Furlong Main and the St Albans roller coaster

Hundreds of millions of dollars are currently being spent on Sunbury line at St Albans to grade separate Furlong Road and Main Road, with Ginifer and St Albans stations also being rebuilt as part of the work. A noble objective given the history of fatal accidents in the area, but thanks to the half-arsed way the project has been planned, the Level Crossing Removal Authority has missed the most important bit – removing every level crossing.

Alstom Comeng 669M crosses the soon to be removed Furlong Road level crossing at Ginifer

Some background

The St Albans area has a long history of level crossing fatalities.

Flowers near Ginifer station after the latest fatality, the pedestrian crossing is at the down end of the platforms

In 2004 three people died at the Furlong Road level crossing when their car was struck by a train, in 2011 a pedestrian was killed by a train at Ginifer station after running through a closed level crossing, and since 2006 St Albans station has seen two fatalities and 39 near misses involving pedestrians.

Another pedestrian races across the level crossing as a stopping train approaches

So how many level crossings are in the area?

Starting at the Melbourne end we have Furlong Road – four lanes of traffic protected by boom gates, and a pedestrian crossing on the north side protected by automated gates.

EDI Comeng 473M leads a down Sunbury service across Furlong Road into Ginifer

At the Melbourne end of Ginifer station is another pedestrian crossing, protected by automated gates.

EDI Comeng arrives into Ginifer with a citybound service

Next up is Ginifer station.

Comeng 349M arrives into Ginifer on the up, as a down train arrives into the other platform

Between Ginifer and St Albans stations we have the Willis Street pedestrian crossing – it lacks warning devices or pedestrian gates.

Willis Street pedestrian crossing between Ginifer and St Albans stations

We now arrive at St Albans station.

Up and down train cross paths at St Albans

Main Road at St Albans has four lanes of traffic protected by boom gates, and a pedestrian crossing on both sides, each protected by automated gates.

Down train crosses the Main Road level crossing at St Albans

And finally, the Ruth Street pedestrian crossing at the north end of St Albans, protected by automated gates.

Ruth Street pedestrian crossing at the down end of St Albans station

History of the project

With such a considerable history of fatalities around St Albans, removing the Main Road level crossing has long been a political football. In February 2013 the Federal and Victorian Governments argued over who should fund the works:

The Federal Transport and Infrastructure Minister, Anthony Albanese, and Maribyrnong MP Bill Shorten today visited the St Albans site.

“We’ve got a level crossing that is notorious,” Mr Shorten said.

“People have been killed, it’s been a neglected issue for decades.”

Mr Shorten says 16 people have been killed at the level crossing in the last few decades.

“The St Albans level crossing should’ve been fixed 20, 30 years ago,” he said.

“We’re still here, forced to watch people almost engaging in Russian roulette.

“The message is very clear, now’s the time for bipartisan, now’s the time for something as important as life and death, to put the State versus Federal Government aside, and fix the most dangerous level crossing in Victoria.”

In April 2014 the two levels of government finally came to an agreement to remove the Main Road crossing.

On Sunday morning, Premier Denis Napthine said the Coalition would remove the Main Road crossing in St Albans after allocating $200 million for the overhaul, $151 million of which will be provided the by the Federal Government, and the rest from the state with savings generated from the Regional Rail Link project.

At the time Transport Minister Terry Mulder said that a rail under road solution was the best option.

“There were a couple options to consider, and one was to put rail over road, and which would have had a significant impact on the community in this area.

“But the community asked for rail under road, the state architect suggested rail under road, and that is a far better outcome for those who live in St Albans.”

The November 2014 state election saw a Daniel Andrews led Labor party win government, with their commitment to remove 50 level crossings around Melbourne.

Construction started soon after at Main Road, but March 2015 saw additional action at St Albans, as the removal of the Furlong Road level crossing was also added to the agenda.

The Furlong Road level crossing in St Albans could be removed at the same time as the Main Road level crossing in a new plan being considered by VicRoads.

“Bundling level-crossing removal projects, where they are in close proximity and located on the same rail line, could result in cost savings and reduce the impacts of construction on local communities and businesses and rail customers,” the VicRoads website says.

State Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan would not confirm or deny whether the Furlong Road level crossing would be removed in conjunction with the Main Road project.

