How Surrey Hills residents kept their level crossing

This is the story of the Union Road level crossing in the eastern Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills, and the local residents that fought the government to prevent a grade separation project from taking place there.

X'Trapolis 107M trails an up train departing Surrey Hills

With the passing of the Country Roads and Level Crossings Act in 1954, the removal of level crossings across Victoria kicked up a gear, resulting in dozens of new concrete bridges being constructed across Melbourne’s suburbs.

Among them was the road over rail bridge for Burnley Street at Burnley station, completed in 1965.

New signal trunking installed at Burnley, as part of the resignalling project

And the Canterbury station rail over road bridge at Canterbury Road, completed in 1970.

X'Trapolis 192M on an up service crosses the Canterbury Road bridge

As grade separation works continued along the line, Union Road at Surrey Hills and Mont Albert Road in Mont Albert were now the last remaining level crossings between Box Hill and the city, which saw them attract the attention of the Country Roads Board – predecessor of VicRoads.

The 1978-79 annual report of the Country Road Board tells the rest of the story.

In 1974 the Abolition of Level Crossings Committee comprising the Engineer in Chief, CRB. Chief Civil Engineer, Victorian Railways and Chief Engineer, Public Works Department, recommended that the Board be the co-ordinating and construction authority for a direct road connection from Warrigal Road to Union Road, eliminating the railway level crossing at Union Road. Surrey Hills. This recommendation was based on the predicted traffic delays and accident potential at the level crossing.

The proposal at Surrey Hills was more than just a simple level crossing removal project – as you can see on a map, there are plenty of houses preventing a direct road connection between Warrigal Road and Union Road.

Proposed Warrigal Road to Union Road link in Surrey Hills

The Country Roads Board continues.

The proposal was approved in principle by the then Minister of Transport and agreed to by Box Hill and Camberwell City Councils in 1976. Such a road connection would require the acquisition of some houses and shops in the area. Plans for an amendment to the Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme to provide for the proposed connection were placed on public display in May, 1977.

A considerable number of people in Surrey Hills were concerned by the proposal and a public meeting was convened by local residents in August, 1977. Following this meeting, and after discussions with the Ministry for Conservation and the Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works, the Board decided to prepare an environment effects statement and to re-examine the need for a road overpass of the railway. Other alternatives including traffic management measures, and the use of the existing Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme provision for the future widening of Canterbury Road were also considered.

These investigations showed that the need to eliminate the Union Road level crossing was not as great as envisaged some years ago. However, the investigations indicate a need to alleviate traffic congestion in Canterbury Road between Warrigal Road and Union Road.

The community was involved in the investigations in various ways. For example:

  • detailed discussions were held with representatives of Box Hill and Camberwell City Councils, the Surrey Hills Association and the Victorian Railways Board;
  • a study bulletin was produced and widely distributed in the area;
  • interviews and discussion with individuals and groups of 6 to 10 people. including household, shopper and shopkeeper surveys;
  • Board representatives attended a public meeting called by the Surrey Hills Association.

As well as the community involvement outlined above, a considerable amount of data was collected on matters such as:

  • local history of the area;
  • land zoning;
  • the transport network in the area;
  • the social profile of the area;
  • town planning aspects;
  • various traffic aspects.

The investigations concluded that in view of the relatively short delays and good safety record at the existing level crossing in Union Road, the high cost and environmental effects of an overpass, and the fact that other road improvement alternatives (not involving abolition of the railway level crossing) could satisfactorily handle expected future traffic:

  • (a) there was not sufficient justification to proceed with the grade separation proposals in the foreseeable future;
  • (b) there was for improved traffic operation in Canterbury in the study area by the application of low cost traffic management measures and that steps should be taken to implement these as soon as possible; and
  • (c) the existing planning scheme widening along this section of Canterbury Road should be retained to provide for future improvements to Canterbury Road.

On Friday, 6th April, 1979, the Minister of Transport, the Hon Robert Maclellan, MLA, announced that the proposed elimination of the railway level crossing would not proceed in the light of the Board’s further investigations

In the years since, the residents of Surrey Hills have watched their house prices rise, but the Union Road level crossing has stayed the same – today ranked #14 in Victoria for risk according to the Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model and now closed for up to 30 minutes of every hour.

X'Trapolis 862M departs Surrey Hills on the up


In October 2015 Robert Clark, Liberal member for Box Hill, had this to say on the Union Road level crossing:

In the Box Hill electorate, removing the Union Road, Surrey Hills crossing was ranked a high priority by last year’s VicRoads study, and was also ranked as the 14th highest removal priority in a 2008 expert study based on risk.

