Friday, November 19, 2021

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 112: How well connected? Suburban Rail Loop's EES

What is the proposed Suburban Rail Loop?

A visionary city-shaping project that sets up up for the future? A development-enabling project to foster suburban job clusters (NEICs) and land value uplift? A transport project? Or, more cynically, a political project? Maybe it's all four? 

Whether you consider its construction good value or not, it's undeniable that the SRL concept is of wide appeal. Even transformative for those who find our existing public transport too limiting for the types of non-CBD travel that now dominate where we work, learn, shop and play. 

This is because current infrastructure and service levels emphasise travel into the CBD over other directions. All of our trains are radial. Ditto for all but a few tram corridors. Buses are mostly not radial but almost never provide full-time service.

Our orbital SmartBuses were the first real attempt to address this just over ten years ago. However even then their half-hourly weekend timetables looked like something from another age with poor connections to trains. And, without dedicated infrastructure, they are prone to bunching and traffic delays.

SRL executive James Tonkin likened the existing rail network as spokes without a wheel at a recent Eastern Transport Coalition meeting. SRL would connect the spokes and provide a true network. 

More detailed information about the SRL came out two weeks ago through its Environmental Effects Statement for the first, eastern portion ('SRL East'). I'd encourage you to read as much as you can from it (there's a lot there, including seven tabs worth of documents). Note their warning if you download the pdf files and rely on those. They're incomplete. In their own words: "This printable chapter of the EES replicates the text from the digital EES platform, but does not replicate the interactive figures and maps."

You can make a submission. The deadline is 16 December 2021. The sheer amount of material means that no regular person with normal responsibilities will be able to read it within this period. Let alone make a submission. There is thus a risk that they will receive few submissions and that this will be taken as being consent or acceptance of the proposed plans.  

This item will (I hope) help you with a few of the EES topics. For brevity I'll focus on the connectivity aspects in the transport oriented documents only. I will also leave out temporary disruptions due to construction and other issues such as the location of the train stabling. 

Report structure

You might want to start off reading the Summary Report. More detail is in the chapters. These have two or three letter codes, normally relating to the initials of their titles. Even more detail is in Technical appendices. These have a letter <dot> number. These are mostly divided into existing conditions (EC) and impact assessment (IA). Generally the ECs are .1 while the IAs are .2. There is also a Map Book and Surface and Tunnel Plans. 

I'll now go through the sections of the EES document I found most of interest. 

Introduction and Purpose (Chapter IP)

This starts with an overview of the Suburban Rail Loop. Basically a 90km orbital railway through Melbourne's middle suburbs to support suburban centres that bring jobs and services nearer more homes. Important for what will be discussed later, it will connect every major suburban rail line between Frankston and Werribee. SRL East will feature six underground stations between Cheltenham (Southland) and Box Hill and turn-up-and-go service. 

The EES assessment is required to consider broad social, environmental, economic and transport impacts of the project. The conclusion of this process is a planning scheme amendment following approvals. 

It's important to know what's not covered by the EES. These include (i) initial works, (ii) precinct structure planning, (iii) other parts of SRL (north and north-west), and (iv) interchange works. The latter is particularly important. The full excerpt is below: 

SRL East intersects with Metro trains at Southland, Clayton, Glen Waverley and Box Hill. However only at Clayton station will the project deliver a 'paid area connection'. That is you will be able to change between trains without having to touch on and off. Provided walking distances are short this is considered the 'gold standard' for connectivity between lines in metro systems.  

Other stations like Southland, Glen Waverley and Box Hill will involve connections at ground level and having to touch on and touch off. This imposes a higher transfer penalty compared to sites with easier interchange. Planning for this is the responsibility of the Department of Transport, and not this project. And wording like 'any dedicated passenger walkway' doesn't exactly inspire confidence. 

The risk is that here, at the first hurdle, this critical aspect of connectivity may be declared 'out of scope'. We might not get the best, or even a good outcome. In James Tonkin's terminology, there could be a risk of the 'wheel' not connecting to the 'spokes' very well. 

