Peak hour trains 1939 vs 2006 vs 2015 – line by line

Here’s a quick followup to Tuesday’s post… that had a summary of 1939 vs 2006 vs 2015 timetables in the 5-6pm peak, but here’s the line-by-line breakdown.

to 1939 2006 2015
St Kilda 10    
Port Melbourne 5  
Williamstown 7 3 3
Altona/Laverton 2 See Werribee 3
Werribee 1 4 5
St Albans/Sunbury 2 5 9
Broadmeadows/Craigieburn 8 6 9
Fawkner/Upfield 6 3 3
Clifton Hill/North Carlton (Inner Circle) 3    
Thomastown/South Morang 8 4 7
Hurstbridge 7 8 8
Kew 4    
Ringwood/Lilydale 3 7 7
Upper Ferntree Gully/Belgrave 2 7 7
Box Hill/Blackburn 7 5 5
Ashburton/Alamein 4 4 4
EastMalvern/Glen Waverley 5 6 6
Oakleigh/Dandenong 8 10 14
Frankston stopping 11 9 11
Sandringham 13 6 8

St Albans, Broadmeadows, Fawkner, Thomastown and Upper Ferntree Gully, Ashburton, Dandenong have all been extended (or electrified out further) over the years. Numerous lines have also been duplicated; in days gone past extensive sections were single track. Of course, some remain partly single track.

Services beyond about 10km of the city were pretty sparse in 1939, reflecting that back then there just weren’t that many people living that far out. Somewhere I’ve seen figures suggesting the average train journey distance has roughly doubled since then.

Some lines, especially to the west, were far less frequent than today.

Tait train (Steamrail Open Day 2014)

Williamstown — far fewer trains nowadays in that hour, though most of the stations (between the city and Newport) are served by other lines now. Back in 1939 a few trains ran a little further, to Williamstown Pier, now closed.

Altona/Laverton and Werribee — in 1939 what is now the Altona Loop ended at Altona, and Werribee was a separate line.

By 2006 the Altona line had been extended via Westona to Laverton, to connect to the Werribee line, but had no dedicated services of its own — most Werribee trains ran via Altona.

This changed in 2011 with the Laverton turnback enabled Altona Loop trains to terminate there — in peak they run from the city, but on weekdays interpeak they have the much-hated shuttle. On weekends and in the evenings the old operation still exists — all Werribee trains run via the Altona Loop.

St Albans — in 1939, some trains terminated at Sunshine.

Broadmeadows — in 1939, about half the trains terminated at Essendon.

Upfield — back in 1939 about half the trains terminated at Coburg.

Thomastown (now South Morang) is now double track all the way. In 1939 much of it was single (something only fully rectified in the past decade), and most trains actually terminated at Reservoir. Only a few continued to Thomastown (just 1 in the 5-6pm peak hour). The line went beyond, to Epping, South Morang, Mernda and Whittlesea, but wasn’t electrified, and only a handful of trains (rail motors) each day went that far.

Hurstbridge — in 1939, most trains terminated at Heidelberg, only some extending to Eltham (2 in the 5-6pm peak hour), and even fewer to Hurstbridge (1).

Box Hill/Ringwood/Lilydale/Belgrave — in 1939, about half the trains terminated at Box Hill, some extended to Ringwood, fewer beyond. On the Belgrave line, electric trains terminated at Upper Ferntree Gully. Beyond that it was a bus or Puffing Billy!

Glen Waverley — in 1939, most trains terminated at Eastmalvern

Oakleigh/Dandenong — in 1939, fewer trains ran out as far as Dandenong, with about half terminating at Oakleigh. Nowadays almost all run as far as Cranbourne or Pakenham.

Frankston — in 1939, there were a few express trains, including one in the 5-6pm peak that ran all the way to Stony Point, with a connection to Mornington. This was run by what was known as an “E” train — a set of country carriages pulled down to Frankston by two electrified carriages, then hooked up to a steam engine for the rest of the trip. The issue with doing this sort of thing nowadays is the passenger load would be heavily skewed towards the suburban part of the journey, and it’s impractical to skip all the suburban stations due to track congestion. (You end up with similar problems as to when V/Line served Sunbury.)

(There was also a once-a-day morning train connection to Red Hill, and back in the evening.)

