A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Traffic gets worse even as train services get better

Despite 100 extra peak-hour train services a week, Melbourne’s roads are more congested than ever – and an RACV report blames boom gates.

Words and pictures by Hugh McMaster

The RACV’s 2014 Redspot survey found five of the top 10 traffic snarls were at, or near, one of Melbourne’s 177 level crossings.

“Anecdotal reports indicate that [traffic] delays have increased as a consequence of booms being closed for longer periods,” said RACV manager (roads and traffic) Dave Jones.

New train services include 25 extra peak services a week on the Dandenong corridor, as well as additional services on the Frankston (10), Sydenham (45), Craigieburn (25) and Upfield (five) corridors, according to Public Transport Victoria spokesman Adrian Darwent.

But while increasing the number and frequency of train services has made the rail network more efficient, it has also had an unexpected impact: worsening road congestion.

According to VicRoads, 1.63 million cars took to the city’s roads on average during Monday-to-Friday’s morning peak in 2012‒13. In contrast, an analysis of 2011-12 Public Transport Victoria data reveals fewer than 190,000 people took the train during the morning peak.

Local councils and community groups regularly call for better and more frequent train services to reduce pressure on the road network, but successive state governments have been slow to respond. The result, according to the Federal Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, is a legacy of ongoing road congestion that costs Victorians more than $4 billion a year.

The delivery of seven new X’Trapolis-class suburban trains in late 2012, together with timetabling improvements, has allowed rail operator Metro to run more train services during peak times than ever before.

Traffic congestion is at its worst during peak hour, which coincides with the highest number of trains passing through level crossings.

Other factors, such as population growth, general road congestion, petrol price rises and greater environmental awareness, have also contributed to more Melburnians using public transport, according to PTV’s 2012 Network Development Plan — Metropolitan Rail.

This has resulted in “an unprecedented 70 per cent growth in train patronage in the last decade, which has stretched the capacity of the current [rail] network”.

This growth has also pushed Melbourne’s road network to breaking point.

“At current levels the road system would not cope with crossings being closed for significantly longer if more train services were run,” said Mr Jones. “Some crossings are already closed for 50 per cent of the peak hour”.

A map of level crossings scheduled for removal in 2014 and 2015. (Source: VicRoads)

The congestion problem is particularly serious on the Dandenong rail corridor where, according to PTV’s network plan, “numerous level crossings . . . make it unrealistic to operate more than 18 trains per hour”.

But planned service increases threaten to worsen road congestion along the rail corridor, Mr Jones said. Level crossing closures between Caulfield and Dandenong Stations were forecast to increase “from about 50 per cent of the peak period to 75 per cent or more”.

Across the rail network, commuters stand to be big winners from proposed changes to when and how Melbourne’s trains operate. PTV is currently developing a metro-style “turn up and go” rail service that removes the need for a formal timetable. The transport authority is also planning to buy high capacity trains that can carry 1100 passengers and, when necessary, be extended to carry more than 1600 passengers.

The proposed changes come after PTV modelling forecast a 130 per cent increase in weekday train travel on the metropolitan network during the next 20 years. Patronage is expected to surge from the 2011‒12 average of almost 740,000 passengers each weekday to 1.7 million passengers by 2031.

While greater investment in Melbourne’s rail network benefits all rail passengers, road users can look forward to longer and more frequent delays at level crossings. Fortunately, there is a solution.

Following the previous state Labor government’s lead, the Baillieu‒Napthine Coalition Government began planning and funding the removal of Melbourne’s worst level crossings when it came to power in late 2010.

Reconstruction works for the level crossings at Springvale Road (Springvale), Mitcham and Rooks Roads (Mitcham), and Anderson Road in Sunshine, were completed earlier this year. Fourteen others – including the notorious crossing at Main Road, St Albans, where six people have been killed – are now entering the preconstruction phase.

Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder said 26 level crossing removals had been fully funded over the past three and a half years, 18 of which were now complete.

“The other eight level crossings include four removals as part of the Cranbourne‒Pakenham Rail Corridor Project and a further four under the Level Crossing Blitz program.”

