Regional Rail Link – details and timetables at last

It’s not every day a major new suburban rail line opens in Victoria. In fact it’s been 85 years since the last one.

Finally all the details of the Regional Rail Link (which despite its name, runs entirely within the metropolitan area) have been released, including the timetables for the line, and connecting bus services within Melbourne and in the Geelong area.

After $4 billion spent on it, you’d hope they’ll be marketing the benefits to people. I’ve been told this will occur in the coming weeks, at least on a local level, including flyers into mailboxes.

PTV RRL poster June 2015

Geelong line

RRL of course includes two new stations in Melbourne (Wyndham Vale and Tarneit), as well as moving the Geelong line onto its own tracks from Deer Park.

The trains will basically run every 10 minutes in peak (though the gaps are uneven), every 20 minutes off-peak. They’ll still be hourly in the evenings and on weekends, including to Wyndham Vale and Tarneit, which is a bit poor for a metropolitan growth area.

Some trains originate at Waurn Ponds; some at South Geelong. Some skip North Shore and Corio, some skip Little River, but otherwise most trains stop at most stations until they get into the suburbs.

Most trains stop at Wyndham Vale (and some in peak originate there). Slightly fewer trains stop at Tarneit.

Many Geelong trains will stop at Deer Park, finally giving this long-established suburb a decent service on weekdays, though fewer stop at Ardeer. These stations are also served by trains on the Ballarat line, confusingly, so far there is no published combined timetable for those two stations.

Oddly, not a single Geelong train stops at Deer Park or Ardeer on weekends.

Also oddly, the trains from further afield at Warrnambool (which require reservations to use) will also stop at Wyndham Vale and Tarneit, but not at interchange stations such as Footscray and Sunshine. Edit: they do stop at Footscray.

So overall a big boost for the Geelong line (and for Deer Park), but they’ll have to watch how passenger loads are affected by the extra stops in Melbourne’s west, and the hourly evening and weekend services need a boost.

The Geelong-Werribee disconnection

A loss for some people is the convenient Geelong to Werribee train trip, which currently takes about 30 minutes.

Instead it’ll be a 25-30ish minute trip to Wyndham Vale, then a change onto the (mercifully frequent) new route 190 bus. To Werribee this is 15 minutes off-peak, but up to about 18 minutes during peak, with buses scheduled to depart 5 minutes after the train arrives.

So for those people, if everything runs smoothly, the trip will be about 20 minutes longer.

V/Line trains at Southern Cross

Overall trip time Geelong to Melbourne

There’s been years of speculation about how long the overall trip would take from Geelong to Melbourne.

The existing time varies widely: from about 56 minutes for expresses to about 77 minutes for a peak stopper.

The new times are similar despite the longer route. The difference is trains can run faster on the new section than they can on the more congested Werribee line, but this is countered by (for most services) extra stops at the new stations.

The quickest still seems to be 56 minutes, with the longest stopper in the middle of peak about 75 minutes.

Trying to serve more passengers rather than skip more stops and get the trains in as quickly as possible is, I think, a sensible move. On weekdays, this means most stations get a decent service frequency, and the clear run in should mean much more reliable and predictable travel times.

Other V/Line changes

All the lines from the west see tweaks and adjustments.

The current ludicrous timings of up to 16 minutes between Footscray and Southern Cross are brought a little bit more under control, down to 9 minutes supposedly non-stop — but this is still the same time as a suburban train making additional stops at South Kensington and North Melbourne.

One detail some may miss in the new timetables: urban fringe stations Sunbury and Pakenham are now marked as “d” (set down only) for inbound trains, and “u” (pick up only) for outbound trains. This means local residents will no longer be able to use V/Line trains to and from the city. I actually think this makes sense given those stations have heaps more Metro trains than they used to, and V/Line services need to prioritise space and seats for people travelling longer distances, but one would hope they are explaining this decision to the locals.

Buses

Buses networks in the Geelong and Wyndham areas are getting major redesigns — the latter to fit into the new stations.