The third track along the Frankston line was built in the 70s and 80s, enabling express trains along part of the route to overtake stopping trains. Yet in the 2006 timetable, there were only a few each day that did that. There are a lot more in 2015.

Sandringham — in 1939, some off-peak trains terminated at Elsternwick, and some in peak at Brighton Beach, though most went all the way to Sandringham.

The Kew, Inner Circle, St Kilda and Port Melbourne lines no longer exist. Note that the St Kilda line was basically as frequent as the 96 tram is now, but run by trains (short ones though I think).

(I’ll look at off-peak services in another post. There’s quite a contrast.)

How many trains in peak compared to the past? And how full are the tracks?

This video is inspired partly by a shot in the House Of Cards titles, and partly by something my dad used to tell me — that you could stand at Richmond station in the evening peak and see trains on every track coming out of the city.

He may have been exaggerating a tad, but it’s often been said that in decades past the rail system had more trains running on it than at present.

That’s true to an extent. The inner part of the network was probably more intensively used in the past, though the outer sections of the network are busier than before.

For instance in 1939 in peak, trains out to Oakleigh were every 5-10 minutes, but out to Dandenong only about every 15-20 minutes — today they’re about every 5 minutes all the way.

And there’s been substantial growth in train numbers in the past ten years.

1939 vs 2006 vs 2015

How does the network compare overall?

I compared the 1939 timetables with 2006 (just as patronage, service growth and fleet expansion began to take hold) and also with the current 2015 timetables (last revised in 2014). I used departure times at the cordon stations (Richmond/North Melbourne) in the hour 5-6pm. (Note I’ve moved the range slightly where excluding a train a minute or two outside it would have given an artificially low or inconsistent figure.)

The verdict? More trains ran in 1939 than now, but not if you discount the Port Melbourne and St Kilda lines, which were converted to tram lines in the 1980s.

  • In 1939 it was 116 trains in that hour, but 15 of those were on the St Kilda and Port Melbourne lines (and another 7 were on the Inner Circle and Kew lines which no longer exist; but those trains also serve some stations that do still exist). So a reasonable figure to use is 101.
  • In 2006, the number had dropped to 87.
  • But by 2015, it had risen again to 109, about 8% higher than in 1939.

But the balance of trains has changed.

Melbourne PM peak hour trains, 1939 vs 2006 vs 2015

In separating them out into the graph, I’ve used the old line groupings, because it more clearly shows the changes:

  • Northern (eg lines through North Melbourne, including western suburbs) is up, though individual lines have changed in different ways. In 1939 the Williamstown and Upfield lines had a lot more trains than at present. This is countered by huge growth in the Werribee and St Albans/Sunbury lines — a fourfold increase in both, reflecting that they now serve growth corridors.
  • Clifton Hill is now about the same as in 1939 (if you exclude the Inner Circle), showing growth since 2006 primarily on the Thomastown/Epping/South Morang line, which almost doubled in peak services between 2006 and 2015, though that line is still slightly short of the 1939 number.
  • Burnley lines are up, 25 to 29 — Kew trains have been replaced by other services. There’s been basically no change since 2006, which reflects that patronage has grown more slowly. Almost all the other lines on the network serve growth corridors.
  • Caulfield is slightly up, though Frankston and Sandringham line numbers are about the same now as they were in 1939. The real growth is on the Dandenong line, which even just since 2006 has grown by 40%.

Update: This July 2008 paper from Paul Mees notes that in 1929, 113 trains ran in the busiest hour (including the Port Melbourne and St Kilda lines) — slightly fewer than in 1939. It was 108 in 1964 (also including those lines), and a 1969 prediction forecast 181 trains in 1985 (including the Doncaster line).

How full are the tracks?

The bottleneck in the CBD is basically the number of tracks emerging from the City Loop and direct from Southern Cross and Flinders Street.

How full are those tracks in that hour?

“Full” is hard to measure. A rail line signalled for 2-minute headways (which the City area is) could be considered full at 80% of that, eg 24 trains per hour. But loading times at stations, junctions along the way (especially flat ones), level crossing gate closures, and signal/track capacity further out all reduces that. And if we’re measuring outbound trains, then how many inbound trains can we feed in from the suburbs (given little stabling in the City area)?

