Changing Melbourne Transport #3: A Walk Through History


In this third article of a new 2016 series on Melbourne’s changing public transport aspirations, I would like to go back to basics. A trip down history lane to understand where we have come from helps us understand where we are now, where we are heading, and from these positions, helps us to consider the various state government proposals for our public transportation infrastructure. The other articles written for this series are:

  1. Changing Melbourne Transport #1: Burke Rd Level Crossing
  2. Changing Melbourne Transport #2: Syndal Station Car Park

Marvellous Melbourne: The 19th Century

Ever since the founding of Melbourne, stretching all the way back to 1835 and the Batman Treaty that gave momentum to the first settlers, the coast-line has been a key focal point. Officially considered a “town” in 1842, by 1847 five years later, letters patent from Queen Victoria recognised Melbourne as a city. A few short years later, the 1850s Gold Rush would pave the way for an explosive growth of the fledgling city, triggering an era of some 40 years known as Marvellous Melbourne. The wealth and prosperity of the city was truly one to admire in the way limestone-based buildings were constructed, and decorated cast iron adorned many buildings. In fact, this last fact is also something of a world record for its time, since Melbourne had an unparalleled cast iron architecture and the iron foundry industry was kept in high demand. The city spread to the east and north over the surrounding flat grasslands, and down south along the shore of Port Phillip Bay. The first suburbs were South Yarra, Toorak, Kew and Malvern while the working class citizens settled in places like Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy. Indeed, this heritage has persisted through the years to this day.

The arrival of a middle class, educated gold seeker, typically from England, led to the rapid growth of educational and arts institutions key to the cultural development of Melbourne: schools, churches, libraries and art galleries. Australia’s first telegraph line was erected between Melbourne and Williamstown in 1853. The first railway in Australia was built-in Melbourne in 1854. Melbourne’s population reached 280,000 in 1880 and 445,000 in 1889, this kind of growth trend a reflection of the sheer wealth of opportunity; indeed this destination was truly blessed. As part of the British Empire, Melbourne was second only to London in terms of population size. Unlike the older European cities that had taken generations and centuries to grow naturally, Melbourne’s population had exploded and thus, instead of building high-density apartment blocks like European cities, Melbourne expanded in all directions, characteristic of an emerging culture seen as Australian suburban sprawl. Railway lines were the pioneering infrastructure enabling the new suburbs surrounding the city to be connected by networks of trains and trams which were among the largest and most modern in the world.

The first railway line was constructed by the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company, a private company, and the route was to Sandridge, known today as Port Melbourne. This was in the early 1850s right when the gold rush fever was fuelling unprecedented infrastructure development. The opening of each railway line and station were big gala events with pomp and celebration. Within a decade, into the 1860s the geography of Melbourne and her sprawling suburbs saw the region slowly carved up by private interests and their various railway companies that built railway lines. Companies that existed included:

  • Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Company (1853 – 1865)
  • St Kilda & Brighton Railway Company (1855 – 1865)
  • Melbourne & Suburban Railway Company (1959 – 1865)
  • Geelong & Melbourne Railway Company (1853 – 1860)
  • Melbourne & Essendon Railway Company (1859 – 1867)
  • Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay United Railway Company (1865 – 1878)

The economic losses and market forces saw the merger and acquisition of these companies, and gradually by the late 1860s formation of the State Government had formed the Department of Railways. In 1883, the entity officially was charged with the construction, maintenance and management of the state’s railway network. Even in a climate of stellar growth, these private companies had failed to make railways a profitable business. Trimming the excesses from the 1880s expansion saw the gradual closure of the two circular networks that surrounded Melbourne: the inner circle line and outer circle line. The majority of Melbourne’s existing railway network had been established by the 1890s.

The Early 20th Century

In 1901, Melbourne had enjoyed its status as the premiere city on the continent, having surpassed Sydney in 1865 as the largest city by population. Thus, during the time of Federation and the formation of Australia as a nation, Melbourne became the first national capital whilst the future Canberra was planned out. Although growth had stagnated, by the 1900s, the driving force for new railway lines were the farmers in today’s outer suburbs. In the Dandenong Ranges a narrow gauge railway was opened from Upper Ferntree Gully to Belgrave and Gembrook in 1900 to serve the local farming and timber community. In the Yarra Valley a branch was opened from Lilydale to Yarra Junction and Warburton in 1901. Initial plans had intended for the Outer Circle line to join the south-eastern networks with the north-west. Instead, The two terminus stations in the city would be linked directly by the construction of raised railway lines, which we see today forming the south-western quadrant of our modern City Loop. On the other side of Melbourne and the city, the Heidelberg line was extended to Eltham in 1902 and Hurstbridge in 1912. The freight only Mont Park line was also opened in 1911, branching from Macleod. Finally on the Mornington Peninsula, a branch was built from Bittern to Red Hill in 1921.

