Welcome to Buckley Street in Footscray: located near Middle Footscray station, it is on the south side of the railway line that links the Melbourne CBD to Sunshine.
This might look like any other Melbourne street, but the houses on the north side of Buckley Street have just been compulsorily acquired by the State Government, to make way for the new tracks of the Regional Rail Link project that will run past their backyards. Running a bulldozer through a suburb is normally an infrequent event, but not for this street: the current railway through Middle Footscray was built in just the same way.
It was all the way back in 1859 that the first train ran through Middle Footscray, when the initial section of the Melbourne-Bendigo railway was opened as far as Sunbury. Originally double track and running at ground level, the first passenger station at Middle Footscray was built in 1906 on the east side of Victoria Street, with suburban electric trains being introduced to the line in 1921. The below photo from the State Library of Victoria is dated 1927, and is taken between Victoria Street and Albert Street, looking towards Footscray.
How did I work out the exact location? The railway semaphore signal in the photo is labelled ’12C’, which is shown in the Footscray ‘C’ signalling diagram found in this history of the Footscray railways.
Compared to the above photo, today’s railway is a completely different scene – so what happened in between?
A whole lot of digging, that’s what! (again, photo from the State Library).
At the start of the 20th century railways were king for freight and passenger transport. In Victoria the hub of freight operations was Melbourne Yard, located on Footscray Road between Spencer Street Station and Victoria Dock, on what is now Melbourne Docklands and Etihad Stadium. From Melbourne Yard trains carrying all kinds of goods went to the furthest corners of the state, but before they could get there, they needed to escape the city.
With Melbourne ever growing, getting out of the suburbs became more difficult as the years went on, especially after the introduction of frequent suburban electric trains from 1919. A key choke point was Footscray station – junction of the lines from Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo – it saw a huge chunk of Victoria’s rail traffic pass through on a single pair of tracks bound for Melbourne Yard (the exception being the lines from Gippsland and the north-east). Below is the view from the Hopkins Street bridge circa 1910, photo from Picture Victoria.
To fix the congestion at Footscray, the Victorian Railways commenced construction of the South Kensington to West Footscray freight line in the 1920s, allowing goods trains to bypass the passenger station entirely. Running from the edge of Melbourne Yard at South Kensington, the new railway ran through the swamps of West Melbourne and across Dynon Road, crossing the Maribyrnong River on a steel truss bridge, and heading west under Footscray in a cut and cover tunnel beneath Bunbury Street.
At the other end of the tunnel major earthworks were required push the new tracks west through Footscray: the existing railway was sunk below ground level, with new overpasses at Nicholson Street and Albert Street enabling the removal of two level crossings. Here we are looking west from Nicholson Street towards Albert Street, with the new goods line tracks still to be laid (again, photo from the State Library).
By the time Middle Footscray was reached the railway was back at ground level, with the new tracks continuing a short distance further to Tottenham Yard (the massive collection of railway sidings in West Footscray) Along the way the original Middle Footscray station was replaced with the current station on the west side of Victoria Street, and the road sunk beneath the tracks to eliminate a third level crossing (cue yet another State Library of Victoria photo).
Fast forward 80 years and the scene at Victoria Street differs little, except the streets of Footscray are now leafier.
So how many houses did the 1928 rebuilding of Middle Footscray require, and what benefits did it deliver?
For the first question, we can look at the MMBW Melbourne Sewerage Plans digitised by the State Library of Victoria: Middle Footscray is covered by detail plan 244 and 245, dated 1895. Victoria Street is to the right hand side of the plan, but the number of houses demolished for the railway expansion is inconclusive: despite the empty allotments beside the railway, the plan was produced 30 years before work started on the new tracks, so houses may have been built on them during that period.
The benefits of the extra tracks are more clear cut. With freight trains running in the tunnel beneath Footscray, more room was available through the station itself for the operation of passenger trains. Melbourne’s west was undeveloped – the current growth corridors were still empty grasslands, and suburban trains ran only as far as Williamstown, Altona and St Albans – so the single track pair from Footscray station towards the city remained in place until a second pair was added in 1976.
It has been in the past four decades that growth in the west of Melbourne has exploded,: since the 1970s the once deserted plains have been covered by the new housing estates of Hoppers Crossing, Werribee, Melton and Sunbury; with further growth at Taylors Lakes, Caroline Springs Deep Park, Tarneit and Point Cook filling in the gaps. At the same time the freight trains beneath Footscray have not stopped: Melbourne Yard might have been replaced by a football stadium in the 1990s, but the Port of Melbourne and the freight terminals on Dynon Road continue to serve Melbourne’s logistics needs.
The latest strain on infrastructure has been the increased number of V/Line services entering Melbourne, with five consecutive years of patronage growth (source). The reasons given for the growth are varied: optimists attribute it to the success of the Regional Fast Rail project, which gave country Victoria the more comfortable VLocity trains, decreased travel times to Melbourne, and increased service frequencies. The more pessimistic say the growth from daily commuters who work in the CBD and live in new “dormitory” suburbs outside the regional centres, forced out of Melbourne by increasing house prices and encouraged to take V/Line trains by the politically driven 20% fare cut delivered by the Labour Government at the 2006 State Election (details here).
No matter what the reason for the growth: more trains than ever are trying to make their way through Footscray, and there are not enough tracks to handle them all. The Regional Rail Link project will build another track pair from Southern Cross Station west to Sunshine, and from there across to Werribee, providing a new route for V/Line services to Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo to avoid Footscray, and freeing up space for additional suburban trains on the tracks already in place.
Unfortunately to build these new tracks, it has been decided to push the bulldozers through Middle Footscray for the second time in 90 years, but that is a story for another day.