Friday, 30 December 2016

Tallying Years of Failed Planning - from Melbourne's Heavy Rail Dark Age into Renaissance

In the years 1930-2017, while Melbourne's population has grown FOURFOLD, the only major rail track expansion projects performed in the city have been the Alamein extension and City Loop.

I came across this map the other day, and was instantly struck by the fact that the Melbourne metropolitan railway network appeared more extensive in 1930 than it does today.

Melbourne Electric and Suburban Railways map, 1930s

And it's an interesting case study of how transport priorities shape a city's development.

Settled in the 1830s, and booming by the 1850s, Melbourne's core was established in the pre-automotive era. The only private transportation option for almost all early Melburnians rich or poor was the horse /and cart/carriage, and horses required stabling and intensive daily "maintenance". So unless you were a business owner who needed to transport heavy goods, or were well enough off to afford servants to take on the chores, chances were you relied on public transport and/or foot to make your way around what was an infinitely more compact city than we know today.

By the time the first automobiles began appearing on Melbourne's streets around the turn of the Twentieth Century, the rail network had been central to the city's development for nearly fifty years, and what was in it's day one of the world's most extensive cable tram networks had been steadily replacing the far slower 'omnibus' network of horse-drawn trams since 1885.

By the 1900s, the driving force for new railway lines were the farmers and loggers beyond the city's core suburbs seeking primarily to get their goods into Melbourne. The growth of settlements beyond the city fringe essentially followed the spread of the railways, and there were no "car commuter" towns as we would know them. The only sensible and efficient way to head in to "town" for most was by train.

Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1930s

Melbourne in the 1930s - Another World

By 1930, Melbourne's population was around 1 million, or 22% of its current size. The metropolitan south-east ended around Moorabbin. Circling round anti-clockwise you'd find not much but bush settlements beyond Camberwell, Heidelberg, Preston, Coburg, Broadmeadows, Essendon, Footscray or Williamstown.    

Even by well into the 1930s, petrol-driven cars were mostly expensive luxuries affordable only by the few. In 1922, a population pushing towards one million people owned just under 45,000 motor vehicles, a rate of ownership well under 5%. Prior to the introduction of the Metropolitan Road Code in 1936 there were no speed limits on Melbourne roads, no requirement to keep left, nor park in any particular place (see picture above), so the city's roads in the 1930s were still rather unruly and dangerous places.

So, at the time this map was made, the vast majority Melburnians remained dependent upon the now extensive public transport system to go about their business.

Many planned extensions of the rail network were interrupted by World War Two, after which time planning modes had begun to give primacy to the private motor vehicle, and investment in rail disappeared from the policy agenda.

Following the completion of the Glen Waverley line in 1930, the Ashburton line was extended to Alamein in 1948, but these were the only non-electrification extensions until the City loop opened in 1980. As a measure of how few votes politicians thought there were in public transport, even as recently as the early 1990s, Jeff Kennett seriously entertained a proposal to completely close the Alamein, Williamstown and Upfield lines and replace most lines with buses after 8pm.

Rail in Melbourne - What We Have Lost

Melbourne's historic rail closures are shown below. The yellow lines are those closed since the turn of the century, the purple are nineteenth century closures. The eastern purple is the outer circle line, partially replaced by Alamein. The northern is the Inner Circle.

The white lines are the modern track additions. The Rosstown Railway is shown by the line running St.Kilda-Malvern, now to be basically replicated by the Metro tunnel. The notoriously disastrous freight only service never turned a profit.

The green line is the current day Urban Growth Boundary, the orange line a guesstimate of the suburban boundary around 1930, the shaded area a guesstimate of the populated core without sparser/satellite regions.

Closed Rail Lines of Melbourne - Inner
Closed Rail Lines of Melbourne - Expanded

Melbourne Rail Closures - 20th Century

Melbourne Rail Closures - 19th Century
ROSSTOWN RAILWAYCLOSED1890s never took passengers

Today Kew, is of course well serviced by light rail, and the Port Melbourne and St. Kilda light rail services both have higher patronage than the heavy rail they replaced. Neither the Whittlesea nor Healesville closures were within the current urban growth boundary, and remain reserved for future growth, with the South Morang-Mernda extension announced only recently. So Melbourne has at least been spared the fate of many US cities who are only now replacing the rail services they ripped out fifty years ago. So far, so good.

Our 1930s rail map doesn't necessarily represent the high water mark for coverage of the suburban railway network, nor is it an apples with apples thing to compare to today, when a large number of these services were still provided by steam in 1930, the map includes services to satellite settlements, so a comparable map should perhaps include today's V/Line network, while the Melton service remains unelectirifed, so is that actually an effective comparable loss? It's actually quite hard to present systematically.

By 1930, Doncaster was already the obvious gap, but most everywhere else the city's development can be seen to have essentially followed the heavy rail corridors, and thus a reasonably comprehensive geographic coverage for rail. It does bear remembering that Doncaster remained largely orchards until the 1950s, and of course had already had the experience of Melbourne's first failed tram route through to Box Hill. These fringe satellite towns in the 1930s were essentially still rural in character and contrasted markedly with transport-enabled inner Melbourne.

The following table probably outlines things best - and it's the net km figure by period that maps it most relevantly. I've obviously not tallied the net kms prior to 1920, when most of the track was laid. So it's not a complete picture, but it's a telling snapshot of the last hundred years. I've assumed a 2020 opening date for Melbourne Metro. See the image below for an illustrations of the regions I've used.

