The Different Travel Markets for Regional Rail

At a meeting with other TransitMatters people, I had to explain various distinctions in what is called in American parlance regional rail or commuter rail. A few months ago I wrote about the distinction between S-Bahn and RegionalBahn, but made it clear that this distinction was about two different things: S-Bahns are shorter-distance and more urban than RegionalBahns, but they’re also more about service in a contiguous built-up area whereas RegionalBahns have the characteristics of interregional service. In this post I’d like to explore the different travel markets for regional rail not as a single spectrum between urban and long-range service, but rather as two distinct factors, one about urbanity or distance and one about whether the line connects independent centers (“interregional”) or a monocentric urban blob (“intraregional”).

This distinction represents a two-dimensional spectrum, but for simplicity, let’s start with a 2*2 table, so ubiquitous from the world of consulting:

Connection \ Range Short Long
Intraregional Urban rail, S-Bahn Big-city suburban rail
Interregional Polycentric regional rail RegionalBahn

The notions of mono- and polycentricity are relative. Downtown Providence, Newark, and San Jose all have around 60,000 jobs in 5 km^2. But Caltrain and the Providence Line are both firmly in the RegionalBahn category, the other end being Downtown San Francisco or Boston, 70-80 km away with 300,000-400,000 jobs in 5-6 km^2. Newark, in an essentially contiguous urban area with New York, 16 km from Midtown and its 1.2 million jobs in 6 km^2, is relatively weaker and does not fit into the interregional category; a New York-Newark line is an S-Bahn.

Size matters

On the 2*2 table, the appellations “big-city” and “polycentric” are necessary. This is because longer-range rail lines are likelier to get out of the city and its immediate suburbs and connect to independent urban centers. Exceptions mostly concern the size of the primary urban cluster. If it is large, like New York, it can cast a shadow for tens of kilometers in each direction: commuter volumes are high from deep into Long Island, as far up the Northeast Corridor as Westport, as far up the Hudson as northern Westchester, and so on. In Paris, I wouldn’t be comfortable describing any of the RER and Transilien lines as RegionalBahn. In London, the closest independent cities of reasonable size are Cambridge, Brighton, Oxford, and Portsmouth, the first two about 80 km away and the last two about 100.

Tokyo, about as big as New York and London combined, casts an even longer shadow. In my post on S-Bahns and RegionalBahns I called some of its outer regional rail branches RegionalBahn, giving the examples like the Chuo Line past Tachikawa. But even that line is not really interregional in any meaningful way. It stays within the Tokyo prefecture as far as Takao, 53 km from Tokyo Station, and commuter service continues until Otsuki at kp 88, but everything along the line is bedroom communities for Tokyo or outright rural. The branching and short-turns at Tachikawa mean that the Chuo Line through Tachikawa is a long S-Bahn, and past Tachikawa is really a suburban commuter line too long to be an S-Bahn but too monocentric and peaky to be Regionalbahn (the peak-to-base frequency ratio is about 2:1, whereas German RegionalBahn is more commonly 1:1).

At the other end, we can have regional rail that is short-range but connects two distinct centers. This occurs when relatively small cities are in proximity to each other. In a modern first-world economy, these cities would form a polycentric region, like the Rhine-Ruhr or Randstad. Smaller regions with these characteristics include the Research Triangle, where relatively equal-size Raleigh and Durham are 40 rail kilometers apart, and Nord, where Lille is 30-50 km from cities like Douai and Valenciennes. This may even occur in a region with a strong primary center, if the secondary center is strong enough, as is the case for Winterthur, 28 km from Zurich, which has Switzerland’s fourth highest rail ridership.

Size is measured in kilometers, not people. Stockholm is a medium-size city region, but Stockholm-Uppsala is firmly within RegionalBahn territory, as the two cities are 66 km apart. Randstad’s major cities are all closer to each other – Amsterdam-Rotterdam is about 60 km – and that’s a region of 8 million, not 3 million like Stockholm and the remainder of Uppland and Södermanland.

The issue of frequency

The importance of the 2*2 table is that distance and urban contiguity have opposite effects on frequency: high frequency is more important on short lines than on long lines, and matching off-peak frequency to peak frequency is more important on interregional than intraregional lines.

