A quick look at PTV’s Night Network

Labor’s “Homesafe” has been rebranded “Night Network“. The 12 month trial starts in January, with hourly suburban trains on all routes, half-hourly trams on 6 routes.

Full timetables aren’t out yet, but some reasonably good new maps are… note the symbolism of the Pakenham and Sunbury lines, diagonal straight through the middle — as it will be (more or less) in reality when the metro tunnel is open.

PTV Night Network 2016

Nightrider is renamed Night Bus, with a re-organised network of 21 routes, with about half the routes originating in the city (including running a CBD loop anti-clockwise along Flinders, Russell, Lonsdale and Queen Streets) every half-hour, and the rest running suburban routes, co-ordinated with trains at some stations.

This is good — it made no sense to retain the existing Nightrider routes, which largely replicate rail lines. That said, it’s unclear if the suburban bus routes match the most heavily used daytime bus routes. They’ve included parts of the Dandenong/Knox City/Ringwood Smartbus, which is good, but other routes such as Elsternwick to Bentleigh are quite different from the day network. It’ll be interesting to see how successful these are.

PTV Night Bus Network 2016

To the regions there’ll be 4 Night Coach routes, departing at 2am.

It all looks pretty good, with some caveats. Hourly trains will solve the Nightrider bus capacity problem, but at the expense of frequency — they may or may not be attractive to enough people to keep the trial going after a year. (The publicity indicates stations on two lines, eg Caulfield, Clifton Hill, Footscray will get half-hourly trains.)

Oddly Southern Cross (and the City Loop) will be closed after 1am, with trains not stopping there, making it more difficult to get there to catch the Night Coaches or Skybus (which runs 24 hours) — though some of the Night Buses and Night Trams will stop there.

Apart from those out late at night, it will also finally fix the lack of services for early Sunday morning events, such as fun runs — Melbourne’s Sunday morning trains reach the CBD later than in any other city in Australia.

And it’s good to see that PTV is seeking feedback on the night network.

Skybus express – every 10 minutes, at 10 km/h

A number of things hamper Skybus’s reliability and speed. The most obvious ones are a lack of priority lanes, and even a lack of enforcement of the “Express” (taxi and bus) lanes on Citylink.

But when you use Skybus, another thing stands out — the long slow access road that stretches from the terminal to Adderley Street.

Skybus: 10 kmh zone at Southern Cross

Skybus: 10 kmh zone at Southern Cross

The access road stretches for about 600 metres, and while it’s understandable that safety is important, to have an “express” bus start and end its journey in a long 10 kilometre per hour zone just seems a bit silly to me.

Last time I used it, there were speed humps along the way as well, which made for a bumpy ride, and I suspect leave a bad impression on passengers in terms of ride quality.

Along with enforcing the Express lanes, surely this is an easy fix? Even bringing the limit up to a moderate 40 or 50 (at least in the extensive non-undercover section) should allow safety but a faster ride?

Of course, longer term the service is struggling under increasing passenger numbers, despite being a minority mode for airport passengers. There comes a point where buses will no longer cope, and higher-capacity modes are needed.

Free forum on Friday night: Airport public transport

This Friday is a PTUA forum at RMIT, with Michael Buxton, Tony Morton and myself talking on the prospects for airport rail. RSVP on Facebook or check the details on the PTUA web site.

Rail replacement buses that don’t serve stations #bustitution

One of the funniest pieces of rail-related humour I’ve seen was this — the Rail Replacement Bus Set, devised by Tim Dunn.

Rail Replacement Bus Set (by Tim Dunn)

Rail replacement buses can either be bearable or miserable, depending on how well they’re organised.

This weekend is the first major shutdown on the Frankston line for the North-Mckinnon-Centre Road grade separations, though there are also Bayside Rail Project works — the line is closed between Caulfield and Mordialloc.

There’s a key difference compared to most previous shutdowns: in many cases the replacement buses aren’t directly serving the stations. They’re instead going down the nearest main road, for instance between Caulfield and Moorabbin, along Grange/Jasper Road, which is about 400 metres to the east.

