Upgrading Melbourne’s railway network in the 1970s

Recently I came across a 1973 Bureau of Transport Economics report titled “Review of Public Transport Investment Proposals for Australian Capital Cities“, which listed 16 upcoming public transport projects for Melbourne. But five decades later, how many of these projects actually went ahead?

Passengers board the Hitachi at Kooyong

South Kensington – Footscray railway quadruplication

N464 leads a down Geelong service into Footscray, an EDI Comeng train close behind on the parallel track

In 1973 work on this project was already underway.

The western suburbs of Melbourne are serviced by the electrified suburban railway lines to St Albans and Williamstown / Altona. They have a common section from Footscray to the City, a distance of 5.5 kilometres. These lines also carry passenger and freight traffic for the country rail services to Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.

The existing route from the City has six tracks to North Melbourne (junction for the Broadmeadows and Upfield lines) and four tracks to South Kensington. The remaining two kilometres to Footscray have double tracks. This section of double track line crosses the Maribyrnong River and is a bottleneck for the traffic to the western suburbs with trains in each direction converging from two to one track , only to diverge again a mile further on.

The project is to quadruplicate the remaining section of double track between the City and Footscray.

Work was completed on the project in 1976, with track capacity between the City and Footscray expanded to six tracks in 2014 by the Regional Rail Link project.

Caulfield – Mordialloc Railway third track

Ramp down to the island platform at Moorabbin station

At the time of the report, the Frankston line was something of a basket case.

The railway between Caulfield and Frankston provides a passenger service for residents on the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay. The line also carries limited passenger and freight traffic from the Mornington and Stony Point Lines.

At present the electric suburban services suffer from congestion in peak hours resulting in little travel time advantage from the operation of express trains. Although the capacity of the present line between Caulfield and Mordialloc can be increased by improved signalling, there would still be delays to the peak hour trains serving Mordialloc to Frankston.

The project is based on the provision of a third track signalled for two-way operation, between Caulfield and Mordialloc. This would provide significant benefits from improved travel times, and express and local services would be more efficiently combined. The peak hour express trains between Caulfield and Cheltenham/ Mordialloc would save up to six minutes travel time per trip.

The project would involve construction of 15.5 kilometres of single-track railway, together with the installation of associated signalling and electrical equipment. The capital expenditure on the project would occur between 1973 and 1976 for Caulfield to Cheltenham, and 1976 and 1978 for Cheltenham to Mordialloc.

But work on a third track was slow to start – by 1981 the the scope cut back to just Caulfield-Moorabbin – a distance of 6.5 kilometres. The project was given the go ahead by then Transport Minister Steve Crabb in 1984, and took until 1987 to be completed. It also also done on the cheap, with level crossings instead of grade separations.

Sunshine-Deer Park West Railway

VLocity VL21 and classmate on the down runs through Deer Park West

Rail services to the west have long lagged the west of Melbourne, with Deer Park especially forgotten.

The Melbourne western suburbs of Ardeer, Deer Park, and Deer Park West are served by bus routes of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board, as well as by private operators. All of the bus routes serve Sunshine Station, where a bus-rail interchange is proposed to replace the existing limited bus terminal facilities. The “TB bus routes at present continue on to the city but function mainly as a local bus service, because the Sunshine to the City running time by bus is 17 minutes longer than by train.

Sunshine is at the junction of the main Ballarat and Bendigo railway lines. The Ballarat line is single track with a station and crossing loop at Deer Park. This station is served by only a limited number of short distance country trains.

The project is to duplicate and electrify the existing railway to Deer Park West, and to introduce a suburban passenger service. This would involve the construction of a second track for about 7 kilometres and electrification of 14 track kilometres. New stations would be built at Ardeer and Deer Park West and the existing station at Deer Park would be rebuilt.

Two evaluations were completed. The first included the immediate electrification as well as the duplication. The second was on the basis of immediate duplication of the track, but deferment of electrification for ten years. The initial service would be provided by a shuttle service, using reconditioned railcars, between Deer Park West and Sunshine. This service would be supplemented by the existing Melton/Bacchus Marsh commuter trains.

The duplicated line opened to trains in 1976, in addition to the rebuilt Ardeer station, but no extra services were provided – something not addressed until the opening of Regional Rail Link in 2015, and the opening of Caroline Springs station in 2017.

As for electrification – 18km of track was duplicated between Melton and Deer Park West in 2019, but we’re still waiting for electric trains.

Macleod-Greensborough Railway Duplication

EDI Comeng arrives into Watsonia on the down

The Hurstbridge line was another goat track in need of upgrading.

