The transport debate: road versus rail

The main theme of the 2014-15 Victorian Budget is “Building a better Victoria”. A large part of how the government intends to do this is through investment in infrastructure, and particularly transport infrastructure. It has committed to four key transport projects: the Melbourne Rail Link (incorporating the Airport Rail Link), the Pakenham-Cranbourne Rail Corridor Project, the Western Section of the East West Link, and the widening of the Tullamarine Freeway Corridor that forms part of Citylink. The total spend for these and other infrastructure projects will be a record $27 billion. On the 7th of May, I attended the Economic Society of Australia’s Victorian Budget Review, where Michael Brennan, Deputy Secretary (Economic) of the Department of Treasury and Finance, gave an overview of the Victorian Budget.

It is obvious that transport is an essential part of the liveability of any city. The question of how to move people and things from one place to another most efficiently is one that almost every city faces, and is certainly pertinent to cities with large or growing populations and/or high population densities. Within this context, the transport debate often focuses on road versus rail. Trains are much more effective for mass transportation than private cars on highways, which is why large cities such as London, New York, Beijing and Tokyo have invested heavily in extensive, efficient rail networks. (However, this is not to say that these cities don’t have issues of their own regarding their rail systems. For example, Tokyo is renowned for overcrowding on its trains, and the London Tube is subject to almost continuous upgrades and maintenance which results in a rolling roster of stations being closed on weekends.)

During Michael’s presentation, one of his many interesting points was that the debate between spending on rail and road in Victoria can at times be somewhat artificial. Often the argument is raised that the government should be investing more heavily in public transport to make it a more attractive mode of transport to commuters, which will help to ease congestion on freeways and toll roads. While to some extent this is true, insofar as transport networks exist to connect labour markets, the Victorian road and rail networks play different roles, and thus can be seen as complementary inputs into an efficient transport network.

Specifically, the rail network services commuters who live in the suburbs and work in the city. The map below from Michael’s presentation shows the residence of suburban train travellers:

Source 1

Those travelling into the city for work are highly likely to work in the professional services (including financial services) sector, since a large proportion of these firms are clustered within the CBD. When professional services workers move houses or jobs, they are still likely to travel into the city on a daily basis. Thus, the radial nature of Victoria’s rail network does well to connect these workers to firms. As the number of people travelling into the city for work has increased, investment has been necessary to alleviate pressure on the city loop. The government has proposed to do this through the Melbourne Rail Link project that will create two new stations between South Yarra and Southern Cross, ensuring more commuters can get into the city without using the city loop.

Source: Budget Information Paper No.2
Source: Budget Information Paper No.2

However, a very different picture emerges when one looks at the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing tends to be located around the urban fringe, and thus workers in manufacturing require the orbital road network in order to be able to get to work. In particular, as Michael pointed out, if a manufacturing worker loses their job in Geelong, their next job is likely to be in another manufacturing hub such as Dandenong. Therefore, the government needs to invest in the road network to ensure that the cost of getting to a new job is not prohibitive.

The residence of Melbourne's manufacturing workers
The residence of Melbourne’s manufacturing workers

Thus when planning a transport strategy for Victoria, the question is not an either-or between road and rail. Investment in both is necessary in order to support Victoria’s two largest industries—professional services and manufacturing. It is reassuring that the Victorian Government has thought carefully about the transport needs of the state and has responded accordingly.