The announcement of a major infrastructure project, in this instance the state government's sky rail proposal, is overshadowed by "angry" protesters (can protesters ever be moderately agitated?), politicking from the opposition and an overarching poverty of imagination. Welcome to Melbourne: where bold ideas are immediately torn down and the selfish and small-minded have right of way.
The government proceeds on its election promise to remove the railway crossings that bring gridlock to suburban streets, cripple the capacity of trains to run more frequently and cost the economy billions. But according to some local petitioners, the plan to replace the level crossings on three sections of line from Caulfield to Cranbourne/Pakenham with elevated rail is an outrage.
Melbourne's sky rail project
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Melbourne's sky rail project
Video by the Victorian Government details the proposed plan to remove nine level crossings and rebuild five railway stations between Caulfield and Dandenong.
According to the objectors, a rail tunnel is the only acceptable option, thus rendering any other option a cynical manoeuvre. I'm yet to hear a convincing argument why the new line must go underground. Admittedly, the government could do a better job explaining why it need not do so — why tunnelling this stretch of line would be too disruptive, expensive or restrictive from an urban planning perspective.
But let's not pretend this would persuade the protesters thundering "No sky rail." Their chant leaves me dubious about suggestions the Andrews government might have prevented this barney with "proper consultation".
Ambitious building projects invariably impact people living closest to the site. These residents should not be permitted to hijack public debate. They are, however, entitled to voice their displeasure. And the No Sky Rail president, who lives one metre from the rail corridor, deserves some sympathy; when frustration and fury overtake us we tend to throw everything at an argument, without sifting the outlandish from the reasonable.
It is reasonable to complain, as she does, that the nine-metre structure will likely block her northern sun. It is outlandish to evoke a hypothetical disaster scenario, such as a derailment causing "80,000 tonnes of fully laden freight" to come crashing down on homes. Yes, and planes can fall from the sky but we still have flight paths above residential areas. And the less said the better about her concerns paedophiles can peer down into her backyard pool when the kids are swimming. (Besides, the government says barriers will be erected on the viaduct to protect the privacy of nearby residents.)
The protesters cluster around the themes of the viaduct devaluing property prices (when arguably proximity to modernised public transport boosts the value of nearby homes) and being an "eyesore" that divides the community and invites undesirables to shelter in "ghettos" underneath. With depressing predictability, the opposition has endorsed their cause. It is what oppositions of all persuasions do — pander to local disaffection, even as it sets them up for charges of betrayal once in government. And even when the cause is less than deserving.
"Eyesore" is a subjective assessment and as in love, beauty in urban structures is in the eye of the beholder; we look admiringly on that which works for us. When Tony Abbott described wind farms as ugly his aesthetic preference reflected his indifference to their function. In my stomping ground, Carlisle Street, Balaclava, the elevated rail bridge carries our beloved emblem of place, the sculpture of the schooner Lady of St Kilda, tossed on a sea of mermaids and starfish.
"Nobody voted for a sky train way up in the air cutting a swathe through densely settled suburbs," said opposition transport spokesman David Davis in comments so dim they offend settled principles of physics. How can a structure "way up in the air" cut a swathe through a suburb on the ground? And don't existing railway lines divide communities? Isn't that why our ancestors referred to undesirables as coming from "the wrong side of the tracks?"
The government says the sky rail frees up "11 MCGs' worth" of public space for public benefit. A seductive propaganda video shows carpets of greenery, car parking spots, netball courts, civic plazas, a 12 kilometre pedestrian and bike path, revamped stations with seamless connections between trains and buses, footpaths sprouting in all directions. Connecting suburbs in other words — not dividing them.
Ian Woodcock, urban design lecturer at RMIT, has emerged as an advocate for a well-executed sky rail. He suggests concentrating our energies on holding the government to its "cutting edge" vision, ensuring the new stations come equipped with the best disability access, multiple entrances, user friendly transport connections, pleasing retail space.
Elevated rail delivers net benefits for communities around the world, he says. In Paris a market thrives under the metro viaduct at the Barbes-Rochechouart station. A project in Miami aims to retrofit the space beneath an elevated metro for public parks. Berlin plans to create a new nine-kilometre cycle route, replete with bike repair workshops, rest stops, cafes and beer gardens, under part of the city's U1 line. The viaduct would give cover, enabling cyclists to use the path all year round. Inspiring, no? Less an eyesore than an eye opener.
And I reckon there are also benefits for rail passengers, assuming they're not all paedophiles. On a recent trip to Bangkok, I travelled from the airport by sky rail, enjoying an expansive view of the city's vibrant chaos, the old districts nudging the gleaming skyscrapers, the jumble of freeways, concrete towers, footpaths bursting with life. It made the metropolis legible and gave me some perspective.
We could use some perspective in Melbourne. The kind that helps us see the big picture.
Julie Szego is an Age columnist, author and freelance journalist.