Melbourne from a 737

Early start. If all went to plan, I was going to be at Melbourne Airport to meet my offspring at 12:30, assuming they made their connection in Sydney at 11:15.

Being there at 12:30 meant flying out of Brisbane by 9am, as the flight is a little over two hours, and in summer there’s an hour’s time difference due to daylight saving.

To be on a 9am flight (8:55 to be precise) means being at the airport 45 minutes earlier, 8:10, which means being on an airport train by around 7:45… which would mean leaving the hotel at 7:40. How long would the queue be at check-out?

As it happens, I woke pretty early again, had a cup of tea, packed up my stuff and checked-out (very quick), before heading to the station. It was peak hour, and commuters streamed out of the gates at Fortitude Valley – a contrast to the dodgy types hanging around outside the station the night before.

Passengers at Fortitude Valley Station

Brisbane Airport Domestic terminal station

Brisbane Airport Domestic terminal station

Despite the train having to wait for another coming back the other way (the perils of single track) I was at the airport on time. Track congestion might be an issue, but it’s a lot less worse than the traffic congestion suffered by Skybus.

I was about to skol my bottle of water when a passing security bloke said it would be allowed through security — they’re only banned from international flights.

In the rush I hadn’t eaten breakfast (well, apart from a meusli bar) having found the gate I bought a ham and cheese toastie and ate it while I waited.

I’m surprised at how many of you have been asking if this grand rendezvous plan actually came off, and whether I was able to meet my sons on their trip Las Vegas via Los Angeles and Sydney (the final leg also being on Qantas domestic).

As if this far-too-detailed trip blog (which frankly is more for my benefit than yours!) needs a plot point for some suspense?

Well, read on…

Sydney airport train ad at Brisbane airport
They advertise the Sydney airport train in Brisbane and Melbourne. I didn’t notice any ads for the Melbourne Skybus…

Though I’d flown up on Virgin, but I was flying back on Qantas — part of the plan. And I didn’t check in any bags, but took my two small backpacks through security with me onto the plane. That way I could meet my sons in the terminal.

Unfortunately the plane was a bit late pushing back. But we made up time, and after a route that gave us a nice view out of the window of Melbourne’s CBD, we landed only a few minutes late.

Melbourne from a 737

My flight had been scheduled to arrive twenty minutes before theirs, so I made my way to their gate and waited. The sign said they’d just landed, and before too long the plane arrived. But had they made their connection? Were they actually on it?

People started to come out of the gate in ones and twos. Then there’d be a bigger group of people, then none for a while, then more.

I saw a familiar face: a bloke who lives down the street from me came out. Small world; he’d been on that flight.

More and more people came out. Then none for a while. The staff by the gate went in and went down the ramp. Was that all the people?

No! Then came a few more… including, yes, my two sons, who had successfully navigated their way through LAX and Sydney. (Melbourne Airport may not be perfect, but it is blessed with four terminals that are all within walking distance of each other.)

They’d been away for four weeks, and it was good to see them back. They’d had a good time.

We came out of the secure area of the Qantas terminal to find TV news crews… though not for us of course. I asked one of the camermen I knew what the story was; he said they were there to film/interview arriving Renegades cricket players, following an incident the night before when a player got hit in the face with a cricket bat. Ouch.

Outside the terminal it was hot – far hotter than I’d experienced in Queensland. We walked back to the car and drove back home.

Stay tuned for some eye-popping detail about the new(ish) Gold Coast Light Rail line coming soon. Queensland can teach Victoria a thing or two.

(This post backdated to the day it occurred. Posted on 20th January.)

Brisbane bound

Day two of my quick trip to Brisbane.

Memo to myself: when in Queensland in summer, make sure the blinds/curtains are closed properly before going to bed.

Given no daylight savings in the Sunshine State, you can expect the sunshine to come through the window at about 5am. I found myself awake at about 5:20, and it wasn’t particularly easy to get back to sleep.

When I eventually got up, it was time to head north to Brisbane.

Thomas Drive bridge, Surfers Paradise, morning peak hour

After the buffet breakfast ($12.50 if pre-booked, that’s reasonable — unlike some hotels that will sting you $20), I checked-out of the hotel. Google Maps gave which gave me two choices: the first was to walk a couple of blocks, wait a while, catch a bus to Nerang station, then train to Brisbane.

Or I could catch the tram a few stops, catch a different bus to Nerang station, then the same train. I took this option. It’s slightly slower but (thanks to the buses and trains only running half-hourly — but timed to meet) avoided waiting around for the bus — and I could see/cover more ground as I travelled.