Jarrett Walker likes to say that frequency is freedom, but what frequency counts as freedom depends on how long passengers are expected to travel on the line. Frequency matters insofar as it affects door-to-door travel time including wait time, so it really ought to be measured as a fraction of in-vehicle travel time rather than as an absolute number. An urban bus with an average passenger trip time of 15 minutes should run every 5 minutes or not much longer; if it runs every half hour, it might as well not exist, unless it exists for timed connections to longer-range destinations. But an intercity rail line where major cities are 2 hours apart can easily run every half hour or even every hour.

The effect of regional contiguity is more subtle. The issue here is that an intraregional line is likely to be used mostly by commuters at the less dense end. The effect of distance can obscure this, but within a large urban area, a 45-minute train will be full of commuters traveling to the primary city in the morning and back to the suburbs in the afternoon or evening; the same train between two distinct cities, like Boston and Providence, will not have so many commuters. In contrast, the same 45-minute trip will get much more reverse-commute travel and slightly more non-commute travel if it connects two distinct cities, because the secondary city is likelier to have destinations that attract travelers.

In no case are the extreme peak-to-base ratios of American commuter lines justifiable. Lines with tidal commuter flows can run 2:1 peak-to-base ratios, as is common in Tokyo, but much larger ratios waste capacity. The marginal cost of service between the morning and afternoon peaks is so low until it matches peak service that having less midday than peak service at all is only justifiable in very peaky environments. The 45-minute suburbs of New York, Tokyo, and other huge cities can all live with a 2:1 ratio, but other lines should have lower ratios, and interregional lines should have a 1:1 ratio.

The implication is that just as peak-to-base ratios going as high as 2:1 are acceptable for long-range intraregional lines, short-range interregional lines must run a constant, high frequency all day. I would groan at the thought of even half-hourly frequency on a 40-km interregional line; the worst I’m comfortable with is 15-20 minutes all day. Of note, such lines are necessarily pretty fast, since by assumption they make few intermediate stops to speed up travel between the two main cities – if there are significant cities in the middle then the lines connect even shorter-range cities and should be even more frequent.

Urban, suburban, intercity

Individual lines may have the characteristics of multiple variants of regional rail. They pass through urban neighborhoods on their way to outlying areas, which may be suburbs or independent cities; they may also pass through multiple kinds of independent areas.

In practice, in big cities this leads to three tiers on the same line: urban at the inner end, suburban at the middle end, interregional at the outer end. Inversions, in which there are independent cities and then suburbs, are possible but extremely rare – I can’t think of any in Paris, London, or New York, and arguably only three in Tokyo (Chiba, Saitama, Yokohama); fundamentally, if there are suburbs of the primary city beyond your municipality, then your municipality is likely to itself be popular as a suburb of the primary city.

That regional lines have these three tiers of demand type does not mean that every single regional line does. Some lines don’t reach any significant independent city. Some don’t usefully serve close-in urban areas – for example, the Providence Line barely serves anything urban, since the stop spacing is wide in order to speed up travel to high-demand suburbs and to Providence and the closest-in urban neighborhoods have Orange Line subway service. In rare cases, the suburban tier may be skipped, because there just isn’t much tidal suburban commuter ridership; in Boston, the Newburyport Line is an example, since its inner area has unbroken working-class urban development almost all the way to Salem, and then there’s almost nothing between Salem and Newburyport.

This does not mean that suburbs are always in between urban areas and independent cities – this is just a specific feature of large metropolitan areas. In smaller ones, the middle tier between urban and long-range interregional service is occupied by short-range interregional service rather than suburban commuter rail. Skipping the suburban tier, which is rare enough in large cities that in the cities I think about most often the only example I can come up with is the Newburyport Line, is thus completely normal in smaller cities.

Conclusion

There are common best practices for commuter rail: electrification, level boarding, frequent clockface schedules, timed transfers, fare integration, proof of payment fare collection.

However, high frequency means different things on lines of different characteristics. An interregional line should be running consistent all-day frequency, and if it is long enough could make do with half-hourly trains with timed connections to suburban buses; an urban line should be running every few minutes as if it were a metro line. Regional rail lines with characteristics off the main diagonal of the S-Bahn to RegionalBahn spectrum have different needs – suburban lines can have high peak frequency to reduce road congestion, although they should still have useful off-peak frequency; short-range interregional lines should run every 10-20 minutes all day.

