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Australia must ‘move on’ from freeway fantasy, not High Speed Rail

In response to the Grattan Institute’s calls for Australia to ‘move on’ from High Speed Rail, the Public Transport Users Association notes the limitations of their analysis, and calls for urban megaroads projects to receive the same level of scrutiny.

Evidence has shown again and again that urban motorways induce more traffic, rather than “busting” it as proponents claim; that they do not stack up financially, in part because they rely on flawed “traffic busting” modelling; and that they are actively hindering our efforts to fight climate change. The North East Link’s price tag more than doubled after its benefit-cost ratio was calculated by Infrastructure Victoria, and it has not been re-assessed since; the West Gate Tunnel has completely circumvented this assessment process. And of course the East West Link, which the Victorian Opposition are inexplicably still fighting for, was a total dud at a BCR of 0.5

However these projects never attract the same scrutiny from economists that High Speed Rail projects do, despite the fact that they cumulatively cost a similar amount. As we quite rightly re-assess the merits of big government expenditure in light of COVID-19, these megaroads projects should be first under the microscope.

The report quite rightly notes many problems that any HSR project must overcome. However, it also has a number of large flaws that need to be addressed if we are to have a reasonable public debate about the merits of the project.

Population size and distribution

The report makes comparisons between the current population of Australia’s largest cities and international city pairs with HSR. However, this underplays the role that population growth will play – populations in Europe and Japan have grown very slowly since 1960 while Australia’s has more than doubled, and that growth is continuing. The Melbourne-Sydney corridor may have a much lower population than the Madrid-Barcelona corridor now, but by 2050 it will be very similar.

The overall trend towards urbanisation that is noted in the report masks considerable variation at the local level. Many rural LGAs are shrinking, or at best keeping their populations steady, but this does not just represent people moving to the capital cities, it also reflects considerable growth in regional centres. While still modest in absolute numbers, in percentage terms regional cities like Ballarat and Geelong are growing as fast or faster than Melbourne. This does not mean that regional centres are a silver bullet for the growing pains of our cities, but it does mean that claims of an inexorable flow towards the capitals are laughable. And despite claims that we have been trying to decentralise for decades, the decentralisation discussion has been long on rhetoric and short on substantive policy and investment for most of this period. The report is correct to assert that HSR would not be a silver bullet and to note other priority measures, such as internet connectivity – but the suggestion that it couldn’t form part of a decentralisation plan are more dubious.

The report makes the assertion that “to properly service regional towns, the train would need to stop in the centre of town” and notes that this does not happen in the Phase Two report, singling out the Gold Coast station in Robina as an example. This flies in the face of many international examples where a non-central station can work quite well for regional centres, where it’s part of a well-integrated transport network. Regional passengers can simply take the bus or drive to these stations; given that the Gold Coast HSR station was proposed to be adjacent to the existing conventional rail station, they already do. The report itself notes that the Gold Coast-Brisbane corridor is already the largest regional commuter corridor in the nation, despite Robina and all the other stations being inland.

The analysis suggesting Australia is more comparable to the USA than Europe or Japan may have merit on the grounds of population distribution, but it makes the untenable assumption that the USA has no HSR for purely economic reasons, completely ignoring the political environment. There is a well-documented history of vested interests advancing ideological political agendas against rail projects and in favour of road projects, and America’s political and funding landscape reflect this. The Californian HSR project mentioned in the report was hamstrung from the beginning due to political interference in the choice of route and staging, and the eventual decision to scale back the project is equally political. Similarly, the Texas Central project has “struggled to acquire land for the project”, but this is not due to the merits of the project, it is because vested interests have been doing their utmost to prevent the project from going ahead, leading to extensive legal battles. Clearly these political struggles do not have any bearing on the viability of the project in any objective economic sense.

Decarbonising long-distance travel

The report makes the valid point that a large-scale HSR project like this would be a very expensive and slow way to reduce emissions, compared to other emissions reduction measures in other sectors of the economy. The project would generate emissions during construction, and would take time to “pay back” these emissions through operation – this is a serious problem that environmental advocates for HSR must deal with.

However, it is also true that viable ways to decarbonise our interstate travel are thin on the ground – options like battery electric, biofuel or hydrogen planes may show promise but are currently unproven. Given that we’re now in the endgame of the climate crisis and must completely decarbonise all aspects of our economy – not just the cheapest and easiest aspects – analysts must compare apples to apples, and compare HSR against its direct alternatives for decarbonising interstate travel. It may be that one of these alternatives would be quicker and cheaper – but if not, it may be a case of building HSR and taking direct action to offset its construction emissions, such as through reforestation.

