Melbourne – ringing in the changes
With new operators, new trains and new infrastructure, Melbourne’s suburban rail commuters could be in for a wild ride over the next few years. However, it will be some time before it becomes clear as to whether these developments will be sufficient to cope with the rapid growth in patronage and Melbourne’s predicted population expansion.
By Mark Carter
Commuter numbers on Melbourne’s suburban rail network have grown faster than in any other Australian city, with around 47 per cent growth over the last four years. In 2008/09 this growth flattened out just a little but the 213.9 million trips for the year still represented growth of 6.3 per cent on the previous year.
And this increase, while modest, occurred on a network where overcrowding on many lines has already been an issue for some time.
While much of the increase to date has been generated by factors such as the higher cost of motoring and congestion issues, even an easing in fuel prices has not appeared to have diminished the travelling public’s enthusiasm for the rail network.
If recent pronouncements on Melbourne’s (and Australia’s) future population numbers are to be taken seriously then the current and future Victorian governments will have little time to catch their breath in planning further improvements and expansion of the existing rail network beyond those already in the pipeline.
Current predictions would see Melbourne’s population grow to around five million people by 2030, reaching around seven million by 2049.
At the end of this month, a new franchise operator will take over the metropolitan commuter rail network and run it on behalf of the state government for the next eight years.
The Metro Trains Melbourne (MTM) consortium is built around metro rail operator, Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation, along with rail maintenance provider John Holland Group and rolling stock maintainer United Group Rail.
While there are huge differences between the make up and operations of the Hong Kong and Melbourne commuter networks, one would imagine that MTR’s extensive experience in running the Hong Kong system will serve it well when dealing with Melbourne’s burgeoning passenger numbers.
On an average day, the Hong Kong network will handle around 4 million passengers – somewhere between six and seven times the number travelling daily in Melbourne.
The Hong Kong network includes 211.6 kilometres of rail with 150 stations, including 85 railway stations and 68 light rail stops which compares with Melbourne's 372 kilometres and 200 stations.
The new franchisee will have a tough job ahead of them as they battle to deal with a system that has lacked investment and has struggled to cope under record passenger numbers.
As part of its franchise agreement, MTM has committed to reducing cancellations by 24 per cent in the first year, achieving a 10 per cent improvement in punctuality, and working towards reducing unplanned infrastructure related delays by 25 per cent over the next two years.
Around new 200 jobs will created, driven by an increase in state funding for rail infrastructure maintenance and a commitment to more customer service station staff.
In a nod towards the often reported skill shortages within the rail industry, MTM says it will establish a training academy and careers centre, based on a similar concept in Hong Kong, with an eye to providing more skilled staff for the future.MTM is also bound by tougher performance benchmarks for reliability and punctuality and will be fined up to $1 million a month for poor performance. Previous franchisee Connex, whose tenure was plagued by rolling stock and infrastructure issues not entirely of its own doing, will be looking on enviously as MTM benefits from the introduction of up to new 70 new trains over the next few years, with the first of the initial batch of 38 new six-car trains from Alstom delivered recently.
Along with extension and duplication of the Epping line to South Morang and electrification Sunbury, two other major infrastructure projects can be seen as planning ahead to accommodate future population growth.
The $4.3 billion Regional Rail Link will involve construction of a 40 kilometre dual track link from West Werribee to Southern Cross Station and provide separation of metropolitan rail lines from those servicing regional Victoria creating much need additional capacity and reliability on both networks. Pre construction planning, design and engineering works will also start soon on plans for a 17 kilometre, two track East West Rail Tunnel Linking Melbourne's western suburbs and central business district which will create capacity for an extra120 trains during peak hours, equivalent to 84,000 commuters.
Whether all this will be sufficient to alleviate the current strain on Melbourne’s commuter network, while at the same time accommodating future increases in patronage driven by population growth, is yet to be determined.
Nevertheless, there does seem to be some vision in the way the city is planning for its future rail transport needs, the same of which could unfortunately not be said about Sydney?