Turns out the bundling of level crossings removals got the green light, as in June 2015 it was announced that the Furlong Road level crossing would now be part of the new “Furlong Main Level Crossing Removal Project”.

St Albans and Ginifer railway stations will go underground as works start to eliminate two dangerous level crossings in the area.

The state government last week named Leighton Contractors, and Aurecon and Hyder Consulting to design and carry out the crossing works at Main and Furlong roads with the rail line to be lowered under the road.

St Albans and Ginifer stations will be rebuilt with platforms below street level. A time line for each project is not known.

Removing two level crossings at the same time might sound like a good idea, but unfortunately the reality is somewhat lacking.

What is actually getting done

Despite being called the “Furlong Main Level Crossing Removal Project” the removal of the Main Road and Furlong Road level crossings is not a holistic project – work at St Albans station was well underway before it was decided that Ginifer was part of the project scope, resulting in a half-arsed solution.

Alstom Comeng 598M departs St Albans on the down

The Level Crossing Removal Authority website has this to say on the project scope:

Furlong Road, St Albans

This level crossing removal will include:

  • lowering the rail line below Furlong Road
  • moving Ginifer Station up to the intersection at Furlong Road, with access to the station at Furlong Road and Bond Street
  • installing platforms in the rail cutting accessed via lifts, ramp and stairs
  • building a walking and cycling path parallel to the rail line, from Furlong Road to Willis Street
  • relocating the car park to the east of the rail line, maintaining at least the same number of spaces.

Main Road, St Albans

Removal of the Main Road level crossing will transform the station area into a modern transport interchange. The design includes:

  • lowering the rail line below Main Road
  • rebuilding St Albans Station
  • accessing lowered platforms via lifts, ramps and stairs
  • reconstructing the station car park providing the same number of spaces as a minimum
  • building a walking and cycling path
  • relocating the bus interchange from Alfrieda Street to either side of the station
  • a pedestrian overpass at Ruth Street.

The big omission

The interesting bit about the Furlong Main project is what they don’t say online – hence I sent the Level Crossing Removal Authority an email seeking clarification about the project scope.

First off – I asked for technical details and received the answers I wanted:

Q: At the Melbourne end of the works, where do the tracks start heading underground?
A: Approximately 350-400m south of Furlong Road
Q: What track gradient is in place between there and the new platform at Ginifer?
A: 1.96% (horizontal curve compensated)
Q: How far below the surface are the new platforms at Ginifer?
A: Approximately 6.5m below existing surface
Q: How far below the surface are the new platforms at St Albans?
A: Approximately 6.0m below existing
Q: At the Sunbury end of the works, where do the tracks return to ground level?
A: Approximately 1000m north of Main Road
Q: What track gradient will be between there and the new platform at St Albans?
A: 1.95% (horizontal curve compensated)
Q: Where will the pedestrian overpass at Ruth Street, St Albans be built?
A: On the site of the existing pedestrian crossing and approximately 1.5 – 2.0 metres above the existing ground level

And I also asked them about the Willis Street pedestrian crossing, situated between Ginifer and St Albans stations:

The existing Willis Street pedestrian crossing remains at ground level, however, it will be upgraded to active gates from passive gates (automatic closure of gates when the train is detected)

Track grade back up to existing surface between Ginifer Station and Willis Street pedestrian crossing, with the track gradient 1.96% curve compensated. Track grade between Willis St pedestrian crossing and St Albans Station into the cutting is 1.97% curve compensated.

A total of $480 million is being spent to remove four level crossings – Heatherdale Rd in Mitcham, Blackburn Rd in Blackburn, and the neighbouring level crossings at Main and Furlong Roads in St Albans. So it doesn’t seem good enough that a pedestrian crossing with a history of fatalities is being left behind by the government, especially given that it is located next door to two crossings that are being removed.

Willis Street pedestrian crossing at the down end of Ginifer, and more flowers

And inefficiencies as well

The lack of forward planning on the Furlong Main level crossings removal projects will also make train operations on the Sunbury line less efficient. With both Ginifer and St Albans stations below ground except for the short section of track between them, each train will have to do the following:

  • hard on the brakes headed downhill into St Albans station,
  • accelerate hard out up the grade back out,
  • reach Willis Street and coast over the top of the grade,
  • slam on the brakes again for the descent in to Ginifer station,
  • and finally, accelerate hard out of the station to reach ground level again.

