Fishermans Bend transport: fast, frequent and automated

Fishermans Bend transport: fast, frequent and automated
Alastair TaylorApril 19, 2015

It seems that no matter which party is in government on Spring Street there's always one eye on the long-term development of central Melbourne. After an intense two days of East-West Link and Melbourne Metro news, it was the Planning Minister's turn to be in the spotlight on Friday.

The Fishermans Bend Urban renewal Area has been expanded to include the area situated north of the West Gate freeway between both the West Gate and Bolte bridges, bumping the total amount of land located in the area to 455 hectares, up from 250 hectares.

As the new government is about to embark on a new round of engagement activities for a revised Fishermans Bend Urban renewal Plan, it's time to go over transport initiatives that adorned previous plans and start a conversation about elevating transport to the same level as local resident group's have raised height limits, schools and community facilities as planning downfalls.

The short-lived heavy rail legacy

Back in July 2014 the Planning Minister at the time approved the Fishermans Bend Strategic Framework Plan and the documents depicted a "rail investigation area" which matched up with the Napthine government's Melbourne Rail Link project. Now that the Andrews government has selected Swanston Street as its preferred route to increase heavy rail capacity through the inner city, it - technically - leaves Fishermans Bend in limbo.

When Denis Napthine assumed the Premiership Public Transport Victoria released its long-term train network plan. At this point the Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel project, a product of the Brumby Government, still featured heavily in the plans and the Andrews Government appears to have retrieved the Brumby-era plans from the archives.

However keen observers will have noticed a second cross-city tunnel running from Clifton Hill to Fishermans Bend was present at later stages of the network's projected development.

Fishermans Bend transport: fast, frequent and automated
Melbourne's heavy rail network plan from March 2013. See all maps in the forum.

Cast your mind back to the early days of the Ballieu/Napthine government: they were conducting studies into extending the rail network to Rowville, Doncaster, Melbourne Airport and Avalon Airport. This second cross-city tunnel looks to be drawn on the map because with the introduction of a future Doncaster line, something from the existing Clifton Hill group - South Morang and Hurstbridge lines - needed to move to make space for Doncaster services.

The final recommendations from the Doncaster study were that a new branch line from Victoria Park was to cost between $3 and $5 billion and the preferred terminus would have been at the Doncaster park-and-ride, well short of Doncaster Hill where the community expressed a desire to have the line end. The Doncaster line has since, in one sense, been buried.

The focus of this piece is not Doncaster, but it's relevant to keep it in the back of your mind.

Fishermans Bend, a new town: a fresh look at rail technology

If the numbers flung about are to be believed (and I believe they're conservative given the long timeframe they're attached to) - that Fishermans Bend will house 80,000 residents and be the workplace for 40,000 new employees by 2050 - then thinking needs to be bigger than trams and likewise needs to be less city-centric and more inclusive of the west.

Now that Fishermans Bend has doubled in size with a fifth precinct that according to the MPA's fact sheet will be focused on attracting new jobs at commercial/industrial premises and include all the remaining land excluding the Port of Melbourne then the strategic transport direction for Fishermans Bend must step up a notch.

Previous plans have placed 'potential' stations in Fishermans Bend along an East-West axis (excluding the Napthine Government's proposal) and the stations have been located along Plummer Street - an artery that has also had tram routes proposed. The West Gate Freeway now sits right in the middle of the entire renewal area and by the same token the focus for mass transit should also be right through the centre of Fishermans Bend.

Sydney is pushing ahead with a new fully automated mass-transit link through its north-western 'burbs and plans are afoot to extend it to provide the harbour city with a second north-south rail crossing through North Sydney, the CBD and out to south west where an existing rail line would be converted to work with the new mass-transit technology.

Last year the NSW Government announced they had awarded a contract to Alstom to provide its Metropolis solution for the line that will also run through the converted Chatswood-Epping rail link. Alstom say the Metropolis system is a "turnkey system approach that includes signaling, electrification, trackworks as well as maintenance services".

The NSW Government has lead the pack and decided to depart from developing new lines to be compatible with existing rolling stock and infrastructure and instead develop new rail lines to serve a specific purpose.

Back in 2013, I wrote Vancouver's Skytrain Network - a model for Melbourne's future rail lines and the braindump below revolves around utilsing a system such as the one being implemented in Sydney or Vancouver for Fishermans Bend - and beyond.

The aim

  • Enable fast and efficient journeys to be made into and out of the Fishermans Bend Urban renewal Area from an easterly/city and westerly direction as well as include maximum connectivity to existing mass transit lines.
  • Lower the cost to acquire any land required for a mass-transit line through Fishermans Bend by locking down a route and station locations as part of strategic planning process before too much property changes hands.
  • Conduct a full frontal assault on West Gate Freeway and Bridge traffic volumes by providing a high-quality alternative to driving from residential areas in the inner west / south west to more centrally located employment areas.
  • Begin the journey and set the city-wide precedent of building new forms of mass transit for Melbourne that are more frequent, adaptable, reliable and cheaper to run than traditional heavy rail services.

The idea

26 kilometres of rapid transit encompassing a new 10 kilometre line from the CBD to Newport, split roughly 4 kilometres underground from Swanston Street to the West Gate Freeway / Bolte Bridge interchange and 6 kilometres elevated - including a new lower Yarra bridge - from the interchange to Newport. The other 16 kilometres would come from the conversion of both the Newport-Williamstown branch and the existing Newport-Altona-Laverton loop.

