The Victorian State Government has recently revived its Melbourne Metro Rail Project (MMRP) to great fanfare. But in the years between the razzle-dazzle of a Ministerial announcement and the official opening there is usually a long, messy and disruptive construction phase that is sometimes overlooked and often underestimated.
While there is now general acceptance of the need for the project, how will we feel when things start to get messy? How have other cities managed construction around major rail projects and what should Melbournians expect from MMRP works? The most important and difficult question to answer in the short term – will the pain be worth the gain?
The MMRP includes five new underground stations connected by two nine-kilometre rail tunnels from South Kensington to South Yarra at a cost somewhere between $9bn and $11bn. The project will kick off in 2018 with completion due in 2026, and the Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed that it will be messy, “There’ll be some years where Swanston Street will be significantly disrupted and we’ll have to put alternative tram routes in place,” he said.
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In trying to understand the likely impact on Melbourne, we can look to Copenhagen which is in the middle of constructing Cityringen, a $US3.4bn Metro rail extension tunnel project announced in 2007, started in 2011 and due for completion in 2019. The 15.5 kilometre long underground route will include 17 stations covering major parts of the city centre and outer districts.
All public works must carefully balance the need to deliver a project on time and on budget against its impact on the local community. Tension between these two needs was apparent in Copenhagen when residents at one site challenged the 24-hour construction work cycle. An appeal board ordered that work was to be limited to daytime hours until the issue was resolved, delaying the project and causing cost overruns.
In February 2014 the Cityring Act was amended to deal with the issues and a new works schedule had to be renegotiated with the contractors following a year of reduced work hours. In addition to this, Metroselskabet, the government authority responsible for the works, estimated in its annual report that compensation for project neighbours will cost around $US46m, “at least twice the funds allocated so far to reduce the adverse effects for neighbours”.
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Over in London, the £14.8bn.Crossrail is Europe’s largest ever construction project that will run over 100 kilometres including (42 kilometres of this underground) and 40 stations. The project commenced in May 2009 with first services through central London scheduled in late 2018. The project is expected to reduce travel times and increase capacity and there is already talk of an uplift in property values. House prices within a 10-minute walk of stations in central London are expected to rise an average of 57% before the trains have even started running. An Urban Integration Programme was established to review urban realm possibilities with commitments for 24 new and 12 improved station forecourts, 20 new pedestrian crossings, 328 new trees and 1,335 new bike parking spaces with £90 million promised to fund the additional works.
However there is a temporary downside to all this – the massive disruption across London with years of works still to come. In London there is a strong social media presence dedicated to keeping authorities accountable, and media focus on the negative impacts that construction has on traders and residents. Pushing against this is a mighty project PR machine to pump out the project’s messaging through the media and the impressive Crossrail website. Crossrail’s construction program is around 60 per cent complete with 90 per cent of the tunneling finished.
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In June 2015, Victoria’s Regional Rail Link Project (RRL) will be delivered within its $A4.3bn budget and only two months past its expected delivery date. When it was announced in 2009 it was the largest infrastructure project in Australia. During the planning stages there was also community resistance to, and strong criticism of, property acquisition, track alignment and long-term noise impacts. Parts of RRL ran through Melbourne’s densely populated inner west which created significant noise and dust impacts for local residents during construction. Lessons learnt from RRL have meant that that approaches to relocation, disruption management and general community negotiations around large rail infrastructure have continued to mature within construction companies and government departments.
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RRL, Crossrail and Cityringen give us some understanding into what we might expect when the MMRP starts its roll-out. Construction noise, dust and vibration, the movement of large trucks and plant equipment and the visual scars of large laydown areas are all inevitable part of big construction projects. While there is little argument about the need to build MMRP, such major construction in an already busy, growing city means there are bound to be losers. How will apartment dwellers, markets, shops, hospitals, schools and sporting grounds cope with the years of disruption? Even using tunneling technology along Swanston Street will not save the city from open construction sites for some areas particularly in Parkville, North Melbourne and South Yarra.
The community would do well to pay close attention to the project’s construction methodology when it is developed, because it will provide valuable insight into just how disruptive the project is likely to be. Will there be plans for 24-hour construction works? How much of the project will involve cut and cover works? How will the re-routed tram services cope and how will residents and traders be compensated? The government has rightly pointed out that such details will be developed in consultation with design and construction partners. This is an important point because striking the right balance between community amenity and project delivery is critical and too important to be rushed.
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Another balancing act is the need for Environment Effects Statement (EES) and its possible effects on project delays. It is not yet clear whether the government will use the 2009 Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act which fast tracks major transport projects and can exempt projects from completing an EES.
While it is important for communities to be prepared for the MMRP, and the government to be open and transparent about how the project will be delivered, this should not detract from the main game. We have strong examples of what to do (and what not to repeat) which should guide the successful rollout of the MMRP. None of these challenges should get in the way of Melbourne’s desperate need for public transport infrastructure to keep up with our population and patronage growth. We know from the recent State government election that there is strong voter sentiment towards public transport renewal.
The community wants MMRP, the State Government has staked its reputation on it and the project sits high on Infrastructure Australia’s priority list. It’s high time that the circus rolled into town.
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Photos courtesy of the Public Records Office of Victoria.
Words: Kate Bonighton