Rail crossing frustrations rise as peak hour gridlocks suburbs

Traders including Julie Scott (right) are fed up.THERE are more cars in Murrumbeena than ever before – but fewer shoppers, say traders.
Nanjing Night Net

The one constant is the noisy level crossing that divides the suburb, with boom gates down for almost half of each peak hour as packed trains travel through.

Julie Scott, who works at the Bendigo Bank branch, has noticed a drop in the numbers of shoppers over the past three years and believes that people are simply not prepared to risk a long wait at the boom gates each time they go shopping.

But there is still one rush every day. ”We’ve got people banging on the door at five o’clock saying they’ve missed the bank because they’ve been waiting for the train to pass. It’s totally frustrating,” says Ms Scott.

The Murrumbeena crossing, on the Cranbourne, Dandenong and Pakenham train lines, is just one of about 190 level crossings across metropolitan Melbourne, a region that, according to VicRoads, increases its traffic volume on arterial roads by about 2 per cent every year.

Daniel Bowen, the Public Transport Users Association president, doubts there is another city in the world facing a level crossing problem on this scale. ”It is becoming a critical issue,” he says. ”A lot of suburbs in peak hour, it’s not uncommon to see boom gates closed for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Those trains that are moving through carry thousands of people, but at the same time you’ve got whole suburbs that are gridlocked, causing real problems.”

Murrumbeena topped the RACV’s 2010 poll of their least favourite stretches of road, and is expected to again feature prominently when a new survey is published in October.

For some, crossings are more than an inconvenience. Cherry Street, Werribee, is the site of three incidents in the past month, including the death of a 65-year-old woman whose car was hit by a freight train.

At Clayton, paramedics fear someone will die in an ambulance waiting at boom gates 500 metres from Monash Medical Centre. Monash Council has long campaigned for an underpass at Clayton, and mayor Stefanie Perri says she cannot fathom why successive governments have overlooked an obvious safety issue.

Documents obtained under freedom of information show that drivers reported 56 near-misses at crossings in the first half of 2011. The cost of upgrading all of Melbourne’s level crossings has been put as high as $30 billion.

RACV roads and traffic manager Dave Jones says the government must focus on upgrading 50 crossings over the next decade as a ”starting point, an absolute minimum”.

Mr Jones nominates the Dandenong rail corridor, where gates are down as often as 60 per cent of the peak-hour periods, as the priority.

‘‘We need a program in place that tackles all but the impossible ones,’’ he says.

But upgrading crossings is costly and politically sensitive, especially given projects do not always match the priority list.

The Baillieu government allocated $350 million this year to upgrade crossings at Mitcham and Springvale and has committed to planning works at other sites – including St Albans –  this term.

But it has not made plans beyond 2014 public. Transport Minister Terry Mulder declined to do an interview.The scale of the problem has advocates urging the government to adopt a long-term plan to eliminate crossings that are clotting Melbourne’s roads and putting people at risk.

Mr Bowen says a systematic approach, such as the one Sydney adopted in the 1960s, which eliminated all but a handful of level crossings – although Sydney’s undulations accommodate underpasses, tunnels and bridges – is a must for Melbourne, combined with better signalling systems, which would allow gates to rise more frequently.

The Committee for Melbourne says without a plan, delays across the network will cost the economy millions of dollars in lost productivity.

The committee has challenged private enterprise to offset the cost of upgrades by incorporating stations into retail developments, similar to the Box Hill project built in the 1980s.

Monash Council says a retail centre would make upgrading the Clayton crossing ‘‘budget neutral’’.

Committee for Melbourne acting chief executive Andrea Gaffney says it’s time to put politics aside and get innovative.

‘‘We can all relate to the problem but we need to use our creativity in terms of how we remove them in a commercially feasible way, both for the government and for the private sector,’’ she says.

Murrumbeena is on the list for planning, but a VicRoads report has advised an upgrade should also incorporate works at nearby Carnegie and Hughesdale stations.

Ms Scott has heard the talk before, but she and other traders want action.

‘‘It’s a brick wall type of thing,’’ she says.

‘‘They keep saying ‘We’re looking at it’. But there’s been nothing.’’

With MEX COOPER

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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