At the CBD end, the tunnel would begin at the CBD South/Flinders Street station to be built as part of Melbourne Metro Rail Project under Collins Street, then run under the Yarra and loosely along the West Gate Freeway corridor to the Bolte Interchange. Utilising the large tract of land that already exists at the interchange, the line would transition to elevated structure along the West Gate Freeway corridor where after Todd road the line would then rise to a height of 58-60metres above the Yarra (same height as the West Gate Bridge) then descend along Burleigh Street in Newport and turn south to run above the existing rail corridor into Newport station.

Underground stations would include: CBD South/Flinders Street (under Collins Street and connectivity with the subterranean superstructure to be built as part of the Melbourne Metro Rail Project would be provided), Southern Cross, Sandridge-Lorimer (south of the West Gate Freeway on Ingles Street). Elevated train stations would include: Wirraway (at West Gate Freeway/Salmon Street), to the immediate west of Todd Road and at Newport.

The Williamstown and Altona lines would see existing stations re-used and expanded where required - for instance at Seaholme a second platform would need to be built - or rebuilt where a grade separation necessitates it. Grade to elevated structures would be built to the south of Newport and a dedicated set of track would be built alongside the existing rail corridor between Newport and the Altona junction. A new station at Altona North (at Maddox Road - grade separated) would be built for the rapid transit line to service the employment precinct to the south and residential areas to the north.

Operations, depot and maintenance facilities would be based at Newport workshops and services would connect at Aircraft/Laverton, Newport, Southern Cross and CBD South/Flinders Street ensuring entire rail network connectivity.

View larger map

The services

With Newport and CBD South/Flinders Street housing three platforms, three distinct services are made possible: City-Williamstown, City-Altona-Laverton and City-Newport. The third platform at CBD South/Flinders Street and Newport would allow the operations centre to add and remove service frequency through what's likely to be most heavily used part of the line as demand increases and decreases throughout the day and on special occasions.

Instead of the three different types of service currently running off the two lines south of Newport, it would be simplified by removing existing Werribee services from the Altona loop permanently; existing Williamstown shuttles and Altona shuttles would disappear and Werribee trains would run all stations between Footscray and Newport then use the express route to Laverton and then stop all stations to the end of the line.

The cost

I deliberately mentioned the North West Rail Link earlier as the project above would be a total solution just like the NWRL. I used it as a base for estimating costs earlier this year and came up with a $360 million per kilometre cost for the entire package (23 kilometres of new rail line and a total pricetag of $8.3billion).

If we isolate the new track from Newport to the CBD from the existing line conversions - which reducing the project's scope to be just Newport to the CBD is well within the realm of possibility, 4 kilometres of tunnel and 6 kilometres of elevated track (including a bridge) would be $3.6billion.

There are eight existing level crossings along the route from Newport to Laverton via Altona - three of which are adjacent to two stations (Westona and Altona) and there are two existing level-crossings on the Williamstown branch, one of which is adjacent to a station (North Williamstown).

Owing to its length (12.5km), on paper, Altona would be more expensive to convert than the Williamstown branch yet its the added number of grade separations as well as two existing stations that need to be rebuilt (on top of a new station and extra platforms required at Aircraft/Laverton) that would send the cost-per-kilometre sky high.

Williamstown's shorter length (3.5 km) and less grade separations (one of which could arguably just close entirely - Giffard Street) and station rebuilds required would make its cost-per-kilometre far less and thus a prime candidate for conversion if a phase approach were taken. If I were to take a guess, Altona would be somewhere between $150 and $200 million per kilometre, and Williamstown somewhere south of $150 million per kilometre.

The odds and ends

The logical conclusion is that this new rapid transit line would extend east from the CBD but I reiterate that's not the focus today. The primary focus is ensuring that the revised Fishermans Bend Strategic plan includes far more than just "possible future station locations".

Fishermans Bend is what many ancient cities did in the Georgian era: we're creating our New Town. And if the rhetoric about 'forests of towers' and 'more community-focused' doesn't disappear into the ether and these appeals to the base by the new government actually come to fruition, the revised Fisherman Bend plan will be more prescriptive than what we're used to.

Mass-transit in a new, dense, grander and enlarged central city has every right and must be in the plan that guides the development of Fishermans Bend over the coming decades.

Footnote: water transport shouldn't be overlooked either

Fishermans Bend transport: fast, frequent and automated
The Brisbane River with a flotilla of Citycat ferries. Image: Wikipedia

It's not exactly mass-transit but as the entire arm of Fishermans Bend is opened up and depending on the strategic direction of the new employment precinct, water transport should likewise feature in any new revised strategic plan.

We can only assume the addition of the employment precinct in Fishermans Bend will mean that some of the industrial and advanced manufacturing facilities presently located in the precinct will remain while other sites - like General Motors Holden's facility - will be cleared, cleaned up and redeveloped.

The new employment precinct will be located in the City of Melbourne and I'm willing to wager the urban designers at council will no doubt want to get stuck in to the entire waterfront area. More intensive land-uses on the water's edge will naturally be conducive to new maritime transport services.

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Brisbane's book at its Citycat services should be on the cards?

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor is a co-founder of Urban.com.au. Now a freelance writer, Alastair focuses on the intersection of public transport, public policy and related impacts on medium and high-density development.

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