Both major political parties have pledged to continue the removals if they win November’s election.

Victorian Labor has committed to removing 50 of Melbourne’s “most dangerous and congested level crossings”, at a cost of $5 billion to $6 billion.

Labor’s planned crossing removals.

The pledge is detailed in the party’s roads and rail election manifestoProject 10,000.

Funding for the removals would come from the Victorian Transport Building Fund – a “dedicated transport investment fund” that Labor would establish on winning the election – and “the long-term lease of the Port of Melbourne”.

But Mr Mulder said that at least 13 of the level crossings identified by Labor as needing removal were already in planning or pre-construction.

“In the 11 years Labor was in government they removed only eight level crossings. At that rate, it would take them almost 70 years to remove the 50 crossings they’ve planned.”

The State Government has provided around $1.8 billion for its level crossing removal program since coming to office. It also allocated a further $1 billion in its 2014‒15 Budget for its Level Crossing Blitz and Cranbourne–Pakenham Rail Corridor programs.

With the current road network unable to sustain extended periods of congestion, the State Government has chosen to remove each level crossing by “grade separation” – a process where a road is separated from a railway line by constructing either an underpass or bridge.

A  2007 report produced by the Victorian Department of Transport said the level crossing removal works were vital to preventing a traffic meltdown, with some crossings estimated to carry “nearly 40 trains per hour at peak times by 2021”.

Improving commuter safety is another key reason for removing level crossings. Between 2009 and 2013, 17 pedestrians died and 12 others were injured after they were struck at level crossings by passenger trains, according to Transport Safety Victoria data.

Over the same period, there were 57 reported collisions between passenger trains and road vehicles at level crossings, resulting in 14 fatalities.

The TrackSAFE Foundation, an initiative of the Australasian Railway Authority, blames most level crossing deaths on pedestrians and road users failing to obey warning signs and signals at level crossings, taking shortcuts on railway lines or being distracted by mobile phones.

Frustration with frequent delays at level crossings is also a significant factor in these deaths, according to the RACV’s Mr Jones.

“Some frustrated motorists, riders and pedestrians take dangerous risks and enter level crossings when they perceive that they’ve been waiting too long or that there is something wrong with the crossing,” he said. “This is dangerous behaviour that not only puts that person at risk, but potentially also the lives of over one thousand people travelling on a crowded commuter train.”

While level crossings cause considerable delays to Melbourne’s motorists, they also represent a source of tragedy. Collisions and fatalities affect many people — from family and friends, to train drivers and emergency workers.

“As a train driver, once you’ve experienced a near hit or fatality at a level crossing, that crossing becomes a source of anxiety,” said Rail, Tram and Bus Union Victorian Locomotive Division secretary Marc Marotta. “Grade separating level crossings benefits our members because they don’t have to deal with pedestrians and road traffic.”

There is, of course, another benefit to removing level crossings. It would halt a constant disruption to traffic, estimated by a recent Department of Transport report at two hours (on average) per incident. This disruption can also be greater if “supplementary bus services or other measures” are needed.

Spotlight: Gardiner Station

Gardiner Station is located on the Glen Waverley line, 12km from the CBD. The adjoining intersection at Burke Road, Glen Iris, is one of Melbourne’s busiest and most congested level crossings.

An aerial view of the level crossing on Burke Road, Glen Iris. (Source: VicRoads)

In May 2014, the State Government announced a $457 million package to plan and remove three of the state’s worst level crossings, including the crossing on Burke Road, Glen Iris. Construction is expected to begin in mid-2015 and will take around 12 months to complete.

The Burke Road level crossing is one of five located in the state electorate of Malvern. All five crossings are located on the Glen Waverley line: at Kooyong, Glen Iris, Gardiner and Tooronga railway stations, and at Toorak Road near the Monash Freeway. The crossings all intersect major arterial roads – Glenferrie Road, High Street, Burke Road, Tooronga Road and Toorak Road, respectively – causing severe traffic congestion at peak times.

