Monday, April 01, 2019

Bigger Cheaper Sooner: A look at Project AERIAL

Melbourne's growth shows no sign of slowing. We're adding something like 100 000 residents per year. And, despite CBD area densification, most newcomers are settling in the outer suburbs.

Before last election the state government announced the ambitious Suburban Rail Loop (SRL). It's part of Victoria's Big Build. It won't be complete until 2050.  It serves some major centres but being largely a middle-suburb project it doesn't go very near the areas experiencing the fastest population growth. Alan Davies called it a mistake. The Grattan Institute isn't a fan either, saying it won't serve many jobs.

Still, the public seems to like it. And objectors could be ignoring transfomative land uses that may make SRL more viable. However, there remain concerns that it is very long term, and a more immediate transport solution is required for the critical 2026 to 2050 period.

How do we best meet these mobility challenges? Implementation of more frequent, consistent and reliable 'greenfields' train timetables as proposed in the 2013 Network Development Plan - Metropolitan Rail has stalled.  Even running Sunday morning trains better than every 40 minutes seems impossible. Won't the Metro Rail Tunnel help? We can't really be sure. For example there's been no public indication that trains to busy stations like Sunshine and Watergardens will operate better than the current 20 minute daytime frequency. And no one knows if there's a recent Victorian Transport Plan, despite it being required by the Transport Integration Act 2010.

Fortunately it's not all doom and gloom. Someone's been thinking. People are on the case. We can sleep well. Crack teams of consultants and graphic designers sworn to secrecy and off department books, have been assembled to plan a bigger, cheaper and sooner orbital transport system.

Only a few know these planning units exist. In a departure from normal practice, which is to centralise high level planning work in the CBD, these teams are housed in surplus asbestos-roofed C-grade offices about 30 or 40 kilometres from the city.

With dispersed business units in the west, north, east and south, each team has only scant 'need to know' inkling of what the others do. As the management manual says, "Site separation safeguards secrecy".

Recruitment experts say that suburban worksites attract more TAFE graduates who tend to be more grounded and less likely to embark on flights of fancy compared to inner-city uni leavers. Jobs for TAFE graduates is important for the success of the premier's Free TAFE policy.  And given the tendency for tongues to wag at cafes, 'deep in Zone 2' locations lessen the risk of leaks to mostly Zone 1-based journalists, lawyers and political staffers.

However there are always exceptions. Late Friday afternoon I was fortunate to receive a briefing on plans for a project that will change the way people and freight get around Melbourne. But it was not until this morning that I've been able to share the exciting news.

It's called Project AERIAL. The Automated Electric Rapid Inter Area Loop. This electrically-powered orbital system will transform public and freight transport around outer Melbourne.

Starting at Hastings AERIAL will initially serve Cranbourne, Narre Warren, Dandenong North, the Eastlink corridor, Heatherdale, South Morang, Wollert, Donnybrook, Mickelham, Broadmeadows and Melbourne Airport. Requiring a minimum of new infrastructure, completion is expected by 2030. Stage Two extensions to Clyde North, Officer/Pakenham and Calder Park/Eynesbury will open two years later. A future Stage Three (not shown below) may run between Lilydale and Broadmeadows via Chirnside Park, Templestowe, Watsonia, Keon Park and Jacana.

Fifteen intermodal interchange points will provide strategic connections with local bus and train services. A high-value freight bridge between Melbourne Airport, the Northern Industrial Growth Zone, the Outer South East Industrial Growth Zone and a future expanded commercial port at Hastings is also part of the AERIAL project. Large freight users will be able to transport their own containers via AERIAL, with a competitive 60 minute travel time from Melbourne Airport to Hastings Port. Also, wineries in the Yarra Valley will be able to get their produce to either within thirty minutes, with convenient terminals in Warrandyte and Heatherdale.

