Friday, July 31, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 55: How good plans can endure - A look at 1988's MetPlan

Planners (especially in public transport!) can get demoralised that what they work on may not get implemented or even published.  

Plans may be for 10, 20 or more years. However political and economic conditions change faster than that. It's not uncommon for a plan to look like it's been dropped if political fashions change. An example is 2013's Rail Network Development Plan whose emphasis on quickly delivering frequent service proved unattractive to an infrastructure-focused government. 

However planners can take comfort that their best work is based on universal truths. They address enduring matters that are important if we want a functioning system in a growing city. Fashions may change but a good plan lives on. 

An old plan may appear dead only to later be revived. It's not just in transport we see this; look at the history of policies such as Medibank/Medicare and the Goods and Services Tax. Ideas might be mooted 10 or 20 years before becoming 'part of the furniture'. Meanwhile the radical has become not the person who wishes to implement a policy but the one who wishes to repeal it.  

Getting back to transport, the most well known plan would be the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan. That was basically a big freeway plan with some scraps thrown to public transport (apart from the City Loop though even that project's benefits can be debated).

Freeways, particularly in inner suburbs, became unfashionable from the 1970s due to their urban displacement, pollution, noise and cost. And, for a while, Melbourne's population stopped growing as fast as envisaged. However traffic engineers, politically and institutionally supported by RACV and Vicroads, kept the faith and were ready when pro-mega road 1990s and 2000s governments dusted off old plans. Whatever your view on big roads you cannot deny that the 1969 plan remains extremely influential, with it still shaping road construction in the 2020s. 

One of the most interesting plans for public transport was 1988's MetPlan. Cost control wasn't very good and militant unions were sabotaging reliability. But there were some infrastructure and service improvements in the mid-1980s. And good patronage gains, lifting usage from 1981/82's historical lows. Hence there was an air of optimism about the future as you can see from this MetPlan extract below.

The 15-year plan, written at the height of this revival, proved the pride before the fall. Within three years city streets were clogged with striking trams, thousands of trips were stripped from bus timetables and riders rode what wasn't cancelled without paying thanks to the disastrous scratch tickets. Victorians left in record numbers for sunnier and more prosperous states. The atmosphere of decay was back, with usage per capita falling to near record lows. Joan Kirner and her Cain-era cronies were bundled out of office in the 1992 landslide. Her side's MetPlan appeared dead. 

Whatever the short-term politics underlying change continued. Melbourne continued growing, although somewhat slower than 1960s forecasts. We continued to suburbanise beyond and between existing train lines. Jobs that handled things moved outwards while those that dealt with ideas moved inwards. Investment returned to the CBD while the inner ring gentrified with city workers. Our use of time was also changing with working hours spreading and weekends becoming commercialised. Even if public transport was just to retain existing modal share its services would have to adapt to cater for these shifts.

MetPlan was a good plan that came at an inopportune time. Had it been released in (say) 1984 more of it might have been achieved. (Mis?)management of day to day issues such as industrial relations, bus contracts and ticketing soon overshadowed it. Along with the wider economic and budgetary malaise that was soon to affect all government-funded activities, including public transport. More favourable economic circumstances may explain why although the Bracks and Brumby Labor governments had their own cost blowouts (eg Regional Fast Rail and myki) they were able to absorb these without cutting services or suffering a long-term hit to their electability.

The reason why I say MetPlan was a good plan is that it contains enduring truths that responded to the sustained changes mentioned before. For example it had suburban rail electrifications, tram extensions into growth areas, frequency standards for trains and buses and a network of orbital routes that would permit easy cross-suburban travel.

Not much got implemented in MetPlan's term. Subsequent years were wasted obsessing over ticketing systems and franchising, even though goodness and badness can be found in both government and private operation. However many MetPlan ideas became the staples of future plans like Meeting Our Transport Challenges. A high proportion got implemented, sometimes on a larger scale than first proposed. Recommending projects of sustained usefulness rather than flash-in-a-pan fads is  another mark of a good plan. MetPlan generally succeeded here too.

