Level crossing removals in 1920s Melbourne

Given all of the work currently underway in Melbourne to remove level crossings in Melbourne, you might think that it’s a new idea. But it is nothing of the sort – the problem was first identified a century ago, and a start made to address it.

SLV photo H2001.308/2928

Work kicks off

Large scale removal of level crossings in Melbourne kicked off in the early 20th century, when thirteen level crossings between South Yarra and Caulfield were grade separated in 1909-15, as part of the regrading and quadruplication of the railway.

Siemens trains on up and down Frankston services cross paths outside Malvern station

Nine level crossings between Hawthorn and Camberwell were removed in 1915-19 when that section of railway was regraded.

D1.3515 on Glenferrie Road below Glenferrie Station

The Queens Parade tramway crossing on route 86 at Clifton Hill was replaced by a bridge in 1925.

Passing beneath X'Trapolis 75M at Clifton Hill, B2.2010 heads into town with a route 86 service

As was the Epsom Road tramway crossing on route 57 in Ascot Vale.

Z3.118 heads south on route 57, passing beneath the railway bridge on Epsom Road

And finally, four level crossings between Footscray and West Footscray were removed in 1926-28 in conjunction with track amplification works, including the Geelong Road bridge.

VPRS 12800/ P3 unit 13, item ADV 0138

But more work was still needed

In 1929 the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission published their ‘Plan of General Development‘ for Melbourne, with their scheme for new roads intended to reduce the need for level crossings.

Associated with the main roads scheme is the important question of the relationship of railway level crossings to it. In planning the roads scheme, due consideration has been given to those thoroughfares which at present pass under or over the railway lines.

In the location of new thoroughfares care has to be taken, where contours are favourable, to plan the crossing of the railway where there is a cutting or an embankment, so that the crossing in the future by bridge or subway could be effected at a minimum of cost.

Where the traffic from areas on the side of a railway more remote from a defined main road has been compelled to cross the railway at many places, intercepting main routes have been planned in favourable instances so as to avoid extensive or unnecessary movement across the railway.

In other cases the arrangement of minor streets has been planned so that a greater use will be made of the defined crossings. They can then be fewer in number and still provide the same facility for vehicular traffic. The ends of safety and economy are thereby served.

But there would still be dozens of level crossings left behind.

Within that portion of the metropolitan area dealt with by the Commission there are 155 level crossings. The main roads, as planned by the Commission, and which would give reasonably direct access between all parts of the metropolitan area, necessitate the use of 55 level crossings, and in addition eleven occur on tramline streets not in the main roads schedule.

So they flagged a program of level crossing removal.

Therefore, in any systematic scheme of railway level crossings abolition, it appears to be desirable to concentrate on the 66 crossings which would be on main traffic or tramline streets.

Expanding works that the Railways Department had already started.

Wherever the Railway Department has undertaken the construction of new metropolitan lines during recent years, or has been engaged on extensive remodellings, it has endeavoured to avoid level crossings.

The Railway Department is to be highly commended for the expense it has incurred, and the installations it has made in a variety of ways, with a view to making these crossings safe for all but the most reckless people.

The Railway Department for the five years 1923-27 expended £177,000 on level crossings abolition. Approximately 75 per cent of this amount was spent in the metropolitan area, and is therefore equivalent to an annual expenditure of over £26,000.

But there was one problem – money!

The amounts contributed by other authorities have not been ascertained, but it is expected that they would at least equal the average annual expenditure by the Railway Department. The total amount that would be available might therefore be set down at £50,000 annually, the capitalised value of which at a rate of 5.5 per cent, would enable a loan of over £900,000 to be devoted to this work, the repayment of which should be spread over 20, 30, or more years.

The scope of work was massive.

Sums from £1,000,000 to £2,000,000 have been mentioned by the Railway Department as the probable cost of the abolition of the 290 level crossings in the metropolitan electrified area. The Commission’s scheme would obviously require much less expenditure, as only 66 crossings would be involved to free the defined main roads and tramway routes from the delays and dangers that are brought about where the roads and railways cross each other on the same level.

And there was the question of who would foot the bill.

The question of the allocation of the costs and contributions is no doubt the most vital aspect of this very difficult problem.

Authorities have claimed that as the Railway Department has had the preferential right over the level crossings for many years,the accumulated value of the savings in original construction warrants placing the responsibility of abolition almost wholly upon the Railway Department.

Conversely, the Department has claimed that if the local governing authorities were offered at the time of construction the choice between no railway or a line containing level crossings, they would gladly have chosen the latter.

Another point of view is that it is only since the extraordinary growth of motor transport that a condition of things which previously was more or less satisfactory to both parties has now become such a nuisance and a hazard. A study of official opinions and decisions abroad shows the same divergence of views.

The Metropolitan Town Planning Commission believed the cost should be shared, but raised other concerns.