With many other crossings now having been removed or funded (mainly by the Coalition Government), this crossing should now be high on the list for future removal.

Yet Transport Minister, Jacinta Allan, has refused even to consider it, and has insultingly claimed it has “relatively low road and rail benefits”.

Politicians often forget history when sinking the boot into the opposition, and Robert Clark is no different here – it was a Liberal government in 1979 that cancelled the previous grade separation project at Surrey Hills, and they used similar arguments when justifying their decision.

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50 Responses to “How Surrey Hills residents kept their level crossing”

  1. Beren says:

    I actually like this level crossing and the station next to it, it’s got an old feel to it, it’s an old community really, and if they don’t want it gone, then why bother? If people don’t like it, they can find an alternative means of travelling around it, say up to Box Hill, or going further in towards the city.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      In the grand scheme of things both Union Road and Mont Albert Road aren’t major thoroughfares – grade separating both will result in the latter becoming an even bigger rat run than it already is.

      • KARMA MRA MGTOW says:

        Two weeks ago I almost witnessed the same thing at Surrey Hills, Chinese women was just about to go around the boomgates, the front of her small SUV was missed by a few cm. I think I still have the fottage on my dashcam.

      • Myrtonos says:

        I wonder if the replacement of the original manual gates has already made them bigger rat runs then they once were.

    • Meagher says:

      Guess you don’t mind people getting killed there. A neighbour of mine a few years ago, as well as various suicides over the years, and now a double fatality. But if it has an ‘old feel’ to it that the locals like, let’s just wear some deaths, eh?

      • Susan says:

        Hi Meagher, I believe your comment is uncalled for. When this was posted in March the accident of the two elderly ladies had not happened. I’m sure now everyone’s opinion has changed of the crossing.
        Also in regards to suicides, if they can’t do it there then they will find somewhere else if they really want to go.
        I’m not sure what exactly happened to the two ladies on Wednesday but I do not believe it is a fault of metro. The rules are clear.
        Sorry for your loss but taking it out on strangers is not acceptable

    • maren says:

      Short sighted aren’t you? Rose-coloured glasses? Sentimental? When did you last observe the extreme congestion and dangers here? Have you sat 25 mins waiting for the gates to open? Then almost got trapped because the traffic or pedestrian lights changed? I am a local since the 1950s. Love the area. But for the sake of the “good old days” should we get rid of sewerage systems and electric lighting? We need a good plan. IN SAD MEMORY OF CARMEL ISEPPI AND DENISE DOBBYN. Local (not in my backyard nostalgia fools must accept some responsibility for their tragic death.

      • Roderick says:

        Do read my 24.3 post here before hurling the abuse. The wrong project was put up by CRB: classic urban blight to suit management. Don’t blame the residents. Had the railway been lowered in 1970-71 (along with Mont Albert Rd; two for the price of one), all would have been well.

    • Myrtonos says:

      It is one of the last two towards Box Hill, grade separating it and the one at Mont Albert road will allow more trains to run.
      And if you think it has the old feel to it, what do the lights, bells and booms do to that feel. Would it have any more of an old feel if the crossing still had interlocked gates?

  2. mpp says:

    I would imagine that the residents of Surrey Hills are grateful that a project of such scale did not take place in the 70s, as the induced traffic coming off the now congested Warrigal Road would not be welcome today!

  3. Andrew says:

    Interesting find. You can read the CRB’s pain in every word.

    But don’t forget the political context. Burnley and Canterbury were completed during Bolte’s premiership. By the late ’70s Rupert Hamer was Premier, and he was cut from a very different cloth. He had a strong interest in urban amenity and planning (this was one of his enduring legacies). During his time the State instrumentalities were brought to heel and it became much tougher to impose this type of small scale project on local communities. (This was the period when the Metrol debacle occurred.)

    Hamer was also the member for Kew – the neighboring seat – and probably lived within 5 miles of the level crossing. So the locals would have certainly had a sympathetic powerful ear to bend.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      1977 was also the start of opposition to Melbourne’s freeways, as construction of the Eastern Freeway kicked off:

      • myrtonos says:

        Alexander Parade, Fitzroy and Collingwood, Princess Street, North Carlton, College crescent, Parkville and Elliot Avenue, Royal Park, would have all been much quieter before Eastern Freeway was built.

        The Eastern Freeway, ripping through Studly Park, would have cost as much as a ton of level crossing grade separations. It cost a lot of money that could have been spent on grade separation of existing level crossings. If that had been done, things would be a lot better today.