The Hurstbridge Line is an electrified suburban railway in Melbourne serving the north-eastern suburbs of Ivanhoe, Heidelberg and Eltham, and the Diamond Creek valley to Hurstbridge.

The line is double-track for the first 16.5 kilometres to Macleod, except for single-track sections across the Merri Creek Bridge (Clifton Hill-Westgarth) and Heidelberg-Rosanna. Beyond Macleod the line is single-track for the remaining 20.5 kilometres with crossing loops at Greensborough, Eltham and Diamond Creek. The basic service is for alternate trains to Eltham and Hurstbridge, with extra trains to Heidelberg and Macleod during peak hours.

The numerous sections of single track, particularly between Clifton Hill and Eltham, considerably constrain the frequency of service which can be provided on this line without incurring excessive delays at crossing loops. The project is to extend the double track from Macleod to Greensborough, a distance of about 5.5 kilometres. The Merri Creek Bridge and Heidelberg-Rosanna single-track sections are expensive to duplicate and have not been included in the project.

In 1979 the line between Macleod and Greensborough was duplicated, with the ‘too expensive’ sections also tackled in recent years – Clifton Hill – Westgarth in 2009, and Heidelberg – Rosanna in 2018.

Electrification of Newport-Werribee Railway

EDI Comeng departing Werribee for Flinders Street

Once upon a time Werribee was a country town and not a suburb of Melbourne, and had a rail service to match.

The Geelong railway provides services for the Western Suburbs of Melbourne. The services to Altona and Williamstown operate over the electrified section between Altona Junction/Newport and the city. A diesel service operates to Werribee.

The population in the area between Newport and Werribee is growing rapidly and so is the demand for suburban rail travel. The project provides for the electrification of the 18.5 kilometres of double track between Altona Junction and Werribee, allowing the service to be integrated with the electrified suburban system.

The project would be commenced in 1973 and would be completed by the end of 1974. New stations are proposed at Newport West and Tarneit at an estimated cost of $100,000 each.

It took until 1983 for electric trains to start running to Werribee, with services rerouted via Altona from 1985 following the completion of a new railway via Westona to Laverton.

However the extra stations proposed in the 1970s were never built, and instead two stations were closed – Paisley in Newport South and Galvin on the northern edge of Altona, made redundant following the rerouting of Werribee line services via Altona in 1985.

Capacity on the rail corridor was expanded in 1995 following the opening of the parallel standard gauge Melbourne-Adelaide track in 1995, and expanded again in 2015 following the diversion of Geelong line services to the new Regional Rail Link route via Tarneit.

Frankston Railway Resignalling

Decommissioned double line block instruments at Castlemaine 'A' signal box

Track amplification on the Frankston line already appeared in the report, but the life-expired signalling elsewhere on the line was also in need to replacement.

The Frankston Line provides a passenger service to the residents on the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay. The line also carries the limited passenger and freight traffic from the Mornington and Stony Point lines.

The present signal capacity on the Caulfield-Frankston section of this line is only sufficient to carry the existing number of peak hour trains, The double line block telegraph system of signalling is still in use between Glenhuntly and Bentleigh, and between Highett and Frankston, a distance of nearly 27 kilometres. This system is labour intensive and is not readily modified for the close headways usually required on urban railways.

The project would be the replacement of the existing double line block telegraph system between Frankston and Mordialloc to increase track capacity and improve reliability. The minimum headway would be reduced from 6 minutes to 3 minutes.

Thankfully this these upgrades happened much quicker than the track implication works – Glenhuntly to Bentleigh was upgraded in 1974, followed in 1976 by Carrum to Seaford and Carrum to Chelsea.

The last examples of double line block safeworking were replaced on the Williamstown line and Upfield line in the 1990s, and on the Bendigo line in 2005, leaving just the Seymour line.

Signal Improvements – Oakleigh Station

Signal 8 for down trains approaching Oakleigh station

Way back in the 1920s Oakleigh station was rebuilt as the terminus for suburban services from Melbourne, but by the 1970s it had been left behind by post-war suburban sprawl towards Dandenong.

The Dandenong Line is one of a number of railway lines serving the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The line also carries the Gippsland rail traffic.

Oakleigh is the mid-point of the line, being 15.5 kilometres from Flinders Street Station ad 14.5 kilometres from Dandenong. During the peak hours, additional trains are run between the city and Oakleigh to supplement the Dandenong trains. Adjacent to Oakleigh Station there is a small goods yard and stabling facilities for suburban trains.