Electrification plans were first tabled with Victorian Railways in 1908, but these plans were not implemented. A second report was submitted in 1912 and these plans which were more expansive than the first, were approved by the Government. Unfortunately, World War I intervened and the completion was drawn out. The full implementation took until 1923, with a few additions made to the core network. The Ashburton (Alamein today) line was electrified in 1924, final works on the Lilydale line were completed in 1925, as was electrification on the line to Upper Ferntree Gully. Electrification on the outer ends of the single track Hurstbridge line were completed by 1926, the Whittlesea line to Thomastown was electrified in 1929, and the Burnley – Darling line was extended to Glen Waverley in 1930 to become the Glen Waverley line.

20th Century Plans

In 1938 the Government had commissioned a review of the infrastructure and the results that were released two years later known as the Ashworth Improvement Plan, thanks to the leadership of John Ashworth, Chief Engineer of Victorian Railways. The plan was birthed from the emerging shift in transportation needs of Melbournians. During the 19th century period of growth, the focus had initially focused on what had become the inner suburbs of Melbourne. After a generation of consolidation and maturation, it was clear that an increasing proportion of Melbourne’s population was now living further out. As farming land and orchards were subdivided into housing estates, vast tracts of land in the south-east were becoming more and more dense with residential properties. Satellite communities that followed the main route out to the Gippsland were now growing and linking up to become one contiguous stretch of Melbourne’s suburban sprawl.

Amongst the various recommendations, it acknowledged the previous disparate and often competing interests that had led to the existing networks of trams versus trains. The tram network had largely developed independent of the railway network and, like the initial private investments of the railway network, it was only over time that these interests and corporate stakeholders eventually became one, united under a government corporatisation. A key recommendation and focus was the resolution of the city bottlenecks of the network – underground railway was part of the solution, as well as improving the connectivity from north-west to south-east.

The report and implementation plan contained future plans for duplication, extension and renovation of key hubs like Richmond. Glen Waverley and Doncaster were both identified as line extensions, but the Glen Waverley alignment originally thought up here saw it as an extension of the Ashburton/Alamein line instead of the Darling/Glen Iris line, which had been a second feeder into the Pakenham line.

The reality of the 1940s, saw the plan partially implemented. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s some radical plans were proposed to demolish key railway infrastructure – namely the Jolimont Railway Yard and Flinders Street station, with the intent to redevelop the land and allow multipurpose dwellings.

In 1949 a review of the Victorian Railways was commissioned by then transport minister Kent Hughes, and was carried out by British Railways. The result was Operation Phoenix, another attempt to inject funds into the network, particularly in the period 1950-51. This was actually the peak of investment into the railway network that would not be matched until the 1980s when the construction of the City Loop was performed. Rolling stock was replenished in this latest wave, with new diesel-powered engines traversing the regional links.

In the 1960s and 1970s the transport focus shifted away from the railway network to the road network. The infamous 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan allocated $242M to railways in comparison to $1.6B for their vast network of freeways. Of the $242M, $80M was expected to fund the ten-year development of the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop, which we know today as the City Loop. It is interesting  to note that the original Ashworth Implementation Plan had already provided some thoughts for this underground rail loop, proposing an alternate addition to Flinders Street station where underground platforms would have existed as part of the loop system. The entire construction of the city loop took a decade, although the initial test bores were conducted in the 1960s, before any real commitment of funds were made. From 1971 when the first sod of soil was ceremonially tossed to 1980 when the powering of the system was performed, all construction activity was performed. Realignment of the tram along Latrobe Street during a four-year stretch (1974 – 1978) was the most severe disruption to normal activities on the city surface. Instead of costing $80M, the final cost came in at $500M, with 60% funding from state government debentures and a special city levy applied from 1963 to 1995; a 33-year period instead of an intended 53! A staggered opening of the city loop stations from 1981 to 1985 saw a 30-year declining trend in passengers finally reverse, one of the key reasons for the project.

