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Inside the bus argument to the Victorian Suburban Rail Loop project

The Victorian Suburban Rail Loop project, since its inception, has been popular among Victorian voters. Yet does the state’s bus network hold the key to a better public transport alternative?

In the lead-up to the 2018 Victorian state election, the government at the time had a trick up its sleeve. When then premier Daniel Andrews began campaigning in August that year, three months prior to the election, he unveiled a secret project that would have mammoth consequences on the state’s transport industry.

“A re-elected Andrews government will start work on the biggest transformation of public transport in Australian history,” Andrews said.

“A new underground rail network, known as the Suburban Rail Loop, will circle Melbourne’s suburbs.”

Just days later, the Suburban Rail Loop (SRL) was unveiled in its full design. Incorporating 90 kilometres of track in an orbital network around Melbourne’s outer suburbs, the proposed public transport project was slated to connect 11 existing rail lines at an estimated cost of $50 billion.

Starting in the south-east of the city and circling all the way around to the west, where it would then provide a crucial rail link to Melbourne Airport, the project was a key cog in the Labor government’s election push in both its 2018 and 2022 state election victories.

In the years since the plan was first hatched by Andrews and current premier Jacinta Allan, who in 2018 was the transport and infrastructure minister, budget constraints, delays and rising costs have caused transport stakeholders to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the SRL. As the executive director of the Bus Association of Victoria (BusVic), Chris Lowe is one member of the transport industry who holds doubts about the rail project.

“The SRL has the potential to be a white elephant for Victoria because the whole concept was never part of any metropolitan or state-wide planning processes,” Lowe told ABC.

“There was no foresight about the issue – it was a last-minute concept taken to the electorate that will cost a lot more money than what the state can afford.”

While construction began in early 2022 for the first part of the project in SRL East, which will link Cheltenham to Box Hill in the north-east of Melbourne, both the transparency of the government’s design process and the overall cost of the plan has come into question.

Despite the project already being underway, Lowe questions whether the orbital loop would be better served running as a high-capacity bus network that can serve the suburbs at a cheaper cost than the existing rail plans.

“Melbourne already has three orbital bus services in the 901, 902 and 903 SmartBus services that circumferentially traverse the city,” Lowe says.

“The SRL will essentially become a fourth orbital. The other three bus services have served the state very well since their introduction more than a decade ago, so why not make this one a bus service too?

“When you look at how demand responsive buses are, how much more cost effective they are and how much quicker they are to build than rail infrastructure, BusVic believes the state government should be considering replacing the SRL with a suburban bus loop.”

Image: Infrastructure Victoria

Under Lowe’s plan, which BusVic has formally released in publications, the bus loop would use existing roads and add on-road priority lanes to create a bus rapid transit network. Instead of tunnelling to create rail tracks, the bus loop could be run on the current road network, with a higher frequency of buses creating a rapid service of zero-emissions vehicles that carry large quantities of people each day.

If this plan was to go ahead, Lowe says the buses could be delivered and operating on the road in under five years, compared to the decades-long projections of the SRL project. By ordering a fleet of zero-emissions buses now and then using the fulfilment time to establish the road infrastructure for rapid bus transit, Lowe says the orbital service would be much simpler and cheaper to complete.

“You can run a suburban bus loop at a fraction of the price of a rail loop and have it delivered much sooner,” Lowe says.

“Given that the state is in a lot of debt and there’s an urgency to implement these outer suburban services, that’s more than sufficient cause to replace the SRL with a suburban bus loop.”

BusVic has put this suggestion to the state government but suspects it won’t be taken up. There’s a key reason behind this and the state government’s broader preference to invest in rail networks over bus networks. Despite bus networks being cheaper and quicker to implement, rail is the only other land transport option that competes with the fast travel time that comes with travelling by car, making it a more popular electoral policy.

“The SRL will be a super-fast network and will compete with the car in the time it takes to travel from one place to another – something that even SmartBus networks can’t do,” transport engineering professor at Monash University and director of the Public Transport Research Group Professor Graham Currie told ABC.

“The current orbital bus loop from Frankston to Melbourne Airport takes almost four hours at an average of around 26kph, while by car or train it takes just over an hour.”

Despite the high cost attached to it, Currie, with his rich experience in urban transport planning, believes the SRL will provide a high-quality railway that will also help generate new demand in outer suburban regions. He says the thinking behind the loop is to create other suburban hubs, such as the likes of Parramatta and Chatswood that surround Sydney, to take the population pressure off Melbourne’s CBD.

“This is an extraordinarily brave project, and something we don’t normally see from governments,” Currie says.

“I think the focus should also be, alongside delivering the SRL, on how the state can improve its bus services, because right now our bus network is crying out for more services – we’re heavily under-bussed in Melbourne.”

Instead of replacing the SRL, Currie sees an opportunity for the bus network to improve and provide a vital cog in the transport chain around some of the proposed SRL stations that may be difficult to access once built. A key area that needs these supplementary bus services is the western side of Melbourne, where a population boom in recent years has led to traffic congestion.

“The western development of the SRL isn’t well thought out, while the road network is very dysfunctional and buses have many indirect routes,” Currie says.