Platform at Nerang Station

Nerang Station display

Queensland Rail: Quiet carriage

That all went smoothly and as the train pulled in, the signage on the carriages remembered me two things about Queensland Rail’s services: free WiFi (on some trains?) and Quiet Carriages.

I found a good spot in a Quiet carriage. This was going to be a good trip. I fired up the laptop, connected to the WiFi and got to work catching up on emails, while glancing at the scenery.

After a few stops a lady and her chatty granddaughter sat right behind me — the granddaughter wanted to go to the next carriage, but the lady insisted sitting in this one, despite the presence of an errant Coke bottle, which she moved to another seat in the next carriage.

Whether she was aware of the quiet carriage I don’t know. Or perhaps she thought her granddaughter’s near-constant exclamations came within the definition of Quiet. Who knows. (“Look, another train!” “We’re going faster than that truck!” “Look at all the dead people!” — thankfully we were passing a cemetery; it wasn’t a zombie attack.)

No matter, I’m not a local, I don’t know what’s etiquette for the Quiet Carriage, so I persevered. Then the WiFi ran out. Turns out they only let you use a measly 20 megabytes. Oh well, you know, #FirstWorldProblems

At some point I decided I wanted to shoot some video of the passing scenery, and that it would be better without the girl’s commentary track, so I moved into the next carriage, which was quieter even though it wasn’t a Quiet Carriage.

We rolled into Brisbane and I hopped off at Fortitude Valley station and made my way up Brunswick Street.

Mind the font
Warning at a Brisbane railway station

Fortitude Valley station. note the gap at most doorways, and the hump to assist with wheelchairs.
Fortitude Valley railway station - note the gap at most doorways, and the hump to assist with wheelchairs

The area had the air of being just the wrong side of the grungy/dodgy continuum, but after negotiating a five way intersection with pedestrian lights that you could grow old waiting for, I found the hotel easily enough, not far from the station. (Looking at the map now, it seems to have been The Wrong Side Of The Tracks.)

Despite it being only 11:30, my hotel room was ready. Nicer but smaller room, not as impressive a view. I then went off to find my uncle, which took some time thanks to my confusion about which square we’d agreed to meet in. (Note to self: St George’s Square is not the same as Brisbane Square.)

We had a bite to eat then caught a bus along the busway to University of Queensland, then walked around the lake to find my Dad’s memorial bench.

Brisbane bus way underground station

Birdlife at University of Queensland

Dad's bench, University of Queensland

It seemed more shady than when I was last there; perhaps they’ve planted an extra tree or two. I’d gone prepared to wash bird poo away, but it was spotless, if perhaps in need of a little varnish (on the wood) and Brasso (on the plaque).

We sat on the bench and chewed the fat for quite a while, watching the swans and other birdlife on and around the lake.

Peak hour had rolled around by the time we caught the bus back. I hopped off in the City; my uncle stayed on the bus as it would take him close to home.

I wandered around the CBD for a bit, before heading back to the hotel for a cup of tea.

I’d pondered catching up with Robert (from local PTUA-equivalent Rail Back On Track) and/or exploring the new Moreton Bay rail link, but the day was racing away, and instead I went back to Fortitude Valley station and hopped on a train.

Daniel at Bowen Hills station

I ended up at Eagle Junction where I sat on a bench and munched some fish and chips and slurped down a ginger beer, before heading back, with a stop-off for a selfie at the excellently named Bowen Hills station — named after Sir George Ferguson Bowen, who at various times was governor of Queensland, New Zealand, Victoria, Mauritius, and Hong Kong. (Bowen Street at RMIT in Melbourne is also named after him.)

Back to the hotel, trying not to stare at the dodgy types hanging around at the front of Fortitude Valley station (some of them were now drunk, walking out into the middle of the road to goad the car drivers). A little TV and I started packing. I had an early start to head home in the morning.

(This post backdated to the day it occurred. Posted on 20th January.)

Gunzelling on the Gold Coast

The plan was to head up to Queensland for a couple of days. For a short break, but also to visit my Dad’s memorial bench at UQ, and see my uncle Frank.

I devised a plan to fly into the Gold Coast so that (given nobody else was coming) I could have a look at the Gold Coast Tram Light Rail, which was built after my last visit in 2011. And as a bonus, my sons were flying back from their holiday on Tuesday, so I could meet them at Melbourne Airport on the way home.