(and vice versa in the other direction)

Compare this with the current situation – a slow climb on the line towards Sunbury, and a slow descent on the way to the city – an extract from the 1989 Grades and Curves diagram book for Victoria.

Grades and curves chart - Ginifer to St Albans

As a result, the new roller coaster track through St Albans will increase the amount of electricity required to power trains on the Sunbury line, and thanks to the lack of regenerative braking systems on the Melbourne rail network, any momentum built up by trains headed downhill can’t be used to power trains powering uphill – the energy can only be burn off as heat.

Wasteful, isn’t it?

Alternatives

If Furlong Road had have been included in the scope as part of the original Main Road level crossing removal project, and not as an afterthought once construction had already began, other options could have been considered.

From St Albans the existing trench at Main Road could have been continued south all the way to Ginifer station, with the Willis Street pedestrian crossing replaced by a bridge. While this would have resulted in the removal of all level crossings in the area, the “better” option of rail under road would be even more costly than the current roller coaster design, due to the greater amount of excavation and retaining walls required, and would still cut the suburb in two with a massive trench.

X'Trapolis train arrives into Gardiner station via the new low level tracks

Elevated rail would have been the perfect solution – raise the tracks between St Albans and Ginifer onto a viaduct and rebuild new stations on top, and in the process remove the barrier that the railway tracks currently form. The existing railway reservation is wide and paralleled by existing streets, so unlike other parts of Melbourne, overshadowing of nearby residents won’t be an issue.

EDI Comeng departs Ginifer station with a down Watergardens service

Yet another example why forward planning for Melbourne’s rail network is so important, and an important lesson for residents along the Dandenong and Frankston lines – a rail under road approach doesn’t guarantee that the government will actually place an entire railway line below ground.

Photos from ten years ago: April 2006

Another instalment in my photos from ten years ago series – April 2006, which was somehow a very quiet month for me.

In the railyards beside North Melbourne station there were plenty of trains to be seen – wagons loaded with new concrete sleepers and ballast were being prepared for a weekend of track maintenance, while a quad lashup of freight locomotives headed past on their way to be serviced.

G527, X44, XR554 and H2 pass various works trains at Melbourne Yard

At Southern Cross Station I spotted a pair of Hitachi trains cross paths, each still in the green and gold ‘The Met’ livery of the 1990s.

88M and 129M at Southern Cross Station

At that point six Hitachi trains were still in service on the Melbourne rail network, with the tattered vinyl decals not being replaced by Connex branding until 2007.

And on the subject of rebranding, at North Melbourne I spotted a massive pile of discarded station signs – made redundant by the rollout of Metlink branding across the Melbourne rail network.

Massive pile of old PTC station nameboards waiting for someone...

Footnote

My ‘photos from ten years ago‘ series has finally caught up to the month that it related too – hopefully I can keep it this way!

Missed a spot – Nunawading and Mitcham level crossing removals

With millions of dollars being spent across Melbourne in recent years on level crossing removal projects, it is interesting to see what doesn’t get upgraded. A good example of this can be found between Nunawading and Mitcham – a pair of railway stations that have both been recently grade separated.

Transdev bus #8012 rego 8059AO on a route 902 service at Nunawading

Nunawading station is located next to Springvale Road, with the level crossing being grade separated in 2009-10 at a cost of $140 million. A new station was built on the western side of the road.

X'Trapolis 200M arrives into Nunawading with a down Lilydale service

With brand new tracks passing beneath Springvale Road.

Stairs linking the west side of Springvale Road to the platforms at Nunawading station

And a cutting on the eastern side, using brand new concrete sleepered track to link it back to the existing ground level tracks.

X'Trapolis 932M arrives into Nunawading with an up service

Meanwhile at Mitcham, the station was rebuilt in 2013-14 as part of the grade separation of the Mitcham Road and Rooks Road level crossings – with total project cost of $192 million. A new station was built at the bottom of a concrete trench.

X'Trapolis 102M arrives into Mitcham station on a down Belgrave service

Mitcham Road passes over the tracks at the eastern end of the station, where the newly built tracks return to ground level.

X'Trapolis train departs Mitcham station on a down Belgrave service

While new tracks at the bottom of the concrete cutting continue a kilometre west towards Nunawading, where Rooks Road passes over the top.