  4. rohan storey says:

    Yes, Hamer lived in Monomeath Avenue, about 1/2k from the truly awful Canterbury Station Rail overpass, but then he didnt intervene at Surrey Hills – the late 70s was when consultation and recognising ‘environmental character’ (which we now call heritage) really got going, and thats what got the project stopped, or rather re-examined, when they found that it wasnt really justified. I havnt used Union Road much, maybe traffic there is terrible, but is it a really busy thoroughfare ? Not like Warrigal Rd anyway. No doubt when Surrey Hills turn finally comes around, it’ll be a rail under solution (though cant see how it would be squeezed in). The local residents are still very vocal and organised ! They just got the cute little shopping centre, not all that remarkable, but villagy, heritage listed.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Rail under road is all that I can see getting done there as well – it’s a uphill grade all the way from Canterbury to Mont Albert, followed by a downhill grade to Box Hill.

      • Myrtonos says:

        …it’s a uphill grade all the way from Canterbury to Mont Albert, followed by a downhill grade to Box Hill.

        Which raises the question of why the railway didn’t go through the hill in the first place. If it where, no gatekeeper would never have needed to be hired where it crosses Mont Albert road, as was the case until 1962, when boom barriers replaced the hand gates in 1962.
        The same could be said of Mitcham, why was the original station on top of a hill and next to a level crossing, rather than in a trench and below Mitcham road?

  5. Roderick Smith says:

    I was an affected resident, and attended the main protest meeting.
    Both Union Rd and Mont Albert Rd should have gone to rail under road in 1970-71, as the third track pushed towards Box Hill. That was knocked by treasury: the usual cause of all short-sighted decisions in Victoria.
    These two remain the busiest crossings in Melbourne for train movements, and Union Rd suffers from the backwash from the Canterbury Rd intersection. There has been one fatality from wriggling around the gates when they have been down for an extended time. The worst which I have counted has been six trains in one lowering, but that isn’t common. Even three isn’t common.
    CRB/VicRoads pushed for yet another urban-blight concrete bridge, which would cut through prime residential territory to link Union Rd to Canterbury Rd, and remove only one level crossing. Quite rightly, the residents were up in arms. Yet another ‘solution’ designed solely for management convenience.
    Of course three tracks fit with ease in a rail-under-road solution; there is room for four, but all of those shortsighted 1960s-70s projects didn’t allow for that.
    Nothing has changed in 40 years, with the Dandenong and Frankston solutions being just as bad as designs, and just as shortsighted.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      I’ll have to do some further digging to find a copy of the actual 1970s plans for Union Road.

      • Roderick Smith says:

        There was to be substantial resumption of property along one side of Alexandra Cres, but the other side would have been blighted. I suspect the petrol station on the south-west corner of Canterbury Rd and Warragul Rd. My memory is that the northern curve started at Bedford Ave, but that seems to be too tight; it could have knocked out the whole east side shopping zone from Montrose St. That now seems so horror-house bad that I wonder how any engineer could ever have proposed it. There was all of the synergy squandered: while the railway was only two tracks, the lowering could have been done very economically by the classic method of going sideways one track at a time, then using the released gap for the third line. SH had the advantage of the former goods yard and shunting neck on the south side: the space was available.

  6. Andy says:

    While all of this kerfuffle has been going on, the Mont Albert rail crossing has been grossly degrading and is now a severe safety hazard.
    Its degree of degradation and the need for urgent work is well known to those maintaining the tracks so I have to ask – what is the motivation behind deliberately allowing it to become a hazard? Is someone perversely hoping for it to be the cause of an accident?

    • Marcus Wong says:

      I’ve spent a month or two commuting on the Belgrave / Lilydale line, and the entire rail corridor is rough as guts – a combination of poorly maintained tracks, and a fleet of X’Trapolis trains that only have coil spring suspension.

    • Diana Allen says:

      I agree, Union Rd crossing, in a low part of the road, gets camouflaged by high delivery vehicles, trees, shop awnings..a boom gate just about came down on our car..Can’t Mont Albert Rd crossing close by be removed as well, while still preserving this pleasant location? A quick turn right at the crossing into Lorne Pde, so close to the gates can distract a driver.3 schools are in the area,Union Rd is not a road to nowhere.Schools now encourage their students to walk, making crossings safer would help everyone.

  7. Warwick says:

    And Union Rd is only 1 or 2 of the top 15 that are not at least in planning stage.

  8. This blog is now referenced from a story on The Age website
    talking about the double fatality yesterday.
    Maybe that will finally stir up some action again…

  9. Stevo says:

    Bet you feel like a dick now after whats happened

  10. Mary says:

    I live in Surrey Hills but moved here long in the 90s. I’ve been told by one of the planners that the overpass would have run from the end of Warrigal Road across now Alexandra Crescent, over the station platform and the village, landing near the Anglican Church on the corner of Union and Montrose Streets. It would have looked like the Oakleigh overpass, but the shopping strip on Union Road would have virtually disappeared. The current station building was built in its current location in anticipation of the overpass going over the Union Road half of the platform.

