Mind the Gap, Please

First published The Melbourne Review, January 2014

Paul Keating often comments when lamenting Australia’s unwillingness to replace the monarchy that it’s not the behaviour of great States.

The same can be said of Melbourne’s reluctance to embrace a world-class rail network. This is not the behaviour of great cities.

Don’t get me wrong; Melbourne’s report card is not bad. The stadiums are top notch and its art scene gets a big tick, but a comprehensive rail network is a feature of every world-class city except the ‘most liveable’.

London, New York, Montreal, Washington and Paris all have one thing in common: You can get places if you a.) Don’t own a car, or b.) Have a car, but don’t want to be stuck in traffic watching your life be slowly whittled away.

Melbourne’s present train network resembles a bicycle wheel, with the City Loop at its centre and suburban lines feeding into it. The system is fine if your destination is the city and the city alone, or you find yourself in the 1950s and transit to work is your sole transportation concern.

It’s easier to lead an expedition to Mordor than it is to travel from the Northern Suburbs to the Western suburbs by public transport. Melbournians seems to prefer long, perilous journeys. No wonder there’s a Burke and Wills statue in the heart of the CBD.

Of the five City Loop stations, only three are underground. Opened in the early 80s, this first venture underground was like Melbourne’s ‘my first metro’. It’s cute and quaint, but the city has grown-up and big kids have proper subterranean rail systems.

Part of the problems is any proposed rail project, whether it’s a link to the airport, Doncaster, or the new Metro tunnel from the west, are proposed and promoted so feebly, whereas roads like the East West tunnel can apparently be knocked out as soon as they’re thought up. Melbourne trains must feel like the weedy kid at lunchtime that never gets picked first for sport.

If it’s a question of difficulty, we can look abroad for guidance. London’s Tube is efficient and user friendly. If we can borrow England’s monarch for our head of state, why not borrow their model for a successful train network?

New York’s subway system is not only a means of transportation, but also an attraction. Though it was decommissioned in 1945, City Hall Station is still used as a turning loop for the number 6 and tourists stay on the train while it turns just to see the station. New York’s subway is so successful; platforms that have been ghosts for sixty years still get visitors.

Why Melbourne is so hesitant to increase rail infrastructure is anyone’s guess. Metro’s inadequate services are universally complained about and anybody who has waited a maddening thirty minutes for a train, probably expecting a steam engine to roll in when it finally arrives, will tell you something needs to be done. 

Rail projects obviously cost money, as do roads, but rail’s benefits are numerous.

Decreasing car congestion is a major plus. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but cars emit dangerous gasses. It’s been in the news a bit; apparently the world is choking on carbon. Don’t worry; it’s easy to miss. Yet Melbourne continues indulging its freeway obsession. It stems from a concept of missing freeway links.

Victorian State Transport Minister Terry Mulder complained of the Eastern Freeway, ''There is a freeway that comes to an end; its bizarre.''

It’s a curious comment, as all freeways tend to end somewhere. Is Mr. Mulder’s vision for a never-ending freeway? Perhaps one around the globe, with feed ramps from every driveway? If you feel like a trip to Europe, just jump in your car and take the Melbourne to Geneva expressway.

But if we’re talking missing links, a Doncaster railway was first proposed in 1890 and so far has not come to fruition. Surely, that is unfinished business and the East West road tunnel can get in line.

Cities that take themselves seriously boast underground networks that not only take people from the suburbs to the city, but across the city, or places of cultural significance like a library, sporting ground, theatre district or park. They incorporate stops where you can easily transfer to another line and don’t have thirty-minute waiting times for trains.

We can keep patting ourselves on the back each time Melbourne is announced as the most liveable city or we can aspire to be a great city. The other option is to build the never-ending freeway. It’ll certainly put Melbourne on the world map, or at least help us very slowly traverse it.