Google Street View - trenched railway at Rooks Road, Mitcham

However penny pinching becomes apparent when you look at the tracks between Rooks Road and Springvale Road. Here a section of life expired timber sleepered railway track still remains, where the ground level track was left untouched by both level crossing removal projects.

Life expired timber sleepered railway track between Nunawading and Mitcham stations

However you can’t argue that the section of track was out of scope of both projects – the stanchions that hold up the overhead wires are now modern galvanised structures, which replaced the original rusted steel stanchions erected when the railway line was electrified during the 1920s.

New overhead stanchions between Nunawading and Mitcham stations

Presumably the short section of timber sleepered track was deemed “good enough” to be left untouched as part of both projects, but the stanchions needed to be moved to new locations because the overhead wires in both directions needed to be realigned.

Yet more evidence that level crossing removals are projects designed to deliver benefits to road users, with any improvements for passengers or railway infrastructure being a bonus.

Footnote

A similar omission is part of the grade separation of Blackburn Road at Blackburn – local residents thought they would get a brand new railway station as part of the project, when the scope of the work only covers relocating the railway tracks to beneath Blackburn Road.

X'Trapolis 71M and 172M cross the Blackburn Road level crossing

Photos from ten years ago: March 2006

Another instalment in my photos from ten years ago series – this time March 2006.

First off is this photo of Geelong station, taken from the open door of a V/Line train with manually operated ‘swing’ doors.

Looking back at Geelong station from a departing train

The last train of this type ran in March 2009, when a program to install power door locks was completed.

Also at Geelong I photographed a special V/Line train for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Freight Australia liveried P23 leads a push-pull H set out of Geelong

With V/Line short of rolling stock to run the extra services, they turned to freight operator Pacific National to supply diesel locomotives to haul the trains.

I like to joke that I never have a reason to head eat of Punt Road, but for some reason I had reason to head all the way out to Box Hill, where I photographed an abandoned V/Line parcels office atop the local railway station.

Former V/Line parcels office at Box Hill

Parcel traffic dates back to the early days of railways in Victoria, and as late as the mid-1980s V/Line Express Parcels still advertised to the general public.

On the way out to Box Hill, I photographed a temporary viewing platform underway on Wellington Parade – intended as a display suite for another overpriced apartment block.

Temporary viewing platform underway between Flinders Street and Richmond, to sell overpriced apartments on the old carriage sidings

Called ‘One East Melbourne‘ the complex was completed in 2009.

Over at Spencer Street work on the new station was wrapping up – the office pods at the east end were bright and new.

The office pods cleaned up

And finally, I received word that the ‘4D’ train – Melbourne’s first and only double deck suburban train – was headed for the scrapyard, so I headed out to see capture the final journey.

4D at the back of the train

The 4D train was ordered in 1991 to test the suitability of double deck trains in Melbourne, but was left an orphan following a decision not to buy any further double deck trains. After a troublesome service life it last ran with passengers in 2002, and was then placed into long term storage.

Footnote

In February my ‘photos from ten years ago‘ series finally caught up to the month that it related too – now I’ve managed to slip up and fall behind yet again. Hopefully I’ll get the April 2006 instalment out on time!

Melbourne Metro and West Footscray station

The other day I stumbled across an interesting titbit on the Melbourne Metro website – they are planning to build a third platform at West Footscray. So what is the thinking behind the project?

EDI Comeng arrives into West Footscray with an up Sunbury line service

The Melbourne Metro webpage for the third platform project has the full details:

A new platform for West Footscray Station

To get the most out of the new underground rail line and the relief it will provide to crowding, we will be building a new platform and track at West Footscray. This will allow some Sunbury line services to turn around at this station.

This additional platform will enable trains to terminate and commence services at West Footscray station. It is not anticipated that Metro trains will be stabled at the station.

Image showing the location of proposed new station platform at West Footscray station, ton the Cross St side

How Melbourne Metro will benefit West Footscray Station

The additional platform and track to the north of the station (Cross Street side) will service city bound trains coming from Sunbury in the morning and afternoon peak periods. The existing city bound platform will be used for Sunbury line trains to terminate and commence services at West Footscray station. This will help trains run on time and reduce delays.

Providing an additional platform and length of track for Sunbury line trains will also facilitate an increase in the number of services at West Footscray station during the morning and afternoon peak.

Works at West Footscray station involve realigning regional, suburban and freight tracks, construction of new tracks and turnouts (to enable trains to change direction), a new passenger platform and alterations to the existing station concourse. No works are required on private land.

