Esoteric upgrades to the Ballarat railway line

In the 2016/17 Victoria Budget, the State Government has allocated $518 million for upgrade works on the Ballarat line, making the railway system more reliable and marking room for more train services. Track duplication and building additional crossing loops is simple, but some components of the upgrade are a little esoteric.

VLocity 3VL38 departs Ballarat on the down

The easy bits

The government media release details the intended works.

  • 17 kilometres of duplication between Deer Park West and Melton,
  • 3 kilometres of duplication west of Warrenheip,
  • new crossing loops at Bacchus Marsh, Ballan and near Bungaree,
  • removing five level crossings,
  • new stabling facilities at Melton and Rowsley,
  • second platform at Bacchus Marsh and Ballan stations.

Duplication between Deer Park West and Melton is simple – in wide open countryside building a second track along the existing one is simple.

VL14 passes the Melbourne CBD skyline at Rockbank

Rockbank already has two platforms, so the new track just has to tie in at either end.

Another VLocity with a buck tooth - VL19 at Rockbank

At Ballan station, there is plenty of room for a crossing loop and second platform.

VLocity train departs Ballan on the down, passing the remains of the yard and a disused goods shed

History note 1: As late as 1982 Ballan had a mainline track and crossing loop, two freight sidings, a goods shed, and stock yard for loading sheep and cattle onto trains. Today it just has a single platform, and a single track with no passing capability.

Bacchus Marsh station is a little more constrained, with stabling sidings located opposite the existing single platform.

Sprinter arrives on the down, with locos waiting departure from Bacchus Marsh yard

But their existence needn’t block progress – presumably the new stabling facilities at Rowsley, west of Bacchus Marsh, will allow the existing sidings to be decommissioned and a second platform built in their place.

Confused at Warrenheip

We now get get into more confusing territory when we look at the three kilometres of duplication at Warrenheip, east of Ballarat. Two tracks already run between Ballarat and Warrenheip, and you can see trains run on them with your very own eyes.

Starting the climb up Warrenheip Bank, VL14 departs Ballarat East

The problem is that these two tracks operate as two completely separate railway lines – the northern track being used by V/Line trains heading to and from Melbourne.

Bound for Ballarat, VL21 passes the point indicator at the up end of Warrenheip Loop

While the southern track is only used by trains headed between Ballarat and Geelong – which almost exclusively freight services.

Running through the trailing points at Warrenheip

The reason for this complexity is tied up in history.

The first railway to Ballarat

Ballarat’s first railway was completed in 1862 as double track, but was indirect and travelled via Geelong. Today’s direct route to Melbourne came much later, being built from both ends over a 10 year period as a single track branch line serving towns along the way, until 1889 when the two met in the middle to form a through route that now linked Melbourne to Adelaide.

With the new direct line opened, the route via Geelong dropped in importance, so in 1934 it was cut back to single track as an economy measure. The exception was the section from Warrenheip to Ballarat – as the junction of the two routes, the double track was retained to allow for the heavy traffic headed up the hill, with trains using the left hand track in each direction.

This arrangement required signalling staff to attend Warrenheip station on a full time basis to direct trains – a cost considered too high by 1995, when the junction at Warrenheip was decommissioned, and the double track reconfigured as the current pair of two parallel and independent single tracks.

VL07 climbs up Warrenheip Bank on an up service, passing a down grain from Geelong

So what is the three kilometres of duplication at Warrenheip? In reality it is the reinstatement of the operational flexibility removed back in 1995, but without the staffing cost thanks to the use of modern remote controlled signalling.

How do you remove FIVE level crossings?

Given the millions of dollars being spent to remove just one level crossing in metropolitan Melbourne, how can you remove five crossings as part of a $518 million project?

The government media release doesn’t really help.

The new loop near Bungaree will also improve safety for motorists and the local community by removing five level crossings on the existing Bungaree Loop.

It takes an understanding of what exactly the ‘Bungaree Loop’ is for the promise to make sense – there are actually are two parallel sets of railway tracks passing through the area!