Given the offspring would be flying in all the way from the USA, probably tired, and I’d be going to the airport from Footscray, I thought I’d drive, so booked the long term car park.

A couple of days before departure, the Airport web site sent me an email inviting me to upgrade to undercover parking at T4 for an additional $20. Given the weather forecast for the Tuesday was hot, I considered this, and tried clicking the link to see if it gave any more details. It… didn’t work. Okay, never mind then.

Come Sunday morning I found myself driving around the long term car park, hunting for a space. Given it’s the cheaper, less convenient option, it was remarkably full. This, according to their slogan, without a hint of irony, is “Parking to be proud of”.

Melbourne Airport parking

Eventually I found a space not too far from the northern end, and rather than wait for the shuttle bus, walked to T3 (Virgin) to check-in.

(Memo to self: the farther ahead you book airport parking, the cheaper it is: one day it was quoting $35 for 2-3 days, a few days later it wanted $50. When you nominate your in and out times, they’ll actually give you an hour’s grace either side of that. And the prebooked rates are tiered the same way as walk-up rates; more than 48 hours and you’re paying for up to 72 hours. Which makes me wonder if I’d gone say six hours over my nominated time, but under 72 hours, would it have charged me extra, or not?)

Possibly foolishly I booked in one of my bags – they were both pretty small, but I do like not having to carry too much stuff around the airport.

Unlike the car park, the flight wasn’t entirely full; I managed to score three seats to myself.

The complimentary small rye roll with cheese was nothing lovely to look at, but tasted okay, and it was all I’d be getting for free on Virgin. I bought an egg and chive sandwich to complement it, since it was lunchtime. (The flight attendant did offer me another rye roll.)

Despite dire warnings (via email and text) of delays around Coolangatta, the flight was on time all the way, though as usual my ears did their thing on the way down. I wasn’t the only one – it seemed like all the babies on the flight were also having a bad time.

At Melbourne, some rows had boarded via the pier, others had the option to board via the tarmac. I like to think of it as the rock star option. At Gold Coast Airport, it was all via the tarmac. It’s not a big airport – it reminds me of Hobart but busier, and while Melbourne is sometimes called a car park with an airport attached, Gold Coast was more like a food court with an airport attached.

Gold Coast Airport

Gold Coast Airport

Gold Coast 777 bus from the airport

I picked up my luggage and headed for the bus stop, which was easy to find — straight out of the terminal, follow the signs, about 50 metres. This is in stark contrast to the PTV bus stop at Melbourne Airport, which is a hike to a bus terminal way down past terminal 4 in the “transport hub”.

In fact, Translink have quite obviously put some thought and effort into their airport route overall.

The bus route is number 777, so the number is easy to remember thanks to the mental association with the Boeing 777. (Did it used to be route 747? I don’t know.)

It’s a limited stops route running from the airport to the southernmost terminus of the light rail, so if you’re a bewildered tourist, you’ll have no trouble navigating this. No danger of missing your stop. And it runs every 15 minutes every day of the week, until after 11pm.

Evidently the 777 gets pretty busy; our bus was pretty big, with special luggage space, with only about ten people aboard. But I saw double-deckers on the same route.

The 777 connects to the new Gold Coast Light Rail, opened in 2014.

There had also been warnings of disruptions on the tram. Earlier in the day one tram had been derailed when hit by a fire truck, causing long delays — happily the service had resumed by the time I got there.

The tram took me to Cavill Avenue in Surfers Paradise, and I went and found my hotel and checked-in.

It was a very nice room. Very nice view across the river.

Alas, no WiFi! In 2017! If you want in-room Internet, it’s wired, and $10 a day. This seemed to make the smoke detector sad.

Sad smoke alarm

Gold Coast, view along Nerang River

They only have free WiFi in the hotel lobby, which I suppose might be a way of socialising with your fellow guests… if everyone wasn’t so intently staring at their screens.

M couldn’t come on this trip, so after settling in, I headed out for some tram joyriding. Seriously, I saw some things this new(ish) system can definitely teach Melbourne. Lots more about this later.

I got back to Surfers Paradise and walked around for a bit. It was drizzly though warm, and most people had vacated the beach.

Eat your junk food between the flags
Surfers Paradise Beach on a wet day

Looked around Timezone, pondering playing a few games, then discovered the minimum you can load on a new card is $20… yeah no thanks. (Shame, I have an old card from 2011, possibly with some credit on it, that I’d left behind at home.)

Ducked into an underground Woolworths to get a couple of things. Amazingly busy, as they often are in tourist areas. I noticed there’s also a Coles and another Woolworths in close proximity.

