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Sky rail: can we tell the difference between petitions and parody any more?

Murrumbeena residents Karlee Browning and Tracey Bigg attend a protest against a proposed elevated railway line. Photo: Penny StephensSky rail project scores a skyfail on proper consultation

Residential campaigns in Melbourne are frequently beyond parody, so how can we tell when a petition is serious or satire?

It’s not easy these days.

Protests begin with serious concerns, but then they’re so often amplified with hysteria and hyperbole.

Level crossing removal was supposed to be the state government’s easiest infrastructure sell: a no-brainer, a building program everyone wanted, the solution to traffic congestion at boom gates.

But when Daniel Andrews unveiled plans for three sections of elevated rail to sail over intersections on the Cranbourne-Pakenham line, local residents formed the No SkyRails campaign to fight the flight path past their Murrumbeena backyards.

The opposition was so fierce so fast that some wondered if it had been astroturfed, arranged by the Opposition. But no, it’s a genuine grassroots revolt  –  fuelled in part by the shock felt by locals who weren’t consulted on the scope and scale of the raised railway lines that will loom over their back fences, and in part by a reasonable suspicion that the underpasses won’t be maintained properly. 

Artist’s impression of Murrumbeena station sky rail proposal opposed by No SkyRail campaign. Photo: Supplied

And now there’s a new, rival petition, No More Train Trenches.

This latest campaign condemns separate state plans to lower the rail line below ground level on other swathes of the sandbelt, such as McKinnon on the Frankston line, so that trains can travel under the cross roads.

Could they be serious?

Artist’s impression of the train underpass at McKinnon Road opposed by the No More Train Trenches campaign Photo: supplied

Trench construction of rail lines is disruptive, the petition argues, and not in a good way: it’s noisy, dirty and ugly.

On completion, the new petition says, a trench will “be a scar that cuts through the suburbs forever. It will accumulate rubbish. It will be at risk of flooding. It will be a magnet for graffiti and tagging.”

What’s more, “train travellers deserve beautiful train lines”.

What?  “We deserve beautiful views from the train when we travel.”

At this point, we started to suspect someone was taking the micky.

But the dystopian future of the Pakenham rail line predicted by No SkyRails spokeswoman Karlee Browning also seems preposterous, with prostitutes lurking in rubbish-strewn archways full of burnt-out cars while paedophiles peer into backyards at children in swimming pools.

She’s hardly the first objector to paint an extreme worst-case scenario.

Indeed, Melbourne rail blogger Marcus Wong points out that the “paedophile card” has become the urban planning equivalent of Godwin’s Law, the Nazi argument produced once everyone’s lost grip of the debate.

Suburban campaigns often look unreasonable from other postcodes. The householders who move next to pubs, clubs and even the Showgrounds and then file noise complaints seem ridiculous, but the doof doof booming from the hotel near your place is appalling and must be turned down.

Anyway, we reached out to No More Train Trenches, checking if they were legit. Campaigners are not usually bashful about their causes, so ‘Trenchy’s’ reluctance to engage directly was suspicious.

A fake, we decided. A clever one that made some valid points, but a fake.

On Sunday, we received an email from the campaign. Still anonymous.

Yes, the author admitted, it is satirical. A little.

“Of course the ‘No More Train Trenches’ campaign is tongue-in-cheek,” the author admitted. “It includes some spurious objections and is deliberately emotive – you’ve seen what it’s up against!”

“But it does point out some legitimate concerns and serious deficiencies of train trenches, that we have blindly accepted with recent projects at Mitcham, Springvale and Gardiner stations, and that are going to be delivered at Ormond, McKinnon and Bentleigh. We absolutely must demand better outcomes.”

Campaigns supporting planning proposals don’t get traction, the author said.

“It’s almost impossible to execute a successful campaign that supports something in the affirmative, especially when a groundswell of negative opinion already exists…

“So, rather than launching a ‘Support the Sky Train’ campaign, in direct and ugly confrontation with the “No Sky Rail” folks, I started the ‘No More Train Trenches’ campaign to give some airtime to the flaws of the most probable alternative.”

The trouble is, Melbourne must invest in major rail lines and roads in the next decade to cope with congestion, just as we must build high-density housing to accommodate our population boom. But as our anonymous petitioner points out, there are no perfect solutions.

“The honest truth about rail lines and grade separation is there’s no perfect method. They all have some good features, and some bad features. But once they’re done, we’ll be living with them for more than 50 years, so we had better get them right.”

This is a campaign I can get behind.

To get the best for this city, we all need to calm down. The one thing that definitely makes our lives worse is constant trench warfare over every possibility.

Michelle Griffin is state topic editor of The Age. 

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