Blog template

After the mess of the last attempt, and noting the large number of people reading on mobile devices (phones 39%, tablet 10%), I’ve switched to a plain but hopefully more mobile-friendly blog template.

Here is a photo of some people doing geeky things to test the pictures.

Computers at Pax

I’ll probably do some tweaking, but any feedback on how it looks (particularly on phones and tablets) is very welcome!

Update: Testing a photo from Flickr:

Melbourne city, viewed from Regional Rail Link near Tarneit

The V/Line mess: finding the solution is more important than the blame game

V/Line has been a real mess since January. On Thursday 14/1 it was announced a large number of V/Locity carriages were being pulled out of service due to an issue with wheels.

The result was lots of cancelled or shorter trains, meaning delays and crowding, particularly in peak hour.

Publicly at least, it’s still unclear what the root cause is, but it seems that contributing factors might include:

  • Tight curves on the overpass between North Melbourne and Southern Cross — but note that overpass actually came into service some 18 months before the rest of Regional Rail Link. You’d think the problems would have been seen earlier
  • high-speed curves along the RRL route to Geelong adding to wear and tear
  • V/Line not adequately applying lubrication to wheel sets
  • most V/Line trains no longer traversing Metro tracks (where, I’m told, lubrication is done) since June when the full RRL opened
  • a huge increase in kilometres since RRL opened, but inadequate maintenance

V/Line North Melbourne flyover

More serious than any crowding or delay issues is that some shorter V/Locity trains may failing to trigger level crossings. Again, speculation is rife, but it seems to be related to the types of track circuits used on much of the Metro network. This resulted in V/Locity carriages being banned from most Metro tracks, with many V/Line services either terminating on the city fringe, or being replaced by coaches, causing huge disruption for passengers.

Apparently the problem isn’t new — it’s been known about for some years, but rather than spend the money and fix it, it seems running longer trains was seen as a suitable workaround. Until now.

The government reaction is to have announced that axle counters would be installed on the relevant Metro tracks — which is good.

And they announced a period of free travel — which is bad. It’s not helping regular V/Line passengers by having extra people on the trains while they are at reduced capacity.

By the end of the month, V/Line CEO Theo Taifalos had resigned, but of course that doesn’t solve the problem.

Root causes

Investigations continue into precisely what’s caused the problem, and apparently lubrication is now being applied, and lots of wheels being checked and replaced as needed. Let’s hope they get to the bottom of it quickly.

Apart from any specific technical problem, there’s a sense that V/Line has had some trouble adjusting from being a regional rail operator to being a hybrid regional/commuter rail operator — heavy passenger loads, crowding, and high-frequency train services perhaps are just something they don’t really have the expertise in (though Theo Taifalos would have; he previously worked for Queensland Rail).

For a simple example, witness the mess that is the Geelong service: on weekdays trains run every 20 minutes, but with a myriad of destinations and departure platforms at Southern Cross — this makes it very difficult for a passenger to navigate their way to the platform.

V/Line departures: Southern Cross, peak hour

Regional Rail Link design

The Age is reporting that the issues really started with cutbacks made in 2010 to Regional Rail Link. The Age has documentation that supports this, something about it doesn’t quite add up.

Firstly, design elements such as re-using the North Melbourne flyover (with its tight curves) were decided well before then.

My notes show that by May 2009 (when the project was funded by the Federal government) it was already planned to use (but modify) the existing flyover, rather than build a new one.

In fact I found this note from 14/5/2009, which pretty much describes precisely what got built: the existing flyover … (will) be expanded or otherwise modified to take some of the regional trains directly into platforms 1-8 without conflicting with metro movements

Once confirmed, PTUA raised concerns about it privately with the Regional Rail Link Authority in mid-2009, because using the existing flyover would mean bypassing North Melbourne station — meaning no interchange for V/Line to/from Loop trains. Discussions at the time confirmed that it had been decided earlier, indeed before RRLA came into being.

(I’ve been told that RRLA and similar authorities such as the Level Crossing Removal Authority are strictly delivery organisations. They build what they’re told to, in the case of RRLA, by the government/Department of Transport.)

PTUA also raised the issue publicly in early 2010.