Technical Appendix P.1 Social and Community Existing Conditions (TAP.1)

Basically about what's there now. If there's say a farmers market or skate park on land a new station will take over or otherwise affect it then it's written about here. Also pages 8 and 9 give a brief overview of SRL East, including a map.

There is a summary of legislation affecting it and various local council policies. Page 19 outlines interactions with other reports. Most of interest is that known as 'Traffic and Transport Existing Conditions report' (Technical Appendix R.1, or TAR.1). More on that later. 

There is a Key Social Assets section for each station precinct (and more). These contain maps showing the SRL station relative to existing (Metro) stations and other attractions. Southland's map omits the existing bus interchange in the shopping centre. However it's mentioned later.   

Traffic and Transport Existing Conditions report' (TAR.1).

Another 'what's there now' but focusing on transport. Described the nature of the existing network, including rail's radial nature and the slowness of public transport for cross-suburban trips, especially in the eastern suburbs for north-south trips. This is attributed to them only being possible by bus (p2) but their being mixed in traffic and/or infrequency might be more exact reasons.

Existing network connectivity is especially mentioned with regard to the SRL station at Southland. Here they draw attention to the disconnectivity between the existing station and bus interchange. As well as poor active transport access. The excerpt below is from pages 2 and 3.
The existing Southland railway station is located to the west of Southland Shopping Centre and south of Bay Road and is considered within walking distance to the SRL station at Cheltenham. The Southland  Shopping Centre bus terminal is located on the eastern side of the shopping centre across Nepean Highway. This facility is undercover, with seating and other infrastructure for passengers.

Cheltenham has a comprehensive bus network, with 13 bus routes that serve the existing bus station. However, the bus station is not integrated with Southland railway station. The SRL station at Cheltenham Study Area generally has a high dependency on private vehicles. The main roads (Nepean Highway and Bay Road) are heavily car-dominated. Pedestrian and cycling access to Southland railway station is hindered by several physical barriers, and meandering routes through areas of poor amenity with perceived safety concerns. At present there are no continuous, high-quality, and modeseparated cycling corridors running north–south or east–west through the Study Area. Cyclists generally share road space with high speed general traffic or use the footpaths.

Similar comments are made about active transport for Clayton. Of particular note is mention of high walking activity despite poor accessibility. 

Monash University's bus interchange serves the south end of the campus. The SRL station will be near the north end. This is acknowledged to have good road access but limited bus services. 

Similar comments for Clayton apply for Glen Waverley. That is an existing bus interchange near the station, high pedestrian activity but poor accommodation of it in the road network. Poor walking connectivity and car dominance are also recurring themes for Burwood and Box Hill despite the latter's substantial connectivity with various public transport modes. 

Maps and tables showing usage of routes and lines in the SRL area are included. Analysis shows that public transport takes about twice as long as driving in the am peak for various trips around the SRL corridor. 

As part of existing conditions, various transport policies and priorities of councils are set down. 

There is much more detail than covered here. However I'll say that the analysis does a good job at assessing issues such as connectivity between public and active transport modes. If such standards are applied to the connectivity that will happen post SRL then I think the EES will have done a good job. 

Impact Assessment and Summary - Traffic and Transport (TT)

At least early on the pdf version of this document isn't very useful as graphs etc are on the online version. Thus it is incomplete. I also couldn't find much correspondence between the pdf documents and the online version, for instance if you wanted to find a table or graph that was omitted from the pdf version. 

I didn't find the 4 minute how to video helpful and in the end just gave up. This is unfortunate. By making information about it hard to access, the SRL risks demonstrating that the bigger a project is the less open, accountable and accessible they appear to be (and get away with it). Meanwhile hundreds of more widely beneficial and cost-effective small infrastructure and service projects wither on the vine for lack of funding. 

Anyway, let's get back to the incomplete pdf chapter and see if anything useful can be salvaged. Fortunately it can be. Page 12 says that the SRL will be overwhelmingly good for the transport system, though there might be 'localised minor increases in travel times' for tram and bus trips due to changes to the road network. For example some buses around Glen Waverley. 

Later we are assured that "For each SRL station, the Project would create efficient connections and interchange experience for people transferring between different modes, and improve safety for all road users and particularly for pedestrians and bicycle riders."