  • Northern direct tracks to Newport (Werribee, Williamstown lines): 11 trains, but these tracks are used by 5 Geelong trains in that hour as well. Regional Rail Link will help free them up for more suburban services. Then the problem will become the single track through Altona (often the cause of delays and bypasses), flat junctions (principally at Newport), and level crossings (at locations such as Yarraville, the gates have been known to close for almost 20 minutes at a time).
  • Northern Loop (Sunbury, Craigieburn, Upfield lines): 21 trains (plus 2 more trains to Seymour mix in at North Melbourne). This shows the value of having moved the Werribee line out of the Loop back in 2007 — allowing more trains to run in peak on all these lines. But the tunnel is close to capacity — one proposal sees Upfield line trains run direct from Southern Cross instead, and longer-term, if the metro rail tunnel is built, Sunbury line trains would use that. Of course, the single track on the northern section of the Upfield line may pose problems until duplicated, though ten minute services were provided as far as Coburg during the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
  • Clifton Hill Loop (South Morang, Hurstbridge lines): 15 trains. Some trains run express Jolimont to Clifton Hill, which reduces capacity somewhat, though the flat junction at Clifton Hill also makes it difficult to run trains through it at a consistently high frequency (outbound Hurstbridge trains may have to wait for inbound South Morang trains, and vice versa). Ditto single track on the Hurstbridge line.
  • Burnley Loop (Lilydale, Belgrave, Glen Waverley lines): 20 trains. Mostly expresses to Glenferrie, Camberwell, Box Hill and then out beyond Ringwood, but also 6 Glen Waverley trains. This Loop is also therefore close to capacity. Single track on the outer ends of the Belgrave and Lilydale lines can lead to delays.
  • Burnley direct (Alamein line, Blackburn and Ringwood stopping trains): 9 trains. It’s not hard to see why in the long term, the plan seems to be to move Glen Waverley trains out of the Burnley Loop, and allowing more trains to run both to there (direct from Flinders Street) and also to Lilydale and Belgrave.
  • Caulfield Loop (Dandenong line, Frankston stopping trains): 20 trains. Approaching capacity. 2 V/Line trains mix in with the Dandenong line trains at Richmond. The Dandenong line upgrade should help resolve level crossing issues, though duplication of the Cranbourne line is not currently in scope.
  • Frankston direct (Frankston express trains): 5 trains. Clearly scope to move more Frankston trains to run direct, replacing them with Dandenong line trains, but it would be a fine balancing act to ensure large numbers of Frankston line passengers wanting the Loop were handled well.
  • Sandringham direct: 8 trains. It’s not a growth corridor, but peak patronage does continue to grow, probably reflective of demographics (lots of CBD-based white-collar jobs). So there is scope there for an increase in services, though at some point the single platform at Sandringham becomes an issue. The old solution of terminating some trains at Brighton Beach might be the solution, unless Sandringham is upgraded with a second platform.

Belgrave train arriving Southern Cross

Other things to bear in mind

Trains in 1939 didn’t have the same capacity as those running now. 6-car trains now are slightly longer than the old 7-car Tait trains (which necessitated minor platform extensions as newer trains were introduced) and have more standing space, so the overall capacity of each train would be higher now.

Old-timers sometimes say that automation and modern technology has reduced capacity: for instance, they say that Tait trains with 9 (small) doors per side could load and unload quicker than modern trains with automatic locking doors, and blokes throwing switches for signals and points could respond more quickly as trains went past than the computers now controlling the infrastructure.

Required capacity on each line is reflective not only of population growth, but also of the number of people employed or attending education or other activities in the inner city and CBD, and needing to travel during peak hour.

As noted above, capacity of individual tracks has many factors, including signalling, dwell times at stations (which worsens as crowding gets bad), stopping patterns (consistent = good), train acceleration/deceleration, level crossings, junctions (preferably grade-separated, and the fewer the better), and even less visible factors such as capacity of the power supply.

In some ways the City Loop didn’t add greatly to CBD rail capacity. It helped distribute passengers around to more stations, and reduced the need to reverse trains. And associated upgrades (such as the “new” viaduct from Flinders Street to Southern Cross) did expand capacity. But ultimately the number of tracks out of the city stations to North Melbourne, Jolimont and Richmond is what determines track capacity in the City area — which is part of why Regional Rail Link went ahead, and why the metro rail tunnel is being pushed.

