Extra track and fleet capacity is great! But what about extra services?

If you missed the front page story in today’s Age: Melbourne to go more than two years without a peak-hour train timetable boost

See also: PTUA: Services packed while seven trains sit idle – where is the new timetable?

The Age front page 13/7/2016

To recap: Regional Rail Link separated out most V/Line services from Metro services, giving V/Line trains on the Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo lines a better run into Melbourne… but also freeing up space for more Metro services on the Sunbury, Williamstown and Werribee lines.

How many more Metro services did RRL allow? 23 per peak according to the literature.

How many of those 23 are used? One per peak, on the Werribee line.

While nobody expects all the capacity to be used straight away, we expect better than this in a growing city.

Flinders Street Station, platform 10

A much larger number of new services were part of a broad package benefiting a number of lines.

It appears the package was deferred because of a reluctance to remove remaining peak Frankston trains from the City Loop, which was a key part of the planned timetable.

Perhaps this is understandable given there was no immediate plan to fill those slots with more Dandenong trains. That can’t happen until level crossings are removed between Caulfield and Dandenong.

But a year later, what is happening? Are they working on a revised plan to bring in the extra services? We don’t know. And it must be well over a year since it was flagged within government that the changes would be deferred.

Crowded train, South Yarra

Meanwhile, consider these recent developments…

Since the last big timetable change in July 2014, eight trains have come into service, with only one used. Five more are on order.

The 2016 Budget papers claim 94% Metro rolling stock availability, but VicSig indicates only 185 out of 209 trains (88.5%) are actually used at the busiest time of day.

The May 2015 load survey showed load breaches (overcrowding) increased from 41 to 47 from 2014. The worst appeared to be:

  • Dandenong AM 9/PM 7
  • Sunbury AM 7/PM 6
  • Werribee AM 8/PM 9

Bear in mind the zone 1+2 fare changes that took effect in January 2015 would have had a big effect on the longer lines, but thanks to PTV cutbacks there’s now only one load survey per year, and the May 2016 results aren’t out yet… so we don’t know precisely what the picture is now.

December 2015 figures showed Metro patronage up 3.5% in twelve months.

In comparison to this growth, the 2016 Budget figures showed expected Metro service kilometres up only 0.9% for year ending June 2016, compared to the previous year.

The ABS says Greater Melbourne population growth is about 2.1% per year.

Crowding on the busiest part of the rail network is largely the result of CBD activity, particularly workers and students who mostly travel in peak hour. City Of Melbourne figures show 1.5% annual growth in the daily city population, with city workers expected to increase by about 2% annually in the near future.

Crowded Siemens train

Population growth versus rail service growth

Greater Melbourne and specifically the central business district and inner suburbs keep growing.

Getting people to employment and education is vital; it’s what drives the economy, and continued prosperity, and only mass transit can do it efficiently in a dense and thriving urban area like inner Melbourne.

It’s great that the government is pushing ahead with projects like the Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel, and level crossing removals, and the now-completed Regional Rail Link, high-capacity train fleets and high-capacity signalling, all of which provide a capacity boost for extra services… but we also need to actually see those extra services provided.

TreatYoSelf: Sonosed

Brace yourself… a non-transport-related blog post.

A couple of years ago I bought a Yamaha surround sound setup, which has been fabulous. I’d single out the sound track on Mad Max Fury Road in particular; very immersive.

Heck, even later seasons of the West Wing had some subtle surround going on, adding to the viewing experience.

I’ve used it for music too, and it sounds great. I copied all my iTunes music onto a USB stick* which can plug into the front of the receiver. You can play tracks or albums by navigating through on the TV, or via a phone or iPad app. But it’s a bit clunky; it’s not really designed well for that, and it can’t fathom tracks within genres, nor play lists, and it certainly can’t do anything as fancy as random/shuffle play. (Hey Yamaha, how about an upgrade?)

You can play music from iTunes to it via Apple AirPlay, but that requires using a computer.

