Ten years since “Meeting Our Transport Challenges”

Ten years ago today, the Bracks Government’s “Meeting Our Transport Challenges” plan was released. MOTC for short.

It wasn’t the first of the 1999-2010 Labor Government’s transport documents, nor would it be the last. It came following a stinging assessment of Melbourne’s public transport a few months earlier by Professor Peter Newman for the Metropolitan Transport Forum, and a sustained push for some kind of government strategy to provide some genuine solutions to car dependence.

The MOTC launch itself was perhaps symptomatic of the plan. The Premier Steve Bracks, Treasurer John Brumby and Minister Peter Batchelor all arrived by train in Frankston for the event — but they had only hopped on two stops before at Seaford. (It was a similar story a year later when the Craigieburn electrification opened.) The rest of their journey was by government car.

But it was the content of the plan that didn’t get people as excited as the government had perhaps hoped.

Following the launch, the PTUA called for Batchelor to resign. OK, I was the one that said the words for the cameras, but like all PTUA views, this was based on an agreed committee position: if by a fair assessment we judged that MOTC failed to provide substantial relief from car dependence, it was to be declared a flop.

Towards the end of the year, Batchelor, who had presided over the conception of the Myki project and the scrapping of trains (only to be bought back later when patronage surged), was replaced by Lynne Kosky in a reshuffle following the 2006 state election. (Only after that did the government start inviting PTUA to events again!)

So what was in the MOTC plan itself? Here I’ve gone through the Actions from the summary section of the document:

DELIVERING FOR THE FUTURE — The MOTC Reserve fund of $5.9 billion over ten years, to ensure transport funding was available into the future. At the time, Batchelor described it a bit like Abbott’s “locked box”. Perhaps this is still down as a line item in some obscure part of the budget, but as far as the public goes, it has disappeared.

CREATING A CROSS-TOWN TRANSPORT NETWORK FOR MELBOURNE — the Smartbus crosstown orbital network. Three of the proposed routes were delivered, now the 901, 902 and 903. The fourth was to have been the 904 (hence the gap in route numbers), but never happened. This would have run from Sandringham via Elsternwick, Punt Road, Clifton Hill, then across to Brunswick, Footscray and Williamstown, amalgamating routes 246, 472 and others, providing frequent inner-city connections to make cross-town trips faster and take pressure off CBD services. See the map here. PTUA and PTNT are still pushing for this route as part of a package of better bus services.

BOOSTING MELBOURNE’S RAIL NETWORK — capacity upgrades on the City Loop, Dandenong, Clifton Hill and Northern Group, and stations at Point Cook, Cardinia Road, and Lynbrook. The stations got done. Various works have occurred on most of the lines mentioned, such as duplication from Clifton Hill to Westgarth, and duplication of the Epping line north of Keon Park, all done as part of the South Morang line extension.

The Dandenong line proposal was a third track — a plan now dumped (and not just because four tracks are better than three) in favour of grade separation, longer trains and better signalling.

But the plan also included relatively minor upgrades which haven’t happened, such as an extra platform at Sandringham. At least the new stations have been built.

IMPROVING METRO TRAIN AND TRAM SERVICES — extra peak and late-night services. They’ve largely happened, at least on the trains — the late (to 1am) Friday and Saturday night trains and trams were implemented pretty quickly. Peak train services have increased on many lines, but there’s been less movement on trams.

This item also flagged better control and comms systems — work that is still underway — and improved traffic priority for trams and buses, which has been… well, subtle or non-existent on much of the network.

New Years Eve trains, approx 1am, 1/1/2006

DELIVERING FIRST CLASS PUBLIC TRANSPORT FOR PROVINCIAL VICTORIA — including upgrading the Mildura line (for freight only) and new trains.

BUILDING BETTER ROAD CONNECTIONS — including numerous highway and arterial road upgrades.