Around that time, RRLA said they’d review the decision — and apparently they did study some options for a second flyover but ultimately rejected it in 2010. It might be this consideration that was ruled-out, rather than a reduction in the scope of the original design, which never included a new flyover anyway.

Certainly by September 2010 it was locked-in — the EES documents released that month show the design would use the existing flyover:
RRL: North Melbourne Flyover (EES, September 2010)

Secondly, some seem to be implying that the overpass itself is to blame for V/Line’s wheel crisis.

Speed and interchange issues aside, there should be nothing inherently wrong with having curves on a railway, provided they meet the relevant track design standards, and the train operator agrees to the design.

If subsequently the trains are not maintained in such a condition to use the track, then that’s obviously a problem with the train fleet, not a problem with the track design.

Are we really going to build railways with no sharp curves or turnouts from now on, because V/Line can’t or won’t do wheel lubrication? Somehow I doubt it.

(By the way, the XPT derailment there was actually an issue with a turnout — eg points — rather than the curve itself.)

What now?

We still don’t know the full story. And large numbers of V/Line services continue to be replaced by coaches — if you’re hoping to use V/Line, head to their web site and check the service changes for a list.

More important than the blame game is identifying the precise issue and how to fix it permanently.

This is obviously an unfolding story. Hopefully it’s resolved soon.

See also: Victoria’s first 21st century rail megaproject: benefits from Regional Rail Link

Update: Correction — The Age FOI document said scope changes happened in 2010, not 2011.

Update 4/2/2016: The government says a “stable” timetable (with about 80% of train services running as normal, and the rest replaced by coaches) will start from Monday. Trains will no longer be free, but train-replacement coaches will be. Fair enough. But it sounds like they still don’t know the root cause.

Update 5/2/2016: With regard to who was responsible for RRL design changes, The Age has published this clarification:

The Age reported on Wednesday that Corey Hannett, former chief executive of the Regional Rail Link Authority, made a series of scope reductions to that project in 2010 that have contributed to the current V/Line rail crisis. Mr Hannett did not make the scope changes. The decision was made by the Department of Transport and approved by V/Line, Metro Trains and the state government. The Age regrets the error.

The seagull incident

You’ve probably heard all about this by now.

From Facebook:

Guys this is the true crime story of the decade:

Yesterday a friend told me what might well be the best story I’ve ever heard. She had caught the train in from Frankston. And while she was waiting for the train to come, she noticed a man sitting down on the platform with a bag of fish and chips. But he wasn’t really eating them. He was just sort of letting them air.

This attracted a few seagulls, who began to circle the platform. Instead of shooing the birds away, the man offered them a few chips. He’d toss one a foot or so away from him. It was like he was beckoning them to come closer. He kept doing this, eking the chips out slowly, until there was a big group of seagulls in front of him, 15 or 20. A tiny army. He’d throw them a chip every now and then – just enough to keep the birds interested, but not enough to sate them. It was frustrating. They were getting angry. Squawking. It was like he was rearing them up for… something.

Then the train came, and everyone got on. But the man stayed on the ground with his chips. Just when the train was about to leave. It happened.

Right before the doors closed, the man threw the entire bag of the fish and chips into the train. The entire flock of seagulls followed the bag. And the doors closed. Inside the train: pandemonium.

The next train stop was five minutes away.

It’s a great story. And as I recall, there are certainly plenty of seagulls around Frankston station.

A ferry comes into Circular Quay, Sydney
Note: this is not one of the alleged seagulls. Nor is this Frankston station.

You can call me a cynic if you like, but apart from the fact that it’s being told second hand, there are a few holes in this story that leave me doubting it’s true.

  • It’s two minutes to the next station at Kananook, not five. Yeah, maybe not a big deal. If it were real, it might seem like five.
  • If the miscreant threw the bag into the carriage as the doors closed, few if any seagulls would have time to react and follow it.
  • If he threw the bag in earlier, he wouldn’t know the doors would be about to close, because it’s a terminus station.
  • Here’s the clincher. It’s 2016. Do we really believe this could happen and nobody got mobile phone video or photos of it?

I’m prepared to be proven wrong, but I suspect it’s all fictional.