*By the way, I have iTunes configured to rip CDs as MP3s at the highest bitrate. I figure those files are more widely playable than any other format.

Sonos Play 1

But I was still craving J+M’s Sonos system, particularly the idea of music playing in perfect sync around the house, preferably without wires everywhere.

I considered other cheaper options. Could I achieve the same with a few Google Chromecast Audio dongles? Perhaps, but it’d be messy. And other manufacturers have Sonos-like speakers (though the good ones aren’t really much cheaper).

Then a few weeks ago JB Hifi offered $50 off Sonos speakers, so I thought what the hell, I’ll go for it. I thought maybe I could splurge for a Play:1 (the smallest speaker, $299 less the $50 discount) and get a Connect (a little exhorbitant at $549) to sync music through to the Yamaha receiver and speakers.

Nagging doubt on the Sonos Connect: Sonos speakers have a fixed delay of 70ms (to allow them all time to sync), which is fine. And the Yamaha can be adjusted to delay, if it’s ahead. But if the Sonos is ahead, you’re stuffed. You can try switching the Yamaha to Direct Mode, but if it’s still behind, you’re still stuffed. No music sync. (I also vastly prefer the Sonos gear in black. The Connect is only available in white.)

Anyway, I got the Play:1 and tried it out. Very impressive. It thoroughly exceeded expectations. Great sound.

When the kids heard it, they thought the music was playing out of the Yamaha’s big speakers, not the tissue-box-sized Sonos speaker on the mantlepiece.

Which made me think: if the goal is multi-room music, why even bother getting the expensive Connect for a (possibly troubleprone) link to the Yamaha? Why not just buy another Play:1 for half the cost?

Ingenious. And of course the Play:1 can be moved around if ever required.

Done. Bought.

Meanwhile I’d been looking around at what secondhand dealer Cash Converters had in the way of Sonos gear. The Parkdale store had a Sonos Bridge, used to configure Sonos systems to use their own network instead of the WiFi. It’s the old model (the new one is called Boost, costing $149), but was only $29. Sold.

So now I can play synched music in the livingroom and kitchen, which in my small house, covers most of the common area of the house. And the speakers are small enough that I can move them around if needed.

Some people online reckon that there’s not much difference sound-quality-wise between the Play:1 and the larger Play:3. And I think I like the style of the 1 more than the 3 or 5.

For online radio, it’s not perfect, because it’s relying on good internet. Like the Pure radio I already had in the kitchen, it seems to be occasionally prone to dropouts if the home internet (Optus cable) is clogging up. (The Pure radio also does actual radio, including DAB+ digital radio, so I can flick it to Double J if BBC Radio 6 Music is playing up.)

I still think the Yamaha was a good choice for surround-sound movies. Sonos’s option (Playbar plus Sub plus speakers) is around three times the price, and it can’t do DTS sound. It’s also dependent on the TV being about to output a 5.1 signal, which some can’t.

My next step was going to be to put my home music collection on a shared drive that the Sonos can play, such as a Raspberry Pi set up as a NAS — but I checked and my cable modem/router has that feature. It’ll share anything plugged into the USB port. So I plugged the USB stick I’d been using in the Yamaha into the router instead, then told the Sonos where to find it… job done!

Of course, Sonos is one of those things like DSLR camera lenses… addictive… I’d be surprised if I don’t end up buying more gear at some stage. Hmm, one for my bedroom perhaps?

Down in the trench station at midnight

(With apologies to The Jam)

While we endure the train replacement buses, work is moving along on the Bentleigh-Mckinnon-Ormond trench.

It’s really impressive to see – I worked out you can see all three bridges from the Brewer overpass; with a zoom lens, that is. (This won’t be the case once the station buildings are constructed.)
Bentleigh/Mckinnon/Ormond level crossing works 5/7/2016
(As always, click the photo to see it larger at Flickr. Once there you can click again to see it zoomed in.)