In the 1990s, privatisation of the network saw each mode of transport in the hands of different operators whilst VicRail, as the successor to Victorian Railways, retained the infrastructure upgrade and maintenance. Bodies like VicRoads have grown in power over the years such that much of the state level politics is focused on roads. The short-term political agendas have also ensured no government is willing to take on too much risk with truly long-term strategic transport planning.

All throughout this period, the only investment that translated into new railway lines was in the early part of the century. In comparison, Sydney and the NSW State government continually invested in new railways. Part of their foresight was to not just deliver new railway lines, but to ensure their routes were underground and grade separated from the start. Sydney continues to benefit from this foresight and vision, which was present right from the 1920s and 1930s when the original City Circle line was constructed. Sydney continues to reap the rewards and their future metro will see them deliver a true mass rapid transit system.

21st Century Revitalisation

The new century has seen a continuation of the status quo. In the last decade though the resurgence in demand for public transport has grown such that it translated into an actual issue that made the difference in recent state elections. However, the politicisation of proposed transport plans and even road investments (East-West Link) has distracted us from the real objectives of a working public transportation system. As of 2016, we now have weekend 24-hour train services (Night Network), NightRider bus services, with a SmartBus network that is best described as fledgling…Various private companies compete in providing Airport bus links in addition to the tram network.

Roads with trams have been getting a bit more attention, most recently in a 2016 article where VicRoads is trialing a new tram priority lane system. Over the last decade, the St Kilda Road / Swanston St tram trunk which forms the core of the tram network, was separated from car lanes and traffic. As part of these projects, tram stops were upgraded into super stops, characterised by the raised platform positioned over the former car lane, protected with secure rails, with an optional shelter and seating structure. These tram super stops were introduced with a key outcome being the increased accessibility of the current generation of low-floor trams (B-class, C-class, D-class and E-class).

Whilst state government budgets dwindled in allocation to public transport and investment in the infrastructure, the prominence of road-based transportation took hold. This was reflected in the 1989 formation of VicRoads as a result of merging the Road Construction Authority with the Road Traffic Authority. It was only in 2010-2012 that a similarly dedicated authority was established for all public transportation. For many years, the dominance of VicRoads as the pre-eminent face of all transportation in Victoria has influenced public policy and kept the various statement governments focused on road-based projects.

To a certain extent, the 2015 Level Crossing Removal Authority and program has a road-centric goal in that the removal of a level crossing benefits road traffic. The test of whether this is true is in the performance metrics that determine success for the program and how balanced the entire set of performance measures are. The Level Crossing Removal publications have been quite open that priority has been given to locations and roads with heavy traffic but in fairness, this is a good and logical approach for determining the order of tackling each of the 50 level crossings. However, when you look closely at the designs of stations, platforms and how they are developed or customised according to each location, it is clear that the cost of developing a more integrated public transport network has so far been prohibitive. My analysis of the first level crossing removal at Burke Rd articulates this more costly what-if scenario.

To a large extent, my original series on Alternate Melbourne Designs takes the whole principle of integrated and holistic public transportation to the extreme. This 2016 writing series aims to review and refresh parts of the original series, combining it with developments that have arisen and remain in the current (2016) public mindset. My ideas that influenced the original series were based on my first-hand experience of Singapore’s public transportation system, which were designed and implemented to a standard and class that has simply never existed here in Melbourne.

According to the Wikipedia article on the list of metro systems, the definition of what makes a metro versus the commuter or light rail systems is the fact that the tracks are completely grade separated and inaccessible to pedestrians or other traffic. This exclusivity is key to enabling high frequency operating trains and large numbers of passengers. In this way, Sydney is definitely on track to fulfilling a true metro network, whereas Melbourne’s claim to operating a metro is still some way off. With a statistic of some 180 level crossings across suburban Melbourne, any ambition to convert the suburban network into a metro standard would require investment in the order of $36+ billion, based on an approximate $180~200M cost per level crossing. Note – this is based on the fact that the first three level crossings of the Victorian removal program were announced to cost $524M collectively ($524M / 3 = $174M). Given the program and authority are only focusing on a scope of 50 level crossings with a completion date estimated to be 2022 – a six ~ seven year period, the entire program could stretch over two decades easily…