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.

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21 Responses to “Furlong Main and the St Albans roller coaster”

  1. Michael Bell says:

    I’m not familiar with the terrain and ground conditions in the area, but the reason for the line returning almost to ground level between the lowered crossings might be due to water: specifically, the presence of extant creek lines, stormwater drains, and pathways for natural surface and subsurface water flows.

    It’s certainly possible to cut off natural water flowlines with a trench, but it presents an enormous drainage challenge that can only solved with expensive engineering solutions.

    The Ormond, McKinnon and Bentleigh corridor provides an example. These 3 crossings and stations within 1km of each other are being lowered into trenches under the roads. But between these crossings, the line will return to ground level. This is to allow for the natural surface and subsurface water flows that occur from east to west across the corridor, associated with the Elster Creek catchment.
    http://www.elster-creek.org.au/900/Elster_Creek_Catchment_map.pdf
    If these flows were cut off by a trench, all land east of the trench would experience rising groundwater levels, ultimately becoming soft and swampy, and be at risk of flooding!

    A really interesting feature of the Bentleigh level crossing occurs just south of Bentleigh, between Centre Rd and Brewer Rd. The line in this section is already slightly lowered in a cutting as it approaches and passes under the Brewer Rd bridge. A branch of the Elster Creek passes across (under) the line in this section. But there is insufficient space for the line to go down underneath Centre Rd, back to surface level (over the Elster Creek drain), then down again to pass under Brewer Rd. So the only solution is a giant engineered subsurface syphon drain, that passes below the level of the soon-to-excavated Bentleigh rail trench. A huge, deep sump pit has been excavated on the east side of the line, big new drainage pipes have been installed at great depth under the rail corridor, and a syphon pit has been installed on the west side. One hopes it has been designed with better than 100-year rainfall/flood events in mind, otherwise suburbs east of the line could be at risk of flooding. It’s impressive to see it being constructed, but I’ll bet the designers and accountants would have preferred to avoid it!

  2. rohan storey says:

    Yes half arsed. As Ive said before, funny how removing some level crossings has evolved into (almost) complete rebuilding of some lines, which is of course where it should have started. For instance, this project could / should have finished off the regional rail project by providing separate lines (or at least a third line) for Bendigo and beyond. Is there space set aside for this ??

    • Marcus Wong says:

      As Tony S in the comment below mentions, protected grasslands reserves might prevent the provision of additional tracks – here is an example:

      VLocity 3VL01 on a down Bendigo service crosses the soon to be removed Ginifer Road level crossing at Ginifer

      All are a ‘No-Go Zone’ during the level crossing removal project:

      'Protected Habitat Area No-Go Zone' sign at Furlong Road, Ginifer

  3. Tony Smith says:

    Marcus, this is my home territory nowadays and I know how hard it is to separate the project decisions from community expectations built up over generations re Main Road in particular. There have been consultations over and over, all of which were predicated on rail under. We already had painful experience of road over at Monash Street and Ballarat Road, road under at Taylors and Kings Roads and one each of rail under and road under at Anderson Road for RRL, the last four reminding all of the cost of cutting through volcanic plains basalt.

    So when VicRoads turned up with yet another consultation offering rail under or elevated rail, the locals did exactly what just happened on the Dandenong line and rushed to the option they had long been primed for. It didn’t take me long to realise it deserved a closer look as a member of Brimbank’s Economic Development and Transport advisory committee, but the horse had already bolted. Road under was never an option in the middle of a significant shopping strip with complex intersections right there. One other wildcard is the highly significant grasslands reserves along both sides of the line north of Main Road which permanently preclude further widening of the tracks in that section and provide another reason to look at options for the Bendigo line either via the airport or OMR. Losing platform 3 at St. Albans already takes some flexibility out of the system, in particular the possibility of a V/Line passing track though that could now be more easily achieved at Watergardens if PTV ever gets its co-ordination to that level.

    Sky rail could have opened up a few other possibilities. The circuses at that heart of St. Albans street plan could have been reconnected. A University Boulevard from St. Albans Road through the Kreuger site redevelopment could have provided a worthy front entrance to the VU campus and greatly enhanced the potential of that subdivision, but nobody picked that up and ran with it after I originally suggested it almost in jest, yet given the boom in and beyond Sunshine it would now look almost expected.

    You are spot on about the rail line south of Biggs Street running down the ridge line that separates the Stony and Jones Creeks catchments, although Jones is barrel drained through and drains pockets east and NE of Keilor Plains station, running under a drainage reserve block two doors from me. It goes back west of the line below an ancient bluestone bridge to a surface creek in the transmission tower reserve, that bridge link providing the closest approximation in these parts to a nature walk circuit. Unfortunately the twin brick culverts above the creek-drain’s return west south of Henry Street are far too low for my inflexible back. Double checking, I’m now intrigued that neither of these Jones Creek crossings looks anything like the two railway bluestone culverts mentioned with one pictured in the booklet Around and About St. Albans we published in 1991. Can send pics if you’re interested.

  4. […] through St Albans requires four connections to the existing railway tracks – thanks to the rollercoaster trench alignment through Ginifer and St Albans stations. However this theory is easier to discount – each tie […]

  5. Tony Smith says:

    Only slightly belated, after a couple of failed attempts to video the reopened but still work in progress line though unusually clean windows of Metro trains, I had a rare excuse to use V/Line outbound and the result was at least good enough to put online at

  6. Myrtonos says:

    I have had this idea of lowering the tracks in between the stations at a later date. This would make way for new road connections, and grade separation of a pedestrian level crossing.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Entirely possible, some big $$$ to retrofit. You’d have to shut down the railway for another few weeks, and demolish some of the retaining walls at Ginifer and St Albans to tie into the existing cuttings.

      • myrtonos says:

        But then again, I have realised that the “roller coaster” track could have been avoided if the grade separation had been carried out decades earlier when the area wasn’t yet built up.
        Take a look at Taylor’s road, Kelior and Kings Road, Sydenham. Note how the road could be lowered under the tracks. And road over is the prefered option for the Melton Highway grade separation.

        • Marcus Wong says:

          Given all of the rock in the area, it’s rather surprising that both roads got put under.

          Taylors Road replaced a level crossing in 2007, with plenty of room in the road reserve for the road to go over.

          Kings Road is a bit trickier, with the road reserve being narrower, but it was built new in 2008.

          • Myrtonos says:

            What I mean is that even Main and Furlong roads could also have been put over or under if only those level crossings weren’t already surrounded by buildings.

          • Marcus Wong says:

            St Albans was virtually a country town in the 1950s, so there wouldn’t have been much need for grade separation around the few shops that did exist on Main Road.

            As for Furlong Road:the first subdivisions didn’t even happen until the 1960s, and the road lead nowhere until the development of Cairnlea from 1999.

          • Myrtonos says:

            Sure, but doing the grade separation before it was surrounded by buildings would have been cheaper and less disruptive than waiting for buildings to surround it before doing that work. Planing ahead would have avoided the “roller coaster”.
            Another idea would have been to avoid developing too close to the level crossing, after all, residents would not have had to hear that bell if they all lived further from it.

  7. […] April 2014 funding was approved to remove the nearby Main Road crossing in St Albans, with Furlong Road being added to the project in June […]

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