So why does one set of tracks run direct between the townships of Millsbrook and Dunnstown, and the other takes an extended detour via Bungaree and Wallace? The answer yet again lies in the history books.

Taking the goat track to Ballarat

The railway through Bungaree was never intended as a main line – it opened in 1879 as a branch line that ran from the main Geelong-Ballrarat at Warrenheip, to the small township of Gordon. Given it was a railway to nowhere, taking the straightest route across the countryside wasn’t top priority – cost was.

As a result, when the surveyors reached the steep Moorabool River valley, they didn’t build a bridge – they sent the railway north for for the flatter terrain of Bungaree and Wallace, then back south to avoid the foothills of Black Hill outside Gordon.

Topographical map - Bungaree, Dunnstown and Millbrook, Victoria

As previously mentioned, this branch line from Ballarat was progressively extended east to serve towns along the way, as did a branch line headed west from Melbourne, eventually meeting in the middle in 1889 and forming the main line from Melbourne to Adelaide.

In the years that followed the number of trains using the railway between Melbourne and Ballarat grew, as did the size of each – but nothing was done about the dogleg via Bungaree.

Pair of B class diesel-electric locomotives haul 1300 ton load up Ingliston Bank, 20 August 1952 (PROV image VPRS 12800/P1, item H 2545)
PROV image VPRS 12800/P1, item H 2545

This changed in 2000 when the newly elected Bracks Government announced Regional Fast Rail – a project to speed up trains between Melbourne and the regional centres of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Traralgon.

For the Ballarat line a target travel time of 64 minutes was set, which meant that the existing steam-era alignment needed to be rebuilt to allow the new maximum top speed of 160 km/h to be reached.

At Bungaree the solution to speeding up trains was simple – a brand new 8.2 kilometre section of railway joined the two halves of the existing doglegged route, bypassing the numerous tight curves along the way.

VLocity Melbourne bound crossing the Moorabool River on the Bungaree deviation on the Ballarat line

Some impressive civil works were required to build the new line, which had no level crossings:

  • 380,000m3 of cut and fill earthworks,
  • Construction of four road over rail bridges:
    • Sullivans Road (16m span)
    • Spread Eagle Road (12.5m span)
    • Peerewerrh Road (12.5m span)
    • Old Melbourne Road (18.5m span)
  • Two rail over water bridges:
    • Moorabool Bridge: 270m long, 27m high
    • Lal Lal Bridge: 363m long, 40m high

The new deviation joined the existing route at Millsbrook and Dunnstown, but it was decided to retain the old route as a crossing loop, allowing trains in opposite directions to pass each other without stopping.

Junction at Millbrook

But in the years that followed, keeping the old route for the purpose became a false economy – track maintenance expenses are a function of track length, so a far more cost effective option would have been to build a crossing loop on the new track, and abandon the ‘long way around’.

My theory for the inaction – the ‘target travel time’ based criteria driving the Regional Fast Rail project meant that minimising capital expenditure and ignoring future operational costs was the order of the day.

Which now leaves us back at the current $518 million Ballarat line upgrade project – the ‘long’ route (marked in red) and the five associated level crossings is being dismantled, and a brand new crossing loop is being built on the ‘short’ route (marked in green) to retain the ability for trains to pass each other.

If only the Regional Fast Rail project had done the job properly a decade ago!

Footnote 1 – wasted money on level crossing upgrades

Retaining the old route via Bungaree looks even more stupid when I remembered that the five level crossings along the way once lacked boom barriers.

Old Melbourne Road level crossing

VicTrack funded a upgrade of the four level crossings along the Bungaree Loop during the 2012/13 financial year.

  • Lesters Road, Bungaree (Flashing Lights, Boom Barriers)
  • Bungaree-Wallace Road, Wallace (Flashing Lights, Boom Barriers)
  • Old Melbourne Road, Millbrook (Flashing Lights, Boom Barriers)
  • Wescotts Road, Wallace (Flashing Lights, Boom Barriers)

Less than five years after that upgrade, and all four crossings are about to close for good!

