STANDING IN THE WAY OF A SLEDGEHAMMER

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By Peter Dewar

With a daughter at the pointy end of high school, I’m sure Vivienne Gray has better things to do late afternoon. Still, there she props, at the busy Ferguson Street railway crossing in Williamstown under an overcast sky, clipboard in hand, counting pedestrian traffic.

Suggest Vivienne’s an activist and her reply is forthright: ‘Nah, activist is a few steps too far!’ And no, her hair is not hippie-braided; she doesn’t dress in ill-fitting hemp overalls. Vivienne is more like the softly-spoken mum you chat with while waiting your turn at parent-teacher interviews.

She once worked in strategic planning at a state and local level. Times have changed, but not the strategising. Vivienne, who also volunteers locally, now prepares for a tussle – all in the name of a more liveable ‘hood.

It began, three years ago, when she heard of plans to remove the crossing near heritage-listed North Williamstown station. Vivienne was horrified. ‘I’ve lived in Willi for the past 25 years and love the place too much to see it ruined by a poorly-conceived project.’

That, in Vivienne’s eyes, was then and still remains, a distinct possibility.

‘Removal of the level crossing (aka grade separation) is a huge infrastructure project that comes in four main forms: rail bridge (eg. Skyrail), rail under bridge, road overpass, (think Newport) or road underpass (eg. Francis Street, Yarraville),’ she explains.

But the closer Vivienne forensically delved, the more she was convinced grade separation may not be the best solution to the congestion and safety issues that beset an entangled, octopus-like junction.

‘As others have said, grade separation here is like cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer,’ Vivienne continues.

She started by emailing the local state government member to express her concerns. Then with the help of friends, leaflets were circulated in the neighbourhood. A Facebook Page, ‘Keep the Crossing’ came next.

In 2017, residents living near the crossing sent out an invitation to the broader community for a meeting to discuss the crossing. Vivienne attended. It was decided to form the Williamstown Crossing Group (WCG).

Her rail journey then headed into rockier terrain.

After many meetings considering options for the crossing, WCG decided to publish an ‘awareness-raising postcard’ with a visual impression of Skyrail at Ferguson Street. This didn’t please everyone in the community: ‘Too early; it hasn’t been decided yet,’ and ‘It’s an exaggeration, that won’t be built’ – some of a handful of negative sentiments expressed.

Sure, the government’s final design had yet to pinned down. It’s still the case. But, Vivienne thinks the community best sort out their attitude to the fraught crossing sooner rather than later. She believes government preliminary planning is underway ready for a formal public consultation kick-off in 2019.

As for WCG’s artistic impression, the detailed colour image was drawn precisely to the dimensions of Skyrail now hurtling overhead past back fences in south-eastern suburbs. Willi residents within cooee of the Ferguson Street intersection may wish to look for themselves.

In essence, Vivienne wants the community to be on the front foot. ‘I’d like to see more awareness … for people to get involved and informed,’ she says. She won’t take it as given her neighbourhood’s interests will rate highly in the government’s final design. Particularly after hearing stories that in the south-east: ‘affected residents were door-knocked the night before the official announcement of Skyrail.’

Nobody, certainly not Vivienne, is denying something needs to be done at a crossing that is a peak-hour nightmare and has taken two lives. So what does she say to grade separation supporters who say safety comes first? Indeed, what is her solution?

In a sentence – ‘careful what you wish for,’ says Vivienne.

She claims the Level Crossing Authority’s own research shows an increase in traffic and only minor savings in motorist time after crossing removal. For Vivienne, a good start would be addressing the public transport deficit in outer suburbs, helping reduce an increasing number of cars and trucks using inner-western suburbs’ streets.

As for the Fergusson Street crossing, WCG and Vivienne’s preferred first option is a combination of improvements to the current crossing and building a large pedestrian underpass. But, should grade separation be deemed non-negotiable by government, ‘their most favoured option is for rail under road,’ says Vivienne.

Hobsons Bay municipality is also in the midst of its own community liaison process to help shape the Council’s position.

So time will tell if Willi ends up with a safer junction, one that manages to avoid Vivienne’s nightmare: a traffic sewer of cars and ever increasing number of trucks that ruins the character around a gateway to our west’s history-laden coastal town.

Vivienne’s husband and daughter see her leaning over the computer or heading out to a meeting and know ‘crossing business is on again’.

Actually, it follows in the spirit of a long-held tradition out west. Parks, hospitals, improved air quality and reduced truck traffic – just a few of our suburbs’ features that have at their origin, community-minded individuals.

For more information on the community response to plans for the removal of the rail crossing at Ferguson Street, Williamstown:

www.hobsonsbay.vic.gov.au/ Council/Current-projects/Roads-and-streetscapes-projects/Level-Crossing- Removal-Project-State-Government

www.williamstowncrossinggroup.com

WESTPECTIVE: Peter has always lived here. Writing about the west has opened his eyes to its many heroes.

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