Negative net benefits
Third, the net benefits of the suburban rail loop will almost certainly be negative. This is not only because of the extraordinary cost; the other side of the equation is that it won't attract many travellers and the majority of those who do use it will shift from other public transport services.
Unlike radial train lines, where high levels of traffic congestion and high parking costs in the city centre make driving uncompetitive, the loop passes through the middle ring suburbs where driving is much more attractive. According to VISTA, 89% of motorised trips in Melbourne's middle ring suburbs are made by private vehicles.
In addition, the loop will have only 15 stations spread along 90 km, so the service isn't going to attract many walk-ups, who're usually the majority of train users. That compares with the existing Melbourne rail system, which has 219 stations for around 400 km of track.
The first stage slated for construction starts from the tiny shopping centre of Cheltenham and traverses 6 km underground to the next station at Clayton. There's a 9 km gap between Box Hill and Heidelberg stations; 10 km between Reservoir and Fawkner stations; and 13 km between the Airport and Sunshine stations.
The average travel time for a trip by car in the middle ring suburbs is 20 minutes. Most potential travellers living near the loop won't go to one of the 15 loop stations by bus or car, they'll simply drive all the way to their destination.
The government contends the loop will link suburban activity centres and drive jobs growth. The problem, though, is that only three or four of them qualify as major suburban job concentrations. Taken together, all fifteen centres account for a mere 5% of Melbourne's jobs (see Is Melbourne's promised loop rail line justified by jobs growth in suburban centres?).
A 90 km underground heavy rail line is a vastly over-engineered solution relative to any plausible level of patronage. It'll probably make sense one day, but not yet.
And even if the politically-inspired claim made by the government that it will shift 200,000 travellers per day out of their cars when it's completed in 2050 is taken on trust, that would amount to less than one percentage point of mode shift. A small pay-off for $50 billion and 28 years.
The wrong solution
Fourth, it's the wrong solution. The ability to travel orbitally with efficient connections to major radial routes is critical to a good public transport system, but the loop will be just a single mass-transit line in an urbanised area that extends circa 35 km around the CBD (but over 50 km in the south and south-east).
It will be of limited value to the great bulk of Melburnians who don't live near one of the 15 stations. Moreover, the paucity of stations means the bulk of travellers who live near the route must use another mode to access the nearest station at the start and end of their trip.
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