The drizzle had given way to full blown rain by this point, though apparently Brisbane had around 80 mm. Out with the umbrella and I walked back to the hotel for a cup of tea to watch the sunset and listen to a nearby club with a cover band belting out greatest hits, including a set closer of an extended elaborate version of Paul Kelly’s Dumb Things.

Tea by the Nerang River

Surfers Paradise

The rain stopped and I was hungry. Google reviews indicated a good pasta and pizza restaurant nearby called Salt Meats Cheese, which did me a very quick very tasty prosciutto and rocket pizza.

After that a further walk around along the main street, Surfers Paradise Boulevard. It was still pretty busy out. I assume there’s a lot of CCTV – on some traffic light poles I found warning signs that the council is busy filming you.

Gold Coast CCTV

Outside the Wax Museum, Gold Coast

Back to the hotel. I grabbed a complimentary copy of the Courier Mail in reception, and relaxed for a bit and flicked through the paper.

Getting ready for bed I spied a cockroach crawling up high on the wall. Eugh. Sigh. Oh well, I whacked it with the complimentary newspaper and it dropped off the wall dead, fortuitously straight into the rubbish bin below. No big deal, but the usual thing with the creepy crawlies is that if there’s one, there’s probably more lurking. I mentioned it the next morning when checking-out.

To finish this post, here’s the view along the Nerang River — as spectacular as night as it is during the day.

Gold Coast, view along Nerang River

(This post backdated to the day it occurred. Posted on 18th January.)

What can Melbourne learn from Singapore’s skyrails?

While I was in Singapore for my holiday, I had a good look at the MRT, and I wanted to specifically post about the MRT’s elevated sections.

I’m not the only one to ponder a comparison to the proposed Dandenong line skyrail… Channel 9 recently featured this story, which is worth a look:

Apparently about 30% of the Singapore rail network is elevated. Most of the rest seems to be underground; I didn’t explore all of the network, but I didn’t see any ground level lines; it was either above or below.

The network has only been built since the 1980s, so it’s not like Melbourne where some sections of elevated rail have been there for a century — eg around Glenferrie, Balaclava, Collingwood and other inner suburbs.

That said, in some areas of Singapore, the rail line came first, before surrounding development. In others, it was inserted into existing suburbs.

Of the initial lines authorised in 1982, the plan was for 42 stations, of which 26 were planned to be elevated. With a current focus on more lines through the central city area, some of these have been all underground, but other suburban line extensions and stations continue to be built as elevated.

How does it look? Here’s a short video:

Elevated structures and trains

In most cases they seem to have designed each individual track on its own structure. Melbourne is planning this too, to maximise the amount of light and rainfall that can benefit flora below.

A key difference is that Singapore trains are powered by third rail, so there is no overhead wire and stanchions as we will need in Melbourne. This reduces the overall visual impact when trains aren’t passing. (Singapore does have a high speed rail line to Malaysia planned; this will have overhead electric power, but I’m not sure if it will have elevated sections.)

Singapore has no diesel passenger or freight trains, though they do use diesel powered maintenance trains.

Near Redhill station, Singapore

Looking around Redhill, just east of the station the train goes underground, and the clearances here over parkland weren’t particularly high. On the other side of the station, double decker buses could get under the track, so I assume it meets some kind of minimum standard.

Melbourne’s planned elevated lines are planned to be much higher than the standard 4.3 metre road clearances, partly to allow more light, and also presumably to be clear of the existing tracks they are replacing, to minimise service disruptions during construction.

Near Redhill station, Singapore

Picnic under the tracks, near Redhill station, Singapore

Parkland

At Redhill, there is parkland around the station. A few hundred metres away is high-rise residential (common in Singapore, but quite unlike most Melbourne suburbs).

It was Sunday, and in the park I actually saw one group having a picnic very close to the rail line. Other groups were using the park nearby. Evidently the trains are just accepted; it doesn’t stop people making use of the space.

There was no litter and no graffiti on the concrete structures. But the whole of Singapore is like that.

It may have been clean, but I’d have to say it didn’t look beautiful — unless perhaps you’re a fan of concrete.

Redhill station, Singapore

In this location, apart from growing grass underneath, little had been done to beautify the area. Plain concrete and (on parts of the station structure) metal and glass. It was a similar case at other stations I saw: functional but not beautiful.

They do better if they try. Elsewhere in Singapore, murals and tree planting has occurred to minimise the visual impact of rail construction.

