Changing Melbourne Transport #1: Burke Rd Level Crossing


It is interesting to follow the various developments that have transpired in recent years in the area of public transportation. The above image helps to summarise the overall plan for removing level crossings across metropolitan Melbourne, and is sourced from the Victorian Government’s Level Crossing Removal Program.

Construction work of the Burke Road level crossing has progressed well such that the first major period of community disruption has just completed successfully- 18 to 28 September with a video animation produced to summarise the four steps that were achieved during this ten-day period:

As at the time of publishing this article (early January 2016), the second major period of community disruption is in progress. Based on the publicly-available photos posted on Facebook, the progress of this latest period seems to be tracking well. In the lead up to this fortnight of road/tram/train closures, it was clear that a lot of planning and experience had been infused into the way the new track alignment was designed. Throughout 2015 tonnes of soil and earth were removed on both east and west approaches to Burke Roard. The September period of closure was significant even though the resultant work was probably not as visible to the public eye – laying and reconstructing the road bridge complete with temporary tram tracks/square. With that successfully completion, the resumption of all services along the same existing tracks did not fully allow commuters to realise that digging below Burke Road would continue whilst traffic continued business as usual.

When construction first began in July 2015, much of the activities were to prepare the site for construction. Ground reinforcements and pilings were conducted around the adjacent streets of Carroll Crescent and Wills Street. Concreting and retaining walls were required along the Wills Street section, particularly close to the intersection with Burke Road, where part of both road alignments would eventually become a part covering of the tracks below. Part of the sewerage tunnels below Wills and King Streets required relocation, along with the addition of new drainage piping below the new below-ground tracks. Much of this work was conducted in the first two – three months of construction and was documented in the first Community Newsletter/Update. In mid October, the first real signs of the future were unveiled in the new station concourse being laid into position. This was accompanied by the steel and concrete work for the new below-ground platforms and the stairway/lift connectivity between platforms and station concourse. All of this activity was possible without disruption to the existing service because the construction site had access points from the side roads of Carroll Crescent and Wills St. Importantly, the new station and new track alignment planned for the previous/old track and station platforms to become car park and not overlap the construction zone.

Since September, leading up until Dec/Jan, preparatory work continued in readiness for the final (and current) period of shutdown. The new train tracks were laid and tampered. The biggest milestone indicated by the Community Newsletter/Update occurred on 24 November 2015 when the ground below Burke Rd was broken through. Throughout December, the new platform and station has continued to grow and develop bit by bit. First the earth foundations were prepared, the new platforms were constructed, then the concrete sleepers laid, followed up by the laying and tamping of tracks. The platform shelters, wiring and plumbing seem to all be coming together. Basically, getting the tracks and platforms in a basic working condition were the prerequisite goals for this period of work. The installation of overhead electrification infrastructure along the new sections of track, platforms, overhead station and road were all assembled awaiting the (re)wiring activities.

Having accomplished those achievements has meant that the shutdown period for January 2016 is fully optimised, minimised and focused. The primary objective, based on my observation, is that this January second community shutdown period is the final major effort. The new track and platform will replace the old, thus enabling the removal of the level crossing itself! So, demolition of the tracks where the old and new tracks diverge/intersect will likely be a key starting point. Then, new realigned sleepers and track gauge will be laid to connect the platform up at both east and west ends of the construction zone. New steel supports to carry the overhead electrical wiring will likely be installed, but I would expect the number of steel frames to be minimised – perhaps the positioning and spacing would even mean that this could be a redundant step? Once the ground surface track is complete, the new overhead wires carrying 1500 DC volts can be connected end-to-end, across the new track alignment.

Given the launch / completion date for this project is slated as April 2016, but the new station is expected to have a minimal viable functionality after this current period of shutdown, the other objective during shutdown is likely to focus on the above ground/road-surface finalisation, since this construction work also would be disruptive to normal traffic flows. Photos of this work are visible from the Facebook album – where the old boom gates and signals were all disassembled, dismantled and removed. Cleaning up the asphalt road surface includes the tram square. A tram square can only occur where there is a level crossing, where tram tracks cross railway tracks. The tram square itself is a bit of circuitry that allows the electrified train wires (1500v DC) to change to become tram wires (600v DC). This is because the wires cross, and so they can only be one or the other. Whilst 600v in a train is harmless, 1500v in a tram is very dangerous. The interesting fact about the Gardiner/Burke Rd tramway is that when you consider 1917 was when it was first commissioned and operational, its removal now means its total life fell one year short of reaching 100 years! It was only five years later in 1922 when the railway was electrified, and the importance of the signalling hut was fully realised.