DELIVERING A BETTER LINK BETWEEN THE EAST AND WEST OF MELBOURNE — this included the East-West Link Needs Assessment (eg study), but did not flag actually building it. The fact they wanted a study shows just how keen the road engineers in government must have been, despite the early results from the 2003 Northern Central City Corridor Study only a few years before having shown it was totally pointless, which appears to have prompted the government to cancel the NCCCS study itself to try and prevent it being released.

This item did include Westgate Bridge strengthening and a package of Monash-Westgate improvements, which I’m guessing morphed into the $1 billion+ package of widening works done around 2010… since completely swamped by extra traffic, and now subject to more widening works.

PROMOTING SMARTER, HEALTHIER TRAVEL CHOICES — programs such as TravelSmart, to try and encourage people to think about not just hopping in the car for every trip.

CREATING ACCESSIBLE, CONNECTED COMMUNITIES — a mix of accessibility projects, park and ride (which it turns out was enormously expensive, at something like $15,000 per space), interchange upgrades and “Transit Cities”, which resulted in urban renewal in places like Footscray and Ringwood.

Bourke Street, Melbourne (2005)

BUILDING A SAFER, MORE SECURE NETWORK — the wording is a bit vague as to what this actually means, but it may have been about more CCTV, better comms systems and the like.

Some of the actions were flagged to commence as far off as five years later, when the government had no certainty that they’d still be in power — indeed, they weren’t.

Not getting much attention at the time (I can’t even see it in the Actions list) was something that has made a huge difference to many suburbs: the upgrade of hundreds of bus routes to include Sunday and evening services. Before this, many buses finished by 7pm on weekdays and 1pm on Saturdays (despite typical shopping hours extending to 5pm), with no Sunday services. Nowadays most routes have 7-day services. They may only be hourly on weekends, but it’s better than nothing. They’re never going to get people out of their cars, but for those without cars, it has made a huge difference.

Just two years after MOTC, the plan was superseded by the Victorian Transport Plan in late-2008. By that point, the political climate was changing. Patronage had been booming, resulting in high-profile over-crowding problems and infrastructure failures. The government was finally starting to realise — too late given the lead times involved — that more significant investment was needed.

Labor was voted out in 2010, but came back in 2014, and given the current push on some big projects, seem determined not to make the same mistake twice.

In-cab signalling and platform doors – two pieces of the puzzle

Last Thursday the state government announced more details around the Metro rail tunnel, and related projects.

High Capacity Signalling

Upgrading existing rail lines to High Capacity Signalling (HCS) has the potential to boost track capacity by up to about 50%, though to reach that, you would need to remove level crossings too.

Originally HCS was to have been trialled on the Sandringham line. The Napthine government proposed putting it straight onto the Dandenong line (without a trial) but on Labor getting back into government in November 2010, the plan reverted to the Sandringham line.

This has now been amended again: they want to trial it between Lalor and South Morang.

In-cab signalling (from a PTV video)
(Artist’s impression of high capacity in-cab signalling, from a PTV video)

As I understand it, the overall HCS project after the trial includes doing the busiest parts of the Sunbury and Cranbourne/Pakenham lines as well — from Watergardens through to Dandenong, allowing 30 trains per hour through the rail tunnel — though from day 1, it’ll be more like 19, increasing over time.

They are aiming at a system whereby conventional and high-capacity (in-cab) signalling can co-exist, enabling V/Line and freight to continue on those lines even if not equipped for in-cab. Equally, for the South Morang pilot period, trains won’t necessarily run all the time using the new signalling.

But why trial it at South Morang? According to the government:

  • The X’trapolis fleet (used almost exclusively on the South Morang line) is better suited to being equipped for it
  • Greater scope to roll it out on the remainder of the Clifton Hill group, with big benefits on the inner portion — more beneficial than the Sandringham line.

My wild additional speculation reading between the lines:

  • Outer end of the line means less impact if it goes wrong
  • Greater scope for patronage/service growth in future, since the South Morang line serves a growth corridor (unlike the Sandringham line)
  • This section got new signalling just a few years ago when the line was duplicated beyond Lalor. Can we hope that the infrastructure is more easily upgradable than that on the Sandringham line?

