Does the Opposition’s pitch on Doncaster rail stack up?

San Francisco bans the Happy Meal!

So now the Victorian Opposition has jumped on the Green’s bandwagon and proposed a new rail line along the Eastern Freeway from Clifton Hill to Doncaster!

Ted Baillieu has made an art form of ‘vagueing’ the details, but this is essentially the same proposal as the Greens put forward last month for linking Doncaster with Victoria Park station.

I dealt with the shortcomings of this idea last week (here and here) so I’ll just look at a claim made in The Age that the City of Manningham has low public transport use.

This is attributed to the absence of both trains and trams in Manningham – the only municipality in Melbourne that doesn’t have at least one of these modes.

The reporter, Clay Lucas, says that only 7% of all trips made by residents of Manningham are by public transport compared to the metropolitan Melbourne average of 9% (actually he said 14% but the VISTA travel survey indicates the correct figure is 9%. Note also that this claim does not appear in the on-line version of The Age).

He is right – public transport does indeed have a lower share of trips in Manningham. In fact VISTA shows its share compares poorly with the neighbouring municipalities of Whitehorse, Banyule and Maroondah, which all have rail lines. In these municipalities, public transport carries 10%, 11% and 7%, respectively, of all trips. Still, there’s not all that much in it – the car dominates in all four.

The journey to work is probably a more pertinent measure of the warrant for a rail line to the CBD as peak period passenger volumes determine the need or otherwise for a mass transit system.

Analysis of journey to work data from the 2006 Census undertaken for the Eddington Report shows that Manningham scores poorly on work trips too. Only 37% of Manningham workers used public transport to travel to the City of Melbourne, compared to 56% in Whitehorse, 51% in Banyule and 56% in Maroondah.

So it seems a reasonable proposition that, if it had better infrastructure, Manningham ought to be able to increase public transport’s share of trips to the city centre to a level comparable with neighbouring municipalities, i.e. by around twenty percentage points.

This might seem like a compelling argument for a new rail line but it isn’t. The number of Manningham workers who commuted to the City of Melbourne at the 2006 Census was very small – just 8,500 (i.e. 17,000 two-way trips).

And the number is declining – this was 700 fewer than in 2001. Nor is this group likely to get much bigger due to population growth, as Manningham is projected to increase by a paltry 0.7% p.a. out to 2031.

Of these 8,500 commuters, 5,100 drove to work and 3,150 took public transport. The latter group mostly used buses but a third used the Hurstbridge and Ringwood rail lines in neighbouring municipalities.

Thus in order for Manningham to achieve the same mode split as Whitehorse – i.e. to increase public transport’s mode share by the aforesaid twenty percentage points – around 1,600 commuters would have to stop driving to work. (Transit’s share has undoubtedly increased in Manningham since 2006 but it would also have increased in the other municipalities, so 1,600 still seems a reasonable number).

I estimate that inducing those 1,600 commuters (that’s 3,200 trips) to change mode would save 7,392 tonnes of carbon p.a. I calculate this by following Victoria’s Commissioner for Sustainability in assuming peak hour carbon emissions of 95g per person kilometre for train and 250g for car. Based on a carbon price of $40/tonne, the value of the saving in avoided emissions would be $295,680 p.a.

There are two approaches to reaping this decidedly modest benefit (yes, there’re also savings in petrol, etc, but total kilometres saved total only 48,000 p.a. – equivalent to taking about three cars off the road).

One is the $360 million the Government is spending to provide the new Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) bus service. Of course the horse has already bolted – DART commenced operation (conveniently) at the start of last month.

The other approach is the proposed Doncaster rail line. Eddington estimated it would cost circa $2 billion. It would have the distinct disadvantage that by the time it was built, DART would already have redressed much or possibly all of Manningham’s shortfall in public transport share.

If we return to looking at all trips (i.e. all day, all purposes), the outlook for rail does not look any brighter. Eddington forecast that by 2021, a Doncaster rail line could potentially carry up to 24,500 trips per day in total (two way, all day). This is low patronage – the Frankston line, for example, carried 51,500 passengers per day back in 2007 and the Hurstbridge line carried 38,000.

However most damning is that only 2,500 of these trips would be new public transport users.

There’s some measure of comfort in the fact that, should the Opposition win on the 27th, its only specific promise is to do a study. Nevertheless the risk is that expectations could be so high there might be no way of dampening them.

