Is a busway right for Mernda?

If I lived in Mernda I’d be pretty unhappy that the Brumby Government (here and here) is only going to give me a bus service rather than extend the Epping rail line beyond the new station at South Morang.

Sure, it’s Bus Rapid Transit with its own dedicated 7.5 km busway (here and here). And buses will be coordinated with arrivals and departures when trains start operating from the new South Morang station.

But it means I would have to change mode at South Morang. That will inevitably lose me some minutes. Moreover, a bus is simply not as comfortable as a train.

This seems like a politically fraught decision. The President of the Victorian Planning Institute says it’s bad planning and that buses are a “dinky service”. The President of the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) says buses are “not as good as a train and are certainly not what residents are looking for”.

However I don’t live in Mernda. And I pay taxes, so I’m quite interested in public money being spent efficiently and equitably. I also understand that there are many demands on available funds, not just from other transport projects but from other portfolios like education, health and housing.

So when I stand back and take a look at this initiative I can see some positives. In fact I think this is the right decision. It’s how governments should be approaching this sort of issue. These are my reasons:

First, it saves money for other uses. How much isn’t clear. Unfortunately the Minister hasn’t said what the alternative of constructing a single rail line between Mernda and South Morang would cost. I know the Government says the 8 km Epping to South Morang extension is going to cost $562 million, but that includes all sorts of upstream works intended to improve the performance of the entire Clifton Hill rail group.

I’m confident however that the Government wouldn’t have taken such a politically unpopular course of action in a marginal seat if the cost of rail wasn’t considerably higher than bus. Given the policy of no new level crossings, a figure of around $200 million to build and operate a rail extension (including necessary additional trains) for four years is plausible. That is a big saving that could be applied in other ways.

Second, the population of the area is not that large. At the 2006 Census, the suburb of Mernda had a population of 830 and the suburbs of Doreen and Whittlesea had populations of 3,451 and 4,563 respectively. The entire population of the Whittlesea Statistical Local Area, which includes Mill Park, South Morang, Mernda, Doreen and Whittlesea, is even now only around 40,000 – and I’d expect more than half of the residents will be closer to the new South Morang station when it opens than to Mernda or any intermediate bus ‘stations’.

Of course this is a Growth Area and population will continue to grow fast. It’s reasonable that all Growth Areas should have a high standard of public transport to the city centre. However it will take some time before the population reaches a level that justifies heavy rail over bus. The Government’s decision to build the busway within the old rail reservation means the route will be protected for future provision of a train if patronage ever warrants it.

Third, even in the best of all worlds, rail to Mernda was always going to be a long-term option for whoever was in government. Labor weren’t going to build it before 2027 and the Liberals made no mention of it until this week. The Greens say its the kind of project they might do but don’t mention funding and don’t give a timeline.

The Government has however committed itself to fund the busway this coming term if it is returned. It will provide the area with a high standard public transport connection to South Morang, Epping and the city centre well ahead of what would otherwise have been the case. It’s not perfect but it’s not bad either. In fact it could be argued that at this stage the area really only warrants an improved bus service along Plenty Rd – I’d say the busway is a much better outcome for locals than that.

The PTUA says there’s a danger the “busway may rule out a future upgrade to a train”. I can understand that fear, but there’s no technical reason why this should happen – if it were, it would be for essentially political reasons. More worrying is the implication that somehow buses aren’t real public transport – it seems only trains and trams are.

That’s a worrying view. If public transport in Melbourne is ever going to increase its share of all travel beyond the current level of circa 13% and achieve the ‘the ten minutes to everywhere’ goal of the PTUA, then we are going to need a lot more buses (among other things) and many more connections where travellers change mode. Rail is expensive and new lines should be reserved for the situations where it makes sense i.e. moving very large numbers of people.

In fact the Mernda Busway underlines the dubiousness of the Government’s decision to extend the rail line from Epping to South Morang. It’s doubtful that project was ever justified on the basis of patronage. It is being built to deliver (finally) on a promise made in the 1999 election campaign i.e. the election Labor didn’t expect to win. It might have made more sense to run buses right through from Mernda to Epping, where there’s a real prospect of developing a major regional centre.

I think this is one of those cases where the Government just about got everything right except maybe the politics.

18 Comments on “Is a busway right for Mernda?”

  1. Matthew says:

    I completely agree with the PTUA. I think rail should be built to Mernda and on to Whittlesea. Actually wasn’t it already built all the way to Whittlesea, and then they ripped the line up in the 1970s? Such forethought.

    If they need more money to build the line, put a toll on the closest freeway to fund the railway. Build the thing within 3 years. Done.

    As a nation we used to be able to build railways, what’s happened to make us lose the ability?

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think the old rail line was pulled up in the 1950s, but the reserve is still there.

      Governments wont go into deficit anymore or increase taxes. Look at the traction Abbott got with his ‘great big new tax’ and ‘Government debt’ slogans during the campaign (notwithstanding Rudd’s borrowings were in response to the GFC).

      The issue with Mernda is when will rail be justified and are there other public transport projects that would give better outcomes with the same money.

      • Matthew says:

        I went to Mernda (in my aborted plan to live in Melbourne) and priced an empty block (exorbitantly priced and far too small) and determined it was too far from decent transport at Epping. I thought Mernda (and any else on offer) such a bad deal I gave up on Melbourne. (I thought all I’d be doing would be taking on a gianormous mortgage and signing up to wage slavery for the rest of my life to live in a city that didn’t offer me much in the way of recompense, and all the good bits of the city would be more than an hour away anyway)

        Perhaps these suburbs should only be built when there are plans for adequate infrastructure from the beginning.