Platform screen doors

But what really got attention was something probably less important, but more prominent and visible: platform screen doors.

These are common in Asian cities, and in some parts of Europe.

There’s an obvious safety benefit, but they also have significant advantages in reducing dwell times. Passengers know precisely where to queue to quickly board the train after others have disembarked.

Most Melbourne peak hour commuters already know that at busy times, you try and wait alongside the doors, so those alighting can walk straight out, and then you board. But it’s always a bit of a lottery as to where the doors will come to a stop. Platform screen doors and line markings on the platforms could help this, including outside peak times, when the system can still be quite busy.

Boarding a peak hour train at Flinders St

Platform screen doors mean it’s predictable. And the quicker the loading, the more trains can run.

It’s only possible if the trains have consistent door positions — which Melbourne’s current various trains don’t. The way this will be solved is by only running the new High Capacity Metro Trains (HCMTs for short) through the tunnel. The government recently expanded the number to be ordered to provide enough trains for the full Cranbourne/Pakenham to Sunbury service. The other train types will run on other lines… once again, elements of Metro’s “five group railway” come into play.

Pieces of the puzzle

It’s been a mixed bag in recent years, with different rail projects working at cross purposes.

Caroline Springs station in Melbourne’s west has almost been completed, but funding has just come through to duplicate the line, so the station’s going to have to be partly demolished and modified (to an island platform layout) before it’s even opened. A prime example of the poor planning we often see in Victoria. When the station was funded, some of us wondered if the duplicated track should be extended a few hundred metres to meet it…

Sadly, a similar thing happened with Footscray station. The brand new bridge had to be partly rebuilt for Regional Rail Link.

RRL’s new West Footscray station is also to be modified, to get an extra platform. The government claims the station was planned to be futureproofed, though it’s unclear if they knew this specific upgrade was coming.

Who knows how much money is wasted by rebuilding brand new infrastructure.

Thankfully in some areas they seem to be getting a little better organised. This diagram (appendix 3 “Scope of works” from the Melbourne Metro business case) lays out how the tunnel project fits with the various other projects completed, planned and underway — Regional Rail Link, the new HCMT fleet, various track duplication/amplifications. As you’d hope, these all largely fit in with the 2013 PTV rail network development plan. Consistency is good. This is precisely what’s needed for effective future planning.

Melb Metro business case - related projects

Click through to see this larger. Credit to Alistair Taylor at Urban Melbourne for finding this. I’m planning to explore this in more detail later; there’s a lot to digest.

“Throw away the timetable”

The Premier and the Public Transport Minister were throwing around the “throw away the timetable” rhetoric again on Thursday.

It’s good that there continues to be official recognition of the importance of a Turn Up And Go service at the highest levels.

Of course, an all-day ten minute service is possible right now on much of the rail network, without a rail tunnel, and without fancy new signalling. It shouldn’t be about peak hour only — I bet few people use timetables when using trains on the busiest, most frequent lines currently.

Three lines — to Frankston, Dandenong and Ringwood (as well as shorter sections to Clifton Hill and Footscray) already run every ten minutes on weekends (and most of them during the day on weekdays too), and patronage seems to be slowly growing, despite an almost complete lack of promotion.

But what of the rest of the network? Even the service plan post-2031 (as seen in Appendix 3 of the Business Case) has a disappointing 3 trains per hour outside peak times beyond Sunshine, as well as beyond Newport. For many stations that means no extra trains at over today’s off-peak timetable — you’ll still wait 20 minutes for a train. You’ll still want to be checking your timetable for that.

Sure, this is a limitation of trunk lines branching to different destinations (at Newport Sunshine to Sunbury/Melton, and at Newport to Williamstown/Altona Loop/Werribee), but you’d hope they could do better than this.

But the infrastructure will support more frequent timetables. I sense a continuing campaign for more services outside peak.

