Architecture

The new Upfield railway line development is a triumph, restoring parkland to space-starved citizens. By Naomi Stead.

New look for Upfield railway line

The new Coburg station exterior.
Credit: Courtesy Level Crossing Removal Project

An architecture critic needs to be a good eavesdropper. Over the years I’ve lurked in many a new building, watching and listening as members of the public have performed sophisticated critiques of their own. Often these are implicit – how people move through and occupy a space, which bits they are drawn to, or avoid, or vandalise. But they’re sometimes also spoken aloud: folk might not use the specialised – some say jargon-ridden – language of architects, but they sure know what they like.

So here I am on a grey Saturday afternoon, loitering again, on a bench beneath the recently raised Upfield train line in the inner north of Melbourne. A young couple are waiting for someone at the end of their street – which formerly stopped dead at the rail line, and now opens to a lively pedestrian thoroughfare. Their friend, arriving, becomes animated: gesturing at the structure above us, the brilliant colour of the pylons, the new seating. “This is way better!” he says. “There’s a kind of [he searches for the word] spot here!”

He’s right, of course. But it wasn’t a given that this would become a place. Indeed, many feared that it wouldn’t.

The idea of grade separation of road and rail isn’t new – it’s been an ongoing project on the Melbourne rail network since the early 20th century. Trains should be separated from other vehicles, the argument goes, because removing on-grade rail crossings avoids collisions, reduces congestion at crossing points and allows freer movement on the roads, including for people waiting at the boom gates on buses and trams. This brings better efficiency and capacity across the rail network – an essential requirement in a city with a growing population.

In 2014, the Victorian Labor government came to power on the promise of removing 50 “dangerous and congested” level crossings over eight years. It was later expanded to 85 crossings, with 47 already gone. Many assumed the solution would be “rail down” – lowering the train line into a trench or cutting. This has the advantage of being out of sight. But it also has disadvantages: the continued severance of suburbs and communities on either side, and huge expense. Sometimes, because of width or water table issues, it’s impossible.

The solution in many locations has in fact been “rail up”, the raising of the line. As urban design academic Ian Woodcock has argued, elevated rail has many benefits: stitching urban fabric back into a connected whole, releasing new undercroft space for community use, providing an exhilarating ride for train passengers and better integrating “multimodal” travel. But “rail up” is perceived to have dramatic disadvantages as well, and opposition to the derisively nicknamed “skyrail” continues to be vigorous wherever it’s proposed.

A good example of this unrest was seen on the Caulfield to Dandenong line, one of the earliest, longest and most complex of the raised rail projects, completed in 2018. The community opposition was vocal, the rhetoric sometimes lurid. There was talk of loaded freight trains crashing down on houses, paedophiles peering down on backyard swimming pools and burnt-out stolen cars being dumped beneath the raised railway line. More sensibly, the community worried about noise, nuisance, overshadowing, overlooking, unsightliness, “rat-running” of cars through formerly quiet culs-de-sac, reduced property value and a general settling-in of urban blight.

Now that it’s finished, though, the pudding has revealed its proof – the project returned 22.5 hectares of railway land to the community, including a full 17 kilometres of linear park and bikeways, that are now widely and well used by the community. Overlooking is managed with extensive privacy screens, nuisance is countered by the volume of people and activity and “eyes on the street”. The noise from overhead trains is quite interestingly different from on-ground – less honking and clattering and squealing steel on steel, more of a dull, smooth rumble. The community unrest seems to have largely subsided.

The Upfield line had its own local particularities. One of the narrowest rail corridors on the network, it also had significant flooding issues. The Upfield bike path was a major cycle thoroughfare, despite being a skinny concrete strip squeezed between the rail line and a wall of graffitied back fences. Locals worried about the fate of two red-brick heritage train stations. And above all there was intense dismay at the proposed felling of scores of mature trees in the Gandolfo Gardens to make way for construction.

The finished Upfield line rises across Moreland Road in the south, eliminates four level crossings, adds two new train stations and, 2.5 kilometres later, sinks back to ground level north of Bell Street in the heart of Coburg. I’m going to assume it fulfils its traffic decongestion and safety functions – at a project cost of some $540 million, one would hope so. What’s remarkable is what it does in addition: transforming a monofunctional gravelled train line into a multitudinous public space, combining grey and green and social infrastructure into a new whole.

Much of this magic happens in the new linear park beneath the train viaduct, designed by landscape architects Tract. This landscape manages stormwater, “rewilds” the basins and will eventually provide wildlife habitat and shade. The sheer volume of planting is impressive, even if it does currently look very raw. The much-lamented lost trees have reportedly been replaced threefold.

The park is traversed by separate cycling and walking tracks, stringing together a sequence of new community recreation facilities: adventure playground, dog park, outdoor fitness and picnic spaces. Arrival at different activity zones is indicated through bold colour coding and signage on the piers. The bike path, now wider and smoother and with better sightlines and night-lighting, plus bike repair facilities and secure parking at the train stations, has turned into a cyclists’ paradise.

In fact the walking and bike tracks are already operating almost at capacity, at times seemingly above it. The walking path is thronged with people, to the point that its width seems inadequate – families stray over to the bike path seeking more room. In conversation, Deiter Lim, Tract’s managing director, asked wryly whether it’s possible to be “too successful” in such community uses. It’s a good problem to have, but I suspect further work will be needed on the path – a point where bike and pedestrian trails cross near the Coburg station also had me wincing.

The brick heritage stations have been lovingly restored and sit – entirely recast in their new mega-infrastructural context – at the feet of two new stations by architects Wood Marsh. These share a heroic scale, despite small footprints: given the essential task here is vertical circulation, moving passengers from ground level up some 10 metres to the raised platforms, the height and volume provide an opportunity for a grandeur rarely seen in small civic buildings. The long slot of tall, straight, cascading stairs at Moreland station is particularly elegant.

Conversely, the Coburg station is jaunty – its facade treatment, punched round windows, signage and night-lighting are full of joie de vivre. Wood Marsh notes that the large arched windows allude to other famous Melbourne arches – Roy Grounds’ National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road and the entry to Flinders Street Station. Such bold allusions might seem like overreach for a small suburban station but this building has pluck and claims for itself an outsize civic presence.

The whole project is not quite finished – some activity areas are yet to open and artworks still to be installed. It is also not perfect; the elevated rail is ugliest at the points where it rises from and returns to ground level, and the edges are still blunt – that wall of fences remains. We shall see how the community appropriates the spaces, colonises the gardens, maybe transforms back fences into lively frontages. Also we’ll see how much this will be allowed or enabled by the new custodians at Moreland City Council. Not all of the locals are happy, although someone quipped to me that on the project’s opening, journalists “couldn’t find anyone to complain about it”. In fact, neither could I. There is an overwhelming feeling that it’s just so much better than it could have been.

In Melbourne’s long winter of pandemic discontent, it is deeply pleasing that the space-starved citizens of Coburg have a new park, just when they needed it. The project has generated an almost palpable sense of pleasure and relief from the local community. Sure enough, it’s a spot.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "Overpass of distinction".

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Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and professor of architecture at Monash University.