“I’m not a champion of level crossings” Steve Dimopoulos says, when we start talking, but anyone following the Labor MP on Facebook may have a different view.
For the past few months, he has been guiding his constituency through each phase of the ambitious project to remove nine level crossings from the Cranbourne and Pakenham lines, arguably the busiest in Melbourne. Some of them are already open, the first effects already being felt by the community. More are to open within the next few days, in Carnegie, Murrumbeena and Hughesdale.
“Carnegie and Murrumbeena stations will open in the middle of June but they will be fully accessible within two to three months,” he says.
“Hughesdale will take two to three months longer. By November, most of the stations will be ready. So yes, I don’t want to sound like a champion for the government, I genuinely believe in it,” he explains.
Are you happy with how the level crossing removal project has rolled out so far?
I’m extraordinarily happy. Yes, there have been some hurdles and some issues that have caused concern to some people along the way and I don’t want to trivialise them. But when you take a step back and look at this huge project, any objective person would say that it is enormous. Focusing in my community, the Cranbourne [and] Pakenham lines [are] the busiest train lines in the whole of Victoria by a country mile: we have over a million passengers a year on that line and the fact that we are removing nine level crossings without closing the line for much of the time, only a few weeks here and there, that is extraordinary. On top of that, we are extending the platforms so that they can accommodate seven-carriage trains, instead of the five-carriage that run today. And within three to four years, there will be 10-carriage trains. So the goal is to get 11,000 more passengers on to the train in the two hours between 7–9 am and again in the evening. I’ve lived in the area my whole life and I know the sinking feeling you get when you drive up Poath Road or Murrumbeena Road and you have to wait for 15 or 20 minutes for the trains to pass. It’s not just a first-world problem; given the way we live now, when you get to spend 40 minutes stuck there daily, this is time lost from your life, from spending time with the people you love. We are the first who said that we’ll remove it and we did. The other thing I’m excited about is that we have ordered 65 high capacity trains, overwhelmingly made in Melbourne, and all of them will run on the Cranbourne [and] Pakenham lines, with more to come for the rest of Melbourne. So this project is not only beneficial for passengers, it has created jobs: engineering jobs, and cadetships and training opportunities for young people.
You mentioned issues of concern to people, and from the start there has been an accusation that the project did not go through a proper consultation process. Is this the case?
There’s certainly [been] a propaganda campaign from the very beginning against this project, and it is mainly led by the Liberal Party. This has caused doubt in good ordinary people’s minds who don’t have time to do research, they’re busy living their lives, going to work, feeding their children. As for consultations, we have had about 50 of them, I have put up a full list on my website. In those consultations we discussed many options but basically there were two significant options: elevated rail and trench. We had pictures of both and invited engineers [to speak] to the people about each.
Then why do people think there hasn’t been a proper consultation?
Two things come to mind. We announced this project [at] the end of March 2015; we had been elected four months earlier, in November 2014. Earlier in 2014, the Dennis Napthine Liberal Government was doing consultation in the same venues about their project, which was much smaller. They were to do only four level crossing removals, and they were looking in doing it in a trench. When we came to office we said that we are not going to accept this project because, mostly because it was very expensive for only four level crossings and because they were going to privatise the line for 25 years; we were not going to do this for Melbourne’s busiest line. So we said that we’re removing all nine, we’re going to liberate the entire line from Dandenong to the city from level crossings and we’re going to do it properly. The problem is that some people thought that it was part of the same project. So when they got the flyers in the mail they had already been through that a few months back. They should have paid attention that a new government was elected and a new project was commissioned but nonetheless, we definitely learnt some lessons for the future, on how to do things differently.
So, if you were to start now, what would you do differently?
Particularly for the people who live right next to the corridor, I would make sure that the government would go to every single one of them, not just put a letter in their mail. I would go the extra effort to visit them and explain that this is a new government, a new project, we’re doing an elevated rail because it is more feasible for many reasons, for drainage reasons, for the gas pipeline in Carnegie, etc. This is a very small part of the community, but it is very important, because they’re directly impacted. That’s why we developed the voluntary purchase scheme so people can sell their house to the government, and many did. I feel very comfortable that people had the opportunity to exercise their right to leave.
Speaking about properties, there have been some concerns that this project would effectively cause devaluation of the neighbouring properties. How do you respond to that?
I’m no real estate agent, no valuer, I’m not an expert and I don’t want to pretend that I am. However, what I understand from the Real Estate Institute of Victoria, and from the office of the Victorian Government architects, [is that] they could not find any example where property values declined when you improve infrastructure, when you build new schools, new roads, or remove level crossings. Not one case.
This is a general statement, of course, but it has profound importance on how you value property. I have recently met with real estate professionals and I think their anxiety levels are starting to change a bit. Yes, while the project is still going on, it is difficult to tell what it will look like in the end, but I can’t see where property would decline.
Now that the project is moving forward, the main concern of people is about the public space created under the corridor; about its maintenance, its safety and its potential use. Are you also concerned about this?
As far as safety is concerned, if you leave out the part where the stations are, where the viaducts join up and you look at the rest of the line, you will find that the area under the elevated rail is far thinner than people would expect. I can’t see anyone finding any solace or shade or opportunity to inject drugs or engage in criminal activity. I’m not saying that it is as narrow as a clothesline, but it is definitely not the contiguous structure that you see in Richmond or at Flinders Street Station. Our biggest priority is maintenance. I want a maintenance regime that is extraordinary, not having to ring some public service number to report graffiti and be on hold. I want it removed immediately within 24 hours which will be unbelievable compared to Victorian standards of the past 50 years, not only for this project, and we should set an example. Both the Premier and the Minister of Transport know my preference and the community’s preference for that and we’re working towards this and I’m hoping to be able to say something about it in the next few months. The Victorian Government also signed a new contract with Metro last year that imposes penalties to Metro if they don’t clean up graffiti. It is a Melbourne-wide contract that particularly [says] that they should remove graffiti within 48 hours, for spaces close to the stations, and within a few days for spaces further away from the station.
My other interest is that I want to see the parks, the gardens, the carparks and the other community facilities that we promised when the drawings came out two years ago. The design needs to be right. The best advice is that when people use the space, it becomes alive, it’s less opportunity for crime and less opportunity for graffiti. I want to see Sunday markets there and people using the space. I’ve already talked to Lions clubs and Rotary clubs and to the Murrumbeena Tennis Club about this.
It’s not going to be like Federation Square, but at least if we use the space, we can make it a safe place and a place where people come together.