The PTUA certainly recognises that, on almost all measures, more modest improvements to public transport – whether within Melbourne or more conventional rail proposals for regional Victoria – are a higher priority, and our campaigning has always reflected this. However, the urgent need to address the climate crisis means that governments must do both – build the intra-city public transport networks we need while seriously addressing long-distance transport as well.

To help ease pressures on the budget, governments should be cancelling white elephant urban megaroads projects like North East Link, the West Gate Tunnel and the Monash Freeway Upgrade. None of these megaroads projects stack up financially, they all induce more traffic rather than “busting” it, and they all increase carbon emissions at a time when we need to be reducing them – if Australia needs to “move on” from a transport fantasy, it’s that these urban motorways are a good idea.

Membership offer – Join PTUA for a year for the cost of a week of Myki

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  • PTUA regular annual membership is discounted to $45 for a year – the same as a weekly Myki Zone 1+2 Pass, or five days of Myki Money.
  • Discount applies to regular membership when joining or renewing online.
  • Does not apply to Concession or other tiers, or when joining or renewing via paper form.
  • This offer is for a limited time only.

Infrastructure Victoria misses the bus on public transport pricing

A report on transport pricing by Infrastructure Victoria contains some potentially valuable suggestions on pricing of roads and parking, but is breathtakingly naive in its approach to public transport fares.

As part of a comprehensive suite of measures to ‘rationalise’ the pricing of transport in Victoria, the IV report proposes scrapping the Myki zone system in favour of distance-based charging akin to taxi fares. It also proposes different fares depending on the type of vehicle: for example $1.70 plus 8c per kilometre for trains and $0.90 plus 6c per kilometre for buses. All fares would drop by one-third to two-thirds outside peak periods.

While the off-peak discounting proposal has merit, charging differently according to mode and route completely misses the point of having a multimodal network.

The first rule of modern multimodal network planning is that your transport system shouldn’t discriminate according to whether or not one’s local railway station is within walking distance. All well-designed transport systems have feeder bus networks to get people to trains. But as soon as this requires an additional fare for the bus, it just adds to the privilege of those lucky enough to live nearby. It could perversely also incentivise people to drive to the station and add to local congestion and parking pressure.

That’s why almost every city in the world operates a multimodal system where the technical details of the route and vehicle don’t affect what one is charged. This is generally achieved by charging based on zones rather than individual trips, or by providing free transfers. One of the minority that do not is Sydney – yet that’s the city IV singles out for admiration in its report.

Congestion promoter, not congestion buster

The real flaw with IV’s suggestion is that charging different fare rates for trains and buses won’t actually achieve the goal of reducing congestion.

The thinking here is apparently that buses and trains are substitutes for one another – that a bus is just a lower-cost way of making a journey one would otherwise make by train. So the story goes, you can reduce crowding on trains by getting people to ride buses instead.

But in real public transport systems, the different travel modes play distinct roles and are not direct substitutes. We operate different modes of transport for a reason, not just because it looks good. We don’t waste valuable bus resources on duplicating rail services. Rail is the heavy-lifting, high-capacity mode: a train line moves tens of thousands of people per hour per track, compared with 1500 per hour for a motorway lane or 6000 per hour for a busway.

By and large public transport has just one big congestion problem: into the city in the morning peak and out in the evening peak. At virtually all other times and places, public transport is well placed to absorb mode-shift from car travel. The real deterrent here at present is not the price of buses relative to trains: it’s the fact the frequency and reliability of buses (and sometimes trains) is so poor. It’s a common official mistake to assume a failure to use infrequent, unreliable services indicates a general disdain for public transport or a preference for car travel, rather than just a rational response to poor service.

Melbourne public transport reserves its better standard of service for city-focussed travel in the peaks, and this is where its genuine congestion problem lies. Planners can mitigate this by encouraging more travel to shift to peak-shoulder periods. Price incentives are one way to do this, alongside improvements in all-day service frequency. But if these options are exhausted and peak crowding remains a problem, the only way this will be solved is by sweating the rail assets – not pushing people onto lower-capacity modes, which will only exacerbate crowding and congestion.

The concern is that IV is being led into an outdated “trains for the rich, buses for the poor” narrative – one that’s reflective of underperforming transport systems in many British or US cities, and in a self-reinforcing cycle, has been the main political barrier to any substantial improvement in bus services wherever this attitude prevails. But it’s also completely at odds with the way well-planned systems work in Europe, Asia or Canada. In those places, people use their local bus to go to the shops or railway station, then catch a train to go further afield – and pay one fare to cover the trip.