“The answer to this for the bus network is straightforward and simple: you need to increase the frequency of services.”

Currie isn’t the only voice raising queries about the quality of public transport in the west. For the past couple of years, Friends of the Earth has lobbied for better buses in the west to ensure people can get to their nearest train stations.

“This June will mark three years since Victoria’s Bus Plan was released and we haven’t really seen any reform during that whole period,” Friends of the Earth Melbourne Sustainable Cities community organiser Elyse Cunningham told ABC.

“We think that 2024 is the year for the state government to act and escalate services in the west.”

The Better Buses campaign has clear goals in mind. In 2024, it wants to see a commitment to pilot bus reform in the Wyndham area, which is solely run by operator ComfortDelGro Australia (CDC). Previously, Cunningham has been told by the government that multiple bus companies running services in the one area has blocked reform. With Wyndham not being inhibited by this, Cunningham is hoping to see the pilot announced within the next six months.

“The best way to focus on the west and improve public transport infrastructure is to increase services and restructure bus routes,” Cunningham says.

“So far, this has only taken place incrementally with one route added at a time, and it takes years for any new service to be approved. What we need is a network-wide transformation of our bus routes in order to keep up with the current pace of population growth and provide people in the west with equitable access to society as those in other areas of metropolitan Melbourne.”

All of these complaints, both about the SRL and the Victorian bus network, were put to the Victorian government. In a response to ABC, a state government spokesperson says the bus operating budget has consistently increased each year, with the government investing more than $550 million in new and upgraded bus services since 2014.

“We recognise the important role that buses play in our local areas and our public transport network, which is why we’re focused on reforming our bus network across the state and unlocking more of the benefits that buses can deliver for Victorians,” the spokesperson says.

“Through initiatives such as better contracts with operators, improving existing routes and adding new ones, or transitioning our fleet to zero-emissions, we’re ensuring that buses play a stronger role in a transport network that’s critical to growing a more prosperous, liveable and connected Victoria.”

Despite this bus focus, the state government isn’t considering changing the SRL to a bus-based rapid transit network. The spokesperson says the SRL, when complete, will take more than 600,000 cars off the roads every day and provide a seamless public transport option.

“With Melbourne’s population set to be the size of London’s by the 2050s, we can’t afford to not invest in city-shaping projects that will provide more jobs and housing options while keeping our city moving,” the spokesperson says.

It’s not enough to satisfy members of the bus industry like Lowe. He says governments have always preferred investments in rail over road, and it’s a cultural mindset he’s trying to crack.

“In Victoria, we’ve got a preference associated with our trams and rail-based modes of transport, while bus networks don’t curry the same favour,” Lowe says.

“We have to look for more affordable modes of transport and we need to embrace the bus. It’s efficient, green and clean with zero-emissions. We’re saying that the bus loop is a better financial and timely option to consider, so the state needs to embrace it more to make the bus front and centre.”

Infrastructure Victoria is also looking to optimise the wider Melbourne bus network through its recent research and recommendations for reform: Fast, frequent, fair: how buses can better connect Melbourne. Deputy CEO Dr Allison Stewart says the focus of Infrastructure Victoria’s work is on better servicing suburban areas that are quickly growing in population.

“To increase frequency, we’re suggesting the government starts with Tarneit, Craigieburn, Epping, Cranbourne and Frankston as places to straighten up bus routes,” Stewart told ABC.

“We’ve worked with operators to get their input and to make sure that new growth areas get bus services quicker than they previously have.”

Infrastructure Victoria recommends the government plans and starts delivering a network of bus rapid transit corridors over Melbourne in the next five years. Stewart says the network is an “untapped opportunity for Melbourne” that would be simple to develop and would allow bus networks to integrate with SRL stations in the future.

Under the modelled bus rapid transit networks, 10 routes in suburbs around Melbourne could be transporting 83,000 people daily, returning $2.60 for every dollar invested in the new network. Starting with a Hoddle Street busway, which would provide a link from Doncaster down the Eastern Freeway to inner Melbourne CBD suburbs, Stewart wants to see more of these projects considered and constructed.

“We think buses could play a much more significant role than they currently do in Melbourne,” Stewart says.

“In areas like Doncaster, where bus services are more frequent and direct, our research shows people living in these areas are more likely to use the bus network.

“We want to see more frequent and direct bus services across Melbourne to deliver people faster and more efficiently to where they need to go.”

When it comes to the future of Victoria’s transport map, Currie agrees that buses need to be considered as a larger part of the network. Instead of remaining dedicated to the car and using public transport as a supplementary mode of transport, Currie wants Victoria to continue thinking long-term and consider the idea of using buses alongside rail to create faster and more efficient travel times for patrons.

“Buses must play a big role in the future of the state’s transport network – their latest technology includes the likes of bus rapid transit systems,” Currie says.

“Australia is famous for being a leader in bus rapid transit systems courtesy of projects in Adelaide, such as the O-Bahn, Parramatta and Brisbane.

“We now have the right bus technology for the future, so even if the SRL is a major rail project, buses must still be part of the end picture to connect Victorians.”

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