This route is often used for express buses, but this time it’s being used for the “stopping all stations” buses as well.

There are several factors at play here:

  • the layout of the road network in the middle suburbs
  • at several locations the works are on the crossings themselves. This means road closures, disrupting traffic (this time mostly short but regular closures; long term closures are expected in coming months
  • most of the stations are in the middle of busy shopping centres.

So bringing the buses all the way to each station would most likely make them intolerably slow.

Bentleigh level crossing removal works 24/10/2015

Bentleigh level crossing removal works 24/10/2015

Today there seemed to be plenty of signage, and staff out at the stations and on the way to the bus stops, pointing people in the right direction — all good to see.

But of course the down side of this is it’s a fair walk from the station to the bus stops, and for people coming from the west side of the rail line who might have already walked a fair distance, it will add a lot to the journey time.

Making it worse is that some of the stops are not at the nearest main intersection, but up to another 240 metres down the road. Presumably this was a matter of finding a suitable location where the buses can stop, but in some cases they seem to have insisted on using the closest regular bus stop. This means the total distance from the station entrance is quite long in some cases — 640 metres for Ormond station outbound buses.

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

In some cases the written directions are also illogical, as if someone’s copied it out of Google Maps or similar, rather than looking at a map and just working out the best path.

  • Glenhuntly — it instructs you to go down two side streets, then (for outbound) cross busy Grange Road about 100 metres from the traffic lights, rather than following the main road and crossing at the lights.
  • Moorabbin — it tells you to go the long, exposed (to the highway and the weather) way around to the bus interchange, instead of the shorter path direct from the station’s eastern exit

Rail replacement bus stops

Bentleigh level crossing removal works 24/10/2015

Is it working for passengers?

I hope they’ll be taking note of feedback from passengers on this weekend’s bus replacements, and whether it works for people.

I can understand the principle of running the buses along the main roads, but my thinking is that some of the bus stops need to move closer to intersections. And some of the directions need work.

One would also hope that they’ve considered running a few (inevitably slower) buses either closer to the stations, for the benefit of those who may not have an easy time walking the extra distance.

There are going to be a lot more closures on this line (and others) in coming months and years as this level crossing removal project and others ramp up, so they need to get it right.

Update Sunday: Trying it out

I didn’t get a chance to try it all out until Sunday afternoon. A few observations:

Bustitution can be a chore to use, but with dispatchers at each end, lots of buses in service and on standby, staff pointing the way to each stop, a mix of express and stopping buses, good signage… Operations like these are way better resourced than any regular bus route.

At Caulfield, they were running replacements for the Frankston and Glen Waverley lines. There was pretty clear signage pointing the way to each.

Signage at other locations was pretty good, but some signs stuck to poles ended up rotating (perhaps due to wind) to point in the wrong direction, for instance one I saw pointed east instead of south — potentially misleading. (I pushed that one back into position, but when I came back later, it had reverted back.)

Special trains were serving Caulfield to City, all stations (important given the Dandenong line is often crowded, and doesn’t normally stop between Caulfield and South Yarra.)

It takes a lot of buses to replace a ten minute train service!

The route itself seemed pretty good. Traffic wasn’t heavy, and the buses moved pretty quickly. On the stretch I used, the express buses barely saved any time compared to the stopping buses, though that could vary. The intersection at North and Grange Road may need tweaking for future operations; southbound doesn’t get very much green time, at least on weekends.

Despite being a relatively quiet time, there were quite a few people travelling in both directions. I probably missed the weekend peak.

Sensibly the Myki readers were switched off (to be precise, in “Ticket validation disabled” mode), though some people went looking through the bus hunting in vain for a working one to touch-on. It wasn’t helped by one bus I used having a piece of paper stuck over the front reader, making it look like just that one wasn’t working. It makes sense to make it free — most people would be paying for the train at either end, and given the big crowds at times, you need to keep the buses moving as quickly as possible.

