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.
The St Albans area has a long history of level crossing fatalities.
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.
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.
At the Melbourne end of Ginifer station is another pedestrian crossing, protected by automated gates.
Next up is Ginifer station.
Between Ginifer and St Albans stations we have the Willis Street pedestrian crossing – it lacks warning devices or pedestrian gates.
We now arrive at St Albans station.
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.
And finally, the Ruth Street pedestrian crossing at the north end of St Albans, protected by automated gates.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.