The distinctions between intraregional and interregional lines and between short- and long-range lines may also affect other aspects of planning: station spacing, connections to local surface transit, connections at the city center end, through-running, etc. Even when the best industry practices are the same in all cases, the relative importance of different aspects may change, which changes what is worth spending the most money on.

Since an individual line can serve multiple markets on its way from city center to a faraway outlying terminal, it may be useful to set up a timetable that works for all of these markets and their differing needs. For example, urban lines need higher frequency than suburban and interregional ones, so a regional line with significant urban service should either branch or run short-turn trains to beef up short-range frequency. If there is a suburban area in the middle with demand for high peak frequency but also a secondary city at the outer end, it may be useful to give the entire line high all-day frequency, overserving the line off-peak just because the cost of service is low.

Ultimately, regional rail is about using mainline rail to fulfill multiple functions; understanding how these functions works is critical for good public transportation.

30 comments

  1. Luke

    I don’t know if my comment in the last thread prompted this, but I really appreciate the clarification. A lot of the lines in Korea, Japan, Germany, and the UK seem, prima facie and not really knowing what to look for, like they could count as metro, commuter, or intercity (interregional) lines. Working from the American context–specifically, my Boston regional context, where the delineations are made fairly clear by route length and service frequency–I’ve never been sure what to call what. Thank you!

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, Boston is a weird one and it’s a TransitMatters discussion that prompted this post. It doesn’t really have any reason to have a branding difference between slow and fast lines the way London and Tokyo do, so really everything run by the MBTA today should be a single regional rail system, and yet different lines have different tradeoffs between short- and long-range service. The Worcester Line frustratingly has a case for local and express service, the Providence Line is essentially entirely express, the Fairmount Line and inner Fitchburg and inner Eastern are local, etc.

      Probably the closest European analog to this is Zurich, which lumps a lot of different service types under the S-Bahn umbrella, including local and express trains on double-track lines. Boston can at least do this more cleanly, without the whole bit where trains from Zurich to Oerlikon take three different routes.

  2. Tonami Playman

    Thanks for another article that explains this. It does get confusing, but with this, it makes it easier to make the distinction. A few typos in the article; “Size is measured in kiometers” I’m guessing you meant Kilometer here. and “Otsuki at kp 88” I don’t know if you meant the unit for kilometer or something else.

      • fjod

        Not that many, it seems; page 30-31 of this report shows it being similar to other parts of outer south-east England: https://transportforthesoutheast.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/TfSE-Draft-Transport-Strategy.pdf

        One other interesting thing I gleaned from these pages is that the Reading-to-London and London-to-Reading commuter flows are quite similar in number, contrary to what I would have expected. Thus Crossrail looks like RegionalBahn on its western end (although its eastern ends are maybe more S-Bahn?).

        • Si Hollett

          You’d be surprised at how many commuters go through Reading. It doesn’t help that TfSE only has West Berks when it comes to beyond-Reading places on their map. It’s more the places just north of there (in Oxfordshire) that would have the London commuters. And beyond the SE (ie Wiltshire, Gloucestershire).

          Comparing the GWR off-peak and peak timetable may help enlighten when it comes to beyond-Reading commuting. You get a jump from 12tph to ~16tph in and out of Paddington. There’s “Chippenham in an hour” services doubling frequency there*, Bedwyns extending to Frome (which doesn’t otherwise see direct London trains), etc that are about serving the long-distance commuter market. This isn’t really a London commuter-belt (ie within 40 miles of London) TOC – at peak times it serves just 3 stations east of Reading other than the London terminus (2tph stop at Slough, 2tph stop at Maidenhead and Twyford), and its base-line service out of London is 5 intercity (Plymouth, Bristol, Wales), 5 regional (Bedwyn/Newbury fasts, Exeter semi-fast, Oxford/Cotswolds, Cheltenham), 2 outer suburban/commuter (which do stop at various stops east of Reading off-peak, and are the only trains to stop west of Didcot, other than at Reading (or Slough on the Oxford trains) at peak times). Plus it’s just improved it’s off-peak service, while not upping its peak service by the same amount as it was already near the ceiling of possible – the difference between baseline and when commuters were around used to be *more* pronounced than the current 25% increase in trains, which either run faster or further so as to serve London commuters travelling 50 miles-plus.