And to reiterate this is measuring actual TRACK expansion, not electrifications of existing track.

Using final electrification as a common metric would make sense, but it just becomes an exercise and a half, and wouldn't provide a much more meaningful picture. The network was mostly electrified by the end of the 1930s, however both the Fawkner line to Upfield and the Reservoir line to Lalor had to wait until 1959. The Belgrave line wasn't electrified until 1962, Epping until 1964, Pakenham 1975, Sydenham 2002, and Melton is still waiting.

Summary of Melbourne's Net Rail Track Loss/Gain by Period
PeriodKms of rail lostKms of passenger rail lostKms of passenger rail lost within Melbourne 1930Kms of rail lost within today's UGBKms gainedNet kms of passenger railNet kms of passenger rail within Melbourne 1930Net kms of rail within today's UGB


*assumes a 2020 date for Melbourne Metro Opening

It does all invite one very stark conclusion. Bar Alamein and the loop, all of the expansion in Melbourne's metropolitan train network since 1930 has occurred as electrification of existing regional track through the city. And if we were to break it up into 20 year blocks, it would essentially show total net stagnation for the past eighty to ninety years. Only Metro rail will tip the ledger back in favour of growth.

From the time it was last extended to Alamein in 1948, Melbourne's heavy rail network has essentially been relying on the same track infrastructure laid mostly one hundred years earlier.



Marvelous Metastasising Modern Melbourne

But as we've seen, the primary mode of rail network expansion in Melbourne has been via electrification, and this HAS enabled Melbourne to grow radially while providing heavy rail access to most new regions, albeit only in sites where the rail network already extended beyond the suburban fringe. The yawning transport black hole beyond the end of the Glen Waverley line looms as one of the city's most obvious historical planning failures.

So, as we've moved from the orange to the green below, the proportional geographic coverage of rail has declined. As the motor car removed the imperative to only create new housing within a finite distance of a rail station, so the sprawling hinterlands away from heavy rail that would have previously been undevelopable soon saw housing estates rising on them as the fifties moved into the sixties.

The arrival of television in 1957 compounded the extent of these external changes a still relatively young Melbourne was facing. Theatres closed all across town. A city which in 1956 saw enough demand from night owls and shift workers to run a twenty four hour tram network, had closed it by the end of 1957. Melbourne's CBD lost its primacy as a shared recreational or shopping destination for the entire city as car-parking enabled suburban malls took over. It took the CBD over thirty years for it to regain something of its former role.

The "green wedges" policy did to some extent force development towards the radial "spokes" of Melbourne's heavy rail network, but because the spokes are necessarily further apart the further one travels from the CBD, and where housing densities in these locations were significantly lower than historic inner Melbourne, huge blackspots emerged particularly in the outer east for anyone not within walking distance of a station.

And with a consequent decentralisation of employment centers - even heavy industrial areas actually have a very low employment density so are difficult to adequately provide public transport to, and frankly with a suburban bus network that has ALWAYS been third world, and which neither properly supports nor adequately integrates with heavy rail, we know what the outcome has been -

public transport in Melbourne now has around a 11% mode share, where in the 1930s this would have been somewhere like 85%, and our roads are permanently clogged with commuters instead of the commercial vehicles they are actually necessary for.

What's worse is the current mode share is only a recovery back to 1975 levels. Public transport mode share continued to plummet all the way to the 1990s. In 1997 it bottomed out at 7.7%, almost half the figure for Sydney, where today that gap is only around 3%. So something about this was a very Melbourne phenomenon. And wombat readers will detect a soapbox when I go on to suggest the less radial nature of Sydney's network, combined with its geography was a key reason why it was better able to cope with the "sprawl" era of planning.

But I don't suggest that era actually covers more than about forty years, around 1955-95. I would in fact suggest Melbourne hasn't planned for any major new housing developments in rail blackspots since about the mid-eighties, and some degree of policy lag is to be expected.



Calculating the Failure

The following map illustrates the current state of Melbourne's "preparedness" to cope with the next phase of its development.

The blue lines are current the heavy rail network with Metro rail. The pink are currently operating V/Line routes. The red are closed routes where the track remains reserved for future development.

Interestingly, the shaded core 1930s component when mapped with today's metropolitan tram system shows you pretty neatly around when we stopped investing in that network. Of course it's to the city's eternal credit that network was retained, minus the radial lines into Footscray, but it has, along with the already noted "spoke effect" of widening a radial rail network, created (or, some might argue merely enhanced) a great disparity in transport options between Melbourne's inner and outer suburbs.

But at a closer look, public transport black spots were already appearing around rapidly growing communities in the south and north east by the 1930s.

The other point worth making is that NONE of the track extensions even as far ahead as a vaguely proposed Metro Two tunnel have added a centimeter of track outside Melbourne's 1930 boundary. We haven't built a single skerrick of extra track for ANY of the multitudes living in the multitude of new suburbs we've built during that time.

However, the rail reservations created in the city's west, particularly those now created by Regional Rail Link ensure that we are unlikely to commit the more egregious mistakes of the past fifty odd years over the next.

The issue for discussion, as far as this commentator is concerned, is how far we can go in undoing the mistakes of the east, particularly as we acknowledge an urgent need to develop suburban CADs in those locations and build a future airport rail.

In case you haven't heard the broken record, readers, please see the link below for the beginnings of my thinking down that path.