Railways in Melbourne

Melbourne railway network
Metropolitan Melbourne train network logo
Old Flinders Street Station.jpg
Flinders street train station melbourne.jpg
Flinders Street railway station in 2009
LocaleMelbourne, Victoria
Transit typeCommuter rail
Number of lines17
Number of stations218
Began operation12 September 1854; 163 years ago (1854-09-12)
Operator(s)Metro Trains Melbourne
CharacterAt-grade with elevated and underground sections
Train length6 cars (3 for shuttles)
Track gauge1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in) Victorian broad gauge
Old gaugeVarious
Electrification1500 V DC overhead (excluding Stony Point, which is not electrified)

Trains in the Melbourne rail network are operated by two train companies. Metro Trains Melbourne operates suburban railway network in Melbourne under franchise from the Government of Victoria. The other operator is the V/Line, a government owned operator who operates trains between Melbourne and regional Victoria. Freight trains also run within the Melbourne rail network.

The suburban network is based on a commuter rail model centred on the Melbourne Central Business District (CBD) and Flinders Street station, rather than a rapid transit model, with a focus on services at peak periods. A rapid transit system for Melbourne, called the Melbourne Metro Rail Project, is currently under construction.

Melbourne's railway network consists of 16 electrified lines, the central City Loop subway, and 212 stations, with a total length of 372 km of electrified lines. These infrastructure are owned by VicTrack and leased to the train operators in Melbourne. The railway network is primarily at ground level, with more than 170 level crossings. The track network is used by the suburban network between approximately 5:00 a.m. and midnight, and some tracks are also used by freight trains and V/Line regional services.

In the 2016–17 financial year, the Melbourne rail network recorded 236.8 million passenger trips, a 0.5% increase on the previous year.[1]

In addition to the commuter railway network, there are heritage railways in Melbourne such as the Puffing Billy Railway.


Melbourne was established in 1836. In 1839, the Government Surveyor Robert Hoddle, who laid out Melbourne's road grid, provided for a railway linking Melbourne and Hobsons Bay.

First railway

On 7 September 1851 a public meeting called for a railway linking Melbourne to Sandridge (now called Port Melbourne) which led to the establishment on 20 January 1853 of the privately owned Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company. On 8 February 1853 the Government also approved the establishment of the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company and the Melbourne, Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway Company. Work began in March 1853 on the Sandridge railway line, stretching 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) from the Melbourne (or City) terminus (on the site of modern-day Flinders Street station) to Sandridge. The line was owned and operated by Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company. The line opened in 1854.

In 1855 the Government conducted enquiries and carried out surveys into country railways. On 1 April 1856, the Railway Department was established as part of the Board of Land and Works with George Christian Darbyshire being appointed Engineer in Chief. On 23 May of that year the Melbourne, Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway Company was taken over by the Government.

Trains were ordered from Robert Stephenson and Company of the United Kingdom. The first train was locally built by Robertson, Martin & Smith, however, owing to delays in shipping. Australia's first steam locomotive was built in ten weeks and cost £2,700. Forming the first steam train to travel in Australia, it made its maiden trip on 12 September 1854.[2]

The opening of the line occurred during the period of the Victorian gold rush—a time when both Melbourne and Victoria undertook massive capital works, each with its own gala opening. The inaugural journey on the Sandridge line was no exception. According to the Argus newspaper's report of the next day: "Long before the hour appointed . . . a great crowd assembled round the station at the Melbourne terminus, lining the whole of Flinders Street". Lieutenant-Governor Sir Charles Hotham and Lady Hotham were aboard the train—which consisted of two first class carriages and one second class—and were presented with satin copies of the railway's timetable and bylaws.

The trip took 10 minutes, none of the later stations along the line having been built yet. On arriving at Station Pier (onto which the tracks extended), it was hailed with gun-salutes by the warships and .

By March 1855, the four engines ordered from the UK were all in service, with trains running every half-hour. They were named Melbourne, Sandridge, Victoria, and Yarra (after the Yarra River over which the line crossed).

The network was extended with lines being built to the suburbs, reaching a peak by the 1900s. Electrification of the system commenced from 1919, with electric multiple unit operation commencing at the same time.

Early privateers

Steam-hauled suburban train departing North Melbourne station for Sunshine.