Footnote 2 – wasted money on new stations

Last week I wrote about the the forgotten access road to Caroline Springs station – if that wasn’t enough wasted money, now an additional $4.9 million needs to be spent reworking the yet to be opened station in order to provide a second platform on the soon to be duplicated track.

Once again, a lack of planning is burning up yet more taxpayer money.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

15 Responses to “Esoteric upgrades to the Ballarat railway line”

  1. Sean Kelly says:

    Wongm,

    That was an excellent, accurate and well written article. Well done!

    Sean Kelly. 🙂

  2. rohan storey says:

    And one day all those crossing looks will be joined up to make a proper double track country line – and would have been cheaper to have done it during the RRL of course.

    Hmm, those were the Bracks/ Brumby days, why the poor planning and cost cutting – wikipedia says it was all planned with federal stimulus funds needing to be urgently spent, and “the budget for that project was basically haggled over between the state and the commonwealth one weekend and we end up with a number written on the back of an envelope”. Estimated in 2009 to be $4.3bill, but ultimately cost $3.65bill, seems like small change now with the metro rail $10bill….

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Regional Rail Link (completed in 2014-15) was built using Federal Government stimulus funds – the earlier Regional Fast Rail project was a promise made by Steve Bracks at the 1999 state election that was supposed to be funded by the private sector, but ended up going way over even the revised 100% government funded budget.

  3. Andrew says:

    Very interesting. I don’t remember why but a few months ago I had a very close look at the Bungaree diversion. There really does need to be some long term planning with ideals in mind.

  4. Chris says:

    One wonders whether there may be some time savings generated between Ballarat and Melbourne once the Bungaree Loop and associated level crossings are eliminated. The route does seem somewhat shorter and trains won’t have to slow up when approaching level crossings. Might even be able to reinstate the “Under 1 hour” peak AM express service (think: state election 2018 sale pitch).

    Platform extensions may also be needed at Rockbank Station given 7-car VLocity’s are now the norm and trains at this length can’t quite be accommodated.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      At present trains on the Bungaree Loop only need to slow down for the curves, and the 80 km/h diverge at the junction – so there will be time savings, but not due to the elimination of level crossings.

  5. James Stewart says:

    More details revealed for Ballarat line upgrade. Metro tunnel authority will undertake the project, just like how level crossing authority has taken up Hurstbridge rail upgrade and Mernda rail. More details on http://economicdevelopment.vic.gov.au/transport/rail-and-roads/public-transport/ballarat-line-upgrade

    • Marcus Wong says:

      It’s a crazy time – two government authorities created to administer specific projects, now working to deliver something completely different!

      • Mrmoo says:

        it’s not really a silly idea because it allows competition for government departments and for them to be more efficient

        • Marcus Wong says:

          An interesting theory – same as the one that split Melbourne’s train and tram networks into two, in the believe that two separate and competing private operators would somehow lead to an improved passenger experience.

          We all know how that ended up!

  6. JeffK says:

    I regularly travel on the Ballarat line and consistently find that, at least during off-peak hours, the old long route is the default position taken by the trains I travel on, and the straight, more direct and faster route is usually only taken when trains are running late. If the Regional Fast Rail Project aimed to make the trip to Ballarat last only 64 minutes, why doesn’t V/Line take more advantage of the shorter route. Most off-peak trains to Ballarat still take around 80 mins, as an examination of the current timetable indicates.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      In morning peak trains to Melbourne take the short cut, in the evening it is the opposite, with the changeover being sometime in the middle of the day.

      I’d have to check the timetable, but I would assume that the only reason to take the ‘long’ way is due to a train in the opposite direction taking the other track.

      At least with the signals being remotely controlled, a late running train can be quickly switched onto the shorter route, in an attempt to make up time.

  7. […] VicTrack funded a upgrade of this level crossing during the 2012/13 financial year, but the railway line is due to be closed in a year or two time, made redundant by the Ballarat Line Upgrade. […]

Leave a Reply