News / Transport

Transport activists ready to escalate Sydney Road campaign 

Third rally for accessible tram stops draws crowd of 100

Protesters, including Christian Astourian (left front) marching past the Brunswick Town Hall on Saturday. 

Mark Phillips

CAMPAIGNERS for accessible public transport in Sydney Road will draw inspiration from the famous fight to save the Upfield line three decades ago as they dig in for the long haul. 

About 100 people took part in a rally for accessible tram stops on Saturday – the third event of its type since the campaign was launched a year ago

As at the previous events, the rally concluded with a slow march from Barkly Square to the Brunswick Town Hall, where the group gathered briefly in the Dawson Street intersection to block a tram headed into the city. Those attending included wheelchair and mobility device users, elderly people and parents with children in prams, who all have difficulties using trams. 

Saturday’s rally was held to mark the first anniversary of the campaign for accessible public transport which was initially launched in the shadow of the Brunswick level crossing removal project. 

While that project has now been postponed for up to three years, campaigners say there is no reason why work cannot go ahead to build accessible tram stops in the meantime. 

And they have signalled they will adopt tactics from the successful campaign to save the Upfield line, which had been slated for closure by the successive Labor and Liberal governments in the 1980s and 1990s. 

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Sydney Road is notorious for its lack of accessible tram stops, with just two in a 5.5km stretch between Brunswick Road and the end of the 19 tram route in North Coburg. 

The Victorian Government is technically in breach of the commonwealth Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport, which required all states and territories to make their public transport infrastructure fully accessible by the end of 2022. 

But according to evidence provided to a state Parliament inquiry last year, just 28% of Melbourne’s tram stops were accessible and at that pace it would take until 2066 to bring them all up to standard.

The looming level crossing removal and skyrail project between Park and Albion streets had given the campaign for accessible tram stops in Sydney Road extra impetus because it would have meant trains were unavailable during the construction works, leaving no other public transport options for people with accessibility issues. 

The level crossing removal project has been put on hold because of state government financial pressures, but accessibility advocates still want improvements to be made to tram stops as soon as possible. 

One of the organisers of Saturday’s rally, motorised wheelchair user Christian Astourian, said campaigners were frustrated by a lack of urgency from the state government. 

“This is one of the most basic human rights that people can demand, which is mobility,” he said. “To be able to be mobile to travel. To be able to travel on public transport like everybody in society.  

“We know this is not only about people with disability, it’s about everybody.” 

The rally concluded with a blockade of a tram heading towards the city.

The chairperson of the Disability Resources Centre, Larissa MacFarlane, said campaigning for fully accessible public transport in Melbourne went back to 2002 and they urged campaigners not to give up the fight despite the slow progress. 

They said a lack of accessible public transport limited the quality of life for people with disabilities. 

“If you can’t catch [public] transport, you can’t get to your job,” they told the rally. “You can’t visit your family, your friends, you can’t vote. There’s so many things you can’t do.” 

State MLC for Northern Metropolitan and Greens candidate for the federal electorate of Wills, Samantha Ratnam, said the cost of accessible tram stops in Sydney Road was just a fraction of the budget for the Brunswick level crossing project. 

“[The state government] found $20 billion for private toll roads for cars, but they can’t find 3% of what it was going to cost for the level crossing removals to make these tram stops accessible to ensure that people have the very basic of rights to get where they need to go to live a life,” she said. 

“It begs the question: where are the priorities of this state government?” 

Merri-bek councillor Sue Bolton said protesters for accessible public transport were in for the long haul and they should take inspiration from activists who saved the Upfield line from closure in the 1980s and 1990s. 

96-year-old Brunswick resident Percy Rogers attended the rally as a representative of older members of the community.

One plan proposed by the Cain Government in the late-1980s would have seen the railway line replaced with a light rail and the tram tracks in Sydney Road torn up so it could only be used by motor vehicles. 

She said those campaigns had succeeded because they had built alliances between disability advocates, local government and trade unions and used direct action, and a similar approach would be needed to win accessible tram stops. 

“Just imagine where we’d be if the activists hadn’t won that campaign and saved the line,” she said. 

Bolton said that at a meeting earlier this year with several members of the Victorian Labor government, she had warned that if there was not positive action on Sydney Road, “we will do something similar” to the Upfield line campaign. 

“We’re determined to keep going, because each one of the people here supporting this rally is representing 20, 30, 50, 100 other people. We’ve got to keep going because the politicians will win if we stop mobilising. 

“We’ve got to keep on mobilising to force them to prioritise this issue.” 

Bolton said no government MPs were invited to speak at the rally as none was willing to agree to the pre-conditions of support for accessible tram stops before the skyrail was built.

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