Melbourne's second railway line opened 13 May 1857, when the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company opened their 4.5 km line from the Melbourne (or City) Terminus to St Kilda. This line was later extended by the St Kilda and Brighton Railway Company, which opened a line from St Kilda to Brighton in 1857.

Country lines were also built in 1857, with the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company opening a line from Geelong to Newport. In 1859 the Williamstown railway line opened, connecting Williamstown and Geelong to Spencer Street station.

More country lines followed in 1859 when Victorian Railways opened a line from the Williamstown line at Footscray, to Sunbury, taking over from the Melbourne, Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway Company that was established in 1853 to build a railway to Echuca, but failed to make any progress.

The first line to Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs was opened in 1859 by the Melbourne and Suburban Railway Company, which ran from Princes Bridge railway station to Punt Road (Richmond), South Yarra, and Prahran. This line was extended to Windsor in 1860, connecting with the St Kilda and Brighton Railway Company line from St Kilda. The new line replaced the indirect St Kilda and Windsor line to the city, which was closed in 1867.

Another suburban line was built by the Melbourne and Essendon Railway Company in 1860, with their line running from North Melbourne to Essendon, with a branch line from Newmarket to Flemington Racecourse opening in 1861. On the eastern side of town, the Melbourne and Suburban Railway Company opened a branch line from Richmond to Burnley and Hawthorn in 1861.

By this point, the railways of Melbourne was a disjointed group of city centric lines, with various companies operating from three separate city terminals—Princes Bridge, Flinders Street, and Spencer Street stations.

Some of the smaller companies were encountering financial problems. The St Kilda and Brighton Railway Company and Melbourne and Suburban Railway Company were absorbed by the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company in 1865, forming the Melbourne and Hobsons Bay United Railway Company. The Melbourne and Essendon Railway Company was taken over by the Victorian Government in 1867. The Melbourne and Hobsons Bay United Railway Company was not taken over by the Victorian Government until 1878.

The terminals themselves were linked in 1879, when track was built along the southern side of Flinders Street at street level to connect with Spencer Street station, although this was only used for freight traffic at night. It was not until 1889 that the two track Flinders Street Viaduct was built between the two city terminus stations.

Outwards expansion also continued, with major trunk lines being opened into rural Victoria. Victorian Railways extended their line to Broadmeadows in 1872 as part of the line to Seymour and Albury-Wodonga. In 1879 the Gippsland line was opened from South Yarra to Caulfield, Pakenham and Bairnsdale.

Land boom lines

Connex train arriving at Camberwell railway station

The 1870s and 1880s were a time of great growth and prosperity in Melbourne. Land speculation companies were formed, to buy up outer suburban land cheaply, and to agitate for suburban railways to be built or extended to serve these land holdings and increase land values. By 1880 the "Land Boom" was in full swing in Victoria, with the passing of the Railway Construction Act 1884, later known as the Octopus Act for the 66 lines across the state that were authorised in it.[3]

The Frankston line began with the opening of a line from Caulfield to Mordialloc in 1881, reaching the terminus in 1882. A second new suburban railway line was opened from Spencer Street Station to Coburg in 1884, and extended to Somerton in 1889, meeting the main line from Spencer Street to Wodonga. Land developers opened a private railway from Newport to Altona in 1888, but it was closed in 1890, due to lack of demand.

The line from Hawthorn was extended, to Camberwell in 1882, Lilydale in 1883, and Healesville in 1889. In addition, a branch line (now known as the Belgrave line) was opened from Ringwood to Upper Ferntree Gully in 1889. A short branch two station was also opened from Hawthorn to Kew in 1887. The Brighton Beach line was also extended to Sandringham in 1887.

In 1888, railways came to the north eastern suburbs with the opening of the Inner Circle line from Spencer Street station via Royal Park station to what is now Victoria Park station, and then on to Heidelberg. A branch was also opened off the Inner Circle in Fitzroy North, to Epping and Whittlesea in 1888 and 1889. Trains between Spencer Street and Heidelberg reversed at Victoria Park until a link was opened between Victoria Park and Princes Bridge in 1901.