At either end of Oakleigh Station there are manually operated signal boxes. These control the section through Oakleigh Station, this being the only remaining section of manual signalling between Caulfield and Dandenong. These signal boxes also control entry of trains to the goods yard, suburban trains storage sidings and the movements of terminating suburban trains.

The project would replace the two existing signal boxes with one consolidated box within the station building. The design of the new signal box would be compatible with the proposed third track between Caulfield and Huntingdale.

In 1975 the new signal panel replaced the aging mechanical signal boxes, but in the years that followed the reason for it existing has disappeared. The first casualty was the goods yard which was removed in 1984, followed by the stabling sidings in 1995. A turnback platform was built at Westall in 2012 removing the need to use Oakleigh for the purpose, with the signal panel abolished in 2018 following the opening of the Dandenong Signal Control Centre to control the entire line.

As for the third track from Caulfield – we’re still waiting. The idea was revived in 2006, but the elevated tracks from Caulfield completed in 2016 only have space for two tracks.

Melbourne Train Replacement

Inside of a Hitachi M car

In the 1970s Melbourne rail travellers with still stuck onboard old ‘red rattlers’.

The Victorian program for 1973-74 includes $10.7m for replacement trains. The cost of the trains has increased 7 per cent since 1972.

In view of some adverse press comment about seating on the one new train which has come into service since the 1972 evaluation, it is noted here that a sensitivity test of the evaluation was made in which passenger benefits were halved.

However, in response to the press criticism the Victorian Minister for Transport now has arranged for improved seating to be incorporated in the new trains.

The stainless steel ‘Hitachi’ trains were constructed between 1972 and 1981, remaining in service until replaced by the current Siemens and X’Trapolis trains in 2003–2004. The last Hitachi train carried passengers in 2014, with the last set moving on the Melbourne rail network in 2015.

Melbourne Eastern Railway – Stage One

The 1970s saw yet another proposal to build a railway to Doncaster.

The section of the Eastern Freeway at present under construction is between Alexandra Parade, Collingwood and Thompsons Road, North Balwyn. This section of the freeway provides a central reserve for the proposed Eastern Railway. The railway would link Doncaster and Templestowe with central Melbourne.

The railway is planned to be constructed in two stages.

Stage One would construct the railway a distance of 8.5 kilometres to a station near Thompsons Road, Bulleen. The railway would branch from the Hurstbridge and Epping Lines at Victoria Park and use the railway reserve provided by construction of the Eastern Freeway. The only station on the new line would be at Bulleen, where interchange facilities would be provided for buses and cars.

Stage Two would extend the railway from Bulleen through Doncaster to East Doncaster.

In 1977 the Eastern Freeway opened to Bulleen Road, being extended to Doncaster Road in 1982 and Springvale Road in 1997, but today we’re no closer to a Doncaster railway.

Melbourne Bus Replacement

MMTB Annual Report 1979

Buses – the forgotten mode of Melbourne’s public transport network.

Of the 260 buses operated by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB), 135 are over 20 years old. It is intended to purchase 30 buses in 1973-74 to replace an equal number of 22 year old AEC Regal Mk I11 buses. The MMTB believes the new vehicles – integral construction National buses fully imported from UK – would have an economic life of approximately l5 years. Accordingly, the evaluation assumes a project case of replacing the 22 year old Leyland buses in 1973-74, followed by 15 year replacement cycles thereafter

And the story isn’t any different today – some Melbourne bus operators kept buying high floor buses despite the availability of accessible low floor models, and today we’re still buying old fashioned diesel buses instead of hybrid or 100% electric buses.

Melbourne Tram Replacement

Weston Langford photo

W class teams might be a Melbourne icon, but they served as everyday public transport for far too long.

The rolling stock of the MMTB consists of 696 trams of which 70 per cent were built before 1939. The MMTB have indicated that over the next five years they intend to purchase 205 new trams, of which 100 have already been ordered.

The first ‘modern’ tram was the 100 Z1 class trams that entered service in 1975 – 1978, followed by 15 Z2 class trams in 1978 – 1979, and 115 Z3 class trams in 1979 – 1984.

However this was not enough to send the aging W class fleet to the scrap yard – it took the arrival of 28 A1 class trams in 1984 – 1985, 42 A2 class trams in 1985 – 1986 to finally kill them off, with the last W2 class tram carrying paying passenger in December 1987.

Ringwood Corridor

Down end of the station building at Ringwood East

Back in the 1970s the railway east to Ringwood was the ‘darling child’ of the Melbourne suburban network, but was still not up to scratch.

