Time to unearth London secrets

It is midday and London Bridge station's vaulted brick passageways are thrumming with commuters, city workers and lunch-hour shoppers. Above ground at the station mouth, bright sunlight bounces off the side of London's tallest skyscraper, The Shard, and floods the concourse.

It is midday and London Bridge station's vaulted brick passageways are thrumming with commuters, city workers and lunch-hour shoppers. Above ground at the station mouth, bright sunlight bounces off the side of London's tallest skyscraper, The Shard, and floods the concourse.

Graeme Clark has arrived late for our meeting. But then he's been chasing lost time all day. On his way to work, Clark stood on a Tube station platform and watched four trains come and go, each one too crammed for him to get on board.

"This morning coming here on the Jubilee line it was the fifth train that I managed to get on," Clark says. "The first train came, the doors opened, a wall of people, no chance."

The London Underground is one of the world's engineering marvels; the world's first subway, it opened exactly 150 years ago. But 1.25 billion people used it last year and the Tube's venerable arteries have become clogged.

Clark is just one of close to a million people who catch a London train each day, but unlike almost all of them, he is in a position to do something about the Tube's worsening crowd crushes.

He is responsible for delivering a huge fleet of new high-capacity Siemens trains for the London Underground - 1140 carriages in all - as part of the £6 billion ($10.3 billion) Thameslink project.

"The population of London is forecast to grow by 2020 by the population of Birmingham - that's Britain's second biggest city," he says. "So we have to do the work on Thameslink to give us the capacity to keep London moving."

Our meeting place, London Bridge station - the city's oldest - is also being rebuilt to improve passenger flow. Fifty-four million passengers move through it each year - almost a quarter of the number of people who travelled on Melbourne's entire rail network in 2012-13.

Yet if the pressures on Melbourne's public transport system seem a far cry from the scale of London's, there are important parallels, too.

Both cities' rail networks were mostly built in the 19th century, and Melbourne's system also threatens to soon be overwhelmed unless its capacity is significantly expanded, high-level reports say.

In 2012-13, Melbourne's trains carried 225.5 million passengers. State authority Public Transport Victoria estimates that patronage will continue to grow by 4.5 per a year for the next decade, adding an extra 100 million annual passenger journeys to the metropolitan network.

Rail patronage projections by the authority forecast that Melbourne is on track for nine of its 15 rail lines to experience chronic peak-hour overcrowding by 2017. By 2022 all lines except Frankston "will have significant overcrowding" and Werribee and Craigieburn line services will be so stretched "some passengers will be unable to board the trains in the critical peak hour", a June 2013 draft of the business case for the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel states.

But if London's rail capacity crisis has arrived several years before Melbourne's is forecast to hit hard, Britain's capital is also years ahead in building a solution. London is forging on full tilt with a plan based on a belief that only rail has the grunt to keep a successful international city moving in the 21st century.

The new trains, high-speed signalling and London Bridge station overhaul are part of an extensive suite of continuing projects that will expand the capacity of London's Underground by 10 per cent, creating room for an extra 350,000 people a day.

At the heart of the expansion is Crossrail, a 41-kilometre east-west tunnel being drilled beneath the city centre. Crossrail is scheduled to be completed in 2019 and will, says Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme, bring a million people to within 45 minutes of central London and cut journey times between Heathrow airport and the Canary Wharf financial district by more than 20 minutes.

"Crossrail is a fantastic, fully funded, politically aligned infrastructure program that will revolutionise the way people get across London," Wolstenholme this month told journalists touring the heart of the project in Farringdon, one of the oldest railway stations in the world and the place where Crossrail, Thameslink and the existing Underground will merge.

But if Wolstenholme sounded just a little smug, perhaps he had a right to be.

At a cost of £14.8 billion ($25.4 billion), Crossrail is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe right now, but it is one that went nowhere for many years as British politicians baulked at its huge cost.

"Some critics would say that this project spent 20 years to get to the start line," Wolstenholme said.

Crossrail finally got bipartisan backing when its proponents demonstrated that the project's huge cost would not be a drain on the economy, because it would more than pay its own way through productivity gains in the city.

A study commissioned by Crossrail found property values would increase by 20 to 25 per cent near its nine new stations. But Crossrail's agglomerative benefits have not just been a boon for already wealthy property owners.

The travel time savings, jobs creation and property development around stations is forecast to generate £42 billion ($A72 billion) in economic value to the British economy.

"This is a very positive business case," Wolstenholme said.

Crucially, businesses that will benefit most, and who can afford to, are helping to fund the immense cost that stalled the project for so many years.

The biggest 20 per cent of commercial real estate owners in central London are being charged a 2 per cent levy that will contribute £4.1 billion to Crossrail. Passengers will also pay a levy through fares. In total, more than 60 per cent of Crossrail's funding comes from Londoners and London businesses, with Britain's government contributing just £2.3 billion.

