How many people are affected by rail shutdowns?

Some local residents on the Dandenong line noted this summary of proposed shutdowns in the Environmental Management Strategy (page 11):

Shutdowns – longer occupations, typically from 1 to 3 weeks in duration. Six shutdowns are scheduled between January 2017 and July 2018 and are likely to occur in:

  • January 2017;
  • July 2017;
  • October 2017;
  • January 2018;
  • April 2018; and
  • July 2018.

Note that some minor variation to these dates may occur.

What this information doesn’t tell us is the mix of (from best case to worst): weekend day, school holidays, and “normal” weekday.

But given one of the key reasons for building skyrail along the Dandenong line was minimising disruptions, how does this stack up with the original promises?

The early estimate was 15-20 weekends (eg 30-40 weekend or public holiday days) plus two longer shuts of 9 and 16 days, giving a total of about 65 days.

How does this compare to the Frankston line?

By my calculation the Frankston line shutdowns (for three crossings at Bentleigh, Mckinnon and Ormond) totalled 66 days: 36 on weekends/public holidays, 14 weekdays in school holidays, and 30 normal weekdays.

(But there’s another full weekend closure coming up this next weekend, so make that 68 days total… so far.)

Bustitution at Mckinnon

How many people are affected?

By adding up the PTV Train Patronage (Station Entry) stats for each affected part of a line, including the stations beyond the shutdowns, we can estimate the numbers.

Of course, not everyone boarding along the line travels through the closed section, though most would.

But I’m more interested in how the lines compare, relative to each other, so let’s keep it simple and just use the raw numbers for stations at and beyond the closed section.

Double them to estimate the number of journeys affected each day.

I’ve done the figures for the lines with recent and forthcoming major shutdowns:

Line/s Shutdown section Date Weekday Saturday Sunday
Frankston Glenhuntly-Frankston Jul-16 38,440 21,530 15,000
Pakenham/Cranbourne Carnegie/Murrumbeena temp close Aug-16 5,900 3,350 2,300
Pakenham/Cranbourne Caulfield-Dandenong Jan-17 64,010 30,790 21,630
Sunbury Sunshine-Sunbury Oct-16 24,570 9,880 6,980
Belgrave Ringwood-Belgrave Nov-16 1,198 486 340
Belgrave/Lilydale Box Hill-Ringwood Jan-17 39,960 16,910 11,570

Important: The weekday figures are based on “normal” weekdays, so a planned shutdown in January 2017 would see fewer people affected, especially if it’s in the earlier part of the month when many people are on holidays.

But it gives you some perspective of how many people are affected. And it’s not hard to see why January and other school/university holiday periods are the least worst time for major shutdowns.

And the Dandenong line has far more passengers involved than any of the others — 60% more than the Belgrave/Lilydale line beyond Box Hill, and 70% higher than the Frankston line, which required 100+ buses to cover just the short section from Moorabbin to Caulfield.

The distance covered by the buses heavily impacts the resources required and the experience for passengers, of course. For several crossings on one line, it might be possible to stagger the works and closures – but equally a “big bang” approach may be better overall.

With the Dandenong skyrail, the promise was fewer disruptions than other methods. The challenge will be for them to meet that promise.

Real-time information arrives on trains

Real-time information became available on Metro trains on Thursday. Can we say hallelujah!

Of course it’s been on stations for years, via Passenger Information Displays (known in the biz as PIDs) and the green buttons providing audio.

But now departure data can be seen in the PTV app (and others) and PTV Next 5 web site; it shows as minutes to departure when real-time is available, otherwise it shows as the scheduled time.

This completes the trilogy for metropolitan Melbourne: trams (via TramTracker, which is driven off decades-old tracking technology with some clever maths over the top), buses (implemented in the last couple of years) and trains. V/Line services aren’t using this yet, but apparently they’re working on it.

PTV has released a new version of their API which includes this real-time information, and apparently some apps have already started integrating it.

Real-time information: station screen vs phone


A few stations only have the scheduled times available, apparently due to not all the equipment being in place. Some of those appear to be due to level crossing works; Flinders Street is the other one, because it’s a terminus station and I guess the algorithms can’t cope with the fact that train X arriving from Y should then go to Z, but sometimes gets transposed to a completely different destination. Sigh.

So if I look at Frankston-bound trains from Flinders Street, it can only tell me times. And yet, if I look at Richmond for the same trains, it tells me the next trains to Frankston are in 3, 17, and 30 minutes. Hmmmm.

Tram Tracker data is known not to be fully real-time; as I understand it, it’s done by interpolating (estimating) tram positions between fixed points. The train information seems to be linked to the signalling system, so is likely to be more accurate.