Seems to me running down main roads works well, but they really need to move the bus stops to be closer to the main roads/stations. I saw many alighting passengers unsure which stop they needed or showing signs of anxiety that their station was being missed, because buses had to stop hundreds of metres down the road from the most logical spot. As I expected, this was particularly a problem at Ormond and Glenhuntly, and apart from sharing a southbound stop at Ormond, there was no obvious reason for the others.

But overall, not too bad.

Update 29/10/2015

The government has announced the works are being brought forward: the major shut down will now be in mid-2016. Obviously this has impacts on bus replacement services, as two weeks will cover school holidays, but three-ish weeks will cover “normal” term/working weeks.

Vic Govt Statement: Work Starts On Accelerated Frankston Line Crossings

Metro rail tunnel: the South Yarra conundrum

The major point of differentiation between the government and the Coalition (and the Greens) on the metro rail tunnel is whether or not it should have platforms at South Yarra.

The current thinking, which is in line with PTV plans going back to at least 2013, is for Dandenong line trains to run in from Caulfield express, diving under South Yarra station but not stopping there, then heading west to the next station at Domain. It’s shown on the PTV rail network development plan:

PTV rail network plan (2013) stage 2

The debate is nicely summed-up in this Age article:

Federal cash for the Melbourne Metro Rail tunnel is under a cloud because the Andrews government is refusing to include a $1 billion new station at South Yarra. … State Opposition leader Matthew Guy has also been lobbying Mr Turnbull over the need for a new interchange at South Yarra, claiming the rail link without it would be like building a house without doors.

(Note: the State Coalition’s rail tunnel proposal last year included platforms at South Yarra, but didn’t explain how they would be built.)

The importance of interchange

Providing platforms at South Yarra would enable passengers to interchange between the Dandenong, Frankston and Sandringham lines, as they do now. Interchange to other lines will become more important once the tunnel is running, because the Dandenong line will bypass Richmond, Parliament, Southern Cross and Flagstaff, so some passengers will want to change trains to reach those destinations.

Of course, interchange will also be possible at Caulfield, Flinders Street (CBD South) or Melbourne Central (CBD North), or Footscray though that may involve a slightly longer trip, particularly for those wanting to head down the Sandringham line.

Dandenong line, AM peak at South Yarra

Local destinations

Currently a lot of people change onto the number 8 tram. But many would be doing that to reach destinations around the Shrine and St Kilda Road, but of course with the tunnel in place, they instead get an express train ride to Domain.

The question to ask would be how many people who currently hop off the Dandenong line at South Yarra are actually going to destinations in the vicinity of the station (such as Melbourne High School, the nearby workplaces, and the shopping precinct), and how many have a final destination that is closer to or beyond St Kilda Road.

Local residents

Many local residents board trains at South Yarra, and those numbers are increasing all the time, with some huge apartment blocks going in around the station. Others are changing off the tram.

While they would benefit from Dandenong trains continuing to stop there, with direct rail access to Domain, Parkville, Huntingdale (for Monash University) and eventually the Airport, there are also plans to reuse the current Dandenong platforms to originate Werribee/Williamstown/Laverton trains from South Yarra, providing a big boost to services into the city — and plenty of seats, unlike all the other trains. (These additional services would help balance out the Newport lines with the Sandringham line; as you can see from the numbers in the diagram at the top, they would be connected, but the projected numbers of services aren’t balanced.)

Either way, congestion in the station entrance is a huge problem.

(By the way, the headline on this article the other day was nonsensical: Melbourne Metro: South Yarra commuters face longer journey to town.)

South Yarra station, evening peak

The problems of platforms

The government position is that providing them would cost almost a billion dollars, and result in acquisition and demolition of over a hundred properties (double the number of 44 for the entire project as it stands), including part of the Jam Factory.

If that’s true, it doesn’t seem viable.