  • Update: Mashable has identified that the story is identical to a joke told by the late Maurie Fields on Hey Hey It’s Saturday circa 1989
  • Triple J have an interview with someone claiming to have been there, and saying it actually happened around 2007. If that was true, it would explain why there’s no smartphone footage of it, but it doesn’t explain the other issues with the story.

Update 5/2/2016: Well played Metro, well played.

The month in transport: Night network, tram bustitution, train crowding, Punt Road

Covering the last few weeks, which started off pretty quiet, so let’s see how this goes as a monthly post. But I’ll post on V/Line issues and elevated rail separately.

Night Network performance

This seems to have been pretty good in the first few weeks.

Overnight/early morning services on the 2nd and 3rd of January reportedly attracted about 10,000 touch-ons, which is about three times the use of Nightrider on a weekend in 2015. So off to a good start, though a long way from where you’d want it to be on an ongoing basis.

The second weekend (9th and 10th of January) the government says 15,000 people used the services, so around five times a Nightrider weekend… bearing in mind the weather in October generally isn’t as nice as in January.

It’s not perfect: some temporary signage is still in place:

…and it was unclear where Nightbus 978 ran during the closure of North Road for level crossing works, with no information online, no signage up at stops, and the operator apparently unaware it was happening.

Overall though it seems Night Network is off to a good start.

What will be interesting to see is how the government tweaks it to improve the service and its cost-effectiveness.

  • Update: Herald Sun on 4/2/2016 reported 19,400 users on the weekend of 22-24 January

Tram bustitution mess

Extensive works at Port Junction to install platform tram stops (and, it appears, upgrade track and overhead wire along Clarendon Street) ran overtime earlier in the month, with routes 12, 96 and 109 continuing to be replaced by buses for some of their length for an extra day or two.

Some excellent information and maps were provided by Yarra Trams:
Yarra Trams tram disruption map

Apart from running about a day overtime (which as I understand was due to a workplace safety issue), unfortunately what let it down was the bus replacement routes.

I unhappily experienced the tram 96 buses one Friday afternoon, on my way to Albert Park. The tram terminated at Batman Park, just south of the river. From there we had to walk back to Flinders Street, then wait for a bus, which we piled onto. From there it did a U-turn east down Flinders Street, left into King Street, right into Flinders Lane, right into Queen Street, then across Queensbridge, south past the Casino and then right into City Road, then under the tram 96 bridge and left into Ferrars Street and finally able to parallel the tram route from there.

There was heavy traffic, which could be reasonably anticipated on CBD streets, so it probably added half an hour to the journey, which is pretty horrible for a short trip. In retrospect it would have been quicker to walk from Batman Park south to the temporary route 12 tram terminus at City Road and use the 12 from there, but that information was sadly lacking.

It beats me why they came up with such a poor bustitution route, particularly outbound. I’d have thought taking the Charles Grimes Bridge and Montague Street would be much quicker, at the possible expense of missing the City Road stop by a couple of hundred metres.

There’ll be plenty more of this kind of thing as more tram stops get upgraded for level access. They really should do better.

Yarra Trams route 96 bustitution

Metro crowding

The Greens FOI’d the raw data from the PTV Metro load survey from May 2015, claiming that the government had understated crowding, because figures during cancellations and long delays are filtered out.

The figures perhaps have no real surprises: the strongest train passenger growth is in Melbourne’s growth corridors to the south, southeast, west and northwest.

As for the massaging of data, I think it’s valid to look at the raw data, and the extra attention on crowding issues was welcome, but it’s also important to remember why the load surveys exist in the first place.

They are not to measure crowding for the sake of measuring crowding. They’re to use as a planning tool to work out where and when to schedule extra trains.

We don’t need a survey to tell us that crowding occurs when there’s a cancellation. That’s obvious — and it’s a different problem — one of service reliability (which might be improved by better maintenance, more resilient infrastructure, stabling security, etc).

Packed Comeng train

The primary point of the load survey is to say: when the network is running more-or-less to time, where is there still crowding/unmet demand? Which lines need more services — and thus, investment in fleet, stabling, better signalling, upgraded power supply, and so on?

Punt Road clearways

Punt Road to become a 24 hour clearway.

I suspect it’ll have some short-term traffic flow benefits. Long term? We’ll see. It’s better than widening the road.

Long term a boost to the 246 bus (including bus priority) and nearby routes would help.

