Friday, December 04, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 72: Surrey Hills/Mont Albert for the proposed station

On Wednesday some rail announcements were made. Some level crossing removals would be fast-tracked and a new station would be built at Pakenham East. One of the projects mentioned concerned Surrey Hills and Mont Albert stations. Both, just 800 metres apart, would be replaced by one station in between. This would enable level crossing removals at Union Rd and Mont Albert Rd with the rail placed in a trench. 

In a presentation on Wednesday evening Box Hill MP Paul Hamer said that the merging was necessary due to the local topography and bends in the rail line. While some existing stations are on bends this is not considered desirable for new stations due to varying gaps between the platform and the train. And some initially attractive design concepts might have unacceptably deep trenches and long climbs for station users due to the topography. 

You can see the placement of the proposed station on the project map above. 

While technically in the suburb of Mont Albert the new station will be nearer the existing Surrey Hills Station. That station, in one of Melbourne's most expensive suburbs, has historically been well looked after in terms of its staffing (it being a premium station), the number of peak trains it gets and it still being in Zone 1 (when that mattered for the cheaper fares). It is also local to nineties premier Jeff Kennett. Mont Albert is unstaffed, receives fewer trains but is still in Zone 1. 

The local seat of Box Hill reliably returns Liberal MPs except when Labor polls exceptionally well like it did in 2018. However, like a clutch of eastern suburb seats, even a minor anti-government swing in 2022 will see it return to the Liberals. While there will be political sensitivities, the view from government appears to be that the popularity of level crossing removals should outweigh any backlash from what might be seen as the closure of a station. 

Such boldness was not the case before 2018 when decisions were made to choose trench rather than the better, faster and cheaper elevated rail at certain Frankston line sites. 'Skyrail' on the Dandenong line hadn't been completed when the Frankston line projects were announced. And Labor could quite easily lose Box Hill yet still retain office whereas if they lose seats like Carrum, Mordialloc and Bentleigh then they will almost certainly lose power. The level crossings will be gone in 2023, with the area likely to be still a building site in the election lead-up.  

Level crossings have affected how we plan buses. Due to long boom gate down times there has been a tendency for routes to avoid crossing the tracks to ensure reliability. You can see this in areas like St Albans, Essendon and Box Hill/Blackburn.  Removed level crossings potentially end these barriers and routes can potentially operate straight through. However there has been few if any substantive bus network reforms arising from level crossing removals. Indeed in some cases bus connectivity has got worse with removals such as Mentone moving the station entrance further from buses. 

Whatever the past sins at other sites, Surrey Hills/Mont Albert may have a good case for bus network reform despite their high income skew being less favourable for patronage than nearby Box Hill. There may also be a perceived need to 'give something back' in return for a station being deleted as well as the seat's slim electoral margins. Carrum's level crossing removal, that involved elevated rail, is an example of things being 'given back' to mitigate local concerns. Additions to the project included the new Karrum Karrum bridge extending Station St and a new beachside park. However the failure of Carrum Station to have entrances on both sides of McLeod Rd, the closure of Eel Race Rd's connection to the Nepean Hwy and the extension of McLeod Rd to Nepean Hwy with high traffic volumes has made walking conditions worse, not better. 

Existing network

Surrey Hills is a long-established high income suburb. Bus route numbers have changed but fifty years ago the area had three routes fairly similar to what runs now. East-west transport connections are strong. These include the Ringwood train line, the 109 tram to the north, and, further north the 302/304 bus corridor. All run to the Melbourne CBD every 15 minutes or better on weekdays. 

Canterbury Rd is the main exception. It's a busy traffic route but has no buses running more than a short distance along it. Useful Network Part 14 proposes a Box Hill - Canterbury Rd - Ringwood bus to connect major destinations. The portion of Canterbury Rd between Camberwell and Surrey Hills has a parallel train line with close stations so arguably does not need a bus. However the section between Surrey Hills and Box Hill is more distant (especially when the station relocates) so does need a bus. I'll say more on that later. 

North-south access, such as would be required for circumferential travel and to feed trains and trams, is very poor.  None of Surrey Hill's three bus routes operate 7 days. Operating hours are also limited and typical frequency when services do run is every 30 to 60 minutes. 

The Useful Network map below shows the void in north-south service. 

The train is the fastest way into the CBD for those near walking distance of it. Areas further north have slower trams and buses. However the absence of frequent north-south bus routes make the travel times for those hoping to take advantage of trains' faster speed volatile. 

All buses in the area go to Box Hill, which makes sense given it's such a major destination. However some take an indirect path to get there (612) or they needlessly overlap the 109 tram (284). Meanwhile, as mentioned before, Canterbury Rd is conspicuously missing a service. 