24 Comments on “Does the Opposition’s pitch on Doncaster rail stack up?”

  1. Joseph says:

    The figures are interesting, implies $800k for each new daily trip on public transport. Even if assume the 2021 figure for total rather than incremental trips implies $80k per daily trip. On top of this there will likely be an ongoing operating subsidy. It does make you wonder if our politicians, both state and federal, are uninformed, innumerate or just populist. I would guess more of the latter but perhaps it is all three.

  2. Chris says:

    What Melbourne needs rather than new train lines is a bus system feeding people into the existing train lines, the problem with a Doncaster line is it’s too close to existing lines as mentioned, I noticed the map of the Dart system in an earlier post didn’t show the train network, it probably should have seeing as the buses run parallel to the Ringwood line, why aren’t they running the Dart buses on North South routes (connecting with trains) like just about every other city in the world would?

    The Greens should have just skipped all the talk about a Doncaster line and instead focused on their reform policies, which I think look good and which the Liberals should steal, if only because they don’t seem to have a policy of their own.

  3. Russ says:

    Alan, presumably if 20,000 odd commuters switch to the Doncaster line over other lines there are other benefits: reduced congestion on adjacent lines, faster and shorter trips for commuters (which will reduce emissions further), and so on.

    What matters at least as much (and this is true for the proposed Rowville line as well) is how and where the line makes a connection to the existing system. If the Doncaster line goes into the northern group (as originally envisaged) then trains need to be reduced on the Epping and Hurstbridge lines (which further complicates the timetable and increases congestion on those lines), or commuters must change trains at Clifton Hill. If the Greens plan is carried out with a tunnel through Fitzroy and Carlton, then the cost starts to blow out significantly.

    The weak point of all these promises is that they help relatively few people at enormous cost. The system just can’t handle tacking extra bits on. It is already inefficient and unreliable because of the number of branches and superfluous stations, and most of these proposals will only make it worse.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Eddington found that around 1,000 Manningham commuters use the Hurstbridge and Ringwood lines, so it might be hard to get 20,000 to transfer across to a Doncaster line.

      But it would surely be more cost effective to expand capacity on the Hurstbridge line – more trains, even widening of the difficult Clifton Hill to Jolimont section, etc – than building a whole new rail line.

      Very pertinent point about the capacity of the Hurstbridge line. Baillieu’s statement actually said something about the possibility of a line to the northern suburbs….

      • Russ says:

        Sorry, you are right, misread the 24500 user statistic you cited.

        I agree though, it would be more effective to expand capacity than build new lines. In general I think a focus on efficiency would bring far greater benefits than system expansion. To the credit of Labor, there seems to be a general understanding of this, even if the plan doesn’t fully reflect it.

        On cost, widening Clifton Hill to Jolimont means land acquisition, mostly housing. If you assume a house every 15-20m in that area, worth ~$1m each, that’s $50-60m a kilometre before you start demolishing/building, plus the political pain. A tunnel is much the same price, and given that, a tunnel that takes a different route (via the inner suburbs/melbourne uni from Clifton Hill) a better value proposition for customers.

      • Alan Davies says:

        Russ, Eddington estimated that widening the rail line between Clifton Hill and the city would require acquisition of 100-200 properties and also possibly some parkland in Clifton Hill and Jolimont. Sounds like it’s in the same broad region as your estimate.

  4. tony says:

    Proper 24 hour bus lanes on Hoddle street and Victoria Parade would help a lot more than a rail line to Doncaster would.

    • Alan Davies says:

      In fact why not convert the freeway median into a dedicated busway in lieu of rail? Since the Opposition and Greens have both locked into rail, only the Government could do it.

      • Mahyar says:

        Why not a light rail line that continues down the Alexandra Parade median reservation and turns left at Nicholson St onto the separated tram tracks? It could also easily be extended to Springvale Rd or elsewhere for the next set of election promises, instead of building an expensive tunnel to Shoppo.

        For the Fitzroy and Carlton NIMBYs, why not use turf between the tracks instead of concrete? That’d be ‘green’.

  5. jack horner says:

    @ Joseph, ‘implies $800k for each new daily trip on public transport.’

    The way I think of it is this: at 7% discount rate over 20 years (Treasury standard), an upfront capital cost of X is equivalent to a daily cost of about X/4,000.

    $2 billion for 25,000 daily single trips (Eddington, rounded off) = $20 per actual trip over the period. For the capital cost. Then add running costs.

    Admittedly, 20 year payback is arguably too short for long lived public infrastructure. Taking the cost over 40 years would reduce the per trip equivalent cost to about $16.