Notable at Redhill was a playground underneath the tracks. Nobody was using it when I went past; signage indicated it was a private playground linked to nearby condominiums.

Playground under the tracks, near Redhill station, Singapore

Redhill station, Singapore

Redhill station, Singapore

Stations

As far as I saw, Singapore station design (whether elevated or underground) is almost universally island platforms. This is particularly useful at terminal stations where the next train departing might use either side. It also makes better use of space when coping with tidal peak loads.

At all the stations they seem to provide full rain coverage (they’re dealing with tropical weather, remember, but this would benefit Melbourne too on rainy and stinking hot days) and platform screen doors (which were retrofitted last decade). Fans were fitted to many station ceilings to provide some level of cooling.

Access to/from the platforms was mostly by escalator, with lifts and some stairs also provided.

Redhill station, Singapore

Tanah Merah station, Singapore

All stations appeared to be staffed, with station offices and fare gates at ground level. There was rarely a staff presence on the platforms, though CCTV was common.

The concourse levels generally were pretty open, maximising visibility, with retail such as convenience stores. Some stations had other small retail outlets built into them. Toilets seemed to be provided at all stations.

Singapore MRT: Redhill station

Redhill station, Singapore

No stations that I saw seemed to have any car parking at all – in Singapore, cars are an expensive status symbol, not a virtual necessity as they are in many Australian suburbs.

Bus interchanges and bike parking were prominent. The distance from the station entrances to the bus stops varied – for some only a short walk, for others a bit longer.

Not that it seemed to matter; the bus/train combo seemed very popular, though given surrounding residential towers, I’d bet the majority of passengers walk to the station. (They do in Melbourne too.)

Pasir Ris station, Singapore

Pasir Ris station, Singapore

Development around elevated lines

At Redhill there were roads and parklands providing a buffer between the railway line and nearby residential towers.

But at the eastern end of the line between Tanah Merah and Pasir Ris it’s a different story – a mix of high-density residential towers and medium-density houses – a fair way from the suburban density common in Melbourne suburbs, but closer to it. And many of those homes are very close to the railway line, separated only by a walking path, similar to that planned for the Dandenong skyrail.

In these sections there is some use of privacy screens, though it’s not universal. Where they are in place they seem quite effective at blocking the view to the immediate area.

Elevated track and privacy barrier, East West line, Singapore

Pasir Ris station is a terminus. Beyond the platforms at ground level is a bus terminus and bus parking, but the tracks actually extend beyond this, providing a small amount of stabling. This extends across a road into a nearby park, with maintenance cranes at the very end of the track.

It looked like a bit of an odd addition to the park; none of this was in use when we were there; I wonder how often it gets used?

Maintenance facility in peak, near Pasir Ris station, Singapore

Pasir Ris station, Singapore

Conclusion

At first glance the Singapore designs are far more similar to the proposals for the Dandenong line than the existing Melbourne elevated rail sections, which tend to be embankments with little or no access underneath.

There are key differences of course; Singapore has no overhead wires and no regular diesel services.

Singapore also has little serious political opposition to the government — in the current parliament the government holds 83 of the 101 seats. This is obviously quite different in Melbourne.

That said, in Singapore they can’t get away with anything — I was told there is a lot of political pressure around train crowding. But they probably have more leeway to push through projects that negatively affect a minority of people, as long as the majority benefit. In Melbourne this is a much harder sell.

And certainly the older Singapore elevated rail sections aren’t beautiful. For it to work in Melbourne, it needs to be much better than this.

Near Redhill station, Singapore

Lots of other cities have elevated rail (including Melbourne), and some of it is quite new. To claim it is outright “the wrong way” to grade separate level crossings is, in my view, completely wrong.

The trick for Melbourne will be for the government to ensure the project lives up to its promises: to minimise construction disruption, minimise tree removal, reduce train noise, ensure resident privacy, prevent vandalism and graffiti (a far harder task than in Singapore) and deliver the best project possible…

And politically, they need to show the broader community the benefits of getting this done — the reduced delays to motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, buses, emergency vehicles, and the increased rail capacity it can bring — before the November 2018 election.

Things I learnt about the Singapore MRT (and a comparison with Melbourne)

See also: my other posts from Singapore

This post pulls together some things I saw on my on my holiday, together with information gleaned from a briefing with the Singapore Land Transport Authority (organised by chance courtesy of the Victorian Government when some of their people discovered they’d be in Singapore at the same time I was), together with information trawled off the web.