          As for ‘similar to other parts of the SE’ – I don’t know what experience you have with commuter flows to places beyond the Green Belt, but there’s certainly thousands commuting long distance on each major rail corridor. The percentages of people are small, but they add up. Southampton Airport Parkway’s ‘parkway’ bit is about London commuters (from places like the New Forest) parking at the station next to the motorway and travelling in the final 75 miles by train, rather than people wanting Winchester or Southampton. The GEML fasts run more trains in the peak into London (22tph) than the intense peak service on the metro corridor (16tph post-Crossrail and about the same now) – OK, some of that is South Essex more-obvious commuter flows, but North Essex sees a similar increase in service too. There’s 3 trains from Clacton to London that arrive between 8 and 9 in the morning, and that’s considered to become inadequate in less than 5 years time requiring another one (sure they stop at places in-between, but this is about Colchester-London flows as well as North Essex internal commuting: there’s other places to turn around trains further in if the issue was merely south of Witham).

          As for the Elizabeth Line in the West not being a mere London commuter line – have a look at Travel-to-Work Areas. The ones based on the 2011 data (it’s not there on the 2001 data, which still tends to be what you get) very much suggest that yes, there’s definitely a lot of local / reverse commuting on that line. The edge of the London TTWA (75% living in the area works in the area) is around West Ealing. West of there, until about where the GWML crosses the Thames, is the “Slough and Heathrow TTWA”. The Greater London Authority has decided it should be treated as London (and there’s shockingly little thinking in City Hall about the need to improve non-radial PT links in West London to deal with this functional polycentric ‘city’ breaking-away). Beyond that’s Reading TTWA (and then Oxford TTWA or Newbury TTWA). Of course, that 75% of people in Slough work in Slough, Heathrow, Uxbridge, Staines, etc doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of people living there wanting to work in Central London (ditto Reading) either. And, additionally, better connection through into Central London will change commuting patterns.

          *Similar exists for the SWML – the trains that are Winchester in 50 minutes, Southampton in an hour, are 10×23 car and run with 95% of the seats filled, almost all London commuters. And then there’s Bedford’s Thameslink frequency doubling, Great Northern running extra trains to Stevenage and stations to Peterborough, Thameslink to Littlehampton alongside various increases on Southern’s London-Sussex services, extra services on Southeastern to Hastings and East Kent, etc.

          • Matthew Hutton

            There’s 9 trains per hour between 7:07 and 8:07 from Oxford to London (2 involve changing at Reading) and 7 trains per hour from Milton Keynes to London between 6:59 and 7:59.

          • fjod

            Ok so the claim I was countering was that there were ‘lots of London commuters’ beyond Reading, which itself could only have been a reference to Alon saying that London had no examples of inversion, in which the pattern is ‘independent cities and then suburbs’, i.e. a route that goes City A -> City B -> Suburbs of city A.

            I don’t deny that there are a number of commuters into London from points west of Reading. But as a total proportion of workers in those areas, it’s not hugely significant, at 3.7% of workers in West Berkshire (source: http://info.westberks.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=47675). As many people from West Berkshire commute to London as commute to Basingstoke. So Newbury does not count as a London suburb – as opposed to a Reading suburb – by Alon’s definition. Similarly, Vale of White Horse has about 2% of workers commuting into London (as opposed to 17% into Oxford). Those 1500 people are enough to fill a few trains but this doesn’t mean that these areas are primarily or even significantly suburbs for London. Slough by contrast has 13,200 commuters into London, 18% of its employed residents.

