City Loop: The Commuter's Hades

The City Loop was implemented in 1985 to alleviate rail congestion. With Melbourne's recent boom in population it no longer fulfils this end. What we have now is a claustrophobic commuter's Hades.


Approaching from the East in peak hour, Parliament station is the first arrival. This station is perhaps the most tube-like of all stations, being the disembarkment point of the majority of Melbourne's Civil Servants (yours truly included). Crisp and anti-septic you advance to the meat-processing lines of the escalator. Here the station is notably different from the tube, since the walls are not lined with advertising, but are composed of a distinct monochromatic absence of visual distraction. It is quite nice not to have soft drinks and tickets to Mama Mia stuffed down your throat as you glide upwards, yet this acommerciality has the unnerving effect of evoking clinical dystopias and making the abattoir reflections even more prescient.

You will find as you reach the top that there are pictures of Victorian refinery, taken from inside the Parliament building itself. It is a peculiar inversion of the stations in the
Moscow Metro system. We are not participants in, but detached observers of, opulent luxury. Peasants doled out pictures of Marie Antoinette. But never mind, let us eat cake! For here it is at the coffee stall, purveyor of sweets and second rate Java. The fuel of the proles, the lubricant of the beast.

There is better coffee in the nearby Italian-run cafes, but the black gloop here is made for you faster, and more anonymously. It is for this reason that it has a constant hover of customers. Familiarity is unwelcome at 7:30am.

Many morning commuters will perhaps not notice, but waiting on the platforms of Parliament one is subjected to easy listening music to subversively sooth/bludgeon the somewhat frenetic atmosphere into a neutral docility. And so it is with James Blunt in the ears one re-boards the Loop.


Initially, arriving at Melbourne Central feels little different from Parliament, except perhaps that the platforms are a little shabbier. It is only when disembarking and finding oneself bamboozled with not the quasi-benevolence of the Civil Service, but the raging maelstrom of retail commerce that the difference becomes apparent. The station is housed within the Melbourne Central shopping complex, and before even emerging into daylight the rail passenger finds themselves in the middle of an underground lair of supermarkets, newsagents and coffee stalls. This plane has to be negociated to escape, but the escalators lead only to the main attraction; the mall itself. The underground retail strip is but a prelude to the masterwork upstairs.

Housed inside a soaring glass dome is an old factory, now retail space, surrounded by a plethora of shopping dreams. The outside has been caged inside. The past aggressively co-opted by the transparent, hi-tech phallus of hypermodernity. It rises above the city as a latter-day fertility symbol, bestowing its glory on all who enter. Purchase a new pair of jeans, order a latte and ye shall be blessed.

Interestingly, when it was built in 1981, this station was named Museum, in reference to the nearby State Library, which previously housed a museum complex. However, this inconvenient and distracting intellectual name ("Wha? Where's the museum?" "Shut up and shop") was dropped in 1997 with the arrival of the current retail centre.


Flagstaff is in many ways the mirror image of Parliament. From inside, the two stations are virtually identical. And just as Parliament serves the Civil Service offices, Flagstaff serves those of the judiciary, with many law courts and law firms being housed nearby. This 'professional' nature of the station is reinforced by its closure on weekends and public holidays. In other words, "If you aren't working here you have no business being here!"


Southern Cross (formerly Spencer Street) station is easily my favourite of the Loop destinations. It's undulating roof sits atop a grand open-spaced celebration of the railways, like those cathedrals of modernity in 19th century England, France and America. But with its blue neon lights, gleaming steel and 'Skybus'to the airport, it takes on a distinctly 21st (or possibly 22nd) century edge. The magnificent structure was designed by Nicholas Grimshaw. Like Norman Foster, Grimshaw is an architect of hideously brazen corporatism, and yet whose geometry often instills a sense of wonder. JG Ballard is unashamedly in love with the Heathrow Hilton, for the reason that "I wish the whole of Britain looked as though everyone were about to leave for Mars" and Southern Cross too achieves this. The commuter arriving not at a banalified structure of drudgery but a spaceport. On closer inspection the destinations are less exotic than Mars (Bendigo, Geelong etc) but the sense of being about to leave for an otherworldly adventure is always palpable. Even the proximity to yet another dowdy and anonymous retail outlet cannot impinge on its vitality. The major problem is that after arriving into the kind of prophesied future of techno-leisure we read about in childrens' books, the commuters file out of the exits in order to fulfil their mundane socio-economic commitments. The station is in the right place we just need the world to catch up.


Flinders Street is in strict contrast to Southern Cross. It's facade, often featured in articles like 'Melbourne's Best Buildings' is well regarded by Melburnians, yet represents that sickly Victoriana that dominates too much of the city. It is the type of colonial posturing that remains inexplicably popular. Why live in an imagined past when you can shape the future? Most offensive though is the interior. The platforms and concourses are shabby and the trains allocated to them in a confusing and illogical manner. Trains to Frankston may leave from platform 8 or 9, which often involves a last minute pelt when the legendarily inconsistent Connex trains disappear from their scheduled times before suddenly and mysteriously reappearing. The sound system is half-conked out and miscalibrated, leading to muffled and incomprehensible announcements some days and aggressively shrill and loud announcements the next. The ticket entrance is crammed and ill-equipped to deal with large crowds. The saving grace of the place is an underground laneway of independent record shops, clothes shops and a zine publishing house. Yet this is mostly closed in the morning and evening, making it a treat for the young, the unemployed and the flanuer. At peak time, when pulsating crowds infest the leisureliness of the surroundings with a hellish stupor, their doors are firmly closed. They say to the herds of daytimne employment "this is not for you!". And when one emerges like Orpheus from this commuter Hades, who else greets you but Cerberus, his heads emerging from the wall.

The message? The hellishness has only just begun my friends...


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