In both cases PTV say they’ve continued to consolidate routes, with high-frequency (by Victorian standards) routes along main roads feeding into stations, which is a good thing — it should make the network much more usable for everyday travel. Again, they’ll obviously have to communicate the changes to users and potential users.

Other routes around the place are getting minor adjustments, including regional city bus service timetable changes to better coordinate with trains.

Metro changes

The intention had been to introduce a raft of Metro timetable changes at the same time as RRL, making use of some of the capacity unlocked by the project, particularly on the Sunbury and Werribee lines.

But in this timetable change, almost nothing is changing on Metro.

One wouldn’t expect them to fill the new capacity from day one, but one might expect adjustments to at least take advantage of it.

On the Sunbury line for instance, there are reports of trains (now unencumbered by congestion from V/Line services, which got moved to the new tracks some months ago) arriving at Footscray several minutes early, having to sit idle until their departure times.

Meanwhile on the Werribee line, crowding has been getting steadily worse (including on weekends), and although some of those people may move over to the new stations, we’re talking about one of Melbourne’s biggest growth areas. They are getting a single new service in on weekday mornings and another on weekday evenings, but that’s it.

The long-suffering Altona Loop, with its off-peak shuttle, sees no changes. I haven’t looked closely at other lines, or trams, but it appears other changes are also deferred, which seems to be a missed opportunity.

The map

The rail map change has been held over until later in the year. The current suburban maps won’t change (this would cost a small fortune), meaning many suburban passengers will remain blissfully unaware of the new stations.

The V/Line map has been updated, and looks more like the London map (the old “Connections” version) than ever before. Not that this is a bad thing.

V/Line Map June 2015

Overall

RRL will make a huge difference to Melbourne’s West. The Wyndham Vale and Tarneit areas are growing fast, and for once new residents may be able to make a choice to use a viable public transport service before they buy cars for every adult in their household and fill their driveways with motor vehicles.

But there are some oddities, and some missed opportunities to provide a big boost on the metropolitan network.

No doubt there are more improvements to come — let’s hope those aren’t too far away.

Any other changes you’ve spotted?

Double decker bus for Melbourne

Melbourne’s getting a new double decker bus.

It’s been on display at a trade show at Jeff’s Shed (that’s the Melbourne Exhibition Centre for those not in the know), and a PTV contact passed these photos on…

Melbourne double decker bus - exterior
Melbourne double decker bus - exterior

Inside, as you’d expect, the low ceiling makes it seem a little more cramped than single deck buses. But from memory of riding them in the UK, this isn’t generally seen as a problem.

Apparently there’s a digital display somewhere downstairs indicating how many seats are available upstairs.

Melbourne double decker bus - interior downstairs
Melbourne double decker bus - stairs
Melbourne double decker bus - upstairs

The bus will be run by bus operator CDC, with the PTV branding, in the Werribee/Wyndham Vale area. I’m told by locals that some bus routes regularly get overcrowded around there. While routes in the area are being re-organised in June as part of the Regional Rail Link opening, you can bet there’ll be plenty of passenger demand thanks to the huge urban growth there.

This is good to see. Many cities around the world use them, and some routes (the university shuttles spring to mind) could do with higher-capacity buses.

Sure, they can’t run everywhere — low bridges in some parts of town would limit where they can be used. But existing tourist double deckers run in some parts of Melbourne, so there’s no reason they can’t be used on public routes.

Of course, you’d never want to see service frequencies reduced to counter the capacity boost. And increasing frequencies is obviously the preferable way to relieve crowding, but on frequent routes, bigger buses make sense.

In contrast with the argument against double decker trains, dwell times at stops don’t limit throughput on busy routes, because buses can overtake each other — though they might slow down the travel time.

This is not the first time double decker buses have run in Melbourne. They were common in the 1940s, as a replacement for cable trams in Bourke Street until the electric lines opened in the 1950s. I found this lovely photo of one, below, and it turns out there were others as early as the 1910s.