        90% plus of journeys in and out of Mernda are going to be by private car, and the distances to Epping or Melbourne are far. It’s not in any way sustainable.

        With aversion to fund anything out of general revenue anymore, road pricing to fund public transport is not such a bad idea.

        As for the issue of when it would be justified. Now judging by how built up it already is. As for other public transport projects more “worthy”, well isn’t it worthy in it’s own right? As you say the corridor is still there, so it can’t be too expensive due to required land acquisitions.

  2. Jim Wells says:


    Good post.

    The PTUA will never understand value for money when it comes to rail v bus.

  3. Simon says:

    There are other attributes of buses that actually may make them the best solution for this route. There is better communication between drivers and passengers, meaning that buses are safer in evenings when many people are becoming nervous about trains and train stations. And the fact that buses have a smaller capacity than trains means that they are likely to operate a better frequency than a train, again resulting in a better passenger service.
    Further, there is the opportunity for buses to circulate past the end of the route at various frequencies to provide their own feeder service.
    But I agree about the location of the interchage – Epping might have been better and the decision was clearly political.

  4. Joseph says:

    I recall debating with someone who suggested that train lines should be concreted over and replaced with busways. I considered the scheme to be madness at the time but on reflection buses do have a large number of advantages:
    i) as Simon notes you can adjust frequency easily, this means it is probably more environmentally friendly. Instead of running a heavy 6 carriage trains off peak for perhaps 30 passengers you can run 1 bus.
    ii) buses are manufactured at far greater scale than trains which mean they are far cheaper per passenger carried and they can be bought at short notice. So if government get their passenger forecasts wrong it doesn’t take 3 years to correct.
    iii) bus drivers cannot hold the government to ransom in the same way as train drivers. If bus drivers go on strike you can bring in private sector replacements.
    iv) capacity of the network can be upgraded more easily, trains are reliant on inflexible signalling systems, buses have no similar constraint.
    There are some disadvantages, they are more labour intensive in peak hours and the ride isn’t as smooth although busways are smoother than driving in traffic.
    Buses are a good solution for many transport needs but unfortunately those who should be advocates of buses are often opponents with the result that a good solution is replaced by no solution.

    • Michael says:

      The numbers appear to be against the rail extension, but the fact remains that in many parts of Melbourne buses are simply an inferior services compared with trains. The reasons people prefer trains and trams to buses are legitimate. I would be in favour of suspended all transport spending until a price is put on carbon.

      • Joseph says:

        Putting a price on carbon will have virtually no impact on transport. If the average Australian car produces 4-5 tonnes per year of CO2, with a carbon price of $20/tonne implies less than $100. Is this really going to shift anyone out of a car? At best if the price was pushed somewhat higher it might increase demand for more fuel efficient cars.
        The main game in carbon pricing is in power generation where it is relatively cheap to reduce carbon emissions.

      • Michael says:

        I think you underestimate the effect a price on carbon will have on transport. The direct effects on the cost of driving may be minimal, but people don’t plan their lives around running a car in isolation to their other activities. At the moment few people are factoring in the effects of carbon pricing in their other costs and activities. Housing will surely also be effected as will the cost of transport embodied in a lot of goods and services. Wherever prices increase they will have indirect effects.

  5. jack horner says:

    Speaking of opportunity cost: ‘no new level crossings under any circumstances, regardless of cost’ is an absurd policy.

    It means you have to spend $20 million overpassing some minor access road on the outskirts that doesn’t need it, when you could have put a new level crossing there, and spent the $20 million in a location that really does need grade separation.

  6. Alan Davies says:

    See Kenneth Davidson’s column, Incompetence reigns over rail extension, in The Age today for a different take on this issue.

    His main topic is PPPs but his lead-in contends that rail could be provided to Mernda for much the same cost as a busway. Interesting POV.

    While the costings for the Epping to South Morang extension do appear to be inflated, Davidson does not acknowledge that they include various ‘upstream’ works (even the PTUA does), or that the Government says funding for the busway includes all capital and operating costs for the first four years.

    These are very salient facts in this debate and should not have been omitted.

  7. Riccardo says:

    Nope, South Morang or however you want to construe it is a failure against Mandurah. And if you claim you don’t know much about Mandurah, then go and do some research on this very point first.

  8. Your arguments are well justified, however there are 2 simple points you don’t seem to have covered.

    Heavy rail will encourage growth in the area.

    By building a busway and then replacing it with rail in 15-20 years then taxpayers have paid firstly to set up the busway, secondly to rip the busway up and then thirdly to lay down the rail and build stations.

    If there is any plan to build a train line to the area at all, then pouring money down the drain building a busway first, only to rip it up later is a poor investment, especially if there are already rail works being extended to where the busway begins.

    • Alan Davies says:

      This is the point made by Whittlesea Councilor, John Fry, in The Age this morning.

      It might sound counter-intuitive perhaps, but it’s almost always more efficient to build something small now (knowing it has to be replaced) than to build something big now that will be under-utilised for 15-20 years or longer.

      Better to spend the big bucks now on something where there’s already a demonstrated and justified need.

  9. Why build the busway at all then? It seem a seems a rapid smart bus service could be provided along Plenty road with only the cost of a few bus stops, and a bus interchange at South Morang.

    It would save roughly $45million now, the bus interchange will still be useful when a train line is necessary and the distance is only about 6kms down what looks (from google maps) to be a fairly low congestion, relatively high capacity road.

    You would also save the cost of ripping all the busway up at a later date.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I made the same point in the post (5th para from the bottom). The locals weren’t lucky enough to get a train they don’t need (yet) but were lucky enough to get a busway they don’t need (yet).

      I think the simple answer is politics.

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