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.

New seat layouts, and the train load standard is increasing from 798 to 900

So, now we know which train is which

If you’re a regular on Melbourne’s trains, particularly in the southern and western lines, you’d have noticed the recent changes to seat layouts, but the process of reducing the number of seats on metropolitan trains actually started some time ago, during the huge patronage growth of last decade.

Back in 2008, it was flagged that the second major order of X’Trapolis trains would have fewer seats, with a wider aisle, and more handholds. Further X’Trapolis trains ordered have been of the same design, and subsequently the older trains of that type were altered to also have 2 x 2 seating.

This made a lot of sense. In blocks of three seats, it’s common to see people failing to fill all three (the middle seat in particular is very cramped), choosing to stand instead, and the narrow aisle made it difficult for crowds to circulate around the carriage, especially when there aren’t many places to hold onto.

X'Trapolis train

In 2009, then-operator Connex showed off a trial Comeng train design, which cut about 15 seats from each carriage. As of a few months ago you’d still see these three carriages around on the network.

Changing the load standard

In 2012, it emerged there was a proposal to modify the entire train fleet along these lines, and amend the load standard. This is confirmed by a Metro operations document which came to light last year.

Currently the load standard is 133 per carriage, or 798 per 6 carriage train.

It’s worth re-iterating that the load standard is NOT a maximum capacity; it’s a measurement of crowding. It originated in the 1999 privatisation contracts — if trains carried more than 798 people, it was meant to trigger action to add more capacity, such as adding extra services. (In practice it rarely seemed to trigger anything.)

The proposal is that the load standard be increased to a nice round 900, or 150 per carriage.

If one accepts that seats should be moderately reduced in number, making more space for standees, this actually makes sense — there’s no question that the new designs increase the capacity of each carriage.

Mass removal of seats: Comeng and Siemens fleet

Fast forward to 2016. In the past year, current operator Metro has made modifications to many Comeng and Siemens carriages, basically removing all of the seats closest to the doors.

This was done firstly on the Alstom Comeng fleet (which are recognisable from their green poles, handles and seat backs) and now similar modifications are being rolled-out on the EDI Comeng fleet (yellow poles, handles, seat backs). The latter are a bit different — because the closest remaining seats face the doorways, metal barriers have been installed as well, so people sitting have some space from standees.

Increasing numbers of Siemens carriages also have similar modifications, and their changes appear to be being done while replacing the horrible old plain blue seat cushions.

New Comeng train layout, December 2014

How many seats gone?

It varies by train type. My rough counts (NOT verified):

In the Siemens trains, it’s a removal of about 16 seats per carriage, or in a 6-car train a total of 96 out of 528, or 18.2%.

In the Alstom Comeng fleet, about 12 removed per carriage, for a total of 72 removed out of 536 (13.4%).

In the EDI Comeng fleet, I think it’s 17-24 per carriage, a total (if I’ve got my sums right) of 116 out of 556 (20.9%)

In the X’Trapolis trains, it was 12 removed, or 72 out of 528 (13.7%).

(By comparison, recent B-class tram changes reduced seats by over 30%, though that was partly countered by “bum-racks”… which ultimately don’t save much if any space, I reckon.)

Siemens train: new layout February 2015

The result

The new design isn’t ideal. Clearly it’s a compromise between providing more standing space and making a modification that’s cheap and quick and easy to do — in many cases, whole 2-3 seat units are removed, rather than trying to chop up existing units, so aisles are still narrow on the Comengs. Door positions are not modified — that would be very expensive.

In the Comeng and Siemens trains there still aren’t enough handholds, so while there’s now more space around the doorways, the bulk of standees still remain around the doors.

(Why aren’t there enough handholds? I was told repeatedly during late 2000s that it was due to a fear of vandals swinging on them to kick out windows. It’s unclear if that ever actually happened, or if it was some paranoid fantasy from some desk-bound risk assessor. Either way, the change in X’Trapolis design indicates it’s no longer feared.)