They assume the SRL will bring about increased population and land use change around the stations. This comes with a warning - despite the increase in public transport patronage, this increased activity would "increase the number of trips on the local road network".

Also "... the Project would exacerbate congestion due to access requirements to the stations". For this to be minimised providing good bus, cycling and walking access is key. And larger centres like Monash need a really good internal transport network similar to frequent trams in the CBD. How this would tie in with the SRL should be key but the EES document gives few clues. 

SRL assume catchments of 1600 metres around their stations. The vast majority of this 'last mile' area is outside reasonable walking distance, especially for stations (like Southland) with huge road and building barriers to walking permeability. Here too bike and bus access is important.  

Good bike access requires off-road access over a wide area around stations, including separation and priority at road intersections which documents admit will be passing more cars. Good bus access needs improved and more frequent networks. Nothing I've seen in the SRL EES material indicates that we are likely to see best practice connectivity between public transport modes, noting that only Clayton is guaranteed something like this with trains (reflecting its 'Superhub' status). More detail on how long connections will take at each station will appear later. 

What's the SRL's impact to overall public transport usage? Page 13 has the answer. "Overall, as a result of the Project there would be a one per cent mode share shift from private vehicle to public transport, indicating that SRL East would offset the impact of additional development opportunities anticipated across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.". More information is in a table that unfortunately doesn't appear in the pdf document. 

The rest of the paper goes on in more detail. It is somewhat confusing in that they refer to an SRL station at Cheltenham, even though it is nearer to Southland and there is a Cheltenham station on the Frankston line. Of note is that a better located bus interchange would be provided. Better Bay Rd connectivity would be a plus especially if a direct route to Sandringham was included. Although the SRL doesn't extend to Sandringham, the area will gain improved access according to published maps. 

This is another point. The SRL appears a stand-alone single-mode project. It vaguely mentions but does not detail substantial bus network reform, even though this will be both necessary and desirable. This is a different planning approach to (say) Perth, which has developed a reformed local bus network in conjunction with their (under construction) airport line. Such work, if included in the business case, could have increased the benefits of the SRL project, especially given the issues mentioned before with traffic around the stations. Not to mention the concept of 'SRL SmartBus' which could encourage some SRL development and travel patterns prior to rail services commencing. 

I won't go through every interchange in detail here. But there's a few points worth mentioning. Clayton looks the pick of the bunch. A significant point is that SRL entrances are on both sides of Clayton Rd. That should help connectivity with more direct bus routes. 

Monash's interchange really needs bus network reform because otherwise few buses will service it. I didn't see even a notional concept bus network in the EES material. The nearest they get is 'potential increase bus services' (page 55). Much more is needed given that the Monash precinct has fast roads and coarse blocks that limit internal permeability.

Glen Waverley gets a large deviation to Route 737 that would increase its travel time as roads enabling its direct route would be closed. This is a popular route that provides a Monash - Knox City connection. The possibility of network reform is mentioned here. 

Technical Appendix P.2 Social and Community Impact Assessment (TAP.2)

Basically lots of good things. Or you'd hope so for billions of dollars! This includes better connections to jobs, education and a lot of active transport improvements as a byproduct. The latter is similar to how grade separations have added bike paths to areas that didn't previously have them. While they shouldn't need a bigger other project to fund their construction, in practice they did. 

The main adverse impacts is the resumption of private property (including homes) and temporary or permanent use of open and recreational space. Most controversial has been train stabling in a 'green wedge' area. 

Traffic and Transport Impact Assessment report (TAR.2).

Again the summary is 'lots of good things'. But transport wonks need to pay more than usual attention to this section as there's lot of interesting stuff. Trust me. If there's only one paper you can read it should be this. 

We are again assured that "The transport interchanges proposed as part of each SRL East station have been designed to maximise interchanges with other public transport services and enhance pedestrian and cyclist access to the stations.". 

How frequently will SRL run? Page 50 assumes 10 trains per hour during peaks. There will also be 24 hour service on weekends, similar to the Night Network on Metro trains. However connectivity between the two will be pot luck unless services improve to be better than hourly.