What was in MetPlan?

I've tried to plot MetPlan initatives on the interactive map here or below. If you click on the map (top left) you can turn on and off initiatives by mode. Clicking on each line or point tells you a little about each project and whether it was eventually completed and when. 

There will  be inaccuracies and omissions. Some original maps and descriptions were not clear. For example it was not easy to tell the precise alignment of some of the 'Metlink' cross-suburban bus routes due to inconsistencies. Still what's there should be enough to explain the concepts.

MetPlan's enduring proposals

MetPlan contained a mix of infrastructure and service proposals. There were several rail electrification or extension projects across Melbourne's north including Sunbury, Craigieburn and South Morang/Mernda. They remained dreams until into the 2000s. However all were eventually completed, with Mernda the most recent in 2018.

Rail upgrades, including electrification, were considered for Bacchus Marsh/Melton, Geelong and Baxter. Geelong got Regional Rail Link in 2015 and today enjoys a 20 minute weekday service frequency that would have been considered extraordinary in 1988. In 2020 electrification for all remains a live option, with Melton the likely front-runner.

'Modal interchanges' and 'park and rides' were some of MetPlan's most widespread projects. Two Park and Rides were new stations at Calder Park and Moorooldale. These didn't get built but Coolaroo (also proposed) was. Moorooldale (Cave Hill) is still talked about with a new development nearby but there's nothing officially proposed.

Increasing parking at stations was an emphasis in MetPlan and in the whole period since. Even the federal government, which only occasionally gets involved in state public transport projects, has promised funding. However it is space ineffective and often ties up land that could be used for shops and housing near stations. It does not help family budgets where households need to buy an extra car largely just to commute to the station. The economics for the general community are poor with each person who gains getting a $10 000 to 20 000 windfall, none of which is clawed back by user fees. It is also not scalable for desirable future passenger growth; in 2020 walking remains the dominant way that people reach stations across the network.

There was some caginess in MetPlan about the fate of the Upfield line. This was the subject of intense local politics. Because much of it paralleled the 19 tram it was considered a 'Cinderella' service with buses replacing trains on Sundays (as also then happened on some tram routes) and speculation about closure. Though no political friends of local left-wing activists, the Kennett government upgraded infrastructure and services to assure the line's future. Activists in the union movement contributed to the downfall of the Cain/Kirner government while their gentrified Green-voting replacements in the area regularly win parliamentary seats. 

There's a few lines on service strategy. Speed was a priority with improvements to track and signalling and more express services. Lines would be operated in groups to improve reliability and opportunities for cross-platform interchanges at key stations would be investigated.

Frequency was less of a priority and I think MetPlan's main shortcoming. It proposed clockface timetables but the minimum standard proposed was weak, especially on lines through established areas. For example it proposed a minimum service every 20 minutes during the peak and 30 minutes off-peak (including weekends). This level of service was already being run or exceeded on the busiest lines. The main improvements would be on Sundays and along outer portions where lower frequencies ran.

One might explain this low minimum standard (or at least the lack of a dual standard with 10 - 15 minute off-peak frequencies closer in) by saying that many inner and middle suburbs had static populations as densification infill had not seriously taken hold. MetPlan did say that boosting off-peak patronage was important but we were apparently still too small for the concept of an all-day turn-up-and-go Metro type timetable. However not long after MetPlan came out the Sandringham line got a boost from 20 to 15 minutes off-peak. The following Kennett government went further by boosting off-peak train frequencies from 20 to 15 minutes to Frankston and Dandenong and some other upgrades. Those lines were to later get further gains (to every 10 minutes), leaving most of the north and west further behind. 

At the time Melbourne was no more advanced than comparable or even lower density cities. For example Perth's newly electrified system started with 15 minute off-peak service on all lines from the early 1990s, with this later being made 7-day. Melbourne's since made major frequency improvements on some lines but even in 2020 Perth (and especially Sydney, which saw large upgrades in 2017) remain with generally more frequent suburban trains. 