Average trip lengths are now longer than they were in the past. This means more demand for express trains (which burns up capacity if provided), as well as a bigger fleet and more staff needed to run the same frequency of service. More longer trips may also emerge via the fare cuts that took effect in January.

Where to from here?

With expansion of the CBD and Docklands, and a strong and growing economy (particularly the “knowledge economy“), demand for train travel into the congested core of the network is likely to continue to grow into the future.

PTV’s Network Development Plan’s proposals show the way forward, in terms of expansion of signal upgrades to High Capacity Signalling, high capacity trains, and re-organisation of lines through the city area to form dedicated high-frequency lines (including capacity expansion such as the metro rail tunnel).

All of which is expensive, but it’s got to be done — more than ever the rail network underpins Melbourne’s economic growth.

And remember that expanding evening, weekend and inter-peak into a 10 minute all-day service can be done far more easily, by making use of track and fleet capacity already available. This can help spread peak loads, by providing a much more usable service outside peak times, and helps to grow patronage when there is more spare capacity on the network.

(What have I missed? Leave a comment!)

Followup post: Line-by-line detail.

The new Dandenong line plan

Last year the Coalition announced they were going ahead with an unsolicited proposal: to upgrade the Dandenong line. In summary, it included: grade separation of 4 level crossings, 3 stations associated with those rebuilt, planning and early works on 5 more grade separations, high capacity signalling, 25 new trains, a maintenance depot at Pakenham, and power upgrades.

On Tuesday the Labor government announced that they’d scrapped the Coalition’s plan, and were going ahead with a bigger version: grade separation of 9 level crossings, 5 new stations rebuilt, 37 new trains, a maintenance depot at Pakenham, power upgrades, and a high capacity signalling trial on the Sandringham line instead, ahead of a rollout across the rest of the network.

Dandenong line, Monday evening

The need

By most measures, the Dandenong line is the most crowded on the network, and is likely to get worse as it serves a growth corridor. Unlike the western suburbs lines, which are about to get a boost via Regional Rail Link, to date there’s been no substantial work undertaken to relieve it.

Timetable changes a couple of years ago provided some relief, but the May 2014 load surveys showed that in both AM and PM peak, crowding has got worse in the past year, with 35% to 44% of passengers travelling on trains above the “benchmark” crowding figure.

Dandenong load surveys - May 2014

What’s in the revised project?

Level crossing grade separations: Coalition 4; Labor 9: the revised plan will see removal of all the level crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong, making the entire line from the City Loop to Dandenong crossing-free. Note that all the crossings were on Labor’s list of 50 that they took to the election.

One thing evident from last year’s plan (and from the completed rebuild at Springvale) was that it was to include some planning for future track expansion. I’m told this is continuing. They are working out where extra tracks could go in the future, and not necessarily demolishing buildings right now (pointless if the land may not be needed for decades), but certainly not allowing new ones up that would get in the way. You might see carparking or other uses for the land, but no new buildings — similar to VicRoads and their overlays in places like Punt Road.

Station rebuilds: Coalition 3, Labor 4. No surprises here; it’s the stations that are adjacent to level crossings being removed. More crossings removed = more stations need to be rebuilt.

Existing stations will also get minor modifications: short platform extensions to handle the slightly longer trains.

New trains: Coalition 25; Labor 37. These will be a new design, a so-called “high capacity” model, carrying 20% more passengers than the current models. They’ll be a bit longer than the current 6-car trains, probably fitting more snugly into the platforms in the City Loop. I’d expect they’d have more doors, more efficient seating layouts, and no centre driver cabs (largely unused these days).

The key change is the number — 37 will be enough to run the entire Dandenong/Cranbourne/Pakenham line with one train type, meaning more consistent running times and loading times. As I said at the time, 25 wasn’t enough; it would have been messy running a mix.

The government is also promising at least 50% local content. Expressions of Interest will be sought in May, so they want to move pretty quickly. Presumably the frontrunners would be the two companies with train manufacturing facilities in Victoria: Alstom at Ballarat, and Bombardier in Dandenong. (The recent small X’Trapolis order was said to be enough to help keep Alstom going at least until this new procurement process is underway, so there are at least two viable bidders.)