    The depressing thing about all this is how the discourse is so project-focussed, based on silly hooklines like ‘Manningham is the only LGA without a rail line’, without any reference to the core questions, ‘How do you want your city to look in 30 years, how does the present project promote that, and how is it better value than the alternatives?’

    This week’s fashionable favourite is the Doncaster line. Next week (from the Libs anyway) it will be some new freeway link to keep the roads lobby happy. All without any reflection that the two projects have contradictory goals.

    Yes there is a strategic city plan, but that’s done by another department, and everyone knows that it’s really just a public relations glossy which will be ignored daily when it gets in the way of a major development approval.

    • Joseph says:


      The /4,000 is useful, haven’t checked the maths but sounds plausible. If Alan’s figure of 2,500 incremental trips is right it would imply $200 per incremental trip.

      It has been a while since I have studied theory of public discount rates but I don’t feel that comfortable with them. I wouldn’t invest my own money at a 7% interest rate so should the government take my money and invest it for me at a 7% rate?

  6. Riccardo says:

    This blog post loses all credibility when it demolishes Doncaster, but extols the virtues of Hurstbridge, a tiny village at the end of a 19th century branchline, that was by accident of history electrified in the 1920s.

    If you want to waste money on transport, keep running trains to Hurstbridge.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Where are the virtues of Hurstbridge extolled in my post? You must be thinking of something else or someone else entirely.

      As it happens, I expect it would indeed be cheaper to run buses between Eltham and Hurstbridge rather than the current trains (there’d be a few other outer stations in this category too). Hurstbridge struck it lucky.

      • I’m curious now what the costs of running the buses between Eltham and Hurstbridge might compared to the cost of running the trains the extra 2 stops.

        Considering the train line is already there and already electrified then this is the costs (in monetary terms and other factors) as I see them:

        * the time it takes a train to travel between Eltham and Hurstbridge is time the train is not serving anywhere else;

        * maintenance of the line between Eltham and Hurstbridge;

        * staffing stations (although in this case, no stops after Eltham are staffed)

        * powering the train this distance

        Compared to

        * extra buses
        * extra drivers
        * (slight) extra congestion
        * decreased passenger numbers (most likely)

        I’m not sure if I’ve missed anything, and I don’t know what any of the figures would be. But it’s an interesting proposition.

    • Joseph says:

      There is an important difference between the Hurstbridge line and the Doncaster line – one exists and one doesn’t. A very different case needs to be made to justify spending $2bn on a new line as compared with continuing to subsidise an existing line.

  7. Riccardo says:

    Very lucky. A sensible political party could campaign to close Hurstbridge and redirect the funds to improve PT to somewhere that needs it.

    Wait a minute, no they can’t. No political party can count on enough support from the electorate for anything much now, least of all reform, but the bureaucracy is as craven as ever, so we’re stuck in this policy void where the very purpose of government: to maintain law and order, assist the poor, correct market failure and defend the country, becomes: support the ungrateful middle and upper working classes, reinforce market failure and defend the country against people in small fishing boats.

  8. […] to be funded from $6 billion allocated by the Government for the NE Link, but as pointed out here, that money doesn’t […]

  9. […] before that none of these lines, on the face of it, seem ready for the green light just yet (here, here and here). Unless new information is introduced or the projects are redefined, it seems to me that […]

  10. morrison birznieks says:

    there were more train lines in the 1950 and we can get theam back . maybe have a train line from kew to Doncaster to warrandyte “under ground ” to warrandyte and go all the way to yea

  11. […] Fifth, there was much less urban development to negotiate back then compared to what would be involved in replicating the network today. Any new rail line within the built-up area would, like the Eastern Suburbs rail line that opened in Sydney in 1979, necessarily involve extensive tunnelling, ‘cut and cover’, or elevated rail lines e.g. see the proposals for Rowville and Doncaster. […]

  12. […] proposed Rowville, Doncaster and Melbourne Airport rail lines are evidence of our preoccupation with radial train lines. They […]

  13. […] for dedicated buses being approximately one third of light rail costs”. As a point of reference, Eddington forecast that a Doncaster rail line would carry up to 12,250 one-way trips per […]

  14. […] As I pointed out here, analysis of journey to work data from the 2006 Census undertaken for the Eddington Report shows the number of workers living in the municipality of Manningham who commuted to the City of Melbourne at the 2006 Census was small – just 8,500 (i.e. 17,000 two-way trips). And the number is declining – this was 700 fewer than in 2001. Nor is this group likely to get much bigger due to growth, as the population of the municipality of Manningham is projected to increase by a paltry 0.7% p.a. out to 2031. […]

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