Melbourne’s massive underground rail project is drawing on the wide-ranging skills of University alumni. By Anders Furze.
When engineering and arts alumnus Matt van der Peet heard a job was going at Victoria’s biggest-ever public infrastructure project, he leapt at the opportunity. The reason, he says, was simple.
“It’s going to be iconic.”
Construction of the $10.9 billion Melbourne Metro Tunnel is expected to finish some time in 2026, when the city will have twin nine-kilometre railway tunnels running through five new stations. The project will connect the Sunbury line in Melbourne’s west to the Pakenham and Cranbourne lines in the south-east.
Construction is divided into six precincts: one for each of the new stations at Domain, CBD South, CBD North, Parkville and Arden (in North Melbourne), and another covering the sections in between. The State Government will decide the final names of each new station after considering suggestions from the public.
The Metro Tunnel is a much-needed intervention in Melbourne’s ageing public transport system. The city’s population is booming. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Melbourne was Australia’s fastest-growing capital city in the 10 years to 2016, adding
more than 964,600 people.
“As the city evolves, it seems as though the need to get to the CBD is becoming more and more pressing,” notes senior project engineer and University of Melbourne alumnus Michael O’Sullivan (BE(CivEng) (Hons) 2005).
The three-decades-old City Loop is now at capacity. While more services can be added to other parts of the network, much of the demand is still centred on getting to and from the CBD. The Metro Tunnel will offer “turn up and go” services, along the lines of metros in cities such as London and Hong Kong.
“[There will be] no having to check for a timetable,” explains van der Peet (BE(EnvEng)(Hons) 2005, BA 2005). “You know if you rock up at a station that there’ll be a train there within a few minutes, because they’ll be so frequent.”
Above ground, Melbourne’s heavy traffic is impacting everybody’s quality of life, according to arts and engineering alumna Nina Michaelides (BA 2002, BE(Mech&ManufEng)(Hons) 2002), who is a senior project engineer for the Domain precinct.
“I hope it is a catalyst for Melbourne growing into a big city where it is easier to catch public transport, walk and ride than it is to drive.”
Cutting down commuting time is a priority. Melburnians can spend well over a dozen hours commuting each week. “If your commute is cut, then that means you have more time to do other things [like] spending time with your family,” O’Sullivan notes.
While most of us work, live and play in our cities without really paying attention to the systems humming around us, engineers are paid to obsess over them.
“I’m a civil engineer,” says O’Sullivan. “Classically, a civil engineer’s duties would be to provide infrastructure for the community, for life to go on – the things that operate in the background. At the core of engineering I’ve always thought … [is] a responsibility for trying to make things more efficient, for optimising things.”
Of course, there is one clear exception to the rule of general ignorance: we take notice when things go wrong.
Headlines like “Flinders Street in meltdown” are a familiar sight in Melbourne thanks to a key weakness of the city’s rail system. Because everything is connected, if there’s a problem on one train line, it can cascade into problems for other lines.
The Metro Tunnel aims to remedy that congestion. O’Sullivan notes that one of the “great benefits” of the project is that “if there’s a problem on one line then, yes, that’s still a problem, but at least it’s confined to that line.”
The result will be “the biggest infrastructure project in Melbourne since the City Loop”, according to Veronica Fink, a Bachelor of Environments alumna who is in the second year of the Metro Tunnel graduate program.
Reflecting the wide variety of skills that are increasingly being sought to solve infrastructure problems, the 18-month program is open to graduates from a variety of disciplines including engineering, planning and environment, accounting, safety, and communications.
In Parkville, Fink (BEnv 2014) sat in on workshops with representatives from the University, hospitals, the local council and others, all getting together to talk about what they wanted from their station.
“For someone in their first year of working, and for somebody who went to Melbourne Uni every day – I know that area really well – it was so cool to see the curtain drawn, to see how it works behind the scenes.”
She is particularly excited about how the new station will use what’s called biophilic design, a type of construction that uses organic design principles.
“[It] has proven positive impacts on people’s health and mental health, and the coolest thing is it doesn’t have to be a live plant,” she explains. “So, rather than straight poles, you could have them in more of a leaf form, or an organic shape.
“It is a well-incorporated initiative that helps support the sustainability targets in the project.” The city of Melbourne emerges from an almost mind-boggling number of overlapping systems and processes, and designing an intervention on the scale of the Metro Tunnel is no simple task.
But there’s a genuine sense from those involved that, despite the challenges, their work will be worth it.
“When it’s completed, and Parkville Station is in place, I’m going to be really proud to say ‘I was the project manager on that’,” says Matt van der Peet. “I helped make this happen.”
WHAT THE METRO RAIL PROJECT WILL DELIVER
- Twin nine-kilometre rail tunnels from the west of the city to the south-east as part of a new Sunbury to Cranbourne/
- Pakenham line.
- Five new underground stations – Arden (in North Melbourne), Parkville, CBD North, CBD South and Domain (near the Shrine of Remembrance).
- Capacity for 39,000 additional peak-hour passengers a day.
- More frequent services.
- Better access to education, health, employment and cultural opportunities.
- Less congestion on the St Kilda Road/Swanston Street tram corridor.
Read about the new Parkville station at the University.