Micro-charging by distance, alongside its other flaws, is also unlikely to have any marked effect on peak congestion. Peak-hour commuting trips are probably the least price sensitive of all: a couple of extra dollars a day is no incentive to anyone to move closer to their city workplace.

It probably doesn’t help that IV have relied on a simulation model for Melbourne transport in 2031 that includes a number of road projects (such as the Outer Metropolitan Ring eastern section) that government has not committed to, yet leaves out rail projects that are current government commitments such as the Airport link and Suburban Rail Loop, as well as potential future rail initiatives such as Melbourne Metro 2. This is symptomatic of a long-standing and disturbing pro-road bias in official evaluations of infrastructure initiatives.

Good in parts

There is certainly merit to introducing some form of off-peak discount on Myki fares, similar to the 30% discount that applies on V/Line.

The IV report correctly notes Melbourne had off-peak discounts in the 1970s, but it’s less well known that off-peak discount fares continued to exist right up until 2012. The real problem is they were undermined by successive, uncoordinated tweaks to the fare system over three decades. It’s quite appropriate that they be re-evaluated, in a way that also addresses the remaining anomalies in the Myki fare system.

We also agree with the need to reform user charging for roads and car parking, as fuel excise revenue is undermined by a future transition to electric vehicles. This provides, as IV argues, an opportunity to replace high fixed charges for registration and third-party insurance, which currently act as a disincentive for car owners to leave the car at home more often.

However, such pricing reform needs to be done equitably and transparently, and without introducing further perverse incentives. Where is the sense, for example, in building a motorway to ‘relieve’ arterial road congestion and then, via tolling, giving motorists an incentive to go on using those same arterial roads in preference to the new route?

But in its approach to public transport, IV needs to go back to the drawing board. The PTUA has pointed out for decades that the cost of running public transport is best recovered with a modest, fixed charge that varies ‘coarsely’ by distance – like Melbourne’s zone system used to do but without such a massive penalty for crossing a zone boundary. This also has the greatest promise of reducing congestion by shifting car trips to public transport.

The bottom line is the way to really bust congestion is always to encourage more public and active transport, and especially more rail travel. Because if we plan properly, rail is the mode best placed to absorb additional patronage.

Myki Passes now able to be paused

Following our approach to the State Government, PTV have advised us today that they can now pause your Myki Pass.

By pausing a Myki Pass, any remaining travel days will be ready for use when you are ready to get back onto public transport.

This applies to both Commuter Club (through PTUA or other organisations) and to regular Myki Passes.

In order to pause a Myki Pass, PTV will need to block your existing card and send you a new one, which will be activated the next time it is touched on.

You will need to call PTV on 1800 800 007 so this pause can be arranged.

Please note that any replacement card will be sent to the address on your account – in some cases, this may be a business address.

The PTV call centre team can assist with updating these address details if required.

Whilst PTV can arrange to have the Myki Pass paused, if your Commuter Club card was arranged via your employer, you may need to talk them regarding any payroll deductions that you have.

If you would prefer a refund on your Myki Pass instead of a pause, PTV can also help with that. Call 1800 800 007 and the PTV call centre team can assist with providing a refund quote or advise on the best option for you.

Also note:

  • Myki Money is not affected if you do not use public transport for a period. The balance will remain in place for when you resume travel.
  • Be aware that Online topups and new Auto topups may become “dormant” if they are initiated on the Myki web site but you don’t use the Myki card for more than 90 days afterwards. This means they may not be immediately available the next time you travel.

COVID-19

Please note that due to COVID-19 the PTUA is not running member meetings for the moment.

There may also be a delay in processing paper membership forms and other correspondence, as our volunteers may not be attending the office during this period.

Members wishing to renew are encouraged to do so online.

Commuter Club / Myki Pass refunds

Some members with Commuter Club tickets and other types of Myki Passes have been in touch to find out if their Pass can be paused during a period when they are not using public transport.

We are told that at present the only option is to ask PTV for a refund on the Pass.

Due to the way PTV calculates Pass refunds this may or may not be worthwhile.

We have raised this issue with the State Government to find out if a better solution is possible.

UPDATE: Myki Passes are now able to be paused.

Travel advice

PTV has published information on COVID-19, including details of increased cleaning of vehicles and stations, and travel advice.

Victorian Department of Health and Human Services also has information online, including a daily update with advice.

We encourage all public transport users to stay up to date with developments, and stay safe.