Page 3 says that SRL will generate another 44000 public transport trips, ie 9% greater than the 'no project' scenario in 2041.

As an aside it would have been interesting to see whether alternative ways of generating that number sooner and at lower cost under some other combination of infrastructure and service. However one would then be reminded that the SRL is more than a transport project with city shaping impacts compared to (say) just boosting lots of buses. Our projected population is 9 million by 2056 and cities such as London and Paris got orbital type rail transport when they were smaller than that.

Car use would still grow but with SRL public transport use would grow faster as the SRL greatly improves the latter's accessibility. This is currently very low for most Melburnians, with far more jobs within (say) 45 min drive than 45 min of public transport. 

From 5.2.1: "For example, between 2018 and 2041, travel demand across Metropolitan Melbourne is forecast to increase by 50 per cent. By 2041, there would be almost 22 million daily private vehicle trips (70 per cent growth on 2018) and 2.6 million daily public transport trips (85 per cent growth). 

In 2041, the capacity that SRL East provides would increase public transport trips across Metropolitan Melbourne by around 76,000 per day. It is also forecast to help reduce private vehicle use by around 97,000 trips per day. This reduction is broadly equivalent to removing the total number of vehicles per day travelling towards the city on the Monash Freeway, prior to entering the Domain Tunnel, in 2018." 

It's outside the scope of the project, but it would have been interesting if two other maps were shown with a different 'basket' of projects. For example with and without North-East Link. It seems a bit rich spruiking the car use reduction benefits of SRL without also comparing it with the car use increase characteristics that building freeways tends to bring. 

Another comparison could have been a hypothetical alternative based on other orbital transport upgrades and improved buses. My rough comparison of the latter is here. SRL is big, but reformed bus could be bigger. Although, in the SRL's favour, it is possible that because it will be faster, the passenger kilometres generated by SRL may exceed that from better buses because SRL's speed induces more and longer trips. So much for 20 minute neighbourhoods!

What about rail network usage? The opening of the entire SRL (by 2056) will somewhat increase patronage on the outer portions of radial Metro lines and decrease usage of their inner portions (p51). This looks like a better utilisation of radial lines as some trips that were in and out of the city are accommodated on the SRL and there would be some turnover of seats at SRL served stations.

Especially if the NEIC clusters develop you would also think that orbital rail would make radial rail less 'tidal' with more evenly balanced inward and outbound usage during the peak. This would be another good thing for network efficiency. Note though that all this is based on pre-COVID commuting patterns and we don't yet know how the pandemic has affected long term patterns. 

What is expected to happen to public transport usage by mode? Figure 5.4 has projections that compares 2018 with 2041. The latter year has 'project' and 'no project' scenarios. High growth is expected across all modes between 2018 and even the 2041 'no project' scenario. Largely I think due to high population growth and an assumption that people will continue to work, live and travel as they did in 2018. 

The substantial added gains for rail are attributable to the SRL and 'network effect' on the radial lines. Buses show a big gain to 2041 whether the SRL is built or not. I'm not sure if this can be assumed.

Even though Melbourne had strong population growth in the period up to 2019, for much of that period bus usage didn't grow much on a metropolitan wide basis after about 2011. I'd attribute this to a lack of bus network reform in all but a few outer suburban areas and service quality and delivery issues on a lot of Transdev routes (including the SmartBus orbitals). Notwithstanding population growth I think we will need substantial bus network reform to deliver the numbers projected. That includes lots of extra bus  service kilometres, not just small 'cost neutral' reforms that can only do so much. More detail on what's needed here.

What's SRL's impact on bus usage? It's basically indiscernible if you look at the graph. The real story is likely a reduction in long distance orbital type bus trips and an increase in shorter feeder trips as the SRL replaces a lot of the former. Hence bus passenger kilometres might be about the same, even if total number of boardings picks up slightly. If you want the areas around SRL stations to fully develop free of constraint from car access and parking then the role for buses will need to be greater than projected, especially for short trips within NEICs (which are too large to be walkable so need good tram-like internal transit) and feeders to SRL and other stations. 

