June 5, 2016 – 1:29PM
Transport Reporter for The Age
Nik Dow was one of the key campaigners to stop the Upfield line being closed in the 1980s and ’90s. Photo: Jason South
Nik Dow stands at the 130 year-old Park Street boom gates, at the point where the Upfield railway line rises from a deep cutting through Royal Park to meet the gentrifying, but still gritty, back streets of Brunswick.
The hand-operated gates have been preserved because they are part of the most intact example in Melbourne of what a 19th century railway looked like.
But their heritage status, along with the line’s many gatekeepers’ cabins and old signal posts, are a legacy of the line’s historical neglect as much as a piece of 19th century railway history.
They were still in use until the late 1990s, decades after all other Melbourne level crossings had been automated, while governments pondered whether to close the line forever.
Mr Dow doesn’t take the Upfield train often these days. But he knows how close it came to being ripped up.
He was one of many in the community who fought three successive state governments that tried to close the line in the 1980s and 1990s. But when he tells people this now, he gets a lot of blank looks.
“People don’t believe it,” he says. “What government in their right mind would shut a rail line?”
One of tens of thousands of flyers distributed during the campaign. Image: Supplied
It’s a fair question. Nowadays state governments that can’t deliver a reliable rail service risk getting kicked out of office.
But in the cash-strapped ’80s and early ’90s, two Liberal governments and one Labor government tried to close the Upfield line rather than spend the millions of dollars needed to modernise it.
A report for the Cain Labor government concluded that the line had too few passengers. That it duplicated tram route 19 so wasn’t really needed, and that its antiquated signals and staffed boom gates were too old and too expensive to operate.
So the government announced a plan to convert it to light rail and get rid of the tram tracks on Sydney Road.
Traders were in uproar, but with no bulldozer to lie in front of, the campaign to save the line had to get creative.
“We held the tram up for maybe two minutes trying to get wheelchairs and surfboards and bicycles on it,” Mr Dow says. “We gave out leaflets and let them go on their way and then we’d do the next tram. We might be there for half an hour, just getting the word out.”
In the end the plan to kill a rail line that ran through its own safe seats became too politically damaging for Labor and they dropped it, only for the Kennett government to sweep in and announce the line would be shut, along with several other rail lines across Victoria.
The southern section of the Upfield line was in the path of CityLink, the Liberals’ signature road project.
Mr Dow believes the line “came very close to being closed” in the early ’90s.
Upgrade Upfield Co-ordinating Committee Newsletter from June 1993. Image supplied.
Alan Brown was transport minister in the Kennett government. He deferred the date of execution while a panel of planning experts assessed the best alignment for CityLink.
“When we became the government, Victoria’s finances were in a very parlous state, there’s no question about that, and we did look to where we could make change that was sensible and that would make substantial savings, but also we were conscious of the future of Melbourne’s growth,” Mr Brown says.
Ultimately he chose to keep the Upfield line and build CityLink over the top of it, becoming an unlikely saviour of the chronically neglected public transport link through Labor’s heartland.
“There was really nothing in it for us politically,” he says. “It was a line that serviced electorates that the Labor Party held and would clearly continue to hold, but it was the right decision for Melbourne.”
It’s his proudest achievement in the transport portfolio, along with the city circle tram, he says.
It is just 21 years since the line was spared from closure and Mr Brown says he shudders to think what congestion would be like without it.
Commuters got a rude taste last week of what life would be like with just one rail line servicing the city’s north-west.
A major power failure shut the Craigieburn line for hours on Tuesday, and Metro bussed hundreds of passengers over to Upfield in the morning peak.
Among those caught up in the meltdown was Louis Ziras, a regular Upfield line commuter to the city from Batman station in Coburg North.
He uses a motorised wheelchair and was unable to board a train, even though he was just five stops from the start of the line.
“You really can’t make people make way for a wheelchair when there is no space,” Mr Ziras said.
“The train was full by Batman, because it was being filled up by Craigieburn passengers.”
The next city-bound train was cancelled, and with a 20-minute wait between trains, he was stranded on the platform for more than an hour.
Commuter chaos at North Melbourne station after the Craigieburn line was suspended last week. Picture: Justin McManus
Alan Brown admitted when he announced the Upfield line would be kept open in April 1995 that it was “the poor relation” of Melbourne’s rail network.
But these days it is the third-fastest growing line in Melbourne, its patronage forecast to more than double in the next 20 years due to rapid urban development.
In Moreland, where 23 per cent of residents catch public transport to work, new buildings are springing up near the line that have no car parking, residents given a yearly myki pass instead.
And there are new plans for the line’s extension in coming years, although the Andrews government has been fairly quiet about them.
The Upfield line is the most intact example in Melbourne of a 19th century railway. Image supplied.
Buried in the detail of the 2016-17 state budget is $5 million towards reopening the line north of Upfield through industrial Somerton, to connect it to the Craigieburn line.
That stretch of the line was shut in 1956 but will be reopened within five to 10 years so V/Line’s Seymour trains, which currently run on the congested Craigieburn line, can use the Upfield line instead.
Reopening the line will pave the way for Seymour line commuters to get a train every 20 minutes in the peak. Public Transport Victoria’s rail plans are that eventually the Upfield line will be electrified all the way to Wallan, just beyond the city limits.
It’s a long-term plan that gives Mr Dow immense satisfaction to see.
The community campaign to save the Upfield line put four key proposals to government, one of which was to extend electric trains to Craigieburn via Upfield.
“Sometimes in a democracy you win,” Mr Dow says.
Source : The Age