Elevated rail is more effective than trenching. So why is it so hard in Melbourne?

Elevated rail isn't new: this photo of Chicago's one dates from 1895. Image: Hulton Archive.

Tensions are rising in Melbourne over plans to use elevated rail to remove suburban level crossings. Sydney has already begun building its “Skytrain” project in the city’s northwest. However, the Victorian government is discovering, as have many before it, the travails of translating popular transport promises into big project announcements.

In January, as residents in ALP electorates along the Dandenong line in Melbourne’s southeast returned from summer holidays, they read tabloid stories of “secret” plans to build a “sky rail” to eliminate nine level crossings. Some logged on to viral online petitions condemning the idea.

Labor won the November 2014 Victorian state election with a plan to remove 50 level crossings over eight years to reduce congestion and improve safety. This was a rapid acceleration of an existing program, which had sunk railways at ten suburban crossings since the 1990s. People knew changes were on the way, but many expected the railway to be put in a trench.

What are the benefits of elevated rail?

Even as researchers long interested in these issues, it took us time to recognise the benefits of elevated rail compared to trenching. In 2012, we began investigating improved station designs for Melbourne. Could stations again become vital nodes in networks of civic public space, rather than neglected back doors to the suburbs they serve?

We set our graduate students the task of re-imagining stations selected by our local government partners. We used these designs to stimulate critical debate across private sector and government professional networks involved in many of Melbourne’s recent station upgrades and crossing removals.

An artist's impression of the Sydney Skytrain. Image: Sydney Metro.

We discovered that some form of grade separation was necessary to achieve a step-change in station performance. After three iterations of our design-research process, it became clear elevated rail had a distinct edge over trenching.

We have continued, with support from the Level Crossings Removal Authority, to investigate design parameters for level-crossing removal in Melbourne while documenting their historical legacies across the city.

Clearly, elevated rail can be done badly, but if done well there are many benefits. These include:

  • opportunities for multi-scale economic and social development around stations;

  • extended networks of linear parks and quiet streets for safer walking and cycling;

  • opportunities to reorganise Melbourne’s bus system and its rail connections;

  • superior passenger experience, views and way-finding;

  • greater efficiency: gravity aids braking and acceleration through stations; and

  • less disruption to traffic and trains during construction.

What about the objections?

Objections to elevated rail have centred on questions of overlooking, noise and shading. Such objections are frequently accompanied by calls for decked-over trenches or full-scale tunnels.

Visual screening from elevated rail is usually not necessary where viaduct height and train speed obviate overlooking. It can easily be achieved where necessary.

Reducing rail noise involves a combination of high-quality design and construction, good maintenance and, in places, low-height sound baffles. Freight, above or below ground, can pose special issues; in New South Wales, a compensation scheme supports sound insulation in homes.

Residents on the Dandenong line may need performance guarantees through post-construction monitoring. However, many living close to level crossings already anticipate an end to disturbances from train whistles, boom-gate bells and tyres bumping over rails.

Shading is more difficult. Negotiated settlements might be needed with some residents.

Decking is impossible on the inclines towards road crossings, since trains need clearance. It is very expensive and only for developers wanting to erect tower blocks above stations would it be attractive.

Deep tunnelling is typically about five times more expensive than trenching. That rules it out except in areas of very high land value, such as the CBD.

The shift from trenches to sky rail

Melbourne has a legacy of successful elevated rail, much of it in desirable suburbs. Yet somehow trenching became the default.

Between 2013 and 2015, our findings on the benefits of elevated rail were presented widely to transport industry experts, government officials and our academic peers. With growing acceptance of our conclusions in these professional networks, it was no surprise that tenders for level-crossing removals on the Dandenong line included options for elevated rail.

The state government was under pressure to act fast on the Dandenong line. Labor came to power just as the previous government was finalising agreements on an “unsolicited” proposal from a private consortium, led by rail operator MTM, to upgrade tracks and remove several level crossings.

The proposed works included plans for what the consortium called “level crossing-lite”. This offered no improvement to the urban realm. It also required the state to pay an “access fee” to MTM to use the upgraded track.

The incoming Andrews government, to its credit, rejected this deal. But that left little time to bring forward new plans to fill the gap and keep Labor’s ambitious electoral promise on track.

Finding new ways to talk about big plans

What options did the government have to bring people with them and not act so far ahead of public expectations?

In Melbourne, as in other Australian cities, consultation on everything from major projects to local development has been utterly debased. Few citizens have any confidence their objections will be heard or their fears addressed.

People with legitimate grievances often feel they have no option but to appeal to the tabloids. Political opportunists do all they can to fan the flames. In such a climate, broaching new or challenging ideas is fraught, yet there are clear imperatives for innovation.

Repairing this damage to civil society will require strong political commitment to more inclusive and open-ended processes of consultation and planning, along with evidence-based policy. Countless international and local models are available.

These new processes will need to weather the anger and distrust created by years of cynical manipulation. The government could start to take the heat out of the debate by providing some accurate comparisons of the costs and benefits of different options for removing level crossings for Dandenong and other rail lines on their list.

The alternative is to abandon the many potential beneficiaries of well-designed elevated rail – who are just coming to appreciate what this might offer – to the uncertain outcomes of a contest between a defensive government and the shrill voices of complaint.The Conversation

John Stone is a senior lecturer in transport planning at the University of MelbourneIan Woodcock is an associate lecturer at the School of Global, Urban & Social Studies, RMIT University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.