Comeng train

Priority seats

For a while in the reconfigured Comeng and Siemens carriages, there were now virtually no Priority (disabled) seats. Almost all of them are the seats that have been removed. As this blog post points out, this is a big problem for some users, such as the vision-impaired. Apparently part of the issue was they ran out of stickers! New stickers are appearing now, though of course these seats are now farther from the doors.

A recent legislation change means that able-bodied passengers must now give up any seat to those with special needs. But this change hasn’t been communicated at all, and the wording is ambiguous, saying that it:

applies if all designated special needs seats to which a person with special needs has reasonable access in the bus, tram, carriage of a train or premises are already occupied by persons with special needs.

What if the carriage in question has no designated special needs seats? This has been the case for some carriages while the stickers are sorted out.

What if the only priority seats are unoccupied, but are at the opposite end of the carriage — some Comeng “M” carriages now have them only adjacent the driver’s cab (though perhaps that’s temporary) — and the person can’t easily get there?

Passenger reaction

Some people really like the new design. If you’re resigned to having to stand anyway, this provides more space in which to do so. I overheard one person exclaim “ooh, spacious!” when boarding, just after the new designs started to be introduced.

Of course, some are miffed about reduced seats, particularly those having to make long trips on busy lines. In the PM peak they might have to wait for longer for a seat to become available. There are tales, for instance, of people having to stand from the City Loop all the way out to Dandenong.

Is it good, is it bad? There’s no one right answer — different people have different views, and different needs.

I’ve certainly seen cases (typically after cancellations) where trains have been so crowded that with the old design, people would have been left behind on the platform.

But the issue of Priority Seats clearly needs to be resolved.

And ultimately the question is whether it reduces dwell times, allowing more trains to run, which can help counter the reduction in seats in each train.

When will the load standard change take effect? Not sure — some carriages haven’t been converted yet, but I’m guessing this year.

“Mind the gap” spam hits Metro Siemens trains

From Friday (January 1st) it seems a bug got into the Siemens train automatic announcements, probably associated with the timetable changes which took effect on that date.

Since then, the trains (unless the driver turns off all of the auto announcements) will remind you to “Mind the gap between the train and the platform” with quite staggering regularity.

Here it is in all its glory, when approaching North Melbourne — twice within 20 seconds:

Doesn’t seem so bad? Imagine a train trip through 20 stations. It might get a bit grating after the 40th or 50th time.

The warning appears to go off when departing a station, and then again before announcing the next station approaching, and yet again if the next station is a junction station.

The consequences should be obvious. On a short trip from Footscray to Flinders Street (five stops) we heard the announcement some twelve times. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to tell Metro about it as soon as it appeared on Friday morning.

It’s not that the “Mind the gap” message is a bad one. Safety is important, and greater awareness can help people prevent accidents, such as the death of Mitchell Callaghan in 2014.

Effective frequency” of messages seems to be an inexact science, no doubt highly dependent on context, but there comes a point whereby repeated exposure to the message is wasteful, and in this case, simply irritating.

I suspect it also undermines confidence that the automatic announcements are doing their job, and are accurate — just like when they persistently announce the wrong stations, which is a common occurrence on Siemens trains.

Ultimately, it doesn’t make Metro look very good.

Siemens train at Patterson

On Friday I overheard two drivers discussing the problem, remarking that it was “driving people crazy”.

And it appears some drivers have taken to turning off the announcements altogether, which fixes the problem but means those (such as the visually-impaired, or those who have difficulty seeing through window advertising) who might rely on audible station announcements are disadvantaged.

After numerous complaints on Twitter (and no doubt elsewhere), on Monday Metro finally publicly acknowledged the problem, and said it would be fixed in each of the 36 trains, while they are not in service over coming days.

By Tuesday evening, a third of the affected trains had been fixed.

For those of us travelling regularly on the lines served by these trains, removal of the repetitive warnings will be very welcome.

I suppose on the bright side, at least those who have had to put up with it (or heard about it via the media) have been exposed to the safety message.