBus service from any stop or add route kilometres.
b. 901 and 902 swapped in Templestowe / Greensborough area. Currently 902 operates only indirectly between the north-east's two largest centres of Doncaster Shoppingtown and Greensborough. Swapping with the 901, so that this goes via Eltham instead of the 902, would improve directness and make the 902 a better orbital, that like the SRL will connect Shoppingtown with Broadmeadows and Melbourne Airport. More on this here.
North west section
This section is simple. There are no existing bus services between Melbourne Airport and Sunshine. As a result even though many people can easily get to Sunshine from origins such as Watergardens, Melton, Ballarat, Wyndham Vale, Geelong and Newport, there are no easy connections to Melbourne Airport. A bus route to fill this missing link is suggested as per the map below.
500 Melbourne Airport - Sunshine PROPOSED 'SRL SMARTBUS'. A limited stops route to fill a major gap in the current network. Service frequency could be every 15 to 20 minutes over long hours, seven days per week. It would save a lot time but would need to be well marketed to succeed. This route might be one of the earlier SRL precursor routes to be introduced. It is likely to have a high public profile given public interest in airport rail which will likely operate from Sunshine. More here.
South west section
Sunshine to Werribee already has the Geelong line train that goes almost all the way to Werribee (Wyndham Vale and Tarneit). It's well used but frequencies are low (20 minutes off-peak, 40 minutes weekend).
The catchment between Sunshine and Werribee is largely light industrial. It is unlikely to attract patronage at the same rate that buses through dense residential and commercial areas would. For this reason no SRL SmartBus routes are suggested from Sunshine in this direction.
Instead there would be a greater benefit in improving Geelong line train frequencies (at least to Wyndham Vale) and upgrading Werribee area local buses that are known to be much better used than the metropolitan average. Ideas are mapped below:
150, 160 UPGRADE: Improve from every 40 to every 20 minutes during the day and extend operating hours. Improve peak service to every 10 minutes.
170, 180 UPGRADE: Extend operating hours. Improve peak service to every 10 minutes.
190 UPGRADE: Improve weekend service to every 20 minutes.
An option exists to improve connections to jobs in Laverton North from surrounding residential areas. The centre piece of this could be a new eastern connection from Tarneit to Laverton North terminating at Altona Gate or Sunshine. Route 417 from Laverton could be simplified and extended north to Sunshine while Route 400 from Sunshine could be run to Williams Landing instead of Laverton. Operating days and hours would suit local workforce needs. More on a more job-ready network here.
To summarise this change involves the following:
* Four new 'SRL SmartBus' routes (500, 733, 737, 767) of which three are upgrades to existing routes, mostly working the existing fleet harder.
* One extended SmartBus (903 Heidelberg to LaTrobe University) and an associated new 904 SmartBus to serve the western part of the 903 alignment.
* Two modified SmartBuses (901 and 902) with no additional service km or stops missed
* Upgrades and extensions to existing routes in the Deakin University, Reservoir and Werribee areas with optional western industrial area upgrades.
All routes suggested for upgrade have higher than average patronage. There is a strong case to suggest that they are currently underserviced. The upgraded suggested here would resolve this while establishing travel patterns and location decisions that would support SRL patronage when that starts.
It is likely that the cost of the entire SRL bus upgrade package would be in the low tens of millions of dollars per year. Some new buses would be needed but a lot of the extra resources would be to work our existing bus fleet harder by boosting interpeak and weekend service. They could be phased in with two or three of the above routes being introduced or upgraded per year. A lot could be done by the 2022 election, especially in marginal eastern suburbs seats which will be served by SRL Stage 1.
To put into context, this relatively small amount should be compared against other SRL costs, such as $300 million for initial planning and $50 billion for the total project. Yet boosting buses would mean that the SRL project could start delivering tangible gains within three years rather us having to wait 10 to 30 years for any SRL project benefits if the bus upgrades were not done.
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This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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