AERIAL is a heartwarming story of Aussie innovation. It came when the (now) project director was at Lynbrook looking across fields of high tension power pylons. They noticed that the gaps in pylons were so big that you could drive a bus through them. And with power so close at hand it made sense that it was an electric bus. Taking a tip from overhead cable cars it was thought better to suspend driverless motorised carriages on central overhead cables supported from the pylons.

The final piece in the puzzle came when it was realised that Melbourne already had a network of high tension power pylons that could shape an orbital transport system. While pylons differ in size and shape, the cost of replacing unsuitable ones would still likely be less than alternatives including tunnelling or land resumption for new railways. And in the time it would take for AERIAL to be built and there was a swing to site-generated solar energy, AERIAL would provide a new market for electricity generating companies and income from the air rights of transmission line corridors and potentially also commuter parking. Public Private Pylon Partnerships (PPPPs) are truly a wonderful example of joined up thinking to simultaneously solve urban transport and energy problems.

How does AERIAL tie in with other transport modes to create a real network? The blue dots on the map are the AERIAL intermodal interchange points to existing or proposed train and bus services. Jumbo sized 100 person lifts will provide fast access to the ground.

AERIAL will add more Park and Ride capacity to the network near where people live, with 2000 spots at each station. This is expensive to do at existing train stations because of competition from surrounding high value land uses. In contrast, because no one wants to live near them, there is much less competition for space under transmission lines corridors.  Large areas under them will be turned over to free parking. A shared cycle scheme, using reconditioned O-bikes fished from the Yarra, will allow people to park up to 2km away from each AERIAL station. And, to assist car electrification, low-tariff electric vehicle charging stations will be provided. This is a win for electricity distributors because the closer the point of power consumption is to the high tension distribution network the lower will be losses caused by transmission line resistance and transformer inefficiencies. 

What about AERIAL's user experience? Yesterday I messaged Chip Monk, AERIAL's Curator User Response Sensing Experiences. Chip said that the view from the recently opened Dandenong line "Sky Rail" was nothing compared to what AERIAL riders will get. And, because it's a driverless system so high that advertising can't be read from cars stuck on the roads below, front, rear and floor windows will be left clear.

He added that user expectations had changed. These had influenced AERIAL's design. In particular views from AERIAL will be as good as on wide-screen plasma TVs. People will board AERIAL just for the ride. New stations at the Yarra River near Warrandyte and in the Churchill National Park are expected to contribute weekend patronage. And each year AERIAL will bring White Night festivities to the suburbs, with spectacular performance displays of self-powering flourescent luminaires to greet travelling passengers.

A concern people might have about AERIAL is health. It's well-known that houses near high tension power lines sell for less. And note the outcry when it is proposed that a school be built near pylons. This has been taken care of according to Mr Monk. Exposure to electromagnetic fields is less than people would get from holding their mobile phone close up. Besides the vehicles are made of metal to provide shielding by forming a scary sounding but protective thing called a Faraday Cage.

All-up, AERIAL looks an elegant solution to our transport problems. There's complete grade separation with no costly tunnelling. Use is made of (mostly) existing infrastructure, and, except in minor cases, no land acquisition is required. The route alignment will bring service to areas where it was previously sparse. Integration with existing trains and buses at strategic nodes is possible.  And, as discussed, there's massive opportunity for park and ride due to smart use of surplus land that no one would want for anything else.

Want to know more? 

Book a free tour of the AERIAL Discovery Centre to see what Bigger Cheaper Sooner looks like.  Make it a family day with virtual AERIAL SkyRides available for everyone.

A full complement of community liaison workers, media advisers, user experience curators, and Public Interface Space Stakeholder Officers will be on hand for your queries about this formerly hush-hush project. 

Numbers are limited so register online now. It's open from 7am, this morning only, closing at noon.

Can't make it? Ask below and I'll try to answer. 

You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics

Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit Steven Higashide NEW!

The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees Gleeson & Beza

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, Institutions (Access Quintet Book 4) David Levinson

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives Jarrett Walker

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)


Andrew said...

I am alert this morning and only half taken in once already by a radio story. Good work.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant Peter - thank you
Andy K