The use of a property levy, called value capture, funded 25 per cent of the cost of constructing the City Loop, a project that transformed Melbourne's centre when it opened in 1981. The proposed Melbourne Metro rail tunnel from South Kensington to South Yarra promises to have an equally transformative effect on the CBD.

According to a report prepared last year for the Council of Australian Governments, its five stations would "fuse" parts of Parkville and North Melbourne with the CBD, and put Footscray on the city fringe.

The report, by SGS Economics and Planning, said Melbourne Metro would boost the economy by about $65 billion by 2046, by improving travel times, reshaping employment opportunities and mitigating disadvantage in Melbourne's west by giving people more access to work. SGS applied the same methodology to reach this figure that British analysts applied to assess Crossrail's benefits.

"The new stations at Arden Street [North Melbourne] and Parkville will service new or existing concentrations of higher order business, education and research activities and effectively 'fuse' these nodes with the Melbourne CBD," the report said.

Victoria's Auditor-General proposed value capture in a report last month as a way to cut through Melbourne's $10 billion backlog of road and rail projects.

John Doyle identified in his report a transgenerational failure to complete proposed transport infrastructure projects in Melbourne, with decades of inertia by successive governments having spawned literal inertia in the outer suburbs, where growing congestion is making it ever harder to get around.

As Doyle's report made painfully clear, the City Loop is a rare example for Melbourne not only for the way it was funded, but because it was actually built. Melbourne's radial rail network is haunted by phantom extensions - to Doncaster, Rowville, Melbourne Airport, Epping North and so on. Each has been proposed, sometimes promised, abandoned.

Somewhere within the headquarters of PTV there is a silver bullet inscribed with the words Melbourne Metro. The authority argues it is the only project that could inject enough capacity into the network to enable the delivery of all those proposed rail extensions. But at an estimated cost of $9 billion, it is well beyond the means of the state, and it, too, has attained a sort of phantom status since the election of the Abbott government, which has flatly ruled out funding public transport.

The Napthine government calls Melbourne Metro its No.1 public transport project, yet there is little evidence it is pursuing it with any urgency.

Victoria's most expensive rail project ever has a budget of just $49.5 million for early planning, with $10.7 million being spent this financial year and a further $34.4 million committed until mid-2016. Beyond that, the meagre well of funds runs dry for the time being.

Transport Minister Terry Mulder insisted it was simply too early to commit more funds to Melbourne Metro, because planners and engineers were still grappling with the technical puzzle of how to tunnel beneath the city centre.

"We are nowhere near ready to start construction on Melbourne Metro, when you have a look at the complexity of Crossrail," Mulder said. "We've got $49.5 million to take the project forward, but it would be a project that would be on the drawing board for us towards the end of this decade."

He also dismissed Public Transport Victoria's prediction that most of Melbourne's rail lines would no longer be able to cope with demand by 2022, pointing to the fact the number of load breaches on peak-hour trains had recently fallen.

"I don't believe that we're going to be in a position that the system is going to hit a crunch point," he said. "We've demonstrated that we have the ability to get a lot more out of the existing network."

Mulder, who inspected the Crossrail project earlier this year, said the government would look to foster urban development above Melbourne Metro's five stations to help pay for them, but rejected a general levy on businesses.

"We saw and were very interested in the funding model that is being put together to deliver the project. For us there'll be a range of different financing opportunities that we're going to look at; that's not one we've considered," he said.

Dr Chris Hale, a lecturer in infrastructure engineering at Melbourne University, said the state government had no choice but to look beyond conventional state/federal funding models, and said local governments ought to contribute.

"The City of Melbourne will be the single biggest economic beneficiary, so they have to step up to the plate," Hale said.

Preliminary data from the City of Melbourne's 2013 census of land use and employment showed 50,000 new jobs were created within the city in the past 2½ years. Just one Melbourne Metro station, Arden, is expected to support the creation of 22,000 new jobs, according to the project's business case.

But Hale said that if Melbourne Metro's construction timeline was not accelerated, there was a danger those jobs would be lost to a city with superior transport.

"If people physically can't get into the city to get to jobs, then those jobs don't eventuate. Those high-value jobs ... go to Singapore, they go to Perth, they go to any number of different locations out there in the Asia-Pacific."

Four ways London

will pay for rail

■ Charge the city’s top 20 per cent of commercial property owners a 2 per cent levy.

■ Charge passengers slightly higher fares

to travel on the new line when it is built.

■ Build above railway stations, as is happening at Glen Waverley here.

■ Introduce a congestion charge within the city centre, with generated revenue returned to transport projects.

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