According to the official news, the exact future of the heritage signalling hut is not clear other than full preservation. One position mentioned is that it would be relocated to within the new Gardiner station complex, but it is uncertain if that means physically moving it from the current location. In this latest January 2016 period, the photo evidence suggests that already, as of the first week of 24-hour non-stop work, the critical construction is progressing well. The photos also indicate that the later activity of rewiring the overhead cables is still pending, but that the Burke Rd clean-up is near completion. That tram square is now relegated to history and the various archives like the Melbourne Tram Museum @ Hawthorn Depot, or Tramway Museum Society of Victoria. The media opportunity of having the boom gates removed was exhibited during the week, and car/tram traffic on Burke Rd can look forward to a truly grade separated experience when the thoroughfare reopens mid January.

The old railway track alignment has been removed and the area is being prepared for conversion into car parking spaces. Based on the original information sheets, the car park capacity is expected to merely replace the previous car park which is now the location of the new subterranean station complex.

Generally, the project management seems to be have been a success thus far. Local community engagement and communication has been appropriately focused, with the immediate streets of residents fully informed of the various interruptions. The current shutdown of January 2016 with 24×7 construction activity appears to be positively received given the original plan had slated a four-week December 2015 disruption.

The selection of Gardiner/Burke Rd for level crossing removal/grade separation is an interesting one. The justification was based on the fact that this intersection was one of four within Melbourne where trams and trains have crossed paths. Various accidents in 2011 involving trams no doubt motivated the desire to implement a full grade-separation, which at the time was hinted at and taken until 2016 to become reality. In terms of analysing the Glen Waverley railway line more completely, I would expect the Toorak Road level crossing also is well and truly deserving of this treatment. In part, this Burke Rd project provides an invaluable prerequisite for this bigger picture vision. The differentiating factor for making Burke Rd the priority was the trams. Without a doubt, Toorak Rd is the busier thoroughfare, particularly with the same Monash Fwy access nearby. 2014 VicRoads data suggests that Toorak Rd carries twice the amount of traffic, and given the amount of boom gate downtime between the two level crossing would be similar, one would hope that the government will promote that project sooner. As it currently stands, the Toorak Rd level crossing is prioritised ahead of the Glenferrie Rd/Kooyong Railway level crossing, which has reduced traffic but carries a tram line, similar to Burke Rd. Apparently the signalling at Glenferrie Rd was previously upgraded while the Burke Rd hut and signalling remained operational. High St and Tooronga Rds remain the other two level crossings in the area, but are likely deemed lowest priority given the relatively lower traffic volumes.

Even with the completion of this level crossing, I reflect on my ideal ambitions that my Melbourne Alternative Public Transport thoughts have previously articulated. Whilst I commend this project, I feel that it stops short and is not future proof enough. The current development has taken steps to consolidate three tram stops into a single integrated one, adjacent to the new Gardiner station, but pedestrians will have to cross Burke Rd and the solution is merely a traffic signal pedestrian crossing. I would have thought the construction of an overpass to help separate pedestrians from vehicular traffic would be the better option, and thus remove the need for an actual set of traffic lights. It appears somewhat short-sighted that whilst all this construction activity is underway, the plans and designs stop short.

In a similar way, other people had raised the question as to why the platforms were limited/restricted in design to be 100% west of Burke Rd. The thought here was that had the platforms been repositioned such that the Burke Rd overpass maybe covered a more central portion of the platforms, then access to both east and west sides of the road would be possible, also alleviating the need for pedestrian traffic to cross the road. Now, an explanation was provided to this dialogue on Facebook whereby the implementation of this design would have required a wider bridge span to be built, along with a middle support beam in between the tracks. Perhaps that design is better suited to central platform designed stations, and locations where there is more space to fit that layout in? The complication and implication of enforcing that design for Gardiner would be that construction duration would take a lot longer, and also potentially require much lengthier periods of shutdown since the existing railway line and previous Gardiner station would definitely get in the way of the new layout.

In most of my station designs, I take it to the extreme next level of cost and effort – where the entire station is below ground and the railway tracks are tunnels another three to four metres deeper… Since the station concourse is below ground, you can create access points and entrances all sides of Burke Rd, directly connecting to a tram stop interchange, carpark and any high-density commercial developments adjacent. Naturally this kind of design would be in the order of $1B instead of the ~$150M that the current development is expected to cost ($457M for a combined package of three level crossing removals). My designs are in the class and order of truly metro style stations, which are more suited to the city. I believe, when you consider all these options, the addition of a “simple” pedestrian overpass could have been included and maybe the current designs allow for this future consideration… How much does an overpass cost – $10M?