Except where extensive regradings become essential from the point of view of railway working, it is unreasonable to throw the whole responsibility on to the Railways Commissioners for the abolition of nearly 300 crossings. Several of them will cost in the vicinity of £100,000 each.

The electrification of the lines has rendered any improvement in the grades of the lines less necessary, whilst the cost of regrading in conjunction with a maintenance of frequent services makes any such wholesale proposition financially impracticable.

Quoting a contemporary report on a proposed level crossing removal.

In its Special Report to the Minister of Railways, supplied at his request, in regard to the abolition of the Clifton Hill level crossing on Heidelberg Road, the following opinions were given in reference to the allocation of cost:

23. The Commission considers that the principal party concerned in all level crossings is the Railways Commissioners, and that theirs is the greater financial responsibility for the abolition of them. It is the Commission’s opinion that, although the Railway Department should not have to bear the whole cost, it certainly should be required to contribute substantially.

24. The Heidelberg Road and the other roads converging at this point are all arterial in character, and consequently the municipality in which the crossing is located should not be called upon to meet an undue proportion of the cost of providing an improved thoroughfare which obviously will be used by traffic foreign to Collingwood in a much greater degree than that which can be regarded as local.

26. As the roads will be used almost wholly by motor vehicles it is recommended that a substantial contribution towards the cost should be made from the motor registration fees, which are now devoted almost wholly to country roads.

And proposed what they saw as a just way of allocating costs.

It is recommended that a single Transport Authority would have this matter of level crossings referred to it for decision as to the allocation of costs. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board and any other public authority directly concerned in a particular crossing should be assessed for a just share. The wide distribution of the costs suggested should be the means of expediting the abolition of the most urgent of these crossings.

And things we are yet to do

Unlike today’s politically motivated Level Crossing Removal Project, the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission saw the need for a orderly plan for the removal of level crossings, looking at the road network as a whole.

The order of abolition of the 66 level crossings should necessarily be determined by their urgency, and it is suggested that a factor which combines the number and classification of vehicles with the duration of delays at crossings should be used in deciding the precedence.

It is believed that the adoption of a systematic scheme dealing with this important problem would enable the diversion of traffic into these crossings of the railways with separated grades, and probably permit of the closing of the least important level ones.

The Commission’s schemes for roads in the area to be served by the Darling to Glen Waverley and Doncaster lines illustrate how a greater use can be made of fewer crossings of the line, while at the same time preserving reasonable access between lands on each side of it.

Including a redesign of surrounding road networks to reduce the number of level crossings that needed to be grade separated.

One of the factors that has contributed to the large number of level crossings in existence is the fact that the Railway Department possesses inadequate powers for the acquisition of land. It is considered that if the Department had power, subject to any necessary safeguards to acquire more land than is immediately necessary for railway purposes, it would be enabled in many instances to provide one crossing which would serve two or more cross streets by the diversion of certain streets at suitable places, with consequent saving in cost. The Commission is convinced that, by judicious planning and adequate legislative powers, it should be, possible to reduce the number of level crossings, the abolition of which would require heavy expenditure in the construction of subways or bridges.

So what happened?

Following the publication of the Plan of General Development in 1929, grade separation of level crossings stalled for three decades, with a grand total of ZERO crossings abolished.

Pedestrian underpass at Koornang Road, Carnegie

It took until the 1954 passing of the ‘Country Roads and Level Crossings Funds Act’ for work to be restarted, which saw twenty level crossings in Melbourne grade separated between 1958 and 1977, as well as a larger number of crossings in country Victoria.

Museum Victoria item MM 92947

After the dedicated fund for level crossing removals was wound up, another twenty crossings were removed as standalone road projects in the period 1978-2014, until the launch of the Level Crossing Removal Project in 2015.


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5 Responses to “Level crossing removals in 1920s Melbourne”

  1. Steve Gelsi says:

    I liked this para…

    The Railway Department is to be highly commended for the expense it has incurred, and the installations it has made in a variety of ways, with a view to making these crossings safe for all but the most reckless people.

    Some of the things they could get away with in the 1920s wouldn’t fly now. One wonders how Victoria St in Footscray would’ve been removed now. I imagine the whole strip of houses between Buckley St and Errol St would be compulsorily acquired, whereas the 1920s solution was to build steps up to the front gates (and provide a roadway that floods when it rains!).

  2. Tom the first and best says:

    I suspect there were 2 reasons that metropolitan level crossing abolition stopped from 1929 to the mid-1950s:

    Significant constraints on the available resources for public works during the Great Depression and during and after the War.

    Severe electoral malapportionment favouring non-metropolitan Victoria reducing Melbourne`s ability to get projects done, that was not abolished until the 1950s.

    Also, the construction of the the standard gauge line to Albury seems to have been the cause for numerous level crossing abolitions along it length, including the Sunshine level crossing pictured.

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