Of course, the algorithms can only use the information available. Sudden delays or bypasses may not be factored in. Departure countdowns at stations or stops near the start of a run may not as reliable as those further along.

This is not to say the information isn’t useful; one just needs to be wary of its limitations.

Quirks with the apps

The Android app currently has a bug that prevents you changing the station you’re looking at unless you go back to the Home page first. The iOS version seems okay in this regard.

PTV app on Android, showing real-time train info
Citybound trains may show the last city stop rather than the “City Loop” or “Flinders Street” that most people are familiar with. (The first train listed above originated at Ringwood due to Belgrave line works, and seemed to be delayed, hence showing a time not a minute countdown. Also note the two cancellations in a row.)

PTV app on iOS, showing real-time train info
If you use the Ringwood line, on the common section for the Belgrave and Lilydale lines, it’s a little jarring that outbound trains are listed separately on the apps. Likewise other common routes like the Cranbourne/Pakenham lines. Check carefully; the top one listed may not be the first train you can catch.

Also notable above is these train times for Glenferrie station showed the next Alamein train at 3:54am tomorrow (Sunday) morning! This isn’t even correct — even if you wait until then, you still have to go to Camberwell and change trains.

Will it change how you catch trains?

One dedicated tram user (yeah okay, it was PTUA President Tony Morton) commented to me that Tram Tracker had changed the way he catches trams, and I don’t think that’s uncommon.

Many people who have access to the real-time departure information no longer bother to look up timetables. They just check the app and go. This of course is made easier on trams thanks to their mostly frequent (every 10ish minutes or better) services.

Now that all three modes have this, buses and trains could go the same way, especially on the frequent lines, making it easier to use the network as a Turn Up And Go service — which is needed to make public transport more competitive with cars.

On the infrequent lines, if there’s only one bus every half-hour, I think most are still more likely to check the timetable and/or Journey Planner. But the real-time updates will at least help you know if the service is on time.

Simpifying the network

This sort of real-time information works brilliantly… provided you know which route(s) you need to catch.

To reach its full potential, changes to the network to bring more consistent routes and stopping patterns and higher frequencies will help a lot… but that’s a subject for another post.

In the meantime, getting real-time info onto trains is a big plus.

How accessible is Vicroads HQ for non-car users?

Vicroads are doing some good stuff. While some cynics might think of them as all about cars, over the years they’ve increased their emphasis on smarter use of limited road space resources, and have steadily improved facilities for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.

And I know from talking to contacts there that they’re thinking very carefully about good transport outcomes. Their SmartRoads strategy is a good example of the direction they’re headed.

So to is their proposal to narrow Mountain Highway in Bayswater when the level crossing is removed, to improve conditions for pedestrians, including shoppers.

They’re not perfect — their proposals for Punt Road/Hoddle Street raise concerns: despite apparently getting a lot of feedback about it, there seems to be a plan to move the southbound 246 bus stop further away from Richmond Station, making it almost as bad for interchange as the northbound stop… and they’re certainly not fixing the latter.

Vicroads’ Kew HQ

I happened to be walking past their head office in Kew a few weeks ago. Perhaps ironically it’s on the site of the old Kew railway station, which was a branch line connecting with the Ringwood line at Hawthorn. The last train ran in 1952.

Vicroads headquarters, Kew

I was wondering how they treat non-car travellers in and around their own HQ.

A sign for TravelSmart indicates they’re thinking about how their own people get to work.
TravelSmart sign outside Vicroads, Kew

But what about actual practical facilities for non-car users?

There’s a bike path out the front. It’s not very long, but it does seem to link to paths towards the city along nearby Stevenson Street.

And there’s a bus stop right outside. But this bus route only stops here twice a day. Literally. It’s not a general purpose route; it seems to be aimed at a specific target demographic of people going to a specific destination at a specific time. This makes it near unusable for most other people, I suspect. (This is the same bus route which once resulted in Hawthorn getting a top score for livability in the transport category, because there were bus stops… just not many bus services.)
Bus stop sign outside Vicroads, Kew

Nearby there’s another outdated (two operators ago) bus stop sign for one of the schools services. According to current operator Transdev, all these routes have been renumbered since October 2015 — from 1xx to Kxx, so the information isn’t even correct anymore.
Bus stop sign outside Vicroads

But no matter… if Vicroads workers can’t use the bus that stops right outside, at least they can catch a tram from nearby Kew Junction… which (as shown by the picture at the top of the post) is served by low-floor trams, but has no accessible platform stops. (Other accessible bus routes do stop nearby.)

