The debate about train seats has come up again, thanks to The Greens uncovering minutes of a meeting between Metro and the Department of Transport discussing the removal of train seats from Comeng trains. (MX story / Channel 7 story)
DOT was generally comfortable with the proposals as presented by MTM. Options to be assessed were only to include low cost options necessary to achieve a 900 load standard with no reduction in dwell time performance.
The proposal is to remove the third seat in groups of three, widening the centre aisle.
I make it 12 seats in a “T” carriage (trailer, with no driving cab) if they don’t widen the aisle at the far ends of the carriage, or 16 if they do, making it roughly a 13-16% reduction — though it would vary according to the type of carriage (Motor or Trailer, and EDI/M>Train refurbishment or Alstom/Connex refurbishment).
This would differ from the Connex trial layout, which took out more seats near the doors, but left more in the centres of the carriages, including a narrow aisle. Overall that layout removed more seats than seems to be proposed now.
As ever, it’s aimed at fitting more people on board (the minutes talked about an increase in the “load standard” from 798 per 6-carriage train to 900) and improving flow within the carriages, which would help station dwell times (the time taken to load and unload a carriage) — in this case, they’re specifically looking to be able to carry more people without increasing dwell times.
This latter point is important: if you want the train system to run more efficiently, with the maximum number of trains on the most congested parts of the network, eg the City Loop, at peak times, you need to improve dwell times. (Connex claimed in 2009 that the trial layout did help this.)
What kind of train system do we want?
I’ve just finished reading Jarrett Walker’s excellent book “Human Transit“, which ponders a lot of these kinds of issues. He calls them “plumber questions” — the kinds of questions a plumber asks a client. There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, but you do need to give some guidance as to the outcome you want.
In the case of train seats, it’s one of the questions related to what kind of train network we want. (Another was posed a year ago: Should every train run around the Loop?)
Do we want a (small m) metro? Frequent services, aimed at more than just 9-5 CBD workers (eg including short suburban trips, counter-peak trips); fast dwell times for efficiency; less seats to maximise speed and capacity.
Or do we want a commuter rail service? Less frequency, particularly outside peaks; more seats because it’s primarily about long trips; primarily concerned with CBD trips, meaning just five stations have to handle huge passenger loads; but can lead to longer dwell times and lower peak frequencies because you don’t take advantage of metro efficiencies like more doors/less seats.
It’s not actually black and white. Melbourne is probably destined to remain somewhere in the middle.
The CBD outstrips public transport demand for all other destinations, and will continue to do so until traffic and parking demand is such that paid parking and gridlock becomes prevalent in the suburbs. (It’s getting there, but slowly.)
But there’s no reason we can’t have frequent (10 minute or better) trains all day everyday, just like real metros, supporting suburban non-work trips, and ensuring patronage is not just about peak hour, therefore providing a better return on the investment that’s been made in rail infrastructure, fleets and staff.
And remember, handling the booming 9-5 CBD commuter load better means optimising operations, including internal designs of carriages. The current designs from the early 2000s (before the boom) try to maximise seats, and in the face of surging demand, this has left passengers left behind on platforms, sometimes when there is space in the middle of carriages, because those aboard have not moved down. This is a direct result of narrow aisles and virtually nothing to hold onto except around the doorways.
How many seats?
Taken to extremes, seat removal might result in something like this:
Where’s this? It’s Brisbane. I suspect few want to see that kind of outcome here.
Note that only some of the carriages are set out like this, with maximum standing space, whereas others have more seats:
But it got me thinking… how do other cities design their carriages? What ratio of seats to carriage space do they have? I did a quick comparison, and came up with the following.
|City||Train type||Carriages||Seats||Seats/square metre|
|Hong Kong||East Rail Line Metro Cammell||12||625||0.71|
|Melbourne||Comeng Alstom (current)||6||536||1.24|
|Melbourne||Comeng Alstom (proposed)||6||464||1.07|
(Some of these are estimates, as I couldn’t find very reliable figures. A authoritative figure for seats in Perth’s trains was elusive, and the length of carriages sometimes included couplings, which aren’t part of the useable area inside. But you get the general idea, hopefully.)
The current changes to Melbourne carriage designs (first seen in the second series X’trapolis trains) are leading to wider aisles and more handholds to encourage people to move down, and help stop as many congegating in the doorways. But from what I can see, they still provide more seats than in many other big cities.
The Comeng proposal is similar (the seats per square metre figure will come down to about 1.07 by my calculations), though we’re not yet sure if it includes more handholds.
I think it’s probably a reasonable proposal, provided it includes more handholds along the carriage, and provided it’s accompanied by a service frequency boost (particularly outside peak hours, when there’s no problem with track or fleet capacity) so the total number of seats offered on each line doesn’t drop (or possibly even increases).
And even if there’s no frequency boost in peak, if you’re outraged by the idea of removal of any seats, consider this: In the face of continually rising patronage, would you rather be able to squeeze onto a train with 15% less seats, or be left behind on the platform?
What do you think?