Why the Melbourne suburban rail loop may be a white elephant
By Nick Hurley, MSc (Transport), 15th December 2023.
The Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop is a significant urban infrastructure project designed to address transportation challenges in the greater metropolitan area. Spanning approximately 90 kilometres, the underground rail loop aims to connect various suburbs, including Cheltenham, Box Hill, and Melbourne Airport, with the objective of improving public transport efficiency and accessibility for commuters. The project is viewed as a potential solution to alleviate some rail network congestion and enhance connectivity across the city for public transport users, but is it worth the enormous price tag?
- Why the Melbourne suburban rail loop may be a white elephant
- Costs and Benefits
- The key reason it may fail
- Other Issues
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- Economic Viability Concerns: The Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop faces skepticism about its economic justification, given its cost-to-benefit ratio of 0.6 to 0.7 and historical budget overruns in similar infrastructure projects.
- Car-Centric Suburbs Challenge Public Transport: High household car ownership in middle to outer suburbs raises doubts about the success of the Suburban Rail Loop, as historical trends suggest poor public transport uptake in such areas.
- Cultural Resistance and Infrastructure Bias: Melbourne’s ingrained preference for private cars, coupled with car-centric infrastructure in loop suburbs, poses a significant barrier to public transport adoption, with the sunk cost bias reinforcing car usage.
- Orbital Connectivity and Existing Infrastructure: Questions arise about the necessity of the Suburban Rail Loop for enhanced orbital connectivity, considering substantial investments in existing infrastructure like the Metropolitan Ring Road and EastLink.
- Political Motivations and Strategic Timing: The project’s announcement before a state election, coupled with the route passing through predominantly Labor-held seats, sparks suspicions of political motivations, prompting scrutiny over its alignment with long-term transportation goals versus short-term political gains.
As a major undertaking, the Suburban Rail Loop is expected to have far-reaching implications for Melbourne’s public transportation system. Beyond the immediate benefits of reduced travel times and improved accessibility, it is anticipated to impact property values, economic growth, and community connectivity.
This project is very different to the other two underground rail projects in Melbourne. Both of those are through the densest part of the city and are largely to alleviate capacity bottlenecks in the busiest parts of the network. This instead traverses the middle to outer suburbs to provide enhanced connectivity between most of the spokes of the highly radial suburban rail network.
The project has already generated much public debate around its economic viability, potential disruptions during construction, and the long-term sustainability of its impacts on the urban landscape.
Costs and Benefits
It will be the largest single infrastructure project in Australia’s history with cost for the first two stages of $29.2 billion (in 2022 dollars) to build. The western part, Airport to Werribee, has not had any costing released as yet. The cost of almost every major transport infrastructure project in recent years has blown out by significant amount, eg Metro Tunnel, West Gate Tunnel, North East Link, it is likely that this $29 billion budget will eventually be much higher.
The project already fails one of the most popular hurdles for public works projects – the cost to benefit ratio. With a CBR of only 0.6 to 0.7, most governments would cancel such a project. It must be mentioned that the denominator of the ratio relies on even less accurate methods to estimate benefits than that used for the costing in the numerator – highly unreliable and inaccurate quantitative transport models.
The key reason it may fail
Middle- and outer-suburban Melbourne are built for the motor car. Household car ownership rates in these areas are very high.
The average number of motor vehicles in each dwelling greater than one in every electorate the Suburban Rail Loop will pass through (2021 census data). Car ownership is as high as 1.9 in Sunbury electorate down only to as low as 1.4 in Footscray, with very few car-less households. This needs to be compared to the soon to be completed Melbourne Metro Tunnel project, which passes through some of the areas of lowest household car ownership in all of Australia. Instead, the rail loop will exclusively pass through suburbs with a healthy interest in the motor car.
In Australia, building public transport in already established areas with a very high degree of car ownership has historically resulted in very poor uptake. Public transport projects in areas with a high degree of existing public transport dependency are likely to do far better.
Although the activity centres that the new loop line will pass through such as Clayton and Glen Waverley have a lot of planned high-density development, new residents will still be inclined to own a car in these areas as the whole urban form of these suburbs is centred around the car. Unless they are travelling somewhere on the loop route, they will still need a car to get anywhere else. These suburbs were built for the car. They have wide, high capacity roads, copious on-street parking, drive-through restaurants, large shopping centres with large car parks, all connected together with well-planned arterial road and freeway networks. These suburbs are a car user’s dream.
Once people own a car, they are very unlikely to want to get out of it and use public transport, particularly when there are already extremely high standard, well-built arterial road and freeway networks. Part of this is also the sunk cost bias of the individual, after investing many tens of thousands of dollars in a motor vehicle, people would rather extract the value from their ‘investment’ rather than buy a train ticket.
The dominance of private vehicle usage in suburban Melbourne reflects entrenched cultural preferences and significant infrastructure investments in road networks. Consequently, introducing public transport initiatives requires a delicate balance between addressing the convenience and flexibility associated with private cars and promoting the benefits of a well-designed, efficient public transportation system.
For strategies to be successful in these types of areas, meticulous planning needs to be done to identify and cater to specific commuting patterns, ensuring seamless integration with existing road networks, and employing innovative technologies to enhance user experience.
Sadly, typically, overcoming the ingrained reliance on private cars in Melbourne has in the past relied upon ‘stick’ measures of making car usage less attractive than simply by offering more public transport options. Examples of stick measures are soaring petrol prices as observed in the mid 2000s and parking levies added to CBD parking in central Melbourne.
Is more orbital connectivity needed?
Additionally, is the project really offering any enhanced level of rapid orbital connectivity? Melbourne already has a very expensive piece of soon to be completed orbital infrastructure – it’s called the Metropolitan Ring Road, North East Link, Eastern Freeway and EastLink.
It is difficult to overlook the political motivations
Additionally, it is difficult to overlook some scepticism of the motivations for such a project. It was announced in the leadup to a state election and the route of it runs through almost all Labor-held seats, many of which do not fit the classic definition of ‘safe’.
Melbourne has a soaring population and ever-increasing demands on its transport infrastructure. Public transport, most notably rail transport, has suffered from a chronic underinvestment throughout much of the last 70 years, leaving it hungry for investment and modernisation.
It is indeed a noble idea to want to link together the existing radial Melbourne rail network with fast, modern trains. However, doing it in the middle to outer reaches where the population density is low, the distances long and the car ownership high, places the project’s viability on very shaky foundations.
Is this really the best way to be spending $29+ billion?
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