Saturday, November 13, 2010

Transport Priorities.

I was glad to read in the Monash Memo (the weekly newsletter of Monash University, where I work) that in campaigning for the forthcoming State election, the Labor Party has pledged an upgrade of Huntingdale station, which is the closest station to the uni (coming from Melbourne). In addition, they’ve promised a 3–4-minute frequency bus service from the station to Monash. Now, this won’t normally directly affect me at present, but it’s welcome news for the university nonetheless.

I was not so glad to read in the Monash Memo, however, precisely nothing about the Green Party’s plans for the same station. This is quite odd, because the Greens’ promises include an actual branch line from the station to the university, with train services direct from the city centre to Monash and on to Rowville. This would be a far greater boon for the university. The argument might be made that the Greens are unlikely to win the election, but they’re set to gain at least a few lower house seats on the back of their success in the Federal election earlier this year, which could well give them the balance of power and enable them to implement at least some of their policies. The argument might also be made that they’re unlikely to win in part because people don’t realise that they have any policies other than “be nice to trees”, and that giving their actual policies news space might help change this misconception.

The Liberals have promised to “plan for” the Doncaster rail line, which was first proposed in 1890. That’s not a typo. This line was planned for more than a century ago. It’s been planned for many times since then. It has been planned for enough that construction was begun in 1972, only to be abandoned and shelved almost immediately. Sure, the times have changed, but its necessity has only increased, as the Doncaster area remains the largest part of Melbourne served neither by trains nor by trams. And when it comes to political promises, I’m savvy enough to read “We will do X” as meaning X is the most we will do. The Greens, once again, are on the ball: they will fund the construction of the line, as well as the Monash-Rowville branch and other upgrades and extensions, with the savings from cancelling the government’s planned freeway tunnel from Bulleen to Greensborough. I made a similar proposal in a report at Monash a couple of years ago.

When it comes to public transport, the policy of both major parties seems to add up to “more of the same”; sure, they’ll continue adding bus services piecemeal, and they’ll slap Metro on the wrist if more than 20% of the trains are more than five minutes late, and they might reopen a closed station or two, and if the stars are right myki might be ready for primetime this side of the Apocalypse. But we haven’t seen any major suburban rail projects since 1930, and I won’t trust them to bring in the planned new underground line from Footscray to Caulfield until I see the line actually in operation.

I don’t mean to sound like a shill for the Greens, but on the other hand I rarely find myself agreeing so wholeheartedly with a political party. If I want to be honest, I’ll probably end up sounding like a shill in this case, because I’ll promote any political party whose goals are in line with what I want to see — that’s democracy. I don’t like all of the Greens’ policies — their fundamental opposition to nuclear power, for example, baffles and frustrates me — and I handed out flyers for the Secular Party at the federal election. I’m still likely to put the Sex Party first on my ballot paper for the State election (I’m given to understand that the Secular Party, whose policies are mostly the same as the Sex Party’s, aren’t running). But on the issue of transport — and here, as I’ll elaborate on elsewhere, I’d really like to see parties elected on a policy-by-policy basis rather than all-or-nothing — I’m siding quite emphatically and unashamedly with the Greens, and I urge all three of my readers to investigate their policies (and those of the other parties) and make the comparison for themselves.

P.S. (Post Snark): The party websites I used for references are very poorly designed. I’ve seen better English in a printer manual than greeted me on the Liberals’ website, and Labor’s took about a minute to load a page.


  1. RE: your postscript, I agree... when I wrote about the hung parliament a while ago I found both major party websites quite mediocre. The Greens site is much more user-friendly, although it is kind of "young", what with that face wall and everything.

    The Greens are starting to look pleasantly three-dimensional these days, though. Yay!

  2. Mind you, a tunnel connecting the Eastern and Northern parts of the freeway network (MissingLink?) would be nice — it'd divert a fair bit of traffic from the inner suburbs that didn't want to be there in the first place, and it'd make Melbourne a smaller place, reducing economic friction.

    What's your opinion on the statistics that, on the whole, modern cars are more energy-efficient than public transport? Obviously, that doesn't cover aspects like parking and congestion, but those would seem to be quite separate arguments to the green one. A modern car takes a bit over 1 MJ/passenger-km, and only the Japanese are even claiming anything less than that for commuter rail.

    Finally, given that prototype autonomous cars are already roaming around California, and are therefore likely to arrive sooner than Rowville Rail, and will almost certainly change patterns of transport a lot (but nobody can predict how), is it wise to spend money on a rail line that will probably be passé before it's even completed? This doesn't apply to the cross-CBD tunel; that'll almost certainly still be useful no matter what happens. But out in Rowville? Something like a park'n'ride scheme (maybe at Dandenong) would probably be a lot cheaper and more effective in the short term while we wait how the medium term turns out...