MRT and Metro

Singapore: MRT stands for Mass Rapid Transit. It’s Singapore’s train network, which started service in the 1980s, which is why everything seems so new. Surprisingly however, they do have wooden sleepers on some parts of the network, which are steadily being replaced with concrete, and other upgrades are underway.

Melbourne: Metro is a brand name owned by the Victorian Government. The network we have now dates back to 1854, and has gradually been extended and updated, though there’s an awful lot of very old equipment.

Singapore MRT vs Melbourne Metro

Network

Singapore: Five lines, with more under construction, all completely independently run. All double track all the way. Consistent train lengths on each line – not all long trains, either – the Downtown line runs 3-car trains, but frequently. (For this article, I’m not counting the LRT – Light Rail Transit, which is a feeder to the MRT. I didn’t look at this during my visit.)

Melbourne: Fifteen lines including branches. (Sixteen if you count the part time Flemington line, seventeen if you count the V/Line metropolitan line to Wyndham Vale). Lots of junctions, shared track, single track, intertwined drivers, services, fleets and other resources. Mostly consistent train lengths these days, since the ridiculous practice of running half-length trains on weekends and evenings was removed. The PTV Network Development Plan is geared at separating out the various lines, though progress is very slow.

Singapore: System length 171 km, with 101 stations (according to Wikipedia). Many interchanges between lines. A mix of radial “compass” (east-west, north-south, etc) lines and other connections. No central terminus.

Melbourne: System length 372 km, with 207 stations (Wikipedia) – so the overall station spacing is similar, though it probably varies more widely. Limited interchange between lines. All lines are radial. Central terminus station (Flinders Street) where everything stops and waits, and no timetabled through-routing can be guaranteed.

Singapore is catching up to us. They plan to get to 360 km of routes by 2030, and at the rate they’re building, it looks like they’ll get there.

Singapore: Jalan Besar station under construction

Singapore: Lines have names, colours and initials on the map, and stations have numbers (as well as names) along each line, making navigation easy. Plus every train stops at every station (though in some cases trains do terminate before the end of the line).

Melbourne: The current map has colours for zones that mostly no longer matter. Lines have names which are confusing thanks to branches, and stations have names only. Stopping patterns on some lines vary wildly (just look at the Ringwood line during PM peak; a real mess). There has been a new, much better map in the works for some years.

Singapore MRT: SMRT status screen

Operators

Singapore: The various lines are run by different private operators: SMRT and SBS Transit (a subsidiary of ComfortDelGro, which runs some buses and taxis in Melbourne). The government says having two operators is to foster competition. This seems to work okay given the lines are completely independent.

However there is (I’m assuming mandated by the government) a high level of integration, including fares, with some stations providing paid area interchange between different operators’ lines. And you’d barely notice that there are two operators, let alone that they are private — the facilities and most of the signage seem to be identical. (One exception that seems to have snuck through is the SMRT status screen shown above.)

Both operators (or related companies) also run bus routes, LRT lines and taxis. I’m told it’s possible the MRT will be nationalised in the future, but for now the private operators continue.

Melbourne: One private operator: Metro Trains Melbourne. This is probably for the best given the intertwined nature of the system (having two companies didn’t work well), though the Five Group Railway plan ultimately seeks to completely separate the various lines.

Singapore MRT: Little India station

Singapore: The government’s Land Transport Authority builds the lines and pays for them. The operators run the lines, and are expected not get any subsidy – just fare revenue.

Melbourne: The government’s various authorities build the lines and pay for them. There’s a very messy franchise agreement which I suspect nobody outside government really truly understands (even if you can get to read it; it’s currently not available online), whereby MTM gets paid.

The city

Singapore: Wikipedia says the metropolitan population is about 5.5 million over just 719 square kilometres. Density 7697 people per square Km. The density has to be seen to be believed. Imagine the dense areas of South Yarra, across much of the metropolitan area.

Plus cars are constrained through limited registration and road pricing. Obviously this all means mass transit and high frequency services are a lot more viable, and it really shows.

Singapore’s Land Transit Authority reckons current public transport mode share is about 60% of trips. They’re aiming to increase this to 75% by 2030!

Melbourne: Serves a metropolitan population of about 3.7 million people over 2543 square kilometres; density 1450 people per square Km. The densest parts of inner-suburban Melbourne rival “suburban” Singapore, but outside about 5km from the CBD, we’ve really got nothing to compare.

Services

Singapore: Frequent service all day, every day. Peak frequency is around 2-3 minutes. I never waited more than 5 minutes for a train, even fairly late at night, though the official page says frequency may be as low as 7 minutes. As noted, the high metropolitan density helps makes this viable.