Melbourne Metropolitan Tramways Board bus 240 (Source: State Library / Lyle Fowler)
(Source: Lyle Fowler/Harold Paynting Collection, State Library of Victoria. )

The new bus has got some attention. Something a bit different, but more practical than monorails or ferries.

It’ll be interesting to see it in action, and to see if people like it and the government orders more.

Also notable in buses this week: a bunch more routes now have realtime information available, covering all Smartbuses and (it seems) all Transdev Melbourne routes. This expansion coincided with the launch of PTV’s new realtime API, allowing app developers to use the information to develop their own apps. Neato.

I’m told all buses have the relevant equipment fitted, and more realtime information will rollout pretty quickly to the rest of the suburban bus network. Trams obviously already have Tram Tracker, and trains… well, that’s trickier, they’re still working on it.

Ten years ago: Arise Lord Vader

Here’s another in my series of ten year old photos.

Arise Lord Vader — episode 3 got a lot of promotion. Or, as I joked at the time: Connex was aligned with the Dark Side.
Arise Lord Vader - Flinders Street station, May 2005

The Dungeon: platform 13 at Flinders Street. The screens have been replaced with a flat model, and an escalator was installed to the concourse, but I’m not sure it’s changed that much otherwise.
Platform 13, Flinders Street Station, May 2005

M and I must have been out on a dog walk and found this sign. Edgewater (then under construction, now a thriving infill suburb) is in that abyss somewhere.
Edgewater, May 2005

Also on the dog walk. Evidently the residents of Rippon Street were very proud of their second prize from 16 years earlier. Google Streetview shows the sign was still there in March 2014.
Near Vic Uni Footscray Park, May 2005

It was ten years ago this month that we had the funeral for Tram Stop 7 (on Collins Street and Russell Street) — since merged with the Exhibition Street stop in favour of a mid-block tram stop. I think it was the first time the “one stop per block in the CBD” rule started to be diminished — these days it’s near-impossible to know where the closest stop is to Street X. It got plenty of media interest. Naturally to this day you see trams stop there for the traffic lights, but unable to pick up or drop off passengers. (More pictures)
Funeral for a tram stop, May 2005

My desk back then. Old computer (bought earlier that month), old fat screen, old bulky printer. Copy of Train Simulator on the desk. Blue Linksys router in the background — WiFi antennae up, I don’t even recall if I used WiFi for anything back then.
My desk, May 2005

Post delivery by tram

For some time – since well before the introduction of the Free Tram Zone – I’ve seen uniformed Australia Post employees with small delivery carts on board trams in central Melbourne.

Post by tram

At first I wondered if this was a good use of space on a tram, given how crowded they can get.

But I think it’s arguable that it’s Australia Post being smart about moving (at least some) letters and parcels around a busy urban environment, quickly and cheaply and without taking up the road space that the usual van fleet would take.

Similarly, long distance travellers with wheeled luggage often seem more inclined to use public transport than catch a taxi — Gordon Price described this as “the only significant new mode of transportation to develop so far this century.”

(Note: I’ve seen Post employees stand back and wait for a less crowded tram, rather than trying to squeeze on with a cart, so it’s not like they’re being totally unreasonable about it.)

Now it turns out Amazon is doing something similar in New York City on the subway.

Once upon a time many cities had freight trams. Perhaps this is the 21st century version of that.

And perhaps it’s yet more evidence that the wheels of commerce can adapt to not requiring motor vehicles to survive and thrive.

Post delivery by tram

Real time information now available for buses

PTV announced on Thursday that online realtime departure information is now available for some bus routes: specifically, Smartbus routes, which have long had realtime information displays at major stops.

Ironically as I post this, it seems to be down… but when working, it’s a small but welcome step forward in the quest to get more realtime information available to the public — via apps or web sites, so you can check your phone or your computer to see how far away your service is.