  3. The Greensborough tunnel would definitely be nice — I've negotiated the usual present route from the Eastern Freeway to the Northern Ring Road and experienced my share of bottlenecks — but I don't see how it would divert much if any traffic from the inner suburbs, and like any major transport project I expect if anything it would worsen Melbourne's sprawl. Regardless, I think that if given the choice between spending $6 billion on 5km of freeway, or $4.6 billion on 32km of new railways + 23km of railway upgrades + 17 railway stations + 9km of new tramways, I'm going to go for the latter option (and keep the remainder of funding in reserve — you know how the cost of these things always blows out). It would serve a lot more people, a lot more regularly and on a much longer-term basis.

    Do the statistics you're using take into account the fact that electric motors, as used in our trains and trams, are about four times as energy-efficient as petrol engines? Also to be considered is the amount of energy it takes to get the oil out of the ground, refine it, and distribute it to end users — which is far greater than the amount of energy it takes to mine coal, burn it and subsequently distribute electricity to trains and trams. (The same arguments, of course, apply in favour of electric cars, but they're many years yet away from mainstream and they still have the substantial initial cost that public transport does not.) Too often we're deceived by things seeming greener and cleaner at the consumer's end, ignoring the things that happen before the product gets to us — the gas-guzzling Hummer, for example, actually uses a lot less energy in the course of its manufacture than the "eco-friendly" Toyota Prius.

    I don't see autonomous cars taking off within the next few decades (if only because of the chilling effect that the question of "what happens when it goes wrong?" provokes), but I'd be happy to be proved wrong. I don't see, though, that they would make commuter rail passé, any more than ordinary taxis do. And the problem with only implementing short-term solutions is that when the medium term turns out, we're poorly if at all prepared for it.

    I should say at this point that I always look forward to reading your comments on WTA. We may often disagree, but you're always informed, polite and intelligent — a welcome change from the flamewars that online disagreements all too often descend into. *tips hat*

  4. Call me a cynic but since they widened the road and built the Bike Path of Fail I have lost all small remains of hope of the light rail that was supposed to be there.

  5. OC — thank you! *tips hat likewise*

    With the Greensborough tunnel, I was thinking it would divert traffic that is heading from the Gippsland/Frankston direction to the Northern suburbs, or vice versa, away from the current route via Domain/Burnley Tunnel and Bolte Bridge.

    I'm not sure of the details of the statistics — I think they're mostly based on energy at point of delivery, although there seems to be some accounting for transmission losses in some of them. Part of the problem is that while trains and trams are quite efficient when they're full, they take much the same amount of energy when they're empty — running outwards in morning peak to pick up another load, or in the off-hours to maintain a minimum service. Plus, of course, they have to stop at every station; regenerative braking can only do so much.

    Of course, public transport also has substantial initial cost, especially trains and trams.

    A lot of the car-manufacturing energy is accounted for by various proposed schemes for automated taxis, because currently most cars have very low usage ratios. Whether those will take off, I've no idea, even when automated cars do.

    The chilling effect of computer-caused accidents is, indeed, a problem. Everyone's making "blue screen of death" jokes already... On the other hand, the road toll from human-caused accidents is pretty high and it'll only take some skill and a modicum of luck for reason to prevail.

    With Rowville Rail, I was thinking more of the particular route being passé rather than commuter rail in general; with autonomous cars, will the area serviced by each station increase to the point that Rowville Rail will basically just duplicate the Dandenong line? On the other hand, you're right that we should be careful about putting off things we can do now on account of a perhaps nebulous future.

  6. PS: one question — I got talking with dad over dinner, and we wondered if anyone's considered trams for the Rowville Rail corridor, as a feeder for the existing rail. Unlike trains, trams can run at-grade, so the line should be much cheaper to construct (and involve much less disruption to traffic and locals).

    Even as a feeder, ideally it would still connect to the rest of the tram network (for service reasons if nothing else). Still, that doesn't seem so difficult; it can run up past Chadstone to Caulfield (down the middle of Princes Hwy), or there could be another line up and down Springvale Road intersecting the 75, which would have the virtue of feeding three rail lines along its length (four, if you run it all the way south).

    Do you know if that's been considered?

  7. Ah, I hadn't thought of that aspect of the tunnel. Regardless, I'd still prefer the Greens' plans for the money.

    As far as "initial cost", I'm talking about the upfront cost to consumers, which is much more significant for private cars than for public transport. Of course the initial cost is high to the government or organisation which runs it, but part of the point of having these things is that they can afford great projects which we as individuals could not.

    I don't see the Rowville line duplicating the Dandenong line; that area has been clamoring for a direct line to the CBD for years, and a direct line from the CBD to Monash is similarly superior to any park-and-ride scheme or the current bus system. Even with automated taxis, I don't see the situation changing significantly.

    I know that trams have been considered for the Rowville corridor in at least some proposals; the main one I read concluded that heavy rail was a much better long-term solution than either trams or buses. Trams wouldn't be any faster than buses along that route, and it would still require a change of mode at Huntingdale — even if the route were to join with other tram routes, which would negate part of the price and disruption advantage, changing to the train would be quicker for passengers going to the city, and vice versa.

  8. Regarding the train line being in planning for over a century. A similar thing happened to the extension of the Ghan from Alice Springs to Darwin. Apparently at Federation, the South Australian government got an agreement in that the Federal Government would fund the completion of the railway. Unfortunately, they forgot to include a timetable in the document...