Planning confusion sells Melbourne’s west, air travellers short

Statement by the Public Transport Users Association

The Public Transport Users Association is concerned at recent commentary on new rail developments in Melbourne’s west, specifically the promised rail link to Melbourne Airport, and the implied pressure to rush into major decisions in the absence of a comprehensive plan for public transport development.

At a high level, while we can cheer on the procession of transformative projects such as the Regional Rail Link, Metro 1 rail tunnel, Airport line and Suburban Rail Loop, it comes with a sense of unease: that they are proceeding in the absence of any kind of coherent transport plan that addresses the needs and aspirations of Victorians, and speaks to the kind of places Melbourne and Victoria’s regional cities aim to be in 50 years’ time. In place of this have come a succession of often contradictory half-plans and vision statements, mostly developed without community input.

PTV’s 2012 Rail Network Development Plan provided for new suburban lines to both Melbourne Airport and Melton, alongside the existing line to Sunbury. Yet within five years it had been discarded. Airport rail was absent from successor plans in 2017 even as a long-term prospect, only to be reinstated as government policy in 2018. Virtually all the subsequent confusion about rail options for the airport and western Melbourne more generally can be attributed to this fickle, on-again-off-again approach to planning.

The PTUA recommends a staged approach toward managing peak-hour carrying capacity between the city and Sunshine, with well-considered plans in place to guide future augmentations in response to need. With such a plan in place there should be no need to speculate about the adequacy of existing capacity projects that are still under construction.

The Metro 1 tunnel was envisaged in 2012 as providing capacity for up to 12 trains per hour to Sunbury in peak, in addition to trains every 10 minutes to the Airport and to Melton (with no changes at Sunshine). To put this in context, in the near-decade between 2011 and 2020 the number of trains on the Sunbury line in the busiest hour has risen from just 8 to 10. The line currently does double duty owing to the patchy nature of the current V/Line Melton service, and is set to benefit from new ‘HCMT’ rolling stock with over 20% greater passenger capacity per train available immediately and more than 70% in the longer term. Claims that the Metro 1 tunnel will be ‘full’ and require more than 12 Sunbury trains per hour from the day it opens in 2025 do not appear well-founded.

The parallel Regional Rail Link tracks between the city and Sunshine currently carry up to 17 V/Line trains in the busiest hour, about one-third of these being Melton or Wyndham Vale short services that should ultimately transfer to the suburban network. V/Line and Metro trains have run on fully separated paths inward of Sunshine since 2015, each with practical capacity for 20 to 24 trains per hour before considering potential improvements from high-capacity signalling. While V/Line operational practices require improvement, in particular the allocation of platforms at Southern Cross, there is little impediment to the expansion of peak-hour V/Line services requiring a new tunnel between Sunshine and the city in the near to medium term.

The likely driver for future capacity requirements, beyond tracks already operating or under construction, will be the need to provide electrified suburban train services to Wyndham Vale and Tarneit. Options for expansion are not limited to a new tunnel duplicating existing lines between Sunshine and the city. The Metro 2 tunnel proposal, for example, would route Werribee suburban trains from Newport to the city via Fishermans Bend, and has potential to also carry Geelong trains via Werribee (with provision of dedicated parallel tracks between Werribee and Newport).

In short, the PTUA rejects claims that Airport trains cannot be accommodated in the next decade without a new tunnel between Sunshine and the city, or that Victoria is missing some kind of “now or never” chance to build such a tunnel. The PTUA does call for a comprehensive transport plan that could consider such a tunnel as a future option, alongside other, possibly superior options to build capacity. It would also give careful concern to methods of financing, avoiding in particular the scenario where future governments are obliged to pay rent to a private operator for every train that runs through a future rail tunnel.

It must be kept in mind that virtually every airport rail link in the world exhibits design compromises that cause them to fall well short of ‘ideal’, yet many are well-used and well-regarded nonetheless. Melbourne’s airport link needs to be ‘done right’ but this does not demand a radical departure from existing technology or from incremental approaches to development. Global experience suggests it is more likely to provide an affordable and popular service for passengers if its development is integrated with that of the wider suburban network.

PTUA opposed to expansion of the Free Tram Zone

PTUA does not support the Free Tram Zone, due to the problems it causes, including crowding, and the lack of benefits it provides to paying public transport users. We also do not support the Zone being extended.

Data indicates the Free Tram Zone has increased tram usage at the expense of “active” modes (walking and cycling) rather than driving, and appears to have encouraged more people to drive into the City and Docklands, while also resulting in delays due to overcrowding at tram stops.

The money spent on providing the Free Tram Zone would be better spent extending and upgrading services across Melbourne, particularly in the middle and outer suburbs, to provide more people with viable alternatives to car travel.

