Myth: There’s no point building new train lines to the suburbs, as most travel is local
Fact: A well designed train service has two purposes: to take people to the city centre, and to cater for ‘along the line’ travel in a radial corridor. Evidence shows that this kind of radial travel is almost as prevalent as local travel.

When shown the evidence that Melbourne does not need ring-freeways to cater for long-distance travel across the suburbs (because such travel is only a small proportion of the total, and adequately catered for on existing roads), one might be tempted to conclude that new train lines aren’t needed in the suburbs either. After all, if most travel is confined to one’s local area, what is the point of building a train line that’s only going to be used to carry a small number of people to the city centre?

The majority of journeys to work are actually to places within the person’s own municipality, not to the central business district (except for the most inner of council areas). This is why I often seem cold on this site towards high cost rail extensions in suburbia…. High percentages of Glen Eira residents work in the CBD, whereas a much smaller percentage of residents in places like Frankston do so. But which gets more attention? Moves are always made to pander to outer suburbanites (express services etc.) yet in reality, they account for only a small amount of CBD traffic.

—‘BleakCity’, SkyscraperCity
blog, November 2008

Closer examination of the evidence, however, points to the importance of ‘along the line’ travel. This is longer-distance travel to locations other than the city centre, but which is still ‘radial’ in that it runs largely parallel to an (actual or potential) radial train line. Examples would include travel from Cranbourne to Clayton, from Rowville to Caulfield, or from Werribee to Altona; or in the opposite direction, say from Blackburn to Ferntree Gully.

The evidence from the Census and other travel surveys shows that this ‘along the line’ travel is almost as prevalent as local travel (and much more so than ‘circumferential’ travel across the suburbs). Actual CBD travel is only a small portion of this larger travel category. At the same time, the majority of this along-the-line travel actually occurs by car rather than by train. This is because Melbourne’s train network is an ‘urban’ system inefficiently operated as a ‘commuter‘ system because of planners’ fixation with peak-hour CBD commuting.

So, while the evidence certainly doesn’t point to a great need for circumferential train lines in the outer suburbs (any more than it does for ring-freeways), there is plenty of travel even in the outer suburbs that radial train lines can serve, in a fast, efficient manner. Currently, however, there are vast tracts of suburban Melbourne that lack even radial train services, and as a result are utterly car-dependent even by Melbourne standards. These include the Doncaster/Templestowe region, the southern part of Knox, the Whittlesea growth corridor, and the Caroline Springs area (where trains pass by but do not stop). So, for example, while 26% of workers in Box Hill commuted by public transport on Census day in 2006, just 5km to the north in Doncaster the rate was only half this, at 13%.

The larger issue, of course, is that our public transport system also desperately needs to be made attractive for non-CBD-oriented travel. Overseas experience points to what needs to be done: the main elements are a boost in off-peak frequencies, and the reform of bus routes so that they act as feeder services to railway stations and coordinate with trains, as well as serving travel across the suburbs.

Last modified: 18 January 2009