            re other areas beyond the London commuter belt: Yes, there are some long-distance commuters and they are very lucrative to train companies. Hence such people are well-catered for by trains, which they almost all use to commute – this means that looking at total number of peak trains oversamples such long-distance commuters and doesn’t paint an accurate picture of relative commute volumes. Long-distance commuters don’t make up a significant proportion of commuters in the outer south-east (https://londondatastore-upload.s3.amazonaws.com/Zho%3Dttw-flows.pdf) and so nowhere else qualifies as an inversion under Alon’s model. There are very few places 80-90km from London which see the sorts of proportions of commuters that would classify them as suburbs of London, and places like Tendring (i.e. Clacton) also have low proportions of London commuting (3.7% in this case). This is why London TTWA’s furthest extension is to Higham in Kent, 40km away.

            re Crossrail: my claim was that the western end of Crossrail conformed to Alon’s typology of RegionalBahn, i.e. long-distance and interregional. Your discussion of the three Travel to Work Areas that this line goes through proves my point, which was that this service is interregional.

            re the SWML: a) those journey times for Southampton are at least 15 minutes wide of the mark and also wrong for Winchester, and b) the number of daily Southampton-to-London commuters is negligible, at 0.9% of employed residents (source: https://documents.hants.gov.uk/Economy/SouthamptonCommuterFlows.pdf). This is broadly in line with other places a similar distance from London. And is your Airport Parkway statement speculation or is there data that can back this up? If the claim is that the New Forest is an example of inversion, why wouldn’t they take the train from Brockenhurst or Totton? That would after all be quicker than navigating the M27 at rush hour.

  3. martin currie

    Reading is a major urban area. 250,000 and up to 400,000 on how you count the sprawl. It is a major rail junction with many lines going in different directions,,not just the two to London. More rail commuters travel into the centre via rail than out to London. Travel to the West of London has stronger reverse commuting than the other sides of London as the Western Wedge is a major centre of high tech industries.

  4. Hugh B

    Probably the best example of interregional inversion is the terribly served Baltimore-Washington route. What makes the situation so bad (in addition to the fact that MARC runs diesel locomotives under a wired route) is that the route with good infrastructure (Penn Line) runs through far more sprawl-y areas on both ends (only major intermediate destinations: BWI and (hopefully soon enough) New Carrolton), and the route that should succeed due to better intermediate stops and a better station location in Baltimore (Camden Line) is far curvier and CSX-owned. Also, how much infill can there be if we want a 30 minute clockface with 3 trains i.e. going back to DC 45 minutes after it leaves?

    • Jacob Manaker

      I think you missed the point here. The Penn Line is optimally RegionalBahn: it runs through very few city neighborhoods and suburbs, most of which are on the DC end and already served by the Orange Line. For RegionalBahn, the schedule seems decent (albeit peaky). From 4:15-9:15, it runs on a (roughly) 20-30min takt southbound from Baltimore, which is reasonable for a 60km line, and similarly 3:40-6:50. It’s the midday and evening service that is missing, but such lack is common to all US mainline rail transit, and not a sign that the line is misallocated.

      (Penn Line service north of Baltimore is criminally low for a RegionalBahn, but I don’t think that was your point.)

      As for the Camden Line, the area it runs through is diced up by a thousand highways and consists of 50% light industry, 50% low-density cul-de-sacs, and 100% walkability nightmare. You’re not going to get high ridership on that, no matter how straight your tracks, electric your trains, and clockface your schedule.

  5. adirondacker12800

    Size is measured in kilometers, not people.

    If there are no people the distance doesn’t matter. Nobody wants to go there and there are no people for it to be an origin. Ten miles/16kilometers from downtown Albany you can be in virgin forest. There is still a farm in Queens. It’s preserved as a museum. Years ago someone blurted out that his fantasy was a four track subway for Albany. There aren’t enough people in metro Albany for that. There’s six tracks of rail between Manhattan and New Jersey and it’s grossly congested. People matter.

    When there are enough people to need four tracks it can be divided into local and express and peak direction stuff that’s a blend. Or super express. Newark to Manhattan doesn’t have enough track. Albany to Schenectady recently had enough freight traffic again to need two. Someday far in the future it might need two passenger dedicated ones. It’s not going to replace the Central Ave. bus.

    https://www.cdta.org/cdta-busplus

    Newark, in an essentially contiguous urban area with New York, 16 km from Midtown

    Through a swamp. There is a reason why there are no PATH stations between Harrison and Journal Square. Jamaica is just as far from Manhattan as Newark is. But there are lot of people there and four tracks of Queens Blvd subway is a good thing. People matter.