Melbourne: Every 3-20 minutes at peak, every 10-20 minutes off-peak, 20-30 minutes evenings. We may not have the density nor the operational line separation to support 5 minute services all day, but given suburban traffic congestion, we can at least get to 10 minutes all day every day, which would make the system a lot more usable than it is now.

Singapore: Last trains around midnight. No all-night services on weekends.

Melbourne: Last trains around midnight, but hourly trains on Friday and Saturday nights.

Fares and ticketing

Singapore: Fares are per kilometre. They seemed really cheap to me (bearing in mind the Singapore dollar is worth about the same as the Australian dollar). But no season passes/periodicals – they used to have them, but phased them out.

Melbourne: Basically one flat fare zone. Both systems obviously have their pros and cons, but this makes short distances relatively expensive, and heavily subsidises long distance trips. Option of Pay As You Go (Myki Money) or Pass.

Singapore MRT: General Ticket Machine

Singapore: Re-usable EZ-Link card, like Myki but faster. Not perfect though; for instance the first app I found for checking the balance won’t work without a local mobile phone number… a tipoff pointed me to another. Ticket machines at every railway station, some bus stops and interchanges. The machine I used didn’t seem to spit out unwanted receipts.

Retailer, Online topup (note how they explain actually getting the funds onto your smartcard) and Auto Load options. Refundable “standard ticket” option.

Melbourne: Myki, kind of like the rest of the world’s PT smartcards, but slower. (Finally this is improving with the new readers.)

The trains

Singapore: Acceleration and speed on all the trains seems quite good. The East-West line covers 49km and 35 stations in 70 minutes (eg average speed 42 Km/h), with a maximum speed of 80 Km/h. It probably helps that they don’t have to stick to a public timetable.

Melbourne: Acceleration and speed is mixed, with varying types of trains on most lines resulting in a lowest-common-denominator timetable, with lots of padding. The Frankston line covers 43 Km and 27 stations in 73 minutes (eg average speed of 36 Km/h). Maximum speed generally 80 Km/h, but reaching a max of 95 south of Mordialloc.

Singapore: Interior of Downtown line train

Singapore: Lots of doors and lots of standing space on the trains, hardly any seats. Lots of places to hold on.

Melbourne: Previously designed to maximise seats, this has been curbed recently, allowing more standees and greater capacity, but most models of train still have too few places to hold on. The new model trains will change this.

Singapore: Bayfront MRT station, showing platform screen doors

The stations

Singapore: Every station that I saw had platform screen doors, made possible by all stations being underground or having full-length platform shelter; consistent train fleets; automatic train operation (some lines with drivers, some without) to stop consistently in the right place. This in turn makes possible markings on platforms showing people where to stand, which cuts dwell times.

One interesting side-effect of the full height platform screen doors in the underground stations: you don’t really see the trains or the track. The trains arrive behind the partially-covered glass and the doors just open. It feels more like a giant horizontal elevator than a train.

At aboveground stations the doors are half-height; you can see over them, but couldn’t easily climb over them. (See the video above, which shows how they work.)

Melbourne: No platform screen doors yet. The first will be on the new underground stations on the metro rail tunnel, which will run only specific train types. No suburban stations have full-length platform shelters, but having seen them in action, it emphasises to me that the rebuilt Dandenong line stations should have full-length platform shelters to help facilitate them in the future.

Singapore MRT: Redhill station

Singapore: Every station appeared to be staffed, with fare gates. Platform despatch staff were spotted at busy stations at peak times. No visible security or ticket inspector presence that I saw, but this may reflect the overall law-abiding nature of the country.

Melbourne: About every third station is a “Premium” fully staffed station. Fewer have fare gates, though the policy now (which is coming into play with the grade separations) is to install fare gates at newly built Premium stations. Some platform despatch staff at busy stations at peak times. Authorised Officers (ticket inspectors) roam the system, and Armed PSOs are at most stations after 6pm.

Singapore MRT: Redhill station

The tracks

Singapore: No level crossings. All lines that I saw are underground or elevated.

Melbourne: Lots of level crossings, and it’s only in the last few years that there’s been a serious effort to start getting rid of them.

Singapore: Powered by 750 volt DC third rail, except the North-East Line which is 1500 volt. So much for the theory that all modern systems run 22,000 volt AC.

Melbourne: Overhead wire 1500 volts. The metro rail tunnel and Sunbury to Dandenong line will introduce 3000 volt power.

