By Dr Frank Heibel

The changing mobility requirements of our growing cities do not just call for ‘smart’ technology improvement, but for reconsideration of network layouts too. In this series, public rail transport thought leader ‘Doc Frank’ Heibel takes a look at developments in Australia’s major cities.

The first part of this series displayed the major Australian cities as monocentric, with the city centres dominating the commuting destinations. Accordingly, public transport rail networks in our cities have historically evolved as so-called “hub and spoke” systems. However, as the importance of suburban precincts grows, orbital lines to connect those decentralised precincts without the need of travelling in and out of the city centres enter the transport plans in several Australian cities.

A bold pilot scheme in Melbourne

In Melbourne, a pivotal part of their “Big Build” of transport infrastructure projects is the Suburban Rail Loop (SRL), a 90km orbital railway link connecting the “middle suburbs” (in terms of distance from the city centre) in a partly circle, as a full circle is prevented by the waters of Port Phillip Bay. 

Rightly dubbed as a “city-shaping project that will transform Victoria’s public transport system” the SRL is a showcase how orbital lines need to be approached so that they make maximum sense for the public transport network of the respective city.

Precinct connection is key

The top priority for a sensible orbital railway line is to connect precincts which are likely to attract significant public transport patronage. Melbourne has planned that well by having the SRL connecting a multitude of dedicated centres for health, education, retail, and employment. The line will connect four of Melbourne’s seven National Employment and Innovation Clusters (NEIC), two Metropolitan Activity Centres (MAC), three major hospitals, three universities and nine major shopping centres – a truly impressive list.

Network with “social distancing”

The second key point of an orbital line is the interconnection with the rest of the existing public transport network. Again, SRL deserves full marks by planning interchanges with all major lines of the existing metropolitan rail network, including three “transport super hubs” for connectivity with regional rail services. 

On top of that, the planned stop at Melbourne’s main airport at Tullamarine will connect the SRL with air travellers in and out of Melbourne. Two thirds of all planned SRL stations provide such connections to existing rail networks while the others provide rail access for precincts that today have to rely on buses or trams for public transport.

The hint at “social distancing” of the network connections is a bit tongue-in-cheek but with a serious planning background. A high-performing orbital line such as the SRL is best operated stand-alone to make the most out of technological advances and avoid spread of operational disruption from the many connecting services. That means that the SRL gets it right by not getting physically interfaced with any other part of the Melbourne rail network, while planning for

interchange stations that allow for seamless transfer between the new orbital and the existing lines. Common systems for ticketing and passenger information are obvious features of such seamless transfer, and needless to say the SRL has planned for just that.

High expectations – well deserved

With all the important boxes ticked in the planning, the Suburban Rail Loop promises to become a real game-changer for public transport in and around Melbourne. The only downside is the time it will take to build a mega project like that. Sensibly, the plan is for gradual expansion of the line in stages, with the lucky first beneficiaries of the first project stage being the south-eastern suburbs between Cheltenham and Box Hill.

About Dr Frank Heibel

‘Doc Frank’ is a globally recognised strategist and thought leader for high-performance railway signalling. He has advised government railways in four of Australia’s biggest cities on planning and implementing their next generation signalling technology to boost capacity and improve operational performance. In line with the rising importance of public rail transport for alleviating traffic congestion, his views get noticed in wider transport forums, such as the public transport discussion panel at Smart Cities 2019.

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