Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Outer suburban communities and rail electrification

There is little doubt that electrification to Sunbury, if it happened, would be a patronage success, just as the previous Werribee, Cranbourne, Sydenham, and Craigieburn electrifications have been.

While travel times and comfort might be somewhat inferior on the electrified service, their longer operating hours and tripled frequency have more than compensated. The increased patronage means that public transport is successfully meeting more people's travel needs. This is a good thing, especially if it takes trips away from its main competitor, the private car.

There are however certain local factors and personalities in Sunbury that have given rise to some opposition to an improvment that would be uncritically welcomed elsewhere (eg South Morang). This could come from a 'coalition' of the following:

1. Existing peak hour train commuters worried they would lose their comfortable inter-urban seats and have to stand on a crowded electrified suburban service. In contrast all the residents of South Morang would lose is a (slower) bus.

2. Local activists who see improved rail as being bad for their community. Objections raised include crime, vandalism, noise, litter and sprawl.

This is possibly less a debate about transport than the sort of place Sunbury should be. Unlike accretions to the suburban sprawl like South Morang or Rowville, Sunbury sees itself as a large country town seperate from Melbourne. Sunbury has many local community groups, affordable housing and locals recognise others in the main street.

Like 'green change' areas such as Eltham, it may be that local residents jealously protect their lifestyles from outsiders, sprawl and development to the point of paranoia verging on xenophobia.

Suburban standard rail service is seen as 'the thin edge of the wedge' and a step towards Sunbury losing its seperateness and becoming an anonymous suburb. Long time residents might express apprehension of 'ferals' moving in and the area becoming more like less favoured suburbs such as Dallas, Doveton or Melton.

Of course freeways can have similar effects to rail extensions in encouraging outer suburban development. So-called 'ferals' can drive (and steal) cars as much as riding trains, but this does not seem to be accepted as an argument against roads that bring Sunbury closer to Melbourne (eg the Calder and Tullamarine freeways). Such roads seem to be widely lauded in these parts with any opposition being on broader environmental rather local community or business 'protection' grounds. Instead local business people see the shorter travel time to Melbourne as an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

The flip side of neighbourliness in rural communities is protectionism, and this can lead to resistance against change, urbanisation or outsiders. A vocal local can be well-known by many and be perceived to carry a degree of influence. Or equally importantly, they may be regarded as representative of community wishes by outsiders.

One such local activist is Steve 'Jack' Medcraft, who is fiercely against rail electrification. A google search will reveal a most colourful character, whether it be in his council activities, activities as a real estate agent, convenor of 'People Against Lenient Sentencing', sporting activity and more. You can be sure his voice is heard in many places around the community.

Get 20 such people together and you can assure the outside world that locals don't want electrification; though more may support it they may be less vocal or not have any fear campaigns to run.


Andrew said...

While I am sure that there aren't diesel trains lying around spare, there is not a real reason is there that they could not provide the same service as electric trains. Ok, they could not be through routed and the ideal is an electric service, but is it really about electric trains? The locals seem to be effective enough in their lobbying to keep their present service, I am sure they be just as effective in lobbying for enough trains to cope with the loading.

Anonymous said...

the point is that woodend/kyneton people don't argue enough to get'em off!