The Box Hill-Ringwood Railway is the main railway serving the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. There are four tracks over the first 4.5 kilometres to Burnley, the junction of the Glen Waverley Line. The next 10.5 kilometres to Box Hill has three tracks, allowing express trains to operate on this section in peak hours. The remaining 10 kilometres to Ringwood is double track.

Ringwood is the junction for the electrified service to Lilydale (13 kilometres) and Belgrave.(l6.5 kilometres). Ringwood is also an important terminal station for peak hour trains. The Lilydale line is single track except for the section Croydon-Mooroolbark (3.5 kilometres). The Belgrave line is also single track except for double track between Bayswater and Ferntree Gully (5 kilometres). There are crossing loops at Upper Ferntree Gully and Upwey.

The railway continuing beyond Lilydale to Healesville (25 kilometres) has an infrequent diesel rail car service which connects with the electric suburban service at Lilydale. The railway beyond Belgrave is the narrow gauge (0.76 metre) ‘Puffing Billy Tourist Line.

The railways beyond Ringwood were originally built in the 1880’s as low capacity branch lines. They were electrified in the 1920’s. The recent growth of the Melbourne urban area into the area served by the lines has increased the demand on the rail service. The improvements are designed to upgrade the railway lines to meet projected demand.

The proposed improvements are as follows:

(i) Ringwood Station: Third Platform. The improvement is the provision of a third platform. The estimated cost is $0.7m, which includes associated resignalling.

(ii) Ringwood-Bayswater: Duplication of 5 kilometres. This would complete the duplication between Ringwood and Ferntree Gully. The estimated cost is $1.3m.

(iii) Ringwood-Croydon: Duplication of 5 kilometres. This would complete the duplication between Ringwood and Mooroolbark. The estimated cost is $l.1m.

(iv) Signalling Croydon-Lilydale and Bayswater-Ferntree Gully. The existing signalling on the two existing double track sections is Double Line Block Telegraph System. The single track section between Mooroolbark and Lilydale uses the electric staff system. It is proposed to replace these systems with power signalling at an estimated cost of $1.3m.

The third platform at Ringwood, the track duplications, and the signal improvements are proposed for commencement in 1973 and completion during 1975. Additionally, it is proposed to build a third track from Box Hill to Ringwood between 1975 and 1978 at an estimated cost of $7.2m.

The first change to occur was the closure of the line to Healesville in 1980.

As for duplication, it had to wait – Ringwood to Bayswater completed in 1982, followed by Ringwood to Croydon in 1984.

The third platform at Ringwood – that didn’t happen until 1999. And a third track from Box Hill to Ringwood – the Middleborough Road Project of 2007 left space for it, but subsequent upgrades have kicked the idea off into the never-never.

Huntingdale-Ferntree Gully Railway

The government wanted funding to reserve land for a railway to Rowville.

The Melbourne Metropolitan Transportation Plan provides for the eventual construction of a railway line between Huntingdale and Ferntree Gully. As residential development is now proceeding along the alignment of the proposed route, the Victorian Government desires to make the land acquisitions necessary for an eventual construction of the railway.

The most recent feasibility study was completed in 2012-14 but we are still no closer to building it.

Frankston-Lyndhurst Railway

Another proposed cross-country railway line was one from Dandenong to Frankston.

The Melbourne Metropolitan Transportation Plan provides for the eventual construction of a railway between Frankston and Lyndhurst to improve public transport services between Frankston and Dandenong. As residential development is now proceeding along the alignment of the proposed route, the Victorian Government desires to make the necessary land acquisitions.

But the only progress in the years since was the extension of suburban services to Cranbourne in 1995, using the existing railway from Dandenong.

Additional Melbourne Railway Stations

Side platforms getting worked on at Coolaroo

Melbourne has a long history of building new ‘infill’ stations on existing railways, and the 1970s was no different.

The Melbourne Metropolitan Transportation Plan proposes the construction of a number of additional railway stations.

Where these coincide with other rail improvements for a corridor the cost of providing additional stations .has been included in the corridor evaluations.

There are six additional stations which are not associated with corridor improvements of which two are planned for construction in 1973-74 at an estimated cost of $0.2m.

In 1975 two new suburban station opened – Kananook outside Frankston, and Yarraman outside Dandenong, followed in 1982 by a third – Ginifer station south of St Albans.

Melbourne Station Rebuilding

Entrance to the 1980s brick station building at Alphington

By the 1970s suburban sprawl had seen what were once country railway stations absorbed into suburban Melbourne, and passenger were finding the facilities lacking.