Works are continuing 24 hours a day. Most of the digging has been completed, and works in the trench itself are proceeding at the three station sites.

First a base level of concrete goes in, a working surface, then a thicker layer is added, in part to weigh down and seal the station, as the new Bentleigh station will be below the water table (the same applies at Mckinnon; Ormond is above the water table).

This view from Tuesday night shows preparation for the thicker concrete layer:
Bentleigh station under construction, July 2016

By Thursday night the first section had been poured:
Bentleigh station under construction, July 2016

But if you think it’s impressive from street level, it’s just amazing inside it.

Thanks to the Level Crossing Removal Authority and local MP Nick Staikos I was lucky enough to take a look inside the trench on Thursday night.

Once wearing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), to get down there you take one of these stairwells.

Bentleigh station under construction, July 2016

On the bottom of the trench you get a perspective completely different to what you see at street level. It’s amazing to think that just a couple of weeks ago trains were passing through here at ground level.

Here’s a quick video:

800-1000 workers are on the job at any one time doing various tasks, and I was amazed at the level of co-ordination that must go into it.

Bentleigh station under construction, July 2016

Shaun Leane (MLC for Eastern Metro) at Bentleigh station under construction

On top of the thick layer of concrete, ballast and track and platforms will be built. The ballast is apparently being sourced from Deer Park. The supplier is likely to be pretty busy over the next few years with all the level crossing removals going ahead (though ballast won’t be used on the Dandenong line). It’s a reminder that there’s a huge supply chain feeding these projects.

Whatdayamean it’s a month until the next train?!
Me at Bentleigh station under construction - whatdayamean it's another month until the next train?

The rain this week has apparently slowed down the project a little bit, but overall it’s still going well. Construction of the platform at Ormond has commenced, as well as laying of track at the Glenhuntly end.

Naturally we had to pose for a happy snap.
Daniel, Steve, Nick, Shaun. Bentleigh station under construction, July 2016. (Pic: Office of Nick Staikos)

I’m not a construction geek, but it’s all incredibly impressive. I’m told over the 37 days of the big shut down, they will spend $100 million.

The buses this week have been mostly smooth, though there have been some hiccups… it’ll be good when it’s finished.

See also:

Park and ride is not as significant as you might assume

It’s unsurprising that the closure of station car parks along the Dandenong line for the “skyrail” level crossing removals was highlighted by the media on Wednesday; at this stage it’s the major disruption impact that’s expected.

But – perhaps because of the amount of space it takes up – it’s often incorrectly assumed that Park And Ride accounts for the majority of train users in Melbourne. The stats tell a different story.

Car spaces closing

PTV says the following car spaces will be lost during the project, and I’ve compared that with the total number of train users at each station.

Station Users Car spaces closing % affected
Carnegie 3,140 166 5.29%
Murrumbeena 2,760 292 10.58%
Noble Park 3,790 up to 331 8.73%

This assumes one passenger per car space, which is probably not far off how it works. I’ve also assumed all Noble Park parking is closing, though so far they’ve only said the Mons Avenue car park is closing.

So a total of about 8% at those stations would be directly affected by the car park closures.

Extra spaces opened

To counter the closures, extra spaces will be provided at nearby stations – some also on the Dandenong line, some on the Glen Waverley line.

  • East Malvern 172
  • Holmesglen 170
  • Huntingdale 92
  • Sandown Park 166
  • Clayton 238 (from September)

I make that a net loss of just 49 spaces. (Have I missed something?)

It should be obvious that car park closures have less impact than closing the stations and rail line altogether – as is happening on the Frankston line now.

Car users are the ones most able to adapt their travel patterns to use another station. For instance East Malvern is only 1.5 km from Murrumbeena; only a few minutes drive. That said, if coming from the south side of the line, you’d have to anticipate a delay at the level crossing. And many of the extra spaces created are further out from the inner stations.