Part of the problem is that the current platforms can’t be used, because the plan is for the new Dandenong line trains to be up to 50% longer, and there wouldn’t be space to dive under the Yarra river. So any platforms provided would have to be new, underground, and in keeping with modern standards, dead straight for about 250 metres.

As I understand it, the plan is the tracks through South Yarra platforms 5+6 will still be connected to the Dandenong line tracks, with a junction near the tunnel portal, to provide for V/Line and freight services, which couldn’t use the tunnel. The freed up platforms at South Yarra would also be used to originate additional services into the City and to the west. (Perhaps ideally the tracks would be swapped around a bit, so an island pair would be used for this purpose.)

What to do?

Greg Barber is right when he says it’s worth looking at the design again.

As I understand it, the announcement this week that the Swanston Street section of tunnel would go deep, avoiding massive disruption on the surface, was made after senior people running the project sensibly considered that Melbourne hasn’t built many rail tunnels recently, and got in some of the best experts in the world to look at the design. While they’re reviewing it, it makes sense to look at the South Yarra question again to re-evaluate if it’s viable.

If it’s possible, not too expensive, and doesn’t require the mass demolition of properties, it would be good to provide the platforms.

But if platforms aren’t provided at South Yarra, then it’s important to improve interchange at Caulfield (cross-platform interchange should be the goal here, similar to Richmond platforms 7+8, and 9+10) and of course to provide top notch interchange at Flinders Street and Melbourne Central.

And either way, South Yarra station needs an upgrade to unclog it. For instance an additional concourse at the northern end, to provide better access direct into the growing Forrest Hill precinct, would help a lot.

Update 2:15pm: It may be a complete coincidence, but shortly after I published this post, I was told that the MM tunnel guru has looked at South Yarra, and that good information on why the government doesn’t believe platforms are viable will be published soon.

Melbourne metro rail tunnel: alignment options

Update Monday 26/10/2015: Local Greens MP Sam Hibbins has released FOI documents about the station on his web site.

I found the Alignment Options Assessment document particularly interesting, and I wonder if given fuss around South Yarra, and the Libs’ push to spend more money on the tunnel project as a whole, if they should be looking again at the Dandenong Road/St Kilda Road option.

It resolves a number of problems, including future Caulfield-South Yarra track capacity for V/Line and freight (though the report says these may not be needed until 2046); opening up rail access at the Alfred Hospital precinct and possibly St Kilda (though the latter was not proposed; instead it suggested stops at Windsor and Orrong Road), and the relative ease of building along wide boulevards, thanks to all the space available. The Dandenong Road option would also result in more PT trips.

Of course, much longer tunnels equals bigger cost. It seems the State Liberals are trying to convince the Feds to insist on a change for funding (which hopefully would counter the additional cost); maybe they should think bigger than just a South Yarra stop that’s likely to have a big surface impact with (apparently) minimal patronage difference.

The Murray Road conundrum: can a crossing be provided?

As I’ve touched upon in previous posts, there are numerous technical hurdles with the Bentleigh area level crossing removals.

Via the stakeholder group I’m learning that a lot of the cost with any removal where the railway line is dropped down under the road is related to carefully moving all the services that are buried — gas, water, phone, electricity and no doubt others. A lot of the cost is also in “occupations” – shutting down the rail line and providing replacement services.

My previous post on the project has a lot of detail on the overall project, if you’re not familiar with it, but one issue has come up repeatedly which hasn’t been resolved:

Can a pedestrian crossing be provided at Murray Road?

Murray Road, Ormond

Ormond (Map: Melway online)

Murray Road sits midway between Ormond and Mckinnon stations, which is one of the longest sections of track in this area that has no crossings.

While the road has the same name on both sides of the railway line, it appears the road was never joined, or perhaps it was joined only before the railway line was built in about 1880.

The history is hazy, but I’ve heard numerous accounts (including a blog commenter) of a pedestrian underpass having been there in the past — possibly an informal crossing which was really part of a creek/flood plain running underneath the tracks, which is clearly shown in this MMBW plan of the area.