Maintenance depot at Pakenham: It makes sense to have a depot out at the end of one of the lines, so the new trains don’t have to travel long distances out-of-service for maintenance. It also helps support local jobs, which would be welcome for the area.

Signalling: We’re back to the PTV plan for the Sandringham line to get the first trial with High Capacity Signalling (also known as, depending on precisely what you’re talking about, moving block, or Communications-based train control — CBTC for short). That line is almost completely isolated from the rest of the network, particularly V/Line and freight trains, so it will be easier to test the technology with a lower risk of a huge SNAFU taking out a whole rail line.

It will mean whatever trains will run on the Sandringham line will need HCS equipment, though it’s unclear if that would include a dedicated fleet. Perhaps more likely it’ll be modifications to existing trains, with enough flexibility that they’re not tied to that line.

The wish to trial HCS first might be related to the delay in the emergence of a definitive standard for this type of technology, and rumoured disagreements between the various players about precisely which technology from which company should be adopted. It’s a complicated area.

It’s important to note the Dandenong line will still get a signalling upgrade. It won’t be HCS/CBTC, but it will be modern conventional signalling. The view recently (such as on Regional Rail Link) has been that when a line is rebuilt (as parts of the Sunbury line were), the ageing electrical and signalling equipment is ripped out and replaced with new stuff, which is more reliable once installed, and has better provision for future upgrades. I’d assume we will see the whole line from the City to Dandenong allowing a train every 2 minutes (currently 3 minutes). Usually the practical maximum is 80% of the theoretical capacity, so that would allowing about 24 trains per hour — currently the line has about 15 + 2 V/Lines in the busiest hour.

Of course a rail line runs most smoothly if no messy junctions are used on the most frequent part of the network. The logical consequence of this is that the remaining Frankston Loop trains will be altered to run direct into Flinders Street, but this hasn’t been specifically stated yet. I wonder if consideration has be given to a flying junction (that’s gunzel talk for grade-separated) where the Cranbourne and Pakenham lines meet?

I’m told V/Line trains will continue to run all the way into the City. No current plans to terminate them at Pakenham.

The upgrade is independent of the Metro Rail Tunnel project. I’m not sure exactly how they calculated it, but the government say the changes will boost total capacity by 42%, even without the tunnel. Indeed, the tunnel really only increases usable track capacity from the west, though given the Dandenong line would use it, it would allow the Frankston line back into the Loop.

The government claims delivery of the various upgrades would be in the period 2016-2018, which sounds quite ambitious to me. No doubt they want things well underway or preferably finished by the 2018 election.

Dandenong line, AM peak at South Yarra

Still missing?

Much the same as last time. Duplication of the Cranbourne line, which still has about 10km of single track. It hasn’t been included in the project scope, but must be done if cascading delays are to be avoided. It’ll be a ridiculous situation if billions is spent, but a single little delay near Cranbourne can still easily jeopardise services on the whole line.

Also missing is any word of a revamp of connecting bus services, with more Smartbus-like services feeding into the stations. The key to having a rail line live up to its potential is ensuring people can easily get to the stations.

The emerging pattern now is for PTV to embark on this type of upgrade when new stations open. But given the various upgrades in this project will be introduced in stages, there’s no real reason such a revamp has to wait. Indeed, given some stations will lose parking during rebuilds, it might help ease the pain of disruptions during the project.

As the Urban Melbourne web site points out, the other thing missing is something specific on land use planning around stations. There’s an opportunity for more development, particularly on big slabs of land currently taken by car parks (where it wouldn’t take space needed later for track expansion).

The way forward

Labor’s made some interesting claims as part of justifying the change of plans. Firstly they allege the Coalition secretly removed HCS from the project scope in October (eg before the election), due to cost blowouts, and they claim to have a letter proving it.

Secondly, they’re citing concerns with the unsolicited proposal process, including the prospect of Metro (MTM to be precise) being franchised to run the Dandenong line well after their contract for the rest of the network might have expired and another operator possibly appointed for the rest of the network. That could have been messy — the old days of Connex and M&Train led to issues. And there were concerns about the cost to taxpayers of the ongoing payments to MTM over the life of the contract, relative to the project cost.