Alas, the traffic light between here and the tram stop is one of those that only gives a green man if the button is pressed (at least on weekends when I was there). And if you miss the start of the parallel green for cars, you have to wait many many minutes for the next one, because the cycle is so long, as Denmark Street is a major road whereas Wellington Street is minor.
Traffic light outside Vicroads, Kew

Maybe it doesn’t work that way on weekdays. (And note the green lantern was out. If only someone would report it to Vicroads so it can be replaced…)

As I said, I know attitudes at Vicroads are very favourable towards public transport, walking and cycling, at least among their people that I encounter.

How this translates into action though… well, clearly at their own HQ, it could be worse, but with even some relatively minor upgrades, it could be a lot better.

Small wins: 703 bus to be improved

Apologies for this very much locally focused (and possibly over-long) blog post:

The main bus route through Bentleigh (both the suburb and the highly marginal state seat), the east-west 703 along Centre Road, is getting a slight upgrade.

It doesn’t seem to have been announced yet, but eagle-eyed timetable watcher Craig Halsall spotted it: on Sundays it will finally run the entire route to Brighton.

Route 703: Melbourne’s fourth busiest bus route

The 703 runs from Brighton to Blackburn, and was one of the first two routes upgraded to run as a Smartbus — every 15 minutes on weekdays, with realtime information at major stops. Patronage on all the Smartbus routes grew strongly following the upgrades. (703 passenger numbers growth was the slowest of all the Smartbuses, but patronage still rose by 49% from 2002 to 2010).

PTV data says the 703 was the 4th busiest bus route in Melbourne in 2014-15, with 2.2 million journeys.

Counting weekdays only, it’s also ranked 4th, though on weekends it’s lower: 6th on Saturdays, 8th on Sundays. This perhaps reflects that its major destination is Monash University, which sees most of its traffic on weekdays. But that’s still pretty good for a route that doesn’t serve any very large shopping centres.

Recently the 703 has benefited from the removal of the Bentleigh level crossing. Anecdotally it seems this has helped punctuality, though the real boost will come when the notorious Clayton crossing is grade separated in 2018.

What’s being fixed?

One of the problems with the 703 is that since the 1990s, the Bentleigh to Brighton section hasn’t run on Sundays.

It’s finally being fixed. From December, buses will run the full length of the route every day.

This is good news — it helps improve the network by providing 7-day connectivity between the Frankston and Sandringham lines, and also makes the service easier to understand.

Access for residents of Clayton and Bentleigh to the beach and shops at Brighton will become easier, as well as Sunday trips from Brighton and the western end of Bentleigh to the Bentleigh shops, Glen Eira Swimming and Aquatic Centre (GESAC) and Clayton and Monash Uni.

What’s not being fixed?

Alas, other than Sunday running the full route, only tweaks seem to have been made to the new timetable.

They don’t seem to have taken the opportunity to fix some of the other problems along the route. The main issue is that it’s the only Smartbus route that doesn’t meet Smartbus standards, nor even the service span of most local routes:

  • Services terminate earlier than any other Smartbus routes, with last buses as early as 8:04pm on weekdays (compared to midnight for other Smartbuses, and 9pm for most local routes)
  • Evening frequencies are also poor, with gaps of over an hour in some cases — particularly annoying is the gap eastbound from Brighton (between the 7:34pm and 8:38pm buses), given there’s an out of service depot run that could fix this.
  • In fact, the 15 minute frequency drops off after about 6:45pm on weekdays. In contrast, many Smartbus routes run every 15 minutes until about 9pm.
  • Sunday services will still be every 40-45 minutes, not half-hourly as on the other Smartbuses

No doubt this reflects that the only funding supplied by the government was to run the full route on Sundays.

The other issue worth noting is weekday peak hour crowding, though this is exacerbated by delays caused at the Clayton station level crossing. Fixing this, unlike evening and weekend services, would require fleet expansion, not just extra driver shifts. Hopefully the problem will largely go away when the crossing is removed.

Crowding also occurs on weekends in the Clayton area. (The photo below is from a university open day, but similar crowding happens every weekend.)

There’s also a wide range of bus infrastructure, particularly in relation to on-road priority, which could improve the route.

Monash Open Day 2012: A long wait (40 mins) then a packed 703 bus

The 703 is a political issue

The 703 was the subject of a 2010 election pledge, and was raised multiple times in parliament just last week.

Bentleigh MP Nick Staikos on 11th October:

The action I seek is that the minister implements a change to the 703 timetable that will see it run all the way to Middle Brighton on Sundays. The 703 is the most popular bus route in my electorate. Millions of trips are taken on the 703 each year — it is indeed a SmartBus. It is a bus route that connects our community with various railway stations and also Monash University. Currently on Sundays the service terminates at Bentleigh station. It does not go all the way to Middle Brighton. It is something that the Brumby government sought to address at the 2010 state election. It was not implemented in the subsequent term, but it is nonetheless a change that is needed and wanted by the community.

