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When I visited after ten years I expected Melbourne’s public transport to be of European standard

As an ex-Melburnian living abroad for the past 11 years, I’ve watched with excitement from a distance as Daniel Andrews unveiled splashy projects that promise to “revolutionize” public transport in Melbourne. New Tunnels! No more level crossings! Trains to the airport, and (maybe one day) a glorious loop connecting a series of fast-growing suburbs. Perhaps Australia’s most European city would eventually boast European-style public transport within a few years, where the city could be easily criss-crossed.

Anticipating a recent month-long visit – during which I relied entirely on public transport – I expected getting around Melbourne to be a smoother, more user-friendly experience. Sure, the big things are usually still in the works. But with Andrews and company throwing over $12 billion on the Metro Tunnel and hundreds of millions apiece to remove dozens of level crossings, I assumed they would have eagerly sewn up much smaller problems that wouldn’t require bulldozers and tunnel drills.

Trams come to a halt in Sydney Road bottleneck.Credit:Simon Schluter

I took it wrong. The best I can say about my car-free month in Melbourne is that it gave me plenty of time for my holiday reading: while I waited 30 minutes for trains, sat on trams stuck in traffic and hung around for buses that didn’t show up. The two biggest changes I’ve noticed have done nothing to make public transportation more convenient. The first was the armed public security guards at train stations at night. An understandable idea (and, to be fair, initially carried out by former Liberal Prime Minister Ted Baillieu), but it’s debatable whether stations like leafy Surrey Hills are so rife with banditry to warrant it.

The other big change was the flashy new stations resulting from the ongoing level crossing removal project. The futuristic skyrail stations like Coburg and Bell are undeniably cool to look at. But the immediate, primary benefit of these expensive projects is for drivers, so they don’t get held up at barriers.

It is ironic that of the major transport projects planned for Melbourne, the first to be implemented mainly helps drivers. But if you look at the tram network, giving priority to motorists seems to be standard practice. On major streets such as Sydney Road and Smith Street, trams are generally forced to share their lane with traffic. This means waiting behind drivers on right-turn lanes and not being remotely competitive as an efficient way to get around.

The benefits of removing level crossings, such as at Coburg station, have mainly benefited motorists, not those using public transport.

The benefits of removing level crossings, such as at Coburg station, have mainly benefited motorists, not those using public transport.Credit:Justin McManus

This isn’t quantum physics: the Department of Transport and Planning understands that trams run faster when they’re not stuck in traffic, and for this reason areas like Sydney Road have rush-hour roads. But do you want to take the tram at noon? Too bad, enjoy the stalemate. It is astonishing that a government is committed enough to spend billions on new transport infrastructure, yet is unable to separate trams from cars, a task that could be accomplished with signs and light roadwork.

Is it any wonder that a car in Melbourne feels like a necessity? If The age reported Monday, many local residents are still avoid public transportwith train, tram and bus usage a quarter below 2019 levels during the first 20 days of February, but traffic on major highways and arterial roads was only 4 percent below 2019 levels.

The need for a car felt especially acute when trying to travel between suburbs from east to west (between Essendon, Brunswick, Preston and Thornbury in my case). This trek was only doable during weekday business hours, where buses should run every 20 minutes on most routes (emphasis on “should”). Evenings and weekends were closer to every 40 minutes, with services ending at a paltry 9 p.m.