On the face of it, the outcomes for train passengers and road users from the revamped version are better, but the devil will be in the detail. And let’s hope the government works hard to make sure the outcome for taxpayers is good as well.

Public transport timetables finally in GTFS format

Information is power, so they say. So it follows that good accurate information on public transport services is needed to make the most of them.

Back in 2005, before the first wave of Real smartphones prompted by the iPhone, Google launched Google Transit.

The idea is simple: with access to all of a region’s public transport timetables, people can easily find out how they get from A to B — as easily as they can plan a trip on foot or in a car.

PTV-liveried train, tram and bus

Various transport agencies, including Victoria’s then-Metlink, have launched their own Journey Planners over the years, many based on proprietary software from a mob called MDV. …Z-something. (I’ll find the name later, but the same company did the planner for London.)

Metlink also did a substantial amount of work to get the data together to make those Journey Planners work — in an environment with numerous small bus operators, for instance, some of the minutiae of minor bus services was actually known to very few people, and not very well documented!

Despite quite a clunky user interface, the Journey Planner more-or-less works most of the time. It had some pretty weird results early on, but these were mostly problems with the data rather than the software. But it has bugs — recently using it, it was telling me it couldn’t work out a trip for me, but then did so anyway — and none of the maps I clicked to display would work.

The Victorian authorities have dipped their toes into the area of publishing the timetable data. Back in 2009 it was published as part of a Victorian Government initiative called App My State. The PTUA used the data in a 2010 study to prove that buses didn’t connect very well with trains (with a web-based App to fulfil the conditions of the data’s use). I think that put a few noses out of joint, and that data set was pulled offline and never updated.

Then last year PTV published an API (that’s Application Programming Interface to non-geeks) to look up bits of the data. But the nature of the API is you can only see a little bit of data at a time. It’s what’s used by the official Journey Planner, but ties developers to a specific method of access.

The official journey planner, or indeed any online journey planner worth its salt is often easier than ringing up to ask for advice, and easier than wrestling with dozens of printed timetables and a Melway (which is what I used to do). But they’re all clunkier than Google’s offering, which started as a super-smooth desktop web site, and has morphed into a super-smooth experience on phones and tablet devices — and is built into many devices, making it very handy for visitors.

Google Transit covers every state except Victoria. (August 2014)

The pressure has been on the Victorian government to release data in the open GTFS format (which Google Transit accepts) for years. (My notes indicate I raised it with Metlink as early as 2008.) Every other state has already done it, with Google Transit covering numerous cities around Australia.

Now, announced via a post on Reddit on Monday afternoon, they’ve finally done it.

Apart from enabling Google Transit, because it’s an open format, it also means a myriad of other innovative tools can use the data, though Google Transit is one of the best and most widespread thanks to its integration into Google Maps.

Some things to note:

Firstly, for now it’s timetable data, not realtime data. I’m told realtime is coming — GTFS has a realtime capability — but given at my local station they have trouble getting realtime train information from a display onto the platform relayed to the display outside on the street, I’m not holding my breath on that.

Secondly, it’s not actually in Google yet. a GTFS feed isn’t the same as it actually being in Google. Google has to sort that out with the government, so that the data is slurped in, on a regular basis as things change. But the biggest barriers to that are now gone.

Hopefully it’s not too far away, and the joy of easily planning trips using the World’s Best Journey Planning tools, currently available in every other state of Australia, is finally possible for us in Victoria.

It’s only part of the puzzle of course. The trip the Journey Planner advises for A to B right now might be quite different an hour later, thanks to many routes being unpredictable, inconsistent, or infrequent. That makes things difficult for users to remember, and problematic if there are delays en route. A frequent, consistent, legible network will help with that. But that’s another story.

Detailed Metro train stats revealed

This morning The Age published more detailed train service data than we usually get to see. Some information is routinely published, but we rarely get an insight into the breakdown between AM, PM and off-peak punctuality, for instance.

In some ways the data was no great surprise — in the first week of March, hundreds of services were altered, including 71 Loop bypasses (City and Altona), and 399 shortened services, with 95% of them at peak hour in the peak direction. This matches the anecdotal evidence often heard from daily users.