In contrast, those who walk or bike to the station are least easily able to switch to another station.

Murrumbeena station

How many Dandenong line passengers use Park and Ride?

Okay so it’s a net 49 spaces removed. But the worst case scenario is that during the project, all spaces at all the stations being rebuilt are removed.

And a lot more people drive to the station than park in the car parks – some of them may be sharing rides, but many would park in nearby streets. Those streets might be affected by parking restrictions during construction.

But even if we assume the worst case scenario, it’s still a minority of the people using these stations.

PTV figures show the following passenger numbers at the stations to be rebuilt.

Station Weekday entries Access by car %car
Carnegie 3140 576 18.34%
Murrumbeena 2760 860 31.16%
Hughesdale 1870 439 23.48%
Clayton 4920 1289 26.20%
Noble Park 3790 1174 30.98%
Total 16480 4338 26.32%

So perhaps 4338 people (26%) affected by car park closures, if all the car parks close, and if nobody can park anywhere in surrounding streets within walking distance… unlikely.

Looking at the entire line

In contrast, how many would be affected if the line closed completely for weeks or months at a time? Not just those at the closed stations, but also all of those coming in from further out, who would face a train/bus/train trip.

As the figures below show, assuming they all come through the sections to be closed, it’s about 64,000 people per weekday — fifteen times the number affected by the car park closures, and more than double the number affected by the Frankston line closure.

The figures also also show that while a minority drive to the stations slated for rebuilding, the amount of Park And Ride increases as you get further out.

Weekday entries Car %car
Carnegie 3,140 576 18.34%
Murrumbeena 2,760 860 31.16%
Hughesdale 1,870 439 23.48%
Oakleigh 6,780 1,701 25.09%
Huntingdale 6,260 2,165 34.58%
Clayton 4,920 1,289 26.20%
Westall 1,980 724 36.57%
Springvale 4,690 1,287 27.44%
Sandown Park 1,900 1,383 72.79%
Noble Park 3,790 1,174 30.98%
Yarraman 1,010 466 46.14%
Dandenong 8,300 2,222 26.77%
Lynbrook 1,270 491 38.66%
Merinda Park 1,160 847 73.02%
Cranbourne 2,130 1,036 48.64%
Hallam 2,310 1,439 62.29%
Narre Warren 2,830 1,612 56.96%
Berwick 3,190 1,603 50.25%
Beaconsfield 840 545 64.88%
Officer 70 47 67.14%
Cardinia Road 900 462 51.33%
Pakenham 1,910 1,193 62.46%
Total/Average 64,010 23,561 36.81%

So basically the further out you go, the higher the proportion of park and ride users. Which probably reflects the overall walkability of those suburbs, and of course the number of residences within walking distance of the stations.

It is a lot of people, but it’s still a minority across the entire rail corridor.

Bus at Murrumbeena

More park and ride? Or better feeders?

Of course station car parks are expensive to build (tens of thousands of dollars per space) and not a great use of land – the space they take up certainly doesn’t enhance walkability.

This article about a US survey of park and ride notes numerous problems (though under-utilisation isn’t really an issue in Melbourne).

There is huge scope to improve local feeder buses. This goes doubly for the railway stations having their car parks temporarily lost – rather than spending up big extending car parks elsewhere, they might have done well to fund additional feeder bus services, particularly in peak hour. (The Murrumbeena bus used to run twice as often in peak hour.)

The removal of the crossings provides a great opportunity to upgrade buses. With far fewer delays at crossings once they are removed, bus punctuality and efficiency will improve a lot. PTV and the government should take the opportunity to give more people a way to use public transport without having to own a car.

  • Update: Quite possibly affecting more people at Murrumbeena than the car park closure is the closure of the pedestrian footbridge, which is used by many to cross the tracks (either in the morning or the evening) to avoid the level crossing. This morning we’ve learnt: Murrumbeena ped bridge will close mid-August and will be demolished shortly after.

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.