The Outer Circle line opened in 1890, linking Oakleigh (on the Gippsland line) to Riversdale (with a branch to Camberwell on the Lilydale line) and Fairfield (on the Heidelberg line). Originally envisaged to link the Gippsland line with Spencer Street station in the 1870s, this reason disappeared with the building of a direct link via South Yarra before the line had even opened. The line saw little traffic as it traversed empty paddocks, and with no though traffic, the Outer Circle was closed in sections between 1893 and 1897. The Camberwell to Ashburton stretch of the Outer Circle re-opened in 1899, then in 1900, part of the northern section of the Outer Circle reopened as a shuttle service between East Camberwell and Deepdene station. This line closed in 1927.

At the same time as the Outer Circle, a railway was opened from Burnley to Darling and a junction with the Outer Circle at Waverley Road (near the modern East Malvern). A stub of the future Glen Waverley line, it was cut back to Darling in 1895.

The land boom railway building hit a peak with the construction of the Rosstown Railway between Elsternwick and Oakleigh. Built by William Murry Ross, the line was planned from the 1870s to serve a sugar beet mill near Caulfield. Construction commenced in 1883, followed by rebuilding in 1888. Ross's debt grew, and he attempted to sell the line many times without success. The line never opened to traffic and was later dismantled.

The stock market crash of 1891 lead to an extended period of economic depression, and put an end to railway construction until the next decade.

By the 1900s, the driving force for new railway lines were the farmers in what is now Melbourne's outer suburbs. In the Dandenong Ranges a narrow gauge 762 mm line was opened from Upper Ferntree Gully to Belgrave and Gembrook in 1900 to serve the local farming and timber community. In the Yarra Valley a branch was opened from Lilydale to Yarra Junction and Warburton in 1901.

On the other side of the valley, the Heidelberg line was extended to Eltham in 1902 and Hurstbridge in 1912. The freight only Mont Park line was also opened in 1911, branching from Macleod. Finally on the Mornington Peninsula, a branch was built from Bittern to Red Hill in 1921.


First set of Tait suburban passenger carriages hauled by steam locomotive Dde 750, 1913
Four car Tait train at the Spring Vale Cemetery platform

Planning for electrification was started by Victorian Railways chairman Thomas James Tait, who engaged English engineer Charles Hesterman Merz to deliver a report on the electrification of the Melbourne suburban network. His first report in 1908 recommended a three-stage plan over 2 years, covering 200 route km of existing lines and almost 500 suburban carriages (approximately 80 trains). The report was considered by the Government and the Railway Commissioners, and Merz was engaged to deliver a second report based on their feedback.

Delivered in 1912, this second report recommended an expanded system of electrification to 240 route km. of existing lines (463 track km), and almost 800 suburban carriages (approximately 130 trains). The works were approved by the State Government in December 1912. It was envisaged that the first electric trains would be running by 1915, and the project would be completed by 1917. However, progress fell behind because World War I restrictions prevented electrical equipment being imported from the United Kingdom.

Rolling stock construction continued, with a number of older suburban carriages converted for electric use as the Swing Door trains, while the first of the Tait trains were introduced as steam hauled carriages. Track expansion was also carried out, with four tracks being provided between South Yarra and Caulfield, as well as grade separation from roads. Victorian Railways in 1918 opened the Newport power station, the largest power station in the urban area, to supply electricity as part of the electrification project.[4] (The State Electricity Commission of Victoria was formed in 1921 but did not take over Newport A power station until 1951.)

The first trials did not occur until October 1918 on the Flemington Racecourse line. Driver training continued on this line until 18 May 1919, when the first electric train ran between Sandringham and Essendon, simulating revenue services. Electric services started on 28 May 1919 with the first train running to Essendon, then on to Sandringham. Full services started the next day. The Burnley–Darling line, the Fawkner line, the reopened branch to Altona, and the Williamstown line followed in 1920.

The line to Broadmeadows, the Whittlesea line to Reservoir, the Bendigo line to St Albans, and the inner sections of the Hurstbridge line were electrified in 1921. The Gippsland line to Dandenong and Frankston line were electrified in 1922, as was the inner section of the Ringwood line due to regrading works.

The original electrification scheme was completed in 1923, but over the next three years a number of short extensions were carried out. The Ashburton line was electrified in 1924, final works on the Lilydale line were completed in 1925, as was electrification on the line to Upper Ferntree Gully. Electrification on the outer ends of the Hurstbridge line were completed by 1926, the Whittlesea line to Thomastown was electrified in 1929, and the Burnley - Darling line was extended to Glen Waverley in 1930 to become the Glen Waverley line.