And these issues aside, after so much lack of investment over decades, it’s encouraging to see a state government taking on some of these big ticket rail projects.

The perfect, durable, compact umbrella

Melbourne’s rainy season is upon us. It’s been a few years since my blog post about good strong compact umbrellas, so here’s a quick update.

A good umbrella is vital for a dedicated walking/PT person.

The brief: an umbrella that, folded, can fit in my work bag (eg a maximum length of about 35cm) and go anywhere. And — this is the hard bit — as durable as possible. Foldable umbrellas tend not to be made of the strongest material due to compactness, and what I don’t want is it falling apart when caught in the rain.

Broken umbrella (happily, not mine)

Senz

I did buy a Senz Mini. It went well for a while, but then part of it got bent out of shape, and it wouldn’t close properly. It was replaced under warranty. I had also bought Marita a Senz Mini. It lasted a bit longer (out of the warranty period!), but she had some similar problems with it.

Then I lost mine… and bought a newer model, the Senz Mini AO (the acronym standing for Auto Open, not Adults Only). So far, that has been fine. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have upgraded the parts we had issues with.

In fact the Senz AO has subsequently been replaced by the Senz Automatic and the Senz Smart S (a budget version).

As with all the Senz models, the shape of it (with the handle set forward, rather than in the middle) means good coverage, even for a relatively small design.

And when folded, it’s very compact; about 28cm long. It’ll stick out, but can go into a pocket.

Blunt

When M’s Senz was becoming too problematic, I bought her a Blunt XS Metro to replace it.

Feedback from her and others suggests there are pros and cons here; in comparison with the Senz foldable umbrellas the coverage is less, and the folding mechanism isn’t as compact, meaning when not being used it may not fit in some bags.

But the Blunt models do seem to be constructed to a high standard, making them very durable.

There’s also a variant of this one: the Blunt XS Metro + Tile, which has a Tile inside it, a chip designed to prevent it being lost. When activated it can play a tune so you can find it. It can also tell you via the app where you last saw it (I’m guessing this simply tells you where you were when your phone was last in range of it). It might help you find it if lost somewhere static. Not sure it’d help if (like I did) you leave it on a train.

Is there a perfect compact umbrella?

Comparing the Blunt XS Metro (A$89) vs the Senz Automatic (not even sure of the current cost, as they are so hard to find):

  • The Blunt looks like it is tougher (fibreglass ribs vs the Senz’s aluminium and steel).
  • But the Senz is more compact when folded (Senz 28cm vs Blunt 36.5cm, and while the canopy is slightly smaller, the shape and handle position provides better rain protection.

Surfing around the net I did find this: the Gustbuster Metro (A$64) got a good review. This Metafilter thread also has some suggestions.

Has Choice reviewed umbrellas? Judging from their web site and their paper magazine index, apparently not.

Anybody know some other contenders for the perfect, durable, compact umbrella?

Just do us all a favour: don’t bring out the golf umbrellas on busy city streets. They belong on the golf course.

Barred from Bayswater – that escalated quickly

I’d been reading this article about the proposal to narrow a section of Mountain Highway through Bayswater when the level crossing is removed — from 3 lanes in each direction down to 2.

Bayswater state Liberal MP Heidi Victoria has submitted the petition against the plans to State Parliament and urged the Government to intervene.

“Those of us who live and work in Bayswater know the traffic congestion is already at an all-time high,” Ms Victoria said.

“The community do not want this; local businesses do not want this.”

I don’t know the area well, but given Mountain Highway is 2 lanes east of the nearby intersection, and the removal of the level crossing would cut the major delay factor for cars, and the area just west of the station is a retail precinct, I thought the idea shouldn’t be automatically rejected.

Closer to my neck of the woods, Ormond is 3 lanes each way, and is quite pedestrian hostile. The noise of the traffic is near-constant, and unlike nearby Mckinnon or Bentleigh, it’s very difficult to cross the road to points of interest.