Murray Road crossing - MMBW

Apparently the underpass was filled-in in the 1980s when the third track was added, and any trace of it has since disappeared, with the local roads having been fully sealed over the top, and houses built right up to the line on the western side.

The only real indicator I could see is a small park on the western side with obvious water-related infrastructure present, with manhole access to pumps, floats, vega and penstock.

(What is a Penstock, anyway? Oh — Wikipedia says it’s a “a sluice or gate or intake structure that controls water flow, or an enclosed pipe that delivers water to hydro turbines and sewerage systems.” And a vega? It might be this: “a meadow located within a forested and relatively small drainage basin”.)

Murray Road, Ormond: Penstock

Because of this underground water and the pipes that carry it, the level crossing removal project has to build the line back up to street level between the new Ormond and Mckinnon station underpasses. And this appears to be the key problem in providing a pedestrian crossing.

Above, between, below?

Not unreasonably, the government doesn’t want to build at-grade pedestrian level crossing. The project is focussed on removing level crossings, not building new ones. In fact there’s a government policy of not providing new crossings, and the project team says the only way it would be done is if the Minister for Public Transport specifically approves it, based on advice from the relevant authorities.

The safety record for at-grade crossings isn’t great, though it seems to me the big problems occur where they occur on busy streets, particularly in busy shopping centres and adjacent to railway stations.

Putting in an overpass appears to be problematic, with issues of privacy from views into back yards, and a lack of space to build ramps that would be required to make such a structure accessible. The project team says acquisition of public and private land would be required.

But what about an underpass?

Space is tight, and DDA (ramp) access is obviously an issue, but some local campaigners believe it should be possible to provide an underpass alongside the existing water pipes, either parallel or at an angle across the line.

Apart from the water pipes, there’s also a high pressure gas line somewhere there, and the project team says flooding would be likely to be an issue, with installation of a flood wall being necessary.

There might be impacts on the eastern (Cadby Avenue) side of the line, but this could be an opportunity to use a traffic-calming road chicane to slow down cars — chicanes are common around Glen Eira, with several in nearby streets.

There are concerns that an underpass might have to have blind corners, reducing visibility and safety. But these are not an insurmountable problem — mirrors and effective lighting can be used to improve visibility.

Theoretically another option would be to lower the rail line at this point instead, but the project team says that too would not be practical due to the cost of relocating services, particularly the storm water drain.

Murray Road, Ormond

Why would a crossing be useful?

To the west, Ormond Primary School is on Murray Road. To the east, there is Joyce Park and the northern end of Mckinnon Secondary College. And in fact a few years ago, a pedestrian crossing on Jasper Road was built close to Murray Road.

Providing an east-west route on that alignment would bring a vast improvement to mobility for those walking or cycling in the area, and is likely to reduce car use for local trips which are currently impractical on foot.

It would certainly be a lot safer for cyclists, who currently have little choice but to use the nearest main roads. North Road is a traffic sewer, with no bike lanes. Mckinnon Road is quieter and with bike lanes, but as local member Nick Staikos noted recently, narrow bike lanes that are full of parked cars aren’t very useful as bike lanes. Mckinnon Road doesn’t actually have a great safety record — there have been multiple bike vs car accidents recently.

What the outcome will be isn’t really clear. One would hope the project team are doing their best to explore every option to see if a crossing of some kind is possible.

A huge project like a grade separation shouldn’t be planned in isolation.

This has the broader point about level crossing removals having a big (positive) impact on local communities, and that they should be considered as part of broader transport and land use planning for these areas.

No doubt there are similar cases right across Melbourne, where grade separation should provide an opportunity to provide more places to get under or over the rail line, to improve amenity and access.

Notably, none of this would be a problem if the line was being elevated. Perhaps that was never going to happen here, given the housing in close proximity to much of the rail line and the North Road (rail under) plans having progressed well before the decision to include the other two crossings, but there are some clear lessons here for other locations.