Approximately 26,500 vehicles, 158 trains and 186 trams cross the Burke Road level crossing every day, according to VicRoads. “During peak times, boom gates can be down for up to 47 minutes during peak hour, affecting traffic flow and queuing onto the Monash Freeway.”

State Treasurer and Member for Malvern Michael O’Brien told the Stonnington Leader that cars regularly “backed up all the way to High Street” – a major road almost 650 metres away.

“As a local resident I know how bad this intersection is,” he said. “It can take you longer to get onto the freeway than it takes to drive along the freeway and get into town.”

The City of Stonnington, host council for the Gardiner Station precinct, said it had been lobbying for the crossing’s removal for some time. “The project is a win for local residents and Council, as the State Government has confirmed . . . our preferred design option – a rail under road solution – as the most appropriate for the site.”

The removal of the Burke Road level crossing will completely separate cars, trains and trams, greatly improving pedestrian safety and traffic flow.

A report in The Age said three trams had derailed at the Burke Road level crossing in 2011. In response, the State Government introduced requirements for trains to travel at speeds of less than 15 km/h over these intersections.

The Burke Road redevelopment includes a new train station, concourse and platforms. Three nearby tram stops will also be combined into one super stop to provide better and safer access to the rebuilt station.

Initial plans for the Burke Road precinct also point to the possible future redevelopment of the land adjacent to the level crossing. Gardiner Station was last rebuilt in 1975.

Fast Facts – Gardiner Station

  • One of Victoria’s worst level crossings for traffic congestion.
  • Boom gates can be down for up to 47 minutes in peak hour.
  • One of only four level crossings in Melbourne to carry trams.
  • Railway line to be lowered below Burke Road.
  • Construction of a new station, concourse and platforms.
  • Creation of a tram super stop opposite the rebuilt station entrance.
  • Construction of a new car park.
  • Works to begin early in 2015 and take around 12 months to complete.

Your Say – Boroondara Council

The City of Boroondara, a local council bordering Stonnington, welcomed news of the Burke Road level crossing removal.

“Council supported the City of Stonnington’s preference for the rail line to go underground,” said Boroondara Mayor (and councillor for Gardiner Ward) Coral Ross.

“The benefits were clear. Not only will commuters gain better and more reliable public transport services, there will also be a noticeable reduction in traffic congestion.”

Pedestrian safety would also be improved, she said, because three existing tram stops would be combined into one super stop adjacent to the rebuilt entrance of Gardiner Station.

Residents of nearby Wills Street and Carroll Crescent also stood to benefit from the Burke Road redevelopment.

“Locals can expect a reduction in noise levels from passing trains and a more visually sympathetic outlook from their properties,” Cr Ross said.

When asked if the level crossing removal would shift the existing congestion problem farther into Glen Iris, Cr Ross said her local community was concerned but believed “the impact [of the works] could not be known at this stage”.

She also said Boroondara Council was closely monitoring the congestion issue.

“We have done traffic counts to ensure that we have the data now, so that we can better understand the impact on our community when the works are complete.”

Melbourne’s “Level Crossing Blitz”

Level crossings removed this year:

  • Anderson Road, Sunshine
  • Mitcham Road and Rooks Road, Mitcham
  • Springvale Road, Springvale

Level crossings undergoing planning and preconstruction:

  • Blackburn Road, Blackburn
  • Burke Road, Glen Iris
  • Centre Road, Clayton
  • Chandler Road, Noble Park
  • Clayton Road, Clayton
  • Corrigan Road, Noble Park
  • Grange Road, Carnegie
  • Heatherton Road, Noble Park
  • Koornang Road, Carnegie
  • Main Road, St Albans
  • Mountain Highway and Scoresby Road, Bayswater
  • Murrumbeena Road, Murrumbeena
  • North Road, Ormond
  • Poath Road, Murrumbeena

Source: VicRoads

Further Information

The Labor Party has promised to remove 50 level crossings should it win November’s State Election. View the list on The Age website.

Visit VicRoads to find out more about Melbourne’s level crossing removal project.

For information on the removal of level crossings located along the Cranbourne–Pakenham rail corridor, visit the Victorian Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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