  6. Eric

    I don’t think distance is relevant. The only relevant factors are travel time and population.

  7. Matthew da Silva

    How are geographical barriers accounted for in this analysis. In the NYC metro, the Hudson is still a massive chokepoint and an important physical and psychological barrier. Likewise despite their close proximity, the Meadowlands do not and should not have residential/commercial development because of its vital ecosystem role in controlling tidal flooding, creating a gap in urban development between Jersey City and Newark.

    • Alon Levy

      First of all, most of the area near Secaucus that people say shouldn’t be developed as wetlands is full of warehouses, truck stops, and railyards.

      Second, the contiguous built-up area of New York hops the Hudson and the Hackensack pretty easily. Jersey City is functionally a city neighborhood but in a different state. Newark is not economically independent in any meaningful way, and its CBD is comparable in employment to Long Island City or Downtown Brooklyn.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, exactly. Most of these supposed wetlands are already developed, just with lower-value stuff than condos and shopping centers.

          • adirondacker12800

            Lower value to you. Redeveloped from pig “farms”. Sorting USPS, FedEx and USPS packages in Binghamton would slow things down and make it more expensive. Moving the port to Scranton would be pricey, the containers pouring off ships have to be reclassified somewhere. And the stuff coming in by rail, it’s a good thing that happens in the middle of the density not by truck from Pennsylvania.
            The pig farms were out in the swamp near the garbage dump. We don’t dump garbage in the swamp anymore because the wet places are environmentally sensitive wetlands these days. The wet places are going to stay wet.

          • Alon Levy

            Lower value to the market. Let developers choose what to build there and they’ll probably not stick with warehouses within walking distance of a train station a few minutes out of Penn.

          • adirondacker12800

            So uprooting railyard is out?
            If the market says it’s worth $2.000 a month for a one bedroom, that’s what it’s worth. I hope the people advertising that are making money at that rate. Since they were able to build it, I’m going to assume the zoning is for multifamily TOD-y extravaganza. A short stroll to the station! according to their advertising. And a shuttle bus because, from the looks of it on Streetview, the stroll isn’t very pleasant. Pesky Turnpike. Which isn’t going anywhere. There isn’t much more that close except maybe parking lot. 20 bucks a day or 12 at night. They aren’t a charity and if someone made them a good offer they’d take the money and run. Which is the business they are actually in, sitting on real estate until someone makes them a good offer, not parking. Get much beyond that it’s not walking distance anymore. The same side of the Turnpike as the station, looks kinda soggy from the car or train window and probably can’t be developed. Looks kinda soggy on the satellite view too.

  8. plaws0

    “ suburban lines can have high peak frequency to reduce road congestion”

    Ehhh, that probably won’t happen, but a better rationale might be “to absorb tidal flows from major destinations”.

  9. Max

    Thanks for the great post, I really enjoy your writing. Again I’d be very interesting in your take on Melbourne’s planning in relation to this. Putting aside the outrageous construction costs in Melbourne, the current ‘Metro Tunnel’ project aligns a lot with what you’re discussing here. It takes two long ‘suburban’ lines in the east and west that currently operating as part-commuter networks, part pseudo-metro, and connect them together via a new tunnel under the city. Although marketed as a ‘Metro’ project it reminds me most of the S-Bahn or RER. This forms part of the gradual Australiasian rail strategy of converting legacy commuter/regional networks into more useful and frequent metro or RER networks by connecting them through cities via new tunnels (See: Cross River Rail in Brisbane, Sydney Metro, the City Rail Link in Auckland), frequency increases, electrification, new stock, level crossing removals (in Melbourne), etc. Of course, off-peak frequency in Melbourne is still shockingly poor (though gradually improving, the trams now run quite frequently all day until the evenings and some rail lines have all-day 10 minute service). Seems to me this could be a better strategy for US cities than pursuing new subways or light rail.

    In Melbourne you’ll have a similar two-level rail system to Zurich as described in the tweet: (hopefully) high frequency suburban/regional rail that still provides lots of inner-city connections, and the trams/light rail for more local connections. This is a bit different from the stated Victorian government strategy of ‘converting the suburban system into a metro system’ or Sydney’s strategy of ‘building a separate metro system to complement the suburban system’.