Post-War rebuilding

A retired Harris train

Railways experienced increased patronage into the 1940s, but railway improvements recommended in the Ashworth Improvement Plan were delayed until after World War II.[5] It was not until 1950 that the Victorian Railways were able to put their Operation Phoenix rebuilding plan into action. The delivery of the Harris trains, the first steel suburban trains on the network, enabled the retirement of the oldest of the Swing Door trains.

Railway lines were extended during this period to encompass Melbourne's growing suburban footprint. The Ashburton line was extended along the old Outer Circle track formation to Alamein station in 1948. The Fawkner line to Upfield and the Reservoir line to Lalor were both electrified in 1959, the Epping line reaching Epping in 1964. A great deal of track amplification was also undertaken, with a number of single line sections eliminated.[6]

The Upper Ferntree Gully to Belgrave section of the Gembrook narrow gauge line was converted to broad gauge and electrified in 1962. The remainder of the line was closed in 1954, but has been progressively reopened by the Puffing Billy Railway. The Pakenham line was electrified in 1954 as part of the works being carried out on the Gippsland line, but suburban services to Pakenham did not start until 1975.

During this rebuilding, a number of little used lines were closed on the edges of Melbourne. The Bittern to Red Hill line closed in 1953, the line between Epping and Whittlesea closed in 1959, and the Lilydale to Warburton line closed in 1964. The final stages of the rebuilding stretched into the 1970s, with track amplification carried out to Footscray, and Box Hill, and the first deliveries of the stainless steel Hitachi trains. Detailed planning for the Doncaster line also commenced in this period, and by 1972 the route was decided upon. Despite rising costs, the state governments of the period continued to make assurances that the line would be built,[7] but by 1984 land for the line had been sold.[7]


Comeng train on the Werribee line

By the late 1970s, the state of Melbourne's railway network was very run down. The last major investment on the suburban tracks had taken place fifty years earlier with the completion of Glen Waverley line in 1930 and extensions of all suburban services on existing non-electrified lines during the 1950s. Sixty-year-old Tait trains (known colloquially as "red rattlers") were still in operation, and inner city congestion at Flinders Street led to peak hour delays.

The Lonie Report, delivered in 1980, called for financial rationalisation and the closure of the Port Melbourne, St. Kilda, Altona, Williamstown, Alamein and Sandringham lines, and their replacement with buses. These recommendations and cuts were not enacted. However, many uneconomic branch lines were closed throughout the rest of the state. The line between Lilydale and Healesville was closed in 1980, now used by the Yarra Valley Railway beyond Yarra Glen. The branch from Baxter to Mornington was closed in 1981, but the line south of Moorooduc is now operated by the Mornington Railway as a tourist route.

In the 1980s, the government authority overseeing Victorian Railways became VicRail and was restructured along corporate lines. The Metrol train control centre was opened in 1980 to coordinate trains throughout the network. Public transport in Melbourne was also reorganised, with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) formed in 1983 to coordinate all train, tram and bus services in the city. Between 1981 and 1985 the underground City Loop line was opened around central Melbourne to improve the capacity of Flinders and Spencer Street stations to handle suburban trains and to offer a better choice of stations to users.

In 1983 the Werribee line was electrified, followed two years later by an extension of the Altona line to Laverton. The Port Melbourne and St Kilda lines were converted to standard gauge light rail in 1987, to accommodate tram routes 111 (now route 109) and 96.

One of Melbourne's newest railway stations, Roxburgh Park

The early 1990s saw further changes, with the MTA reborn as the Public Transport Corporation, trading as "The Met".

State Governments of both sides of politics began to push for reform of the railway network, proposing conversion of the Upfield, Williamstown and Alamein lines to light rail. These proposals failed, with the Upfield line instead receiving a series of upgrades to replace labour-intensive manual signalling systems. Federal government funding was made available for the electrification of the Cranbourne line in 1995. Rationalisation of the Jolimont Railyards commenced, allowing the creation of Melbourne Park and the later Federation Square.

The Kennett Government also initiated a number of reforms to the operation of the railway system, with guards being abolished from suburban trains and train drivers taking over the task of door operation. Stations were de-manned, and the Metcard ticketing system was introduced to cut the need for staff even further.