It is proposed to reconstruct 50 Melbourne suburban railway stations. These stations are timber structures more than 60 years old, many of which were designed to handle peak traffic volumes much less than current day levels. The reconstruction would be designed to complement, where appropriate, modal interchange improvements, and alterations to platforms and facilities required for the provision of additional tracks.

So in the years that followed aging timber buildings were replaced by brown brick bunkers, a process which continued until a growing interest in heritage saw them restored instead of demolished.


The report listed 16 public transport projects – so how many actually happened?

  • completed on time: 5
  • completed, and subsequently improved further: 2
  • completed, but with scope cut: 2
  • delayed but eventually completed: 2
  • delayed and completed after scope cut: 2
  • never started: 3

And a surprising outcome – completed on time, and improved further in the years that followed: 2.

Footnote: public transport patronage in the 1970s

The 1970s was a time of falling rail patronage – cars had already taken over the streets of Melbourne.

In Melbourne the share of journeys to work taken by private vehicles climbed from 19% in 1951 to 69% in 1976. That’s more than a threefold increase in share over 25 years.

On the other hand, public transport’s share of work trips plummeted. It fell from 57% in Melbourne in 1951 to 24% by 1976; walking also halved, from 14% to 6%; and cycling was virtually wiped off the map, collapsing from 9% to 1%.

So the improvements listed above were a belated attempt by the railways to make themselves relevant to the modern world.

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11 Responses to “Upgrading Melbourne’s railway network in the 1970s”

  1. Daniel Bowen says:

    W2 class trams were taken out of regular service in the 80s, however the other W class types (with various upgrades) kept running well after that, including on routes 78 and 30 until 2014. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melbourne_tram_route_30

    This news clip from 1995 foreshadows the view from the bureaucracy that they should be on dedicated routes, not in general service. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ikoci9MJbM

  2. Michael says:

    The 3rd tracks budget for the frankston line was so severely cut back, that even the original stanchions between glenhuntly to bentleigh station were kept and the third line was pushed out a bit more to accommodate the original stanchions. Only at train stations were the stanchions replaced, and most of these were done probably prior to the third track being installed. Eventually the stanchions between glenhuntly and ormond were replaced but between ormond and bentleigh they stayed until that section was overhauled for the grade separation project along that shirt stretch.

    • Scott says:

      Hey Michael. I see Dane Road overpass south of Moorabbin was built for 3 tracks underneath. There was space until Wickham Road for the 3 tracks. Mentone use to have a third track from the station towards Warrigal Road. The train bridge over Nepean Hwy at Mordialloc has space for a third track to fit over. Was this all done before the final cutbacks to finish the third track at Moorabbin?
      Cheers. Scott.
      Ps. Of course Cheltenham and Mordialloc have 3 tracks still.

  3. TranzitJim says:

    I distinctly remember, W class trams on the Swanston Street routes until the Z class trams got cascaded onto these routes.

    In turn, the Z class where moved off their earlier routes by the deliverys of B class trams.

    I remember there being an industrial dispute to do with the B class trams. Deliveries stacked up for a while, then the dispute was resolved and, I am sure that was when they pushed many of the Zeds onto Swanston Street routes.

  4. Tony Taylor says:

    The old trams were easier to catch, because you could get on while they were moving. You had to time it right, of course, but as long as it was not going too fast you grabbed the hand rail beside the door, put one foot on the step, and pull yourself up into the middle cabin.

  5. James Clarke says:

    Hello Marcus, love your site, enthusiasm and photographic eye. I’m sure you know this but I didn’t see any reference to it in the Doncaster railway item. I was editor of VR’s monthly Newsletter at the time and covered the building of the Victoria Park rail exit to the Doncaster Freeway. Wikipedia states “Property acquisition for part of the route was completed in 1975, and construction of a cutting at the city end commenced in 1974, only to be filled in two years later.” This work involved slewing the existing tracks to provide for a centre exit and entry to existing lines.
    There were also concepts around to extend the Doncaster line to:
    * either Mitcham or Ringwood (stated benefit was that this would avoid need to triplicate Box Hill to Ringwood)
    * Warrandyte
    * Croydon

    In mid-1960s, VR Head Office staff were aware of concept plans to:
    * Roof in Flinders Street yards (part is now Fed Square)
    * Give Port Melbourne and St Kilda lines over to trams (it happened)
    * Give Gowrie line (the then terminus) over to trams (died on the vine)
    * Third track Footscray to Newport (yeah, right, costs were astronomical)
    * Third track Caulfield to Cheltenham, Mentone or Mordialloc (timetables were prepared to demonstrate benefits of the various options – I was in Timetables Offices at the time.)

    Hope this provides some more fuel for your activities.

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