    Two infrastructure things in Melbourne that may interest you: The most politically successful infrastructure project of the current Labor government (and of the last few decades) has been the Level Crossing Removal Project: Melbourne had a legacy of 170+ level crossings thanks to our antiquated rail network, and Labor pledged to grade separate 50 of them (increased to 75 after the most recent election). These have proven very popular with the electorate as they connect divided communities. The projects are quick and communities can immediately see the results with open crossings and new stations. The BCRs for projects aren’t always great (thanks to our high construction costs), but they’re necessary if Melbourne plans to run more trains long-term. The Sunshine and Dandenong corridors, which will be linked by the Metro Tunnel, will soon have no crossings over their ~90km length. It seems like such a boring concept, but it’s proven popular and Labor won a huge reelection victory partially on its back.

    The other thing of interesting is that the next major rail tunnel departs from the strategy above, instead of a long-mooted second cross-city tunnel, the government is pursuing a major circle line, the Suburban Rail Loop. It’s different from many comparable projects: it’s probably in the middle suburbs with the goal to stimulate major development and connect major universities. It’ll be fully underground and is unusual for how few stations it will have, stage 1 will have just 6 stations along ~23km of track, you can read the strategic assessment here: https://suburbanrailloop.vic.gov.au/Library (The government is serious about this project and plans to have construction started and contracts signed before the next election). Again, this is political: the project is universally popular as it targets the suburbs, where most people live.

    • Eric

      There is no need for a second tunnel in Melbourne. Between Southern Cross and Flinders Street there are six tracks, which easily allows two tracks for a segregated “metro” route connecting some of the east and west rail lines. A third “metro” route can be had by running the remaining rail lines around the downtown loop in a single direction (with a shuttle in the opposite direction). Thus there can be three “metro” lines in Sydney, each with very high frequency, with basically no new construction beyond the tunnel currently being built.

      Thus it is not surprising that the next project is a circumferential loop. It is underground because there is no good surface ROW, and has limited stations because the expensive part of a tunneled line is building the stations. It may not justify it’s cost, but at least they avoided some of the most obvious pitfalls.

      https://scontent.fsdv2-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/s960x960/50411486_593040977788000_72428494528708608_o.jpg?_nc_cat=100&_nc_ohc=_Fq-ZCtnKA8AX-iSIIf&_nc_ht=scontent.fsdv2-1.fna&_nc_tp=1002&oh=992968ff559907c51e5801c1b5ef25e1&oe=5E98C1D9

      • Max

        Yes I understand all the reasons. It’s still a notable and unusual approach, and I’m not convinced having just six stations is the right approach for such an investment.

        Regarding the second metro tunnel, it would separate the Mernda and Hurstbridge lines, and separate the Werribee lines from the other Western lines, to cope with future growth. It’ll also add booming Fitzroy and the renewal precinct Fishermans Bend to the network, the latter in particular offering big development opportunities in the medium term. So no, there is a clear case for it and given Melbourne’s ongoing growth a clear need, it’s just a question of timing. I think it’s fine to time it after the first stage of the rail loop, but they should start planning as soon as possible.

        • Eric

          But you don’t need a full tunnel to separate Mernda/Hurstbridge/Werribee from the other lines. At most you need a single elevated flyover in the train yard north of Southern Cross.

          As for Fitzroy and Fishermans Bend, they can be well served by trams, for much less money. You just need to apportion separate lanes for the trams to make them useful. Though some people would prefer to spend ten billion dollars on tunnels to eliminating a single car lane for a couple km…

          • Max

            Well, I’m not one of those people. Melbourne will be a city of 8 million soon, we will have to both separate and improve trams and build new infrastructure. MM2 will offer a big capacity uplift for the network that will be needed at some point. And no, an extra flyover at Southern Cross will not separate the Mernda and Hurstbridge lines, they do not even run near there, what are you talking about? MM2 will separate Werribee from the Williamstown and Altona/Laverton lines, something that cannot be done with the six SX to Flinders St lines.

  10. Pingback: New England High- and Low-Speed Rail | Pedestrian Observations

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