Why can’t we have more train lines?Posted: April 5, 2011
By the time of the economic depression in 1891, Melbourne and Victoria already had an impressive network of railway lines. The last significant addition to the metropolitan rail system – the Glen Waverley line – was built in 1930, just before the Great Depression.
It’s reasonable to ask why, with the threat of climate change and peak oil hanging over us, we can’t replicate the achievements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and massively expand Melbourne’s rail network. If our forebears of four or five generations ago could do it, why can’t we — with our superior technology — do even better?
I think the answer is that circumstances were vastly different then and much more sympathetic to constructing a network of rail lines. I can’t bring an historian’s eye to this topic but here are some of the broad ways – consider them as hypotheses – in which I think the great rail-building era differed from today.
First, train patronage was very high in that era. Virtually everyone relied on trains to travel any sort of distance. The proportion of the metropolitan population that lived and/or worked in the inner city where rail access was best was much larger than today. Hence there was a real will to build rail lines.
Second, the railways covered their operating costs. All of the first lines built in the 1850s from Melbourne to the suburbs were financed by private money. I don’t know when it happened in Australian cities, but US railways weren’t subsidised directly until after the second world war. If lines are profitable – or at least cover their operating costs – getting funding for expansion of networks and services is much easier.
Third, competition was limited. Investors in rail, whether private or public, had to compete with horses and in some localities with trams, but they had nothing like the competition that contemporary rail lines get from cars. The widespread market penetration of cars, especially after world war two, strangled the demand for train travel in Melbourne, reducing it’s share of motorised travel to around 10%.
Fourth, many Melbourne train lines also extended beyond the metropolitan boundary to country areas and interstate. They did double duty, carrying not only suburban commuters but also country freight and passengers. As this was an era when a much higher proportion of the nation’s population lived in the country, it would have made the case for building new lines right into the heart of Melbourne considerably stronger. Of course, country trains didn’t have to compete against trucks or planes, either.
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.
Sixth, construction and operating costs were lower. Less was spent on protecting the environment and on the occupational health and safety of workers. Engineering standards were less demanding and financial and corporate regulation was a lot less onerous. Most firms didn’t pay superannuation and sick leave provisions were parsimonious by today’s standards. Passengers also had lower expectations of comfort and safety. There’s an argument they were also more disciplined and compliant, enabling costs to be saved on factors like dwell times and platform sizes.
So it’s not surprising that it is much harder to build and operate rail lines today. Technology and capital were deployed to offset rising labour costs but the rate of productivity gain doesn’t seem to be fast enough, at least in recent decades, to keep up with the overall rate of increase in costs.
I expect there must be some positives on the other side of the ledger — such as more flexible working hours and opportunities for automation — that favour the provision of rail today relative to 100 or more years ago. Most of those positives however seem to be on the operating side rather than the construction side. Some of them also favour other public transport modes like buses.
None of this leads inevitably to the conclusion that we should give up building new rail lines. But it should caution us about extrapolating too readily from the conditions of the past to today’s circumstances. Roads provide an instructive example – despite immense public support, even urban and interstate freeway networks are modest when compared to the hundreds (and in the country thousands) of kilometres of rail line that were laid down before the Great Depression.