Smartbus: real time departure information

It follows the introduction of Tram Tracker way back in 2006, initially available by phone — premium SMS, at 55 cents a pop. Remember, this was before the launch of the iPhone — some phones had got basic web access in about 2001, but at the time, very few people knew how to use it.

Tram Tracker went onto the web in 2007, followed by apps for iPhone and Android (the initial one being unofficial) a couple of years later.

Tram Tracker, by the way, isn’t quite realtime. It uses the “Automatic Vehicle Monitoring” system originally introduced in the 1970s, which records the trams passing specific points along the routes, can track them to an extent between those points, and then interpolates the time at each stop based on that data. Generally it’s pretty close to accurate, but occasionally a disruption between the points can throw it out.

Bus tracking

The new bus tracking is, it seems, linked to the GPS devices inside the Smartbuses which trigger automated announcements and displays for the next stop. From what I’ve seen so far it’s reasonably accurate. (More accurate, it seems, than the hopeless equipment that was installed with Myki which often can’t tell the difference between Melbourne’s two vast zones.)

In the PTV app, and on the web site, it appears the realtime information is distinguished by it being a minutes countdown instead of a fixed time. I think they could have done better on this — it’s not exactly crystal clear.

A myriad of information

Along with service information now provided via apps, Twitter and the web, passengers are starting to get a better picture of how services are running on any given day. There’s actually a myriad of information out there.

Timetables Planned disruptions Service status Realtime departures
Trains tick Stations
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/Train Trapper)
tick Stations
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/Metro)
tick Twitter
tick Some stations
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/Metro)
tick Twitter
tick Stations (displays, green button)
Trams tick Stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Stops
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/TramTracker)
tick Twitter
tick Some stops
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/TramTracker)
tick Twitter
tick Some stops
tick Web
tick Apps
SmartBus tick Stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Twitter (Transdev/Ventura)
tick Some stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Twitter
tick Some stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
Other buses tick Stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Some on Twitter
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Some on Twitter
Not yet
V/Line tick Stations
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Stations
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Twitter
tick Some stations
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Twitter
tick Some stations (displays)

(Any corrections? Leave a comment below. I haven’t included information available by phone, eg voice. If you know the right phone number and are willing to navigate menus and wait on hold, you can get this sort of info. And on vehicles and at stations, announcements are sometimes made, though these can be sporadic.)

There’s a heap of different online/app ways to get all this information, and it’s fair to say that they’ve really got their act together in the past few years (despite some now-resolved hiccups with Metro’s Twitter feed, and their withdrawal of SMS alerts).

The PTV app and web site seems to have it all, but the individual operators offer more tailored views into the same information.

Hopefully in due course we’ll get realtime departure information available more widely. The biggest gap now is trains and non-Smartbuses — they’re working on both, but they can’t even reliably get realtime train information onto the bus stop signs just outside the stations, so I’m not holding my breath.

Bentleigh Smartbus sign: apology 2

As time goes on, for frequent routes, I suspect departure countdowns and service status will become more important than timetables. It’s already the case with many tram users — they check Tram Tracker to see how many minutes away the tram is; not the timetable.

This in turn may see authorities start to operate services in such a way as to maintain a regular service, rather than trying to meet specific times: if a service is cancelled, shift the others forward or back by a few minutes to even up the headways. As this (unofficial) London bus timetable says: “This route is classed as high frequency, and as such controllers will endeavour to provide an even service rather than necessarily adhering exactly to the times shown.”

In some cities they don’t publish full timetables, just frequency guides. Timetables will remain important for the less frequent routes, of course — any gaps greater than about 10 minutes, and people are likely to want to plan around that.

As for system information, the ultimate goal would be pulling all the data together in realtime, to help advise you where to go (journey planning) and update you with any changes along the way (the train you’re on is late, so you’ll miss the bus connection; stay on one more stop and get an alternative bus route departing a few minutes later which also drops you where you want to go).

Plus of course we need a coherent reliable frequent network so you need to adapt your travel plans less often — it just works, and you can easily and quickly get from A to B every time, as easily as getting in your car.