The state government has signalled its $3 million 2018 budget contribution announced on Tuesday for the planning work on the new south-east tram line will lead to the project implementation.
The planning work to be funded will come up with a defined route, station location, determine the benefits as well as the costs and inform a shovels-in-the-ground date.
We're yet to see the strategic context of the project - we can only assume this tram/light rail project has been borne out of a network development plan for the tram network.
Regardless, given planning work will soon be funded and the very small amount of information that has been released on the project points to a route that remains very much high level. Included below are some of my thoughts on the decisions that will need to be made.
Is 3000 people per direction per hour enough capacity over the coming years? E-Class trams have been used as an example of vehicle size by the Minister and why not? They're the biggest in the existing fleet and they are of a size that is typically used elsewhere on light rail projects, whether in isolation or in a train with two vehicles coupled together.
If we're using the E-class as a baseline and want to think about scalability of the infrastructure that needs to be built then a minimum platform length of 60 metres will be required (E-Class vehicles are 33 metres long, if a vehicle using an E-Class or equivalent vehicle were to be chosen, platforms mightn't need to be 66 metres in length as the drivers cabs at both ends can overhang the platforms).
60 metre trams or 'train or trams' would allow each service to double in passenger carrying capacity - in the realm of 400 passengers per vehicle. That would translate, assuming a 4 minute frequency of service, into 6000 passengers per direction per hour.
Is the aim to rapidly connect Chadstone and the Monash NEIC as well as bring rail services to the outer east or to create a standard bus-on-rails tram service with a stop every 500m? I'd favour rapid over bus-on-rails - if there's no speed advantage, what hope for mode shift is there?
Suffice it to say, there's a major opportunity to reconfigure the entire bus network in the area so frequent buses (15 minutes or better) can connect the lower-density suburban areas with the major nodes and stations along the route.
As the announcement came out of the blue and had a double-whammy - linking Caulfield rather than a station like Oakleigh of Huntingdale like in the Rowville Rail study - rapid transit seems to be the focus and therefore the number of stations should be informed by this decision.
The Melbourne Metro project will roll out a modern signalling system that will stop trains at the precise location to line up with station platform doors; it should be considered that this new light rail/tram line has a similar system, at least in parts where stations will be elevated or otherwise space-constrained.
Introducing this level of automation would allow drivers of the rail vehicles to stop consistently.
As a general rule, the route should be designed to be built in a road's median in appropriate areas to lessen capital costs. Those appropriate areas would most likely be between the signalised intersections with cross-roads.
Trams should have signal priority as they approach lower-volume crossroad intersections (i.e Darling and Belgrave road) where 100-200m from the intersection, the rail vehicle would trigger signals that control the intersection up ahead by showing a red to all traffic movements that would conflict with the rail services, allowing the rail vehicles to cruise through the intersections without stopping.
The five strategic outcomes in the Monash NEIC draft framework plan are:
This upcoming study should consider an alternative route from Chadstone to the Monash NEIC (other than the one depicted in the published information thus far). Like Dandenong Road, Ferntree Gully Road has a wide median and a future business town centre has been earmarked on the road within the northern reaches of the Monash NEIC.
The Dandenong Road route shown in public government information thus far would doubtlessly be simpler to implement, however there is a neat route that might work by sending the tram route down Ferntree Gully Road then turning southward through Notting Hill alongside the CSIRO and through the heart of the Monash University campus to Wellington Road.
The primary advantage of this route is that it links three earmarked activity centres that will be a focus for the wider cluster - assuming the two phase build scenario is eventually adopted, in the first phase one business town centre and the Monash University activity centre would be linked from the get-go. The second business town centre would be linked upon the completion of the second phase out to Rowville.
An entirely grade separated railway would be ideal as there would be no conflicts with existing or near-future vehicular movements, however in the interests of sweating existing corridor assets more - Infrastructure Victoria recommends we sweat all our assets more - a partial grade separation solution should be chosen.
The Caulfield-Chadstone section would likely need little grade separation - see points above about surface tracks and signal priority at lower vehicular volume crossroads.
In the Chadstone-North Oakleigh area however, the route will need to cross Warrigal Road and deal with high volumes of vehicle movements into and out of the Chadstone precinct - a grade separated route should be chosen in this area.
As elevated track (and stations) are cheaper to build compared to underground track and stations, I'd suggest an elevated section of track which lifts up over Poath/Chadstone Road and then continues at the higher level all the way to after the Ferntree Gully Road/Dandenong Road section.
Whether a Dandenong Road route or a Ferntree Gully route is chosen, this would be the ideal area to bring the track back down to the surface - it would completely avoid an area with very high volumes of vehicular traffic. That section measures approximately 2.5 km.
Within the Monash NEIC itself, again, speed should be the focus and employing grade separation would be most ideal.
If a Dandenong Road route was chosen this would start just north of the Dandenong Road/Wellington Road intersection and continue along Wellington Road to the eastern side of Springvale Road.
If a Ferntree Gully Road route was chosen, Stephensons Road would be at-grade with tram prioritisation and then lift up and remain elevated along Ferntree Gully Road, Howleys road & Scenic boulevard through the university campus (or Blackburn Road if that corridor is deemed a better option) then turning eastward on Wellington Road the elevated track would come back down to the surface east of Springvale Road. This elevated section would measure almost 5km.
From Springvale Road the Rowville Rail Study should inform the route choice and whether to elevate (or send track underground) - Waverley Park station at Jells Road was originally going to be sunk underground, this might work just as well for light rail as the station would be located at the top of a relatively steep hill.
Eastlink should be a grade-separated intersection and likewise if the terminus of the line is to be at Stud Park shopping centre, the tram line should also lift up over the Wellington & Stud Road intersection and travel along a short section of elevated track to the terminus at Stud Park.
If speed is the favoured focus then stations should be limited to the major nodes and areas where planning schemes can be altered to develop the surrounding land intensively.
As you see in the map below, there are only stations marked at Caulfield, Chadstone, North Oakleigh, Ferntree Gully Road, Monash University, Westall Road, Waverley Park, Rowville and Stud Park.
The Station at Rowville, right near the Eastlink interchange with Wellington Road is an ideal park and ride location if that is a focus of the new line. Ditto Stud Park.
The Station at North Oakleigh is already in an area zoned for more intensive development with projects already being marketed.
Westall Road, and its eventual extension to the Monash Freeway, is right next to the second business town centre in the VPA's draft framework.
The Monash University station is located on the 'SE3' car park - there's an opportunity to consolidate the existing bus terminal underneath the light rail station.
The Chadstone station location represents an opportunity for the centre owner to expand and connect directly with the new light rail station.