Also not surprising is that peak services are less punctual than off-peak. As Jarrett Walker long ago wrote in his Human Transit blog, peak is when the system is at its most stressed — from numbers of trains and passengers on the network, causing congestion and longer dwell times at stations, with any delays snowballing much faster.

The Age: Metro disruptions

Some lines are clearly much worse than others — these figures have more detail than we usually see, but it’s reflected in the aggregate figures published in the Track Record monthly reports. The worst lines tend to be those with single track sections (which quickly causes delays to escalate) and those in growth corridors (more trains on the line, and more people getting on and off them)… with some unfortunate lines such as Cranbourne having both those attributes.

Lines directly or indirectly linked to those less punctual lines, such as sharing Loop tunnels, tend to get affected too.

What perhaps is surprising is that until March, the reliability and punctuality data wasn’t automatically captured. It was gathered by Metro themselves, and a sample was cross-checked by PTV. (In contrast, the tram network has had automated monitoring for decades — the data from it is used to feed into Tram Tracker. Buses are mostly monitored manually, with only a tiny sample ever being reported on — a small enough number to make it meaningless, though steps are underway to automate it.)

Crowded train home

The sheer number of Loop diversions — about 10 per day, most likely concentrated at peak periods — is also surprising. This can cause a lot of disruption for people, and has flow-on effects to other services as people change trains. That’s if they’re told on time — I’ve been aboard a service that was diverted to bypass the Loop after leaving Richmond, giving no chance for people to change. Many were not happy.

The reasons for specific alterations weren’t included in the data, but we know this is gathered, as Metro get exclusions from performance penalties for problems they have no control over — which is fair enough.

Given we all pay for public transport services (as both passengers and taxpayers), is it not reasonable that this type of detailed information is published regularly? That would provide better visibility of delays and alterations, where and why they occur, and would cast light on specific parts of the network, what the problems are, and how they can be fixed — so voters can hold the operators, authorities and politicians to account.

Fixing the problems

It’s also important that the state government make sure Metro is only altering services for good reasons — such as a counter-peak service altered so a peak service can run on time, rather than just to help the punctuality statistics.

Metro may need to be pulled into line in the short term. How? Well former Labor transport minister Martin Pakula, while in opposition, seemed to think it was perfectly possible:

FORMER Labor transport minister Martin Pakula today called on the state government to force Metro to stop its practice of skipping stations to improve punctuality.


Mr Pakula says the situation could be easily resolved by Transport Minister Terry Mulder.

“There is the franchise agreement (between Metro and the state government) and there is common sense,” Mr Pakula says.
This can be resolved by the Transport Minister getting onto Metro and telling them it is not on.”

Herald Sun, 19/4/2012

Metro should be willing to listen, given you’d imagine they’re seeking an extension to their current contract, which expires soon.

Longer term? Line-by-line targeted investments can make the system more reliable, starting with those single track sections. And the new contracts (due during this term of government) need to be made more watertight against strategies like station skipping, to ensure the service is run in the interests of passengers.

Does the frequent part of the network need timetables?

A change in emphasis should also be considered. As the system transitions to a more “metro”-like network, with segregated lines running frequently, it’s arguable that specific train times matter less than keeping the service running frequently. For instance, if a 5 minute service is in place, it doesn’t matter if the 8:00 train arrives right on 8:00 — instead the contract might be structured so penalties apply for gaps between trains of more than 5.5 or 6 minutes.

The current regime has undesirable impacts right now. For instance, South Yarra sees dozens of trains every peak hour to the City, but some have to wait there for the timetable to catch up to them. This doesn’t make sense. If the 8:51 arrives early, and there’s a slot for it ahead to get into the City, and there’s another train right behind it, let it leave early.

Equally, if trains are running every 10 minutes down the line, and one gets cancelled, a big 20 minute gap eventuates. To even out the loads better, if it doesn’t cause any other problems, it might be better to hold the train before it and run it 5 minutes later, creating two 15 minute gaps instead.

If trains are frequent enough, people don’t bother with timetables. Eventually, if the network and the contracts are structured the right way, the operator could work to provide a frequent reliable service, where you know you’ll get to where you’re going quickly, rather than trying to meet specific train times which don’t matter anyway.

An issue to think about for the future.