MetPlan proposed some new tram routes and extensions (although the fashionable term was 'light rail'). By far the biggest was a line to Doncaster. It was thought this would replace plans for heavy rail, with land reserved for this being sold off a few years prior. While trains and trams are still sometimes advocated, bus remains the officially favoured access mode to Doncaster with a dedicated busway being planned as part of the North-East Link road project.

Short extensions of the 59 tram to Airport West and (eventually) the Plenty Rd tram were delivered in the '90s. Avondale Heights, South Morang and Knox City are still waiting. However Vermont South  eventually got its extension in 2005. Nothing more has been heard of Garden City and Elwood extensions. These might have been sweeteners for earlier conversions from heavy to light rail, which was initially controversial. Light rail was slower than the train but offered superior frequency.

Buses are one of the main areas where MetPlan proved visionary. Its 'Metlink' routes look a lot like our three orbitals SmartBuses which achieved their final form in 2010. Overall SmartBus is better with a 15 minute weekday service versus Metlink's 20 minutes. Some Metlink routes did start soon after MetPlan came out but they do not resemble the generally direct routes planned. Instead they were indirect and sometimes overlapping routes in the eastern suburbs (631 and 634) set up to give Quinces work after the government's bitter bus contract dispute.

MetPlan proposed revised local bus networks with minimum service standards and better operating hours. This looks a lot like 2006's 'Meeting our Transport Challenges' agenda. There were indeed significant service improvements in 1987/88, around when MetPlan would have been written. However there were more than nullified by huge cuts in 1990/91. Most of these were not reversed until the MOTC upgrades fifteen years later, while some, like the Sunday service cuts on busy routes 536 and 800, remain with us today.

Mention is made of demand-responsive buses for use on quiet outer suburban routes or at quiet times. While still often advocated, this has been one of the big let-downs in public transport. When MetPlan was written flexible route buses were considered innovative. Invicta had started Telebuses around Croydon and later Rowville. These offered opportunities to service new estates with street layouts unsuitable for efficient bus routes. However they only work when patronage is small. When it increases travel gets too indirect and may miss connecting services. Flexible route buses are best thought of as very niche area services only suitable where fixed routes have failed. Many flexible route trials have not succeeded. In Melbourne their growth has been limited with the only significant addition in the last decade being Route 490 in hemmed-in Gowanbrae.

MetPlan had an overall patronage growth target of 20% over 15 years. Most growth would happen on heavy rail, with a 30% increase projected due to network expansions. Patronage fell rather than rose in the few years subsequent. Like with many other MetPlan initiatives the projected results were eventually achieved but over a longer period. This is due to the decline and long stagnation discussed here (written with buses in mind but also applies to trains).


If you were looking back at MetPlan from about 2003 you might regard it as an ambitious failure. Very little of what was proposed had been implemented or even yet on serious peoples' agenda. And some more recent promises along MetPlan lines like Labor made in 1999, ended up either being broken (eg South Morang trains) or scaled back (eg Knox tram). Even buses had seen relatively little progress, although there were signs of life. 

Advance to 2013 and the perspective couldn't be more different. Electric trains were running to Sunbury, Craigieburn and South Morang. A little later there would be service upgrades to Geelong with RRL followed by Mernda electrification and sods turned on the Metro Tunnel. Some Metro train lines were running every 10 minutes  all week, frequencies the planners of 1988 had not dared to countenance. Many local buses got 7 day service from 2006. And the middle suburbs would be ringed with three orbital SmartBus routes, also at higher than envisaged service levels.

From this vantage MetPlan looks prophetic - things just took ten years longer than expected. Credit should thus be given to the people who drew it up, even though they may well have retired by the time it happened. Also important is the power of plans. Even if not initially picked up good ideas can endure, shaping future plans that when they meet will and circumstance can become fate.

PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.

Melbourne on Transit bookshop

Favourably reviewed books about transport and cities. Purchases via these links support this blog and its independent reporting (at no extra cost to you).   

No comments: