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Author: Kate Follington
It all began with a plan
In 1969 a bold new vision for Melbourne’s public transport system was presented to the state government with a deadline for completion in mind; the year 1985. It’s not clear why the Melbourne Metropolitan Transportation Plan set its target date a modest 16 years past the publication of the plan. Perhaps to coincide with a mid 80s visit from Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen when throngs of double denim fans would descend on the city and demand an efficient train ride? Whatever the reason, the public transport developments that emerged from that plan have more than outlasted the '80s rock star era, in fact, almost fifty years on and it continues to transport millions of Victorians in and out of the City every week.
Probably the most significant part of the public transport plan was the development of an underground metro train system known shortly after as the Melbourne Underground Railway Loop (MURL) and managed by the MURL Authority. Today it's known simply as the City Loop and many of the original records from this massive public works project are held in the state archives of Public Record Office Victoria at the Victorian Archives Centre, including the photographic collection of the construction effort.
An underground train tunnel beneath Melbourne's city centre wasn't a new idea, in fact it had been proposed since the 1920s. In 1926 The Argus newspaper interviewed a former engineer of the railways and he argued that other major cities had dealt with their commuter congestion problems by simply going underground "... Melbourne, owing to its undulating contours, Fix this textwas well adapted for such railways." Mr Soame even sketched up an underground rail loop diagram for the article which, in hindsight, is remarkably similar to the route finally adopted in 1969 only with a few additional stations.
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic 1848-1957) Thursday 17 June 1926 Page 14
Presumably the Second World War soon drained the State of capital funds for anything as ambitious as underground rail so the congestion just got worse. According to the report, commuter traffic during peak hour was expected to double from 1964 levels to 663,000 trips daily by 1985, and they warned something needed to be done quickly to plan for this growth beyond simply increasing the number of trains to Flinders Street Station.
“Any approach which solved the train congestion but did not also deal effectively with the passenger congestion, at best, could be no more than a temporary solution. A work study analysis by the Railways showed that with 181 trains operating through Flinders Street congestion would reach intolerable levels.”
(Page 34. Melbourne Metropolitan Transportation Plan. Melbourne Transportation Committee. 1969)
The only option is to go underground
The report insisted the only viable solution was a multi-station terminal system underground, positioned north of Flinders Street. Two years later construction began on four single tracks running beneath Spring and La Trobe Streets, each 3.7 km long. Before its construction 16 rail lines were forced to run through two stations, Flinders Street and Spencer Street (now Southern Cross) causing considerable delay.
MURL would spread commuters across three extra stations: Museum Central (Melbourne Central), Parliament, and Flagstaff. In addition, to reduce travel times even further the plan proposed eastern routes should enter the loop in an anti-clockwise direction in the morning delivering commuters closer to their destination sooner, but re-route anti-clockwise in the evening. The two commuter lines left off the loop system were those coming in from St Kilda and Port Phillip forcing them to switch to trams or other train lines once they arrived at Flinders Street Station.
Melbourne Metropolitan Transportation Plan. Melbourne Transportation Committee. 1969
In 1972 a giant boring machine, affectionately called The Mole, was brought in to complete the first phase of the loop system which would funnel trains coming in from Burnley. The Mole worked tirelessly for five years but once that section was completed other excavation methods were applied to build the rest of the loop.
Take a look at The Mole in action in this Youtube video clip at around 5 minutes 35 seconds.
The photo collection of the MURL project is held at Public Record Office Victoria (VPRS Record Series Number 18053 Photographs, Slides, and Negatives) and the series covers almost two decades of the construction effort. Some images evoke a spooky supernatural ambience with silhouettes of workers set against cacophonous tunnels, while others document in tedious detail earth removal or formal ceremonies.
Closed on Weekends
Melbourne's inner city culture today is vastly different to how it was forty years ago, when people simply cleared out after peak hour and headed back to the suburbs. It’s hard to believe that up until the year 2000 the City Loop was closed or had limited services on weekends due to a lack of use. If the loop shut down these days Melbourne Central shopping centre, which is a hive of activity abuzz with international students, would grind to a halt and the alleyway cafes and bars Melbourne is famous for would go out of business.
In today’s terms the congestion traffic warned of in the report, namely 663,000 daily train trips by 1985, might seem modest but it was a decent estimate of future growth levels. The Public Transport Victoria's Annual Report for 2017 recorded 236.8 million people had traveled on the inner city train network that year. If divided by the number of annual working days it would indicate around 907 thousand people commute in and out of Melbourne for work each day. Given its been 50 years since they last planned for a leap in rail commuter traffic it's not surprising that an exciting new underground rail project, the Metro Tunnel Project, is now underway spreading its tunnel tentacles south and further north to Parkville and North Melbourne.
Some interesting facts about the City Loop
- Tunnelling works began in 1971. The boring machine used for some of the excavation work, affectionately known as ‘The Mole’, undertook boring on the Burnley group of lines until September 1977. The remaining tunnels were constructed and progressively brought into service from January 1981 to April 1985.
- Roughly 900,000 cubic metres of earth was excavated in the construction process and 300,000 cubic metres of concrete poured to form the stations and line the tunnel walls.
- A concrete viaduct was built next to the existing quadruple track Flinders Street Viaduct. This was to replace capacity for non-City Loop trains. This was completed in 1978.
- Museum Station (Melbourne Central) was the first to open. It was built using the cut and cover method with a maximum depth of 29 metres, it opened in January 1981.
- Parliament Station is the deepest of the three loop stations, excavated at a maximum depth of 39 metres using mining methods, it opened in January 1983 followed by Flagstaff Station in 1985.
Some interesting resources
- Melbourne Metropolitan Transportation Plan, Melbourne Transportation Committee, 1969
- Series VPRS 2987: Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Authority