More details: PTUA’s submission to the Free Tram Zone Parliamentary Inquiry (PDF)

In defence of buses

From time to time politicians and others push the misleading line that passengers don’t like buses, and that they’re only a last resort form of public transport. It’s true that​ patronage on many bus routes is poor, but this is because the service is poor, and because bus​ routes are poorly understood by potential passengers.​ ​

The solution to this is to roll out more SmartBus style bus routes, and upgrade existing routes​ to SmartBus standards, which provide direct, high frequency “tram like”​ services. SmartBuses run at least every 15 minutes through the day on weekdays, and more frequently​ during the peaks. They also provide quite direct routes with no meandering through the back​ streets. That’s why they’re popular.​ ​

The parts of the SmartBus network which serve major activity centres, and Doncaster Area Rapid Transit ​ (DART) SmartBuses, prove that good bus services can attract high patronage. In recent times DART routes ​ have suffered severe peak period overcrowding. Some orbital SmartBus services in the Box Hill and ​ Chadstone areas also have overcrowding problems. If good services are provided, people will use them.​ ​

Many other bus services run every hour or less, and take roundabout routes. That’s why people ​ don’t use them. It’s not about rubber wheels or diesel engines – it’s about frequency and directness.​ ​

Comparing SmartBus experience on weekends versus weekdays is also instructive. On​ weekdays, when SmartBuses run every 15 minutes, patronage is far better than on weekends when they only​ run every 30 minutes. In the DART case, this frequency issue is exacerbated by the fact that Ringwood ​ line trains run every 10 minutes on weekends. It appears that quite a few people who would catch a ​ SmartBus on weekdays, drive to a train station on weekends. Weekend SmartBuses must be upgraded to at least every 15 minutes. Again, it’s not about rubber wheels or ​diesel engines. It’s about frequency.​

Another important problem is most people’s lack of understanding of bus routes and frequencies. Most​ people have some level of familiarity with Melbourne’s train and tram routes, and once you find​ a train station or tram stop, you can generally expect a train or tram to show up within 20 minutes (during​ the day at least). By comparison, most bus stops are a lottery. Even with a bus tracker app in hand, just​ showing up at a bus stop is brave. Research in advance is mandatory!​ ​

SmartBus routes are again an example of how this can be much better done. SmartBus stops​ typically have maps of the SmartBus routes, and people know these routes have reasonably​ frequent services. Similar maps of direct, higher frequency bus routes across Melbourne more generally​ are needed. Bus routes should be colour coded for frequency, so people can see what combination​ of routes is likely to be “interchange friendly”. These maps should be provided at bus stops as​ well as online.​

SmartBus electronic signage should be enhanced to indicate when there are alternative bus routes between major hubs on SmartBus routes. This will help in some situations where passengers are being left behind because buses are full, but other buses have empty seats which could have been used, e.g. between Chadstone and Oakleigh Station. ​

Interchange is another area where Melbourne’s bus system desperately needs improvement. Even​ where high frequency routes cross, e.g. where DART routes cross orbital SmartBuses, often no​ effort has been made to put bus stops on intersecting routes close together, no signage to​ other bus stops is provided, and no services are provided at interchange points. Even​ a convenience store which sells coffee, newspapers and Myki topups, and has a big map of the ​ SmartBus network on display, would be a big improvement.​

Other road infrastructure enhancements which can significantly speed up buses, are dedicated bus lanes, jump start lanes at traffic lights, and traffic light priority for such lanes. ​

New train and tram lines are great when the political will and funding can be found, but realistically such​ new lines will be built only rarely. For the two thirds of Melbourne which doesn’t have train or tram​ services, high quality bus services are the only option. We can’t afford to let politicians dodge this​ necessity by claiming that people don’t want buses.

Stories of Growth: car traffic driven by new roads

What’s worse than when population growth puts strain on our transport systems?

When road traffic grows even faster than population.

But that was the reality in Melbourne for nearly four decades.

No matter how much or how little Melbourne grows, we’ll need to be smarter in future.

Read the study: Stories of Growth – Population, Transport and Melbourne’s Future (November 2018) — PDF, 184 Kb

What year did your railway station open?

What year did your local station open? Before you were born? Probably before your grandparents were born! Our population is growing, and our public transport network needs to keep growing too.

Click here to view the map larger.

The rail network grew rapidly between 1854 and 1930… but since then almost nothing. Expansion of rail, tram and Smartbus services is far too slow for Melbourne’s huge population growth. No wonder the roads are congested!

Melbourne railway stations vs population growth

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