Revised network options

Sometimes you can come up with a revised network that unambiguously makes a lot of 'greater good' improvements. I didn't find that the case here. 

In these circumstances it's worth plotting several options. Each will have strengths and weaknesses. The eventual network chosen may well be a hybrid, combining features of several. Another side-benefit of having developed multiple options is that you are less wedded to the strength of your only plan. The latter can dead to dogmatism when discussing network revisions with others. 

Hence I will present three potential future bus networks, each assuming the current number of routes in the area. I do lean to one but won't disclose that here. Also I've made assumptions about road and station access arrangements that may or may not hold. So regard them as broad concepts only. 

Network Option A

This could be called the 'All routes lead to Box Hill' option. In that it's like the current network but routes are a bit more direct with less overlap. 

More specifically 612 is straighter, providing a highly desirable Canterbury Rd service. To maintain its straightness Chatham, despite its fewer number of trains, is proposed over the combined Surrey Hills/Mont Albert station which would require a deviation. Replacing 612 in the north is a rerouted 284 which is moved off the tram line. On that it should be noted that the tram was extended to Box Hill in 2003 but the bus route never got changed. Route 766 could get a minor change to serve more of Union Rd. 

What are the limitations? The new combined station has only one bus (the 766) instead of two for Surrey Hills now (612, 766). And Canterbury Rd's gain with the 612 is at the expense of Union Rd that loses service at some stops. All of the missed stops are near the frequent tram, though it does mean that Surrey Hills station and shops lose a connection from the north. 

The trade-offs here are similar to that encoutered for any smaller station near a major centre. Do you run buses to the nearest station (good for commuters) or do you run them to the nearest large centre, which in Box Hill's case has many jobs, education places and hospital beds? Laburnum Station on the other side has similar issues if you were to examine its bus network. However an offsetting gain that should prove popular would be if all three routes got upgraded to operate 7 days until at least 9pm. 

As for frequency, the straightened 612 may be a candidate for a Useful Network upgrade to every 20 minutes, although its southern half remains indirect like a less frequent local route. As might the 766, though due to its proximity to the 903 you might only do it if (a) the 903 is rerouted away from it, eg via Deakin University and (b) it receives a stronger southern terminus. 


Network Option B

This one is philosophically different to Option A. It is nearer to a pure grid with priority given to getting passengers to their nearest station rather than a big centre like Box Hill.  

Route 612 would have only a minor change to serve the new station. 

However Route 284 and 766 would be amalgamated to form a north-south route via the new station and linking trams north and south of the line. The arrangement would reduce service kilometres as neither route would go to Box Hill. Ignoring issues such as the routes currently being run by different operators, that could potentially enable some modest frequency improvements. And instead of having no buses parts of Union Rd would have two routes, providing a better feeder to the station. 

Parts of Mont Albert Rd would lose buses while Canterbury Rd would not gain anything. The combined 284/766 route might attract peak usage as a feeder but both the northern and southern termini are weak destinations, especially off-peak. That's unlike Box Hill that's busy all day. Hence patronage may not meet expectations. Also there will be complaints about the two routes withdrawn from Box Hill. 

The main beneficiary will be the new station, which will have feeder routes going both north and south. All routes would be upgraded to 7 days with longer hours but the indirectness of the 612 and the weak termini of the 284/766 may weaken the case for either to be upgraded to a Useful Network 20 minute frequency off-peak. 


Network Option C

This is a hybrid. It keeps all current routes running to Box Hill. And it keeps buses on Union Rd. Three routes directly serve the new station, more than any previous option. However there are some downsides. While 612 is more direct to Box Hill, 766 is much less direct and 284 somewhat less direct.  The option preserves buses at all existing stops but does not help Canterbury Rd. As well this network is quite complex, no simpler than current. All routes should get 7 day service as a minimum. 


Conclusion

What are your thoughts on buses in Surrey Hills and Mont Albert? Does any option stand out or is there another that could be better still? Are there gains from casting the net wider, such as rerouting 302 or 903, providing stronger termini for the 284 and 766 or even a Deakin University connection from the north, such as by rerouting 284? Or should more have been said about boosting peak frequencies, and if so which corridors justify upgrades? Please leave any comments below. 


PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.


1 comment:

Tom said...

A quite difficult area to draw a bus route map for.

Another potential change to the bus network in the area could be run the 903 via the new station, instead of the wattle park tram terminus.

P.S. Box Hill was a marginal seat until the 1991 redistribution brought in a lot of mostly Liberal voters (and their MLA) from the abolished Balwyn at the 1992 election. The 2 subsequent redistributions have moved many of those voters into Kew and another redistribution has just commenced and will do the same, making the seat more marginal.