Car parking? Whenever you mention access to stations, car parking is never far away from the discussion. Lots of parking at stations seems to be the expectation and politicians frequently promise more even in established areas. The latter particularly has very high costs per passenger and may not even be feasible due to lack of space. 

The SRL EES recognises this reality well. From Page 58: "Given the location of the SRL East stations in established areas, no additional parking is proposed to be created by SRL East. Commuters would be able to park at the 46 Metro stations on the Belgrave, Lilydale, Pakenham, Cranbourne and Frankston lines further east of SRL East and at other stations closer to the city where relevant and have a one interchange journey to an end destination at an SRL precinct.". 

Public transport is a great freedom and opportunity enhancing enabler. Some great graphs on page 53 show how the SRL can do this. Improved accessibility around all the stations brings around a million more people and hundreds of thousands more jobs within a 60 minute ride of each. Station to station journey times (admittedly the best case scenarios) are cut by as much as 75%. And some go from being twice as slow as driving to twice as fast.

These are real habit-changing numbers. They are a great selling point for development within the precincts themselves. But connectivity with trains and buses, along with network reform for the latter is key to ensuring these benefits spread more widely. Even though some may have a commercial interest in ensuring they don't, pitting the landholder's desire for scarcity to drive capital gains against the public transport planner's wish for abundant access.

Page 58 recognises the need for bus reform here: "These would be supported by more direct route alignment and increased frequencies on key corridors to encourage an increase in patronage and integration of public transport modes." However no network concept is provided.

How busy will SRL stations be? Box Hill and Monash will be the busiest overall. Access means will vary greatly. For instance Monash and Burwood will be walking dominated, whereas Clayton will be rail transfer dominated. Both Cheltenham and Glen Waverley will have a high proportion of bus boardings. Clayton will have by far the lowest access by bus even though its physical connectivity to them (especially Clayton Rd routes) may be the best of all SRL stations. 

There are some gaps in the data, as indicated in the footnotes. Unforgivable for a transport model (as what isn't measured doesn't count), VITM does not report on cycling as a mode. Last-mile access is critical to the success of SRL stations given the 1600m radius used in material for it. This is well beyond the normal walkable catchment for stations which is usually assumed to be about 10 minutes or 800m. As a comparison, if 1600m was considered adequate catchment for a station there would have been no need to build any of the City Loop as all of it is within 1600m of either Flinders St or Southern Cross. SRL works around VITM not counting cycling by setting a 15% access target for it. 

Here's where the rubber hits the road. For the talk about the importance of connectivity between modes, how well does what's planned for the SRL accommodate this? Before we discuss this you need to know the difference between good and bad. This video shows this with recent Melbourne station builds.  

Watch the video to experience the difference between a 1 minute and 5 minute interchange. Reflect on whether you'd want the latter to be part of your routine twice a day, especially in inclement weather.  Bear it in mind as you see the numbers that follow for each interchange point. Both distances and walking time (min:sec) are given. 

Diagrams are mine, numbers are from the EES. Note that I've only stuck to the numbers published. Hence access distances and times between Metro stations and bus interchanges are not given. However they are important for a truly integrated interchange.

While I've stressed physical connectivity between bus stops and the SRL, this is only half of the story. If a bus has to pull in to an interchange and U-turn to go back out again (like they do at places like Glen Waverley) then that is a bad thing as it adds travel time for those making through trips. Added travel time also makes it more expensive to provide a frequent service. Even worse is that this is a long term operational cost. Instead you want both quick passenger interchange and direct through routes for buses. The video example for Ormond above successfully combines these. 


I've only touched a fraction of a percent of topics I could have. For example I've not discussed wider urban planning matters. The SRL EES is a large body of work, probably beyond the scope of one person to review. So if you've had a look I'd love to read your thoughts. Comments are welcome below. And if you feel strongly about something, lodge a submission in the next three weeks! 

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Kevin Balaam said...

Curious about the "reduced car traffic volumes" figure/diagram. It shows a reduction on the OMR/E6, which do not even exist yet. How does that work?

Peter Parker said...

Kevin - Their modelling would assume various things like OMR had been built with predicted traffic volumes. Then they'd just switch off the SRL and compare the difference.