The government statement claiming it would improve things for people driving to the footy is a bit odd.

“When you go to the footy finals this year, you’ll no longer be frustrated by being stuck behind a parked car on Punt Road.” — yeah, you’ll be stuck behind a stopped car instead of a parked car. And why would we want to encourage people to drive to the footy?

Also a bit odd is the idea of a 6 week consultation period, after which they’ll go ahead and do what they’ve already announced.

Bustitution part 1: is it free, or not?

This week marks the first weekday shutdown of the Frankston line for level crossing removal works. It lasts until Sunday, but there will be a lot more later in the year.

And obviously more on various lines as the many level crossing removals take place. Gradually it’ll affect most of Melbourne’s train lines, so I think it’s worth exploring in some detail.

I’ve got a post coming on the bus replacement services themselves, but first I wanted to post this question:

Are they a paid service, or not?

There’s great confusion over this issue.

On Monday morning an Authorised Officer (AO) was at Bentleigh touching-on people’s cards, but he missed me. I touched-on as I boarded the bus.

On the Monday afternoon trip the bus actually had no Myki readers.

During other trips this week, I’ve asked stop staff and bus drivers, and had different answers. Some have said yes, touch-on if you can, others have said no, don’t do it.

One bus driver called out to the whole bus “never touch-on on a replacement bus service! The readers aren’t programmed for train replacement services!”

On a tram replacement bus service recently the bus driver repeatedly told boarding passengers not to touch-on, that it was free (though he also joked that people should feel free to slip him $5.)

Replacement bus for Bentleigh level crossing removal works 24/10/2015

The official word

Ask Metro and they tell you it’s a paid service.

I’ve spoken to some of the Metro people involved in organising the services (hi if you’re reading). They’ve said the expectation is bus Myki readers won’t be used. People would touch-on at a station if their trip started on a train. If the trip started on a bus then transferred to a train, they’d touch-on at the first station they encountered, though in some cases AOs would touch them on at the bus stop. (This is what I saw on Monday morning peak, but they’re not around outside peak.)

That kind of makes sense. If there isn’t a train touch-on before you board the train, then you’d risk getting stuck at a fare gate when reaching the city, as well as a possible fine.

But…

What does the manual say?

What does the bible, the Fares And Ticketing Manual, say?

Page 14: When replacement vehicles are provided, tickets are valid on the alternative services to the same extent as they applied on the original service.

OK. That makes sense. No problem there.

Page 62: If a replacement vehicle is provided for a train service and the replacement vehicle does not have any myki operating equipment on board, customers using a myki for travel must touch on using a myki reader at the departure railway station and touch off using a myki reader at the destination railway station.

This is nonsensical, particularly in this context.

Some of the buses have working Myki readers, some don’t. You don’t know until you board, and the railway station is up to 600 metres away, so it’s impossible to go and touch your card there. (In fact the stations are fenced off, with staff outside pointing you to the bus stop. You can’t go in.)

Even if the station were adjacent, is this really a sensible answer? If you first checked whether the bus had a working Myki reader, and if not went to use a station reader, you’d either delay the bus or miss it.

(By the way, there’s some fascinating/confusing stuff about Night Buses on page 63 that ticketing nerds might like to have a look at.)

It’s not a good sign that there are completely opposite answers depending on who you ask.

Thank goodness the almost-flat-fares means little chance of problems with default fares triggering overcharges.

Bentleigh station during level crossing works

Just make it free

So, are we thoroughly confused yet?

I’m no fan of free public transport, but I think it would make sense for all suburban train (and tram) replacement bus services to be free.

  • In general, bus replacements are an inferior travel experience to trains. Few people experiencing them would agree they are “normal services”.
  • Most passengers pay anyway on the train part of their trip, thus incur a fare anyway.
  • At busy times, every passenger touching on and off the bus would result in long delays at stops.
  • Understandably they get buses from anywhere they can find them, so given some don’t have any Myki equipment, it should be consistent.

It doesn’t make sense to try and collect fares on these services. They might as well be free, and to avoid any doubt, the Myki readers (if installed) should be de-activated on these trips.

And if, as at Caulfield, extra (non-Myki) gates are open for passengers to enter from the buses, AOs should be deployed there to help passengers touch-on their cards as they come through.