Back to the future: The Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal Project

Back to the future: The Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal Project

The train line from Melbourne CBD to Cranbourne and Pakenham is Melbourne's busiest rail corridor, crossed by some of Australia’s most congested roads, where boom gates were down for up to 82 minutes during the morning peak.

With a number of fatalities recorded at level crossings on both that corridor and others, in 2015 the Victorian Government tasked the Victoria-based Level Crossings Removal Project with removing 50 dangerous level crossings by 2022 in addition to other infrastructure upgrades across sections of Melbourne’s rail network.

One of its showpieces was the $1.6 billion Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal Project, an intensive logistical exercise led by project director Brett Summers.

One of Australian’s biggest construction plans, the Level Crossing Removal Project delivered the project with an alliance in conjunction with the likes of Lendlease, CPB Contractors, WSP, Aurecon and Metro Trains Melbourne.

They removed nine level crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong in Melbourne’s southeast by elevating the Cranbourne/Pakenham line over the road in three distinct sections.

Due to the program’s success, the government has expanded on the removal of 50 crossings to now eradicating 75 by 2022.

“A flagship program for the government, the Level Crossing Removal Project has already seen 29 level crossings removed out of the original 50 and following the result of the recent election, an additional 25 level crossings were prioritised for removal,” says Summers.

The Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal Project saw the build of five new stations and 321 piers, each up to nine metres high. Its 40,000 tonnes of steel and 588 concrete beams weighed more than 85,000 tonnes, and opened up 22.5 hectares of space – the open space is 11 times bigger than the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) thanks to building six kilometres of new elevated bridges.

But the stakes were high.

“It is the busiest rail corridor in Melbourne,” explains Summers, “so it has the most amount of people moving backwards and forwards, and we had to keep them moving pretty much the whole time getting them from point A to B, while we built this job in and around a live train environment.”

The biggest challenge was that it's a very tight rail corridor – less than 20 metres in some areas such as between Caulfield and Hughesdale. Many of the locations had residential properties that backed right up against the corridor – of the 113 houses that were eligible for purchase by the government under a Voluntary Purchase Scheme, 74 have settled to date, meaning the construction was very often right next to people’s homes and back fences. As a result, they pulled in the big guns by deploying a blue straddle carrier, which allowed the 2000-strong workforce to build above the existing train line, while the trains continued to run underneath.

Instead of lifting beams in a traditional method using cranes, needing lots of open space to truck the beams in, they were instead lifted and transported longitudinally down the corridor for installation between Caulfield and Hughesdale. “It’s the first time that has been done in Melbourne but it meant that we didn't need to use adjacent land,” he explains. “It was, obviously a huge logistical and safety challenge – but safety is at the forefront of everything we do, and lots of planning went into it.”

The technology for the straddle carrier is used throughout Asia, usually to launch big road structures, and it’s something the team saw and thought they would adopt to the rail environment. The project also used a track-laying machine. An Australian first, these machines move up and down the new elevated rail line to place pieces of track, using hydraulic technology built for efficiency and precision.

While the main benefits of the track-laying machine are speed and safety, it also played a key part in installing noise-reducing features of the design, including concrete ‘plinths’ – a quieter, smoother alternative to the traditional sleepers laid over stony ballast.

The last of the major works were completed around October 2018 and all the space underneath the train line – the 17-kilometre long shared user path and the linear park – is now open to the public.

“This was always seen as a relatively controversial project because we put the train line up in the air,” he reveals. “So, in the early days, there was a bit of trepidation in the community about what it would look like at the end. But it's been open to the public for a few months and it’s well-used by the community. We have people using the basketball courts, the table tennis tables, the playground equipment, joggers and cyclists, families riding their pushbikes along the entire length of the park.

“I've been out there myself for a jog and a run along the linear park. What has really been probably one of the proudest moments for the project team and myself is that it has really changed the face of these suburbs and the way that these people interact around the train line. “It's opened up the entire suburb and made their lives easier to get from point A to point B.” Social inclusion is a very strong policy at the Level Crossing Removal Project, and something the program is extremely proud of.

Whether it’s consulting train drivers and the end operators on the line about signal designs, helping veterans out with a job in the construction industry, or helping local underprivileged families, Summers says: “Every dollar that spent on this project, we tried to always find a way that we could return some benefit to the community.”

Sustainability and world's best-practice is also something that was at the forefront of everything the project did. From installing solar panels to using the wood from original stations to make seats and playgrounds scattering the corridor, to restoring station buildings – it worked with the Chisholm Institute of TAFE to restore the original heritage-listed Clayton station building – Summers explains it was important to retain the history.

“It's marrying the new with the old,” he says. “In the seating backs we've installed at all these stations, we recognise the history of each of the individual places. So, whilst it looks like a brand new station you can catch the train from, there's actually old historical images and photos so you get a sense of what that area used to look like.

“Again, we're very conscious that, whilst we were building new infrastructure, we wanted to recognise and look back and reflect on the past that'd come before us.”

Memorial plaques and monuments honouring soldiers who served in armed conflict along the corridor, including at Clayton and St Albans are also a nice touch, and the project works with Veterans in Construction, which helps secure veterans a pathway in to the construction industry.

There used to be an Avenue of Honour where trees had been planted for veterans. The project took the seeds from those original trees and planted them early on to grow saplings, “and we recreated that original Avenue of Honour in this remembrance space,” he adds.

“The feedback was hugely positive and we had our first Remembrance Day ceremony there on the 11th of November.”

The team also needed to remove some very old river red gums during the project and again, they took the seeds from those and planted them back the rail corridor.

“It was something we were very conscious of and hold as a badge of honour ­– the fact that we have repopulated with some of the original species of plants,” he smiles, revealing the project planted more than 30,000 trees and shrubs.

On the rail lines, both the train passengers and the drivers have been complimentary about the new tracks, replacing ones that were up to 100 years old.

“You don't get the clickety-clack and bouncing backwards and forwards of an old train,” he explains. “And when they hit these new sections, there is a significant change in the look, the feel, the sound of how the train behaves. It's very, very smooth.”

Although the level crossings have been removed between Caulfield and Dandenong, the same Alliance is also undertaking work to upgrade signalling and power infrastructure along the entire Cranbourne and Pakenham lines, in preparation for the introduction of High Capacity Metro Trains.

Victoria is investing $2.3 billion in 65 next-generation High Capacity Metro Trains, which are a fleet of electric multiple unit trains on order for use by Metro Trains Melbourne on the Melbourne rail network.

They will eventually become the primary rollingstock used in the Metro Tunnel when it opens in 2025 and are due to enter service in mid-2019.

Brett Summers