    The traffic issues are going to increase when a major supermarket is built on the corner of Sunbury Crescent as delivery trucks will be entering the side streets and cars will be attempting to either park on the street or access the planned underground car park off Union Road or Croydon Road. I understand that the supermarket is not contributing to any upgrades to traffic lights (to synchronise with level crossing gates) or street lighting in the area. It’s likely that safety will be further compromised.

  11. Davo says:

    I am sorry to hear this about the ladies. In this case, the boom gates entrapped the car in bumper to bumper traffic. I feel very sorry for the train driver who is a big victim of this. But far too many people play chicken with boom gates. The crossing in Bell Street in Preston almost always has drivers driving through when the lights are still flashing. I have been beeped by clowns for not driving though the flashing boom gate lights. I have witnessed police breaking the law and racing boom gates late at night without siren or their lights flashing, setting an appalling example. The boom gate in Grange Road, Alphington has people signalling right too late, blocking traffic behind them over the tracks. The rule is, NEVER, NEVER drive over crossings unless you are completely sure your car will make it across in the clear. And do NOT drive onto train tracks when the crossing signals are flashing. Lives will be saved if people use common sense, which seems to be lacking in most drivers and some policemen. Maybe everyone should undergo license retesting to make sure this is drummed into their thick skulls.

    • myrtonos says:

      The barriers only cover the entrance sides specifically so that no car can be trapped between the barriers, note that the barriers close a pre-programmed amount of time after the activation of the lights and bell.

  12. Kat says:

    Sad to read this article in the light of the deaths of two woman yesterday at Union Road.

  13. myrtonos says:

    The one at Burnley was the last level crossing between the C.B.D and Burnley junction.

    I read somewhere else that this railway is uphill towards Surrey Hills and then downhill towards Box Hill. In that case, it seems that these last two level crossings could be removed simply by lowering the tracks.
    This would not need all that property aquisition.

    …resulting in dozens of new concrete bridges being constructed across Melbourne’s suburbs.

    And many of these have been criticised for destroying the amenity of the areas. In Oakleigh and Huntingdale, some buildings needed to be demolised to make way for road overpasses.

    The one in West Footscray has a similar problem. In case of West Footscray, road under would have been a better choice. But grade separation of a busy level crossing still seems better than leaving the crossing as it is. It was one of the last two between the city centre and Sunshine Junction, the other (at Tottenham) being replaced by a rail overbridge in 1981.

    Rail over may well have been a better choice in Oakleigh and Huntingdale. Soon there will be no level crossings between the city and Dandenong.

  14. kate says:

    It’s ridiculous. I love the character of Surrey Hills but because there are so many apartments and offices being built on Canterbury Road with more coming soon, as well as the new Coles on the railway line at the crossing, something must be done. It’s only going to get busier and the character is being lost so they need to fix the crossing — apart from the fact that people have died getting stuck on the tracks already and some wheelchairs have been stuck on it before, too.

    The problem there is that there’s 2 council’s that manage the area plus Vic Road and they don’t work together to come up with a solution for the area. Madness.

    • myrtonos says:

      It was proposed back in the 1970s but rejected. Certainly a better alternative to replacing the orginial gates by boom barriers.

  15. George Jetson says:

    The solution to this location, whilst people will struggle with the concept is lowering the line and replacing the two stations with one only centrally located between the existing two. Think of this, the current stations are, from nearest platform end to platform end only 631 meters apart. A new station centrally located with the now standard 160 meter platforms would be on straight track (critically important) and the ends of this new platform (if centrally loceted) would only be 245 meters away from the existing platforms. Is that too much for anyone to consider as too far?, or is this idea way too logical to be practical? Of course how this could be constructed withing the existing confines is a difficult question, Beresford Rd and Lorne Pde no doubt would be significantly narrowed whilst construction took place.

    • myrtonos says:

      When it was proposed, the public assumed that it would be road over and opposed it on that assumption.
      Neither the C.R.B (now VicRoads), nor V.R (who ran our trains at that time) bothered to show people what that grade separation would really look like.
      I don’t struggle with the concept you mention because I know the rail gradients in that area from this diagram.

  16. […] Marcus Wong has written before, these level crossings have remained despite previous proposals for their elimination in the […]

  17. […] 1970s plan involved demolishing half the suburb to extend Warrigal Road over the railway line. That plan, understandably, got enough pushback that it never […]

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