The biggest change by the government was privatisation. In 1997 "The Met" was split into two operating units—"Hillside Trains" and "Bayside Trains", each to be franchised to a different private operator. Ownership of land and infrastructure for rail and tram services was transferred to a new Victorian Government agency, VicTrack. In addition, a statutory office was created in Government—the Director of Public Transport—with specific responsibility for entering into franchise agreements with public transport operators for the operation of rail and tram services throughout Victoria. In 1999 the process was complete, with Connex Melbourne and M>Train each operating half of the network. By 2004 the parent company of M>Train (National Express) withdrew from operating public transport in Victoria, and their half of the suburban network was passed to Connex as part of a renegotiated contract.

The franchising contracts contained provisions for the new operators to refurbish the Comeng trains, and to replace the older Hitachi trains—Connex chose the Alstom X'Trapolis while M>Train chose Siemens. Since privatisation the Victorian Government has funded expansions to the suburban network—the electrification of the St. Albans line was extended to Watergardens (near the former Sydenham station) in 2002, and the Broadmeadows line was extended to Craigieburn in 2007.

In 2006, Professor Paul Mees and a group of academics estimated that privatisation had cost taxpayers $1.2 billion more than if the system had remained both publicly owned and operated. With the franchise extensions in 2009, taxpayers will pay an estimated $2.1 billion more by 2010.[8] The Institute of Public Affairs has released its own report into Melbourne's privatisation citing it as a modest success and pointing out that patronage had returned to Melbourne's railways (37.6% increase) after ballooning deficits and the use of old rolling stock had deterred patronage .[9] The Auditor General of Victoria also performed a comprehensive audit report into the franchises and found that "the franchises represent reasonable value for money".[10]

In November 2007, Singapore's SMRT Transit and Hong Kong's MTR Corporation Limited expressed interest in taking control of Melbourne's suburban rail network from Connex in November 2009, when their contract was to be reviewed.[11]

On 25 June 2009, Connex lost its bid to renew its contract with the Victorian Government. Hong Kong backed and owned MTR Corporation took over the Melbourne train network on 30 November 2009, operating as a locally themed consortium Metro Trains Melbourne.[12][13] MTR is a non-public railway owner and operator in Hong Kong where it is well known for constructing Transit Oriented Developments (TODS) around its stations.

Recent years

Metropolitan train patronage 1999-2013 based on official state government figures.

In 2003, a union call was released that demanded the restaffing of all rail stations by 2006 for safety reasons.[14] Then-Transport Minister Lynne Kosky stated that the Government's A$10.5 billion 10-year major transport plan, announced in May 2006, had significantly underestimated the usage rates of public transport.[15] The State Government responded by purchasing new trains and introduced a new ticketing option that enabled commuters to pay a reduced fare if their journey finished by 7am.[citation needed]

In May 2005, the State Government commissioned a A$25 million study on the construction of a third track to the Dandenong line to increase capacity for a rapidly growing suburban area. The scheduled time frame for the study consisted of a working group report in 2007; provided that approval is the outcome of the report, a tender process was to be initiated in 2008; and construction would finish in 2011. The cost of the triplication process was expected to be as high as A$1 billion, as project activities included the organization of corresponding bus services for the rail line, changes to stations and platforms along the line, and the improvement of the signalling system.[16]

In 2008, the Victorian Labor Government released the A$38 billion Victorian Transport Plan that included a A$4.5 billion extension of the city's underground train network—the first new underground rail line since the construction of the City Loop 25 years earlier. Then-Premier John Brumby claimed that the plan would allow thousands more passengers to use the suburban rail network. The underground line was also designed to provide direct rail access to Melbourne University, the Women's Hospital and the Royal Children's Hospital.[17][18]

Following the investment announcement, the plan for the introduction of more than 200 new weekly train services was released to tackle overcrowding on the city's busiest train lines, a problem that had been attributed to a lack of trains and falling reliability.[19] In the three-year period between 2005 and 2008, rail patronage grew by 35 per cent.[20]

The Regional Rail Link was completed in June 2015, comprising a new railway line which cost $3.6 billion to provide new tracks to separate regional trains from Metro trains, and which increased the capacity on the network.