Note that the Brumby 2010 election pledge was to completely upgrade the route to Smartbus standards — not just the Sunday change now being implemented. Brumby of course lost that election.

Turns out Mr Staikos was not the only MP to specifically mention this route last week — so did the Opposition’s Michael Gidley, representing users at the northern end of the route:

The action I seek is for the minister to stop stalling on implementing the work done by the previous Liberal-Nationals state government and turn Labor’s shoddy, short-changed, shortcut SmartBus route 703 into an actual SmartBus route and to stop dudding the good residents of my district.

If you have a look at the SmartBus project on the Public Transport Victoria website and also the former Department of Transport site, it is very clear what that bus service should be. It should run as a high-frequency bus service every 15 minutes between 6.30 a.m. and 9.00 p.m. Its frequency should average every 30 minutes between 5.00 a.m. and 6.30 a.m., and it should run on average every 30 minutes between 9.00 p.m. and midnight on weekdays. It should also run between 6.00 a.m. and midnight on Saturdays and public holidays at 30-minute intervals, and run on average at a 30-minute frequency between 7.00 a.m. and 9.00 p.m. on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day.

He raises some good points (see the full speech for more), though it’s a little cheeky to demand Labor fix the route in 2016, when his side had government from 2010 to 2014 and did absolutely nothing about it.

Towards the end of his speech he specifically mentions the Sunday/Middle Brighton problem. Little did he know a fix was in the works.

703 bus stop, Bentleigh

What next? When will we see more widespread bus upgrades?

There is huge potential for a bus route like this. It already helps relieve car parks by feeding thousands of people each day into the railway stations and strip shopping centres it serves, as well as Monash University. Improving evening frequencies in particular could help cement this by ensuring people don’t have a long wait on the way home, and would use the existing bus fleet, so should not be expensive.

Bringing the 703 up to full Smartbus standards would provide a lot of benefits to local bus and train users in the area. And of course many other areas around Melbourne also need similar frequent bus routes.

In coming years there are a couple of good opportunities to reform buses in the southeastern suburbs:

Level crossing removals along the Dandenong line will provide a big boost to bus service reliability for many of the bus routes in the area. Connections at stations are likely to improve, and it may be a chance to straighten-out some routes.

And during the project, given construction traffic delays and station car park closures, more should be done to encourage people to catch buses to the station instead of driving.

The Southland station opening in 2017 is also a chance to review local buses, given some bus users heading to Southland Shopping Centre are likely to switch to trains. This applies equally to people in areas like East Brighton and South Oakleigh who want to go to Southland — the most convenient way might be by bus to Bentleigh then by train — provided the connecting bus is good enough.

Let’s hope the government makes the most of these opportunities to fund more bus upgrades that will provide more options to leave the car at home.

Every station now has PSOs after 6pm – except when they don’t

Sometimes travelling by train at night you’ll see PSOs out on the platforms and station concourses. Sometimes they’re not in sight… they might be in their pod, or elsewhere.

Given the high-profile rollout of PSOs onto every station a signature policy of the 2010-2014 Ballieu Coalition government, carried over by the Andrews Labor government, you’d expect that the staffing would be reasonably consistent.

Turns out it’s not.

Macleay College journalism students lodged an FOI request to find out how many stations were without PSOs on duty during the last week in June.

It was surprisingly high. On the Saturday night, 18 stations had no officers on duty due to unplanned leave (in addition to 5 stations closed for level crossing works.

The train network is generally safe, and many passengers have said they feel safer having PSOs on stations. But it takes a lot of officers to do it, and comes at a huge cost.

You would think authorities would have enough officers to roster onto every station, especially during a period when numerous stations were closed for rail works. Hopefully when they fall short, they’re prioritising stations that don’t have other regular Metro staff on duty, as well as stations where crime is a concern.

PSO at Richmond station

The broader issue is whether providing two officers at every station, busy or quiet, every night – and only at night – is sustainable in the longer term.

The PSO rollout was completed in June 2016 with officers deployed at Alamein line stations Hartwell, Willison as well as South Kensington.

As noted in a fascinating piece in The Age last week by John Silvester, it’s an extremely expensive program, with unclear levels of success. Officers have limited powers, and are deployed in a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t really work.

As has long been highlighted, some stations have more crime than others, about half of all crime occurs before 6pm when officers come on duty, and many incidents occur not on stations but on the trains – where PSOs don’t patrol.

PSOs on every station (nearly) of course frees up Victoria Police officers and Authorised Officers to patrol both on the trains and elsewhere in the community.

But with an estimated cost of $80 million per year, it would make sense to target resources at the hotspot stations where crime is a real problem, not just at night but from first to last service – and have others PSOs patrolling around the network, not just stations but also on-board the trains.