Mountain Highway, Bayswater (Pic: Google Maps)

Looking at the Google StreetView imagery, there are similarities. It’s hard to tell what day of the week and time the pictures were taken, but the businesses all look open, yet there is an absence of shoppers. Many of the street car spots are free, suggesting that local shops don’t do spectacularly well.

Removing a lane, widening the footpaths and reducing the speed limit might improve things, and appear to be ideas supported by the local council.

Judging from the comments in the local paper, the most vocal locals don’t care much for Bayswater other than as a place to drive through as quickly as possible.

But area is marked as a pedestrian priority route under the Smartroads strategy, so it’s understandable where the council and Vicroads are coming from.

So I pondered on it Twitter:

Note that I didn’t say it was a wonderful thing. I just said it shouldn’t automatically be rejected.

A few hours later, this furious response from the MP for Bayswater:

Well, that escalated quickly. Is this really the standard of public discourse that one should expect? I know the limited form of Twitter posts isn’t great for nuance, but that just seems ridiculously over-the-top.

Apparently I’ve been barred from going to Bayswater by the local MP. There goes any chance of getting to know the area better. Is this like the opposite of being presented with the keys to the city?

Happily, other locals are more welcoming.

It’s hard to tell, but I would assume that Ms Victoria (and anybody else getting into a debate about traffic and roads) is aware of the term “traffic sewer” (meaning an environment that encourages lots of traffic to move through at speed, to the detriment of other local activities such as walking, cycling, shopping), and knows that it’s definitely not the same as calling a place a sewer.

Assuming she knows that, she appears not to consider that a six lane road through a shopping centre doesn’t actually result in a great urban and retail environment.

My guess is the level crossing can result in long delays and frustration for motorists. Removing it will drastically cut delays, especially long unpredictable ones. Removing the third lane each way (matching the road further east) may still mean overall fewer delays for motorists, while drastically improving conditions for walkers and shoppers. One would hope Vicroads has done modelling on this.

Perhaps for some — a bit like Skyrail — any hint of even considering any evidence has gone out the window, because outright rejection is seen by the Opposition as the best way to make a political point.

I’d hope for a more considered response from the Member for Bayswater, but perhaps I got off lightly.

Old photos from May 2006

Another in my series of photos from ten years ago.

The Nicholas Building in Swanston Street. Glorious, and fortunately (unlike some of its neighbours) not to be demolished for the metro rail tunnel.
Nicholas Building, Melbourne

The T&G building on Collins Street. Apparently T&G stood for Temperance And General, an insurance company that amalgamated with National Mutual in 1983. I seem to recall a similar (but smaller) T&G building in Hobart; presumably they are all over Australia.
T&G building, Collins Street, Melbourne (May 2006)

Flinders Lane, with Ross House (home to the PTUA and numerous other community organisations) in the foreground. These are also safe from the rail tunnel.
Flinders Lane, Ross House in the foreground (May 2006)

Richmond station. A Connex train passes; with one of the new (introduced for the Commonwealth Games) plastic rubbish bins in the foreground.
Connex train and plastic rubbish bin at Richmond Station (May 2006)

South Yarra station. I must have been trying to highlight the different bins in use. Since replaced (at every station) with plastic wheely bins.
South Yarra station (May 2006)

Also at South Yarra, the almost unfettered view to my old stomping ground, Melbourne High School. The whole area is now heavily developed, with skyscrapers surrounding the station.
Melbourne High School, seen from South Yarra Station (May 2006)

Here’s how the area looks as of 2014 (pic from Google Streetview). I don’t mind that, though I’m less pleased that behind the school is a glass metal monolith, spoiling the vista (below).
Yarra Street, South Yarra (from Google Streetview)
Melbourne High School (January 2015)

Flat Stanley at Flinders Street Station. This was for a friend in the USA. For more of Flat Stanley’s visit to Melbourne, check this post.
Flat Stanley outside Flinders Street Station, Melbourne