Should replacing level crossings be given higher priority?

Hot wheels metropolis (1200 cars, but no trains)

The Committee for Melbourne has called for a $17.2 billion program to remove all Melbourne’s level crossings over the next 20 years.

The Committee says just two separations of road and rail were constructed by the Kennett government and two by the Bracks/Brumby government. While Melbourne has 172 level crossings, Sydney tackled the issue years ago and now has only eight.

However the Baillieu government has given an undertaking to grade-separate ten crossings at an estimated cost, on average, of around $100 million each. The Committee reckons the private sector could pay a big chunk of the $17.2 billion cost in return for the commercial rights to each site, although the Herald-Sun warns such a move would very likely “be fiercely opposed by anti-development groups”.

There’s a lot to be said for giving a higher priority in the transport capital works program to eliminating level crossings, as they present a number of problems. One is they slow traffic, including buses and trucks. According to the RACV’s public policy manager, Brian Negus, crossings along the Dandenong line are closed for 30-40 minutes an hour during the peak, exacerbating traffic congestion. This is likely to become a bigger problem as the share of public transport trips carried by buses increases. The interaction between crossings and nearby signalled junctions is a major barrier to the efficient performance of the transport network.

Level crossings also impose a limit on the frequency of train services. There are only so many trains that can realistically be sent down a line given each service entails stopping traffic in both directions for well in excess of one minute (in Newcastle, crossings are closed on average for passenger and freight trains for between three and seven minutes!). Some crossings are forecast to carry nearly 40 trains per hour in the peak by 2021.  Another issue is traffic queuing across rail lines — as well as the occasional car/train incident — limits the efficiency of the network. Further, level crossings are a safety hazard for pedestrians and give parents a reason to discourage children from walking to school.

While I’ve not seen an analysis for Melbourne, there’s little doubt the benefit-cost ratio of level crossing elimination would be very high. I expect it would be well ahead of some other much larger transport projects, such as the Avalon, Doncaster or Rowville rail proposals.

There are nevertheless a number of issues raised by this proposal. One is the need to prioritise works – some crossings are relatively minor and simply don’t warrant expenditure in the forseeable future. Probably 80% of the benefits will come from grade separating 20% of crossings. Back in 2009, the Public Transport Users Association argued these ten crossing should be given the highest priority, given their impact on road-based public transport:

  • Bell Street and Munro Street, Coburg (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Springvale Road, Springvale (Smartbus 888/889)
  • Bell Street, Cramer Street and Murray Road, Preston (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Glen Huntly Road and Neerim Road, Glenhuntly (one project) (Tram 67, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Balcombe Road, Mentone (Smartbus 903)
  • Buckley Street, Essendon (Smartbus 903)
  • Clayton Road, Clayton (Smartbus 703)
  • Burke Road, Gardiner (Tram 72, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Camp Road, Campbellfield (crossing elimination and new station) (proposed Smartbus 902)
  • Glenferrie Road, Kooyong (Tram 16, and trains subject to speed restrictions)

That’s a particular perspective, yet it matches some of the RACV’s priorities. Last year the RACV said the four worst crossings in Melbourne are in High Street near Reservoir station, on Burke Road near Gardiner station in Glen Iris, on Clayton Road next to Clayton station, and Murrumbeena Road near the station. The Dandenong rail corridor also figures high in the RACV’s priorities.

I’m not sure there is as much value in development rights as the Committee for Melbourne imagines. Many level crossings, perhaps most, may not have enough suitable land available for development after meeting grade separation and operational needs. The most promising opportunities are probably where the rail line rather than the road has been lowered, but this can be expensive. Many of those that do have land available may be in locations considered unsuitable for development by planners. And let’s be clear that development in air space over railway lines is a fantasy – it’s simply too expensive in all but an extremely small number of cases. For practical purposes, development in air space is not an option.

Effectively, the Committee is saying the Government could and should finance the program by selling “surplus” railway land irrespective of how close it is to level crossings. That’s an option but it’s neither novel nor a silver bullet. It’s by no means clear how much railway land is (a) surplus to operational requirements, (b) is in the right locations for development, and (c) is attractive to investors. The potential to compromise strategic land use objectives is immense. The key issue is the net benefits from eliminating level crossings – how it’s financed is up to the Government to sort out.

Another important matter is the impact on surrounding land uses and the visual impact of road bridges/overpasses in a flat city like Melbourne. These problems might be addressed by tunnelling beneath roads or rail lines but that’s not going to be possible in all cases and is likely to be very costly. In some cases either overpasses will need to be constructed or, where a number of crossings are close, rail lines could be elevated “in structure” like the line from Clifton Hill to Jolimont, or placed underground.

I’ve seen quite a few attractive bridges but they’re mostly over water, meaning the banks are high enough to at least partly ameliorate the visual impact, or they’re mostly footbridges (like this, this, this, this and this), meaning their bulk is smaller than that of a four lane road. Designing a road overpass that doesn’t look as looming and intrusive as Clifton Hill overpass will be a significant challenge.

P.S. Here’s another Metropolis 2 movie, this time with trains and buses!

Update: Vic road’s Caulfield to Dandenong rail crossing study.


BOOK GIVEAWAYfollow this link to be in the running for one of two copies of the new book by James Boyce, 1835: the founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia. Entries close midday on Thursday, 25 August.

14 Comments on “Should replacing level crossings be given higher priority?”

  1. Dave says:

    Lowering the railway line into a cutting is one way that can create a sliver of developable land over the cutting at the road frontage. In flat sites, quite a distance is affected, with perhaps multiple crossings having to be lowered. Whether it is possible also depends upon ground conditions. Heritage stations would be lost.