Track and station work would likely be conducted in stages to limit disruption to commuters and the local community.

So time for a critical look at what is being proposed – I’m going to ignore the fact that West Footscray station just got rebuilt as part of the Regional Rail Link project – and instead explore why the proposal is a triumph of operator convenience over passenger amenity.

An additional platform at West Footscray doesn’t make things any easier for passengers – it makes things harder. With the new platform isolated on the north side of the tracks, citybound passengers will be presented with a new choice:

  • walk down to the new platform 1 to board the next train ex-Sunshine and hope you can fit onboard,
  • or walk down to the existing citybound platform where an empty train is currently awaiting departure back to town, and hope that it leaves soon.

And good luck to any passenger who makes the wrong choice – by the time you can see the next citybound train, it will already be too late to change platforms via the overhead concourse!

Alstom Comeng arrives into West Footscray with an up Sunbury line service

The only redeeming feature I can see with the proposed works that any outbound passengers on a train terminating at West Footscray only need to walk across the island platform in order to catch the next train towards Sunbury.

EDI Comeng arrives into West Footscray with a down Watergardens service

One has to take the small wins.

Elsewhere in Melbourne

Melbourne’s rail network has a number of triple track sections, and all suffer from the same problem – in the middle of the day the centre track changes direction, which requires passengers to check their watch before choosing a platform.

Platform directions at Canterbury station

And at Watergardens station, citybound passengers face the same problems that West Footscray passengers will face in future – services coming from Sunbury use platform 1 while terminating trains head back to the city across the tracks on platform 2.

Looking down Watergardens platforms 2 and 3 towards the footbridge

We also have Laverton station – $93 million was spent in 2009-10 to rebuild the station, with a third platform being added to the north side, freeing up space for trains from Altona to terminate free of the mainline. Again the same problem – citybound trains leave from different sides of the station.

Siemens train on a down Werribee service arrives into Laverton

And finally Westall station – a total of $153 million was spent in 2009-10 on a third track and turnback platform that spent the first year out of service, and suffers from the same flaw – citybound trains don’t depart from the same island platform.

Siemens arrives into Westall platform 1 with an up service

Notice a recurring theme?

A solution

Centre turnback platforms aren’t something new that Melbourne has invented – they exist on rail networks all over the world, and can be incredibly convenient for passengers.

This is achieved with a ‘Spanish solution’ platform layout – four platforms are provided to serve three tracks, with the centre track having platforms on both sides, allowing passengers from either side to board the train.

In Hong Kong I found one at Choi Hung station on the MTR Kwun Tong Line.

Centre platform at Choi Hung, with a platform located on each side

But a rail network doesn’t need to have platform screen doors in order to place platforms on both sides of a track – Fo Tan station on the MTR East Rail line is out in the open.

Centre platform at Fo Tan

And closer to home, even Adelaide can do it – Glanville and Brighton stations feature centre turnback tracks with a platform on each side.

Centre turnback platform at Brighton railway station, Adelaide (photo by Normangerman via Wikimedia Commons)
Brighton station photo by Normangerman via Wikimedia Commons

Why should we in Melbourne settle for anything less?

Diving deeper

After I shared my initial thoughts about centre turnback platforms, I got the following response:

why not send those “short run” Sunbury trains to say Melton.

Why didn’t I think of that!

With the growth of Melbourne’s western suburbs, Footscray station will soon be the equivalent of South Yarra, and Sunshine station will be the equivalent of Caulfield. If someone proposed turning back trains at Toorak station they’d be laughed out of the room – so why is it any different for the other side of Melbourne?

While West Footscray station located on a double track railway, it is only two stations beyond the massive apartment developments of Footscray, and two stations from the major rail junction that is Sunshine.

Provided the new high capacity signalling system is rolled out as far as Sunshine, there isn’t any technical reason why trains for the Melbourne Metro can’t be split between the existing Sunbury line and the future electrified Melton line – just make sure to build a grade separated flyover to split trains on the two routes.

Footnote

Building a new station only to tear it down a few years later – the same thing happened at Footscray where a new footbridge opened in 2010, only to be partially demolished in 2013 for Regional Rail Link works.

New footbridge at Footscray by dusk

When will they learn – you can’t plan ahead if you don’t know where you are headed.