Singapore: Redhill MRT station and bus stop

Connections

Singapore: There doesn’t appear to be any timetable co-ordination with buses (arguably pointless when trains run so frequently). But many stations have bus connections, and these are well signposted, with some major interchanges having extensive bus parking and passenger waiting areas. Many bus routes aren’t spectacularly frequent, with services “every 13-19 minutes” being fairly common. That’s still better than most Melbourne routes though.

Melbourne: Some attempts at timetable co-ordination. Connections are generally well signposted, but at some locations little thought has been given to getting the buses to stop close to the station exits. Most routes every 30-60 minutes, only a few are more frequent.

Singapore: Tanah Merah station, interchange for Changi Airport

Singapore: Lots of interchange stations. Between lines, this usually involves lengthy connecting corridors. How lengthy? Think Platform 1 to Platform 13 at Flinders Street. Notably for the Changi Airport branch line, there is cross-platform interchange in both directions, but not with timed connections… but it doesn’t matter thanks to the high frequencies.

Melbourne: The structure of the network doesn’t really lend itself to interchanges, yet, though some exist for the branch lines (eg Alamein, Altona Loop) as well as between Direct and City Loop trains (North Melbourne, Richmond). The infrastructure could be improved in this respect; even at recently rebuilt stations like Footscray, it often requires exiting the paid area to change trains.

Singapore MRT: bicycle parking

Bikes

Singapore: Only folding bikes are allowed on the trains outside peak times. Bike parking is provided at some stations, and some of it puts ours to shame – see photo.

Melbourne: Bicycles permitted on trains (but discouraged in peak hours). Parkiteer bike cages at some stations, but there are some huge gaps in the network, for instance on most lines there are almost no cages in zone 1.

Singapore MRT: Foldable bicycle dimensions

Wheelchairs

Singapore: Platform and carriage door heights are closely aligned, so wheelchairs, prams and wheeled luggage can be easily wheeled aboard without help or ramps.

Melbourne: Most platforms have a considerable gap. Harrington Humps have been installed at some stations, but most of the time the driver has to deploy a portable ramp, slowing down operations.

Singapore: MRT station toilet cleaning schedule

Cleanliness

Singapore: Trains and stations spotlessly clean. It took me a week to spot any litter. This is no doubt reflective of Singapore society as a whole, which has a reputation for being very law abiding (though I saw a fair bit of jaywalking.)

Melbourne: Trains and stations often littered and tagged. Some efforts have been made to keep them clean, but it’s an ongoing challenge. Siemens trains in particular are notorious for dirtiness.

Shutdowns

Singapore: Almost no planned disruptions to train services. All works are carried out at night. The only concession to this is earlier closures and later Sunday morning starts. On the Thomson East Coast Line under construction, I was told interchange tunnels would be built under tracks up into the centre of the existing Orchard Station platforms, all without interrupting train services.

Melbourne: My station is closed for 3 months to remove the level crossing, and the trains will be interrupted for five weeks straight. Nuff said?

Singapore MRT: early closure/late start for works

Singapore: Sign showing LRT disruption

Singapore: Unplanned interruptions to service seem to be rare, but not unknown. One night I saw signs indicating an LRT disruption, and it made the papers the next day.

Melbourne: Melbourne, sadly, is notorious for delays and cancellations.

Singapore MRT: Exam notice

Politics

Singapore: I don’t know if there are any organised user groups, but I’m told the political pressure is immense to keep improving the system. Crowding can be severe at peak times.

Melbourne: Lots of political pressure, such that during the last state election the debate was around which rail tunnel to build. Crowding can be severe at peak times on some lines. Active user group that really needs your membership.

Singapore MRT: Queue for fare gates at VivoCity/Harbourfront station

Can we get there from here?

Can we learn from cities like Singapore? Can we improve Melbourne’s rail system to be more like Singapore’s? You bet. Reliability in particular can be improved, but so can frequency.

There’s a limit — Singapore-style density is unlikely in many Melbourne suburbs in the forseeable future. And we may not want trains with virtually no seats, given long trip distances.

But we can do a lot more to grade separate level crossings, operationally separate rail lines for efficiency, improve interchange facilities, improve train designs and efficiency… and the clincher, the most important aspect for a more usable system: run more frequent trains at all times.

As I’ve said many times, ten minute services are possible on most of the rail network with the track infrastructure and fleet we already have. There are impacts for driver numbers and maintenance capacity, but the government should push ahead with it.