    Sites like Balcombe Road in Mentone are, I would have thought, unlikely to be ever grade separated by anything other than lowering the railway line. The disruption would be too severe, during construction and afterwards, if the road was to go over the railway line. Whether the disruption to the Frankston line when digging a cutting would be tolerable, and whether there is enough width within the railway reservation, is another story.

  2. MarkB says:

    Operation Grand Slam was a proposal from a number of years back by a privately led consortium to lower the Glen Waverley line (removing at least the Glenferrie and Burke rd crossings) and creating developable space in a highly sought after area of Melbourne.

  3. Johnyboy says:

    It should of been done years ago. Its issue that has my total support. It should happen though where it the most deaths have happened first though.

  4. Johnyboy says:

    I think the government could do a public works program with the economy in a downturn and fix this problem. Though i am not sure about the skilled labor shortage? I know from my own sources that there seems to be no shortage of trade labor in melbourne but the news paper always banter about it.

  5. Michael says:

    Those are some interesting footbridges. I wonder what the cost/benefit analysis was and whether the project came in under budget 🙂

    • Alan Davies says:

      Very droll, Michael. Still, no point building anything if the benefits don’t exceed the costs. The key issue is what is counted as a benefit – the “visuals” of the bridge are one important variable IMHO that ought to be taken into account. It might be harder but it should be possible to devise some relatively objective way of valuing this dimension.

  6. wilful says:

    I would like to see a lot more grade separation. One way it would look more affordable is if they used proper (low) discount rates. A good under/over pass will last 100 years or more, it’s an investment in Melbourne’s liveability.

    If they really want to move the container port to Hastings and have train movements through the city, they’ll have to do it.

    However if/when they get around to more separations, I do hope they make them wide enough to insert another track, particularly at least along the dandenong line. I still have a hope that they’ll triplicate this line one day, allowing express and country trains (and freight trains) to run in to the city with less delay.

  7. heritagepoliceman says:

    Yes more grade separations most likely worth it to alleviate traffic snarls and allow for more trains. But I would have thought some development over a sunken rail line would be also be worth it – that happened at Box Hill, but strangely didnt happen at Nunawading, not even a few shops, let alone say a low rise public housing project. Would have thought while whole thing was being built is the best time to include building over, not having to worry about trains underneath.

    • Alan Davies says:

      The Committee for Melbourne is talking about developments that make money in order to offset the cost of grade-separating crossings. Even in a situation where a cutting is the preferred engineering solution, putting a building over it will be an expensive exercise and likely to substantially or wholly offset the revenue from selling air rights (how many air rights developments are there in Melbourne outside of the CBD or even the inner city?).

      Of course, it could nevertheless make sense from the community’s point of view to build a platform, but it’ll cost money rather than make money.

  8. T says:

    It’s a really difficult issue to find an answer to. It’s clear that something needs to be done though. Where I used to live for a brief period in the inner west, I often (read: always) found myself stuck at the level crossing on Anderson road, between Albion and Sunshine train stations, for 15-20 minutes or more at any given time because there was train after train after train! It was so frustrating that I just starting avoiding the road by cutting through the residential streets and then going over the bride on Ballarat Road. Between the passenger trains and the V-line trains and the cargo trains, that crossing was constantly clogged – sometimes with 4 or 5 trains passing by before any traffic could get through and even then traffic would have a small window before the barriers would go down again. And this one is not flagged as being “priority” so I cannot even imagine how bad those that are priorities must be!

    It would be great if level crossings could be eliminated completely, but it would be so expensive and technically difficult…

  9. There is one very important reason for eliminating level crossings that I see as well, not blocking emergency vehicle access. Numerous times I’ve watched Ambulances with their sirens on flying down a street, cars moving out of the way and clearing a path, all to sit and wait for the barriers to open up. Sometimes whilst a train is sitting at the platform loading passengers on (although I imagine the level crossings could perhaps stay open until this had happened if there was more faith in the breaking ability of the train fleet).

    As to the $100million each figure. When the DoT continues to agree to pay contractors absurd amounts for all rail projects, contractors will continue to ask for these figures. When you base every cost on previously inflated-costs then why would you ever expect them to come in at a reasonable figure?

  10. Good thread with some thought provoking discussion, that is also a particularly Melbourne problem.

    If it’s a road-based problem that grade separations are trying to solve, then the priority should be removing the level crossings on Metropolitan Route 40 which would push Springvale Road and Bell Street (Preston and Coburg) to the top of the pile. MR40 is effectively the arterial ringroad for Melbourne’s middle suburbs.
    If it’s a road-based public transport problem, then the PTUA’s list is pretty sounds.
    If it’s a rail operational problem (cars/people straying onto tracks), then the Dandenong and Frankston corridors along with some strategic ‘spot fixes’ (St Albans, Reservoir) would be prioritised as this is where large number of ‘unplanned road/rail interface’ incidents occur year in, year out.

  11. Luke says:

    Echoing Julian’s point re. emergency vehicles: the Clayton Rd crossing certainly is a nightmare at peak times and is between my house and Monash A&E. Hope we don’t need an ambulance before grade separation!

    Another thought: would it be possible to calculate the benefit gained by reducing the time between trains that the barriers must remain closed? I often think that barriers have remained closed for a period that is quite sufficient to allow opening to let through a few vehicles. (Rather like the infuriating delay for trains stopped waiting for clearance to enter a long-vacated platform, but that’s another story…)

  12. JESSE DZIEDZIC says:

    I couldnt think you are more right..

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