Rail: under or over?
The Urbanist, Crikey, 10 August 2016
Removing level crossings by elevating rail over road has advantages but in cases like this one it’s less compelling; and not helped by questionable public consultation.
The Victorian Government is looking at how best to remove the level crossing at Grange Rd in Alphington. This is one of 50 level crossings the Andrews Government promised at the 2014 election it would eliminate over eight years.
The Level Crossing Removal Authority presented residents with four options; two involve putting the road either under or over the rail line but they both look unlikely because they require acquisition of properties. The two serious options are either elevating the rail line over Grange road (so-called “skyrail”) or trenching it under the road. (1)
Inevitably, the options have excited the locals. The elevated rail option in particular is controversial. That’s unsurprising given the negative public reaction to the Government’s decision earlier this year to remove nine level crossings on the Dandenong line by building 8 km of elevated rail (see Do residents think more public open space is a fair price for Skyrail?).
According to this report in The Age, some Alphington residents think the government’s already made up its mind:
“Colin Higgins, whose house faces the Hurstbridge line, said people who attended a recent community information session left with a suspicion that the Level Crossing Removal Authority had a clear preference for the “rail over road” option.”
This project is of particular interest to me because it’s in my neck of the woods. I’m not so close that I’d be directly affected by whatever solution is selected (I live 1.3 km away as the crow flies) but I regularly walk beside this rail line. It’s of interest to me for another reason too: I think elevating rail lines usually makes a lot of sense (see Should we be building rail lines up in the air?).
The Level Crossing Removal Authority says the key advantages of elevating the rail line over Grange Rd are: it creates opens space at ground level; it removes a barrier to pedestrian movement; and it provides more space for trees. Its key disadvantages are visual intrusiveness and overshadowing.
On the other hand, the Authority says the key advantages of trenching the rail line are no visual intrusion and no overshadowing. But it says this option has a lot of disadvantages: compared to the elevated option, it maintains a barrier to pedestrian movement; the scope to plant trees is limited; a 600-metre-long 2.1 metre fence would have to be built around the trench; it would cause more disruption during construction; and it would generate more emissions during construction.
So what’s the sensible solution at Grange Rd? Assuming road solutions are off the table, is it rail under or rail over? (2)
Finding the answer isn’t easy given the Authority’s extraordinary decision to provide no information on the estimated cost of each option; not even an indication of the likely cost difference. Cost should be a key differentiator given that any saving could be used for other worthwhile purposes.
Just as remarkable is the absence of hard numbers which residents could use to reach an informed opinion. For example, we’re told the trench option will generate more greenhouse gases than the elevated option, but how much more? 1%? 100%? How many more days of disruption will the trench option involve? A week? Six months?
I’m not surprised the residents are suspicious; they’re not even given the facts. Moreover, the way the Level Crossing Removal Authority frames the arguments in its marketing material seems to favour the elevated option.
•The benefit of removing the existing barrier to pedestrian movement is exaggerated. The Hurstbridge line has been there since 1888 and land uses have adapted to it, just as they’ve adapted to the nearby river. Sure, there’d be a benefit in removing the barrier but it’s not a big one.
•The usefulness of the open space created under the bridge would be limited. It’s small and in a low-amenity location i.e. overshadowed by the rail line and right on a four lane highway that’s about to carry even faster traffic. This project won’t create the long ribbon of continuous open space that elevating the Dandenong line will provide. In any event this is a suburb of mostly 600 sq m lots and it’s well-endowed with open space e.g. Yarra river, Darebin Parklands. Again, more open space would be a benefit, but a small one.
•The level of disruption associated with trenching appears to be over-stated. The Premier boasted last week that it only took 37 days to remove three level crossing by trenching on the Frankston line. New stations still have to be finished but there’s no station required in the case of the Grange Rd crossing. Residents need to know how much more disruption and what form it takes.
•There are few large existing trees on this site (see here and here). The trench option could be landscaped with large but shallow-rooted shrubs like the Hop Bush; it’s indigenous to this part of Melbourne.
•As the first exhibit shows, the 2.1 metre fence isn’t especially visually intrusive. I note there’s an existing fence dividing off the rail line that’s only waist high.
The Authority really over-reaches though with the claim that an ugly pedestrian overpass would be have to be built midway between the new crossing and Alphington station under the trench option (see second exhibit). This monstrosity is presumably intended to replace this existing humble at-grade pedestrian crossing that’s about 250 metres from Alphington station.
Obviously the proposed pedestrian overpass could be designed with a much lighter touch (perhaps a smaller version of something like this). Alternatively, the existing crossing could be designed to go under the rail line; or it could stay at-grade with a short step-down entry; or it could simply be moved “as is” 20 metres or so to the east where the line returns to at-grade. Or it could be removed entirely – a ramped pedestrian crossing would make more sense at adjacent Alphington station. (3)
It’s impossible to assess which option makes more sense given the paucity of useful information provided by the Level Crossing Removal Authority. Elevating the rail line over Grange Rd would make a lot more sense if the Government had decided to simultaneously remove the nearby crossings at Station St and Yarralea St (not that I’m arguing they should), but in the case of a single crossing like we’ve got here the warrant for “going over” rather than “going under” is much less compelling.