Station codes: yes, FKN is the code for Frankston

From time to time I’ll refer to the Frankston line on Twitter with the abbreviation FKN.

I’m not just trying to get a cheap laugh. Well okay, perhaps I am, but what people might not realise is that’s actually the official station code for Frankston.

Every station (and a good many other places, such as passing loops and sidings) in the state has a three letter code, used in railway circles. Occasionally you’ll see them creep into the public arena:

"Fkn" - the official abbreviation for Frankston

Here’s a complete list of Melbourne codes:
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Detailed Metro train stats revealed

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

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

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

The Age: Metro disruptions

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

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

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

Crowded train home

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

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

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

Fixing the problems

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

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

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

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

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

Herald Sun, 19/4/2012

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

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

Does the frequent part of the network need timetables?

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

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

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

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

An issue to think about for the future.

Track conditions causing carriages to bump together like this can’t be good

One of the advantages of rail over road transport is the ride quality.

Well, that’s in theory. If enough care and funding goes in, trains can be extremely smooth. In practice on a rail network like Melbourne’s, with aging infrastructure, it can be a bumpy ride.

Now, I don’t have a major problem with a less than totally smooth ride, particularly around the many junctions on the system. A bit of a lurch to the left as we come out of the Loop and join the main line? I can deal with that.

I’m less keen on huge bumps and jolts on otherwise completely straight sections of track. Sure, one might not expect no lateral movement at all, but surely it can’t be a good thing if the carriages bounce around so much you can hear bits of them banging together.

This video is the Frankston line tracks, inbound, just north of the Yarra River approaching Richmond (adjacent that well-known landmark the railways Cremorne substation). It’s one of the busier sections of the network: most of the week it gets 6 trains per hour, but during morning peak about double that, plus a freight train or two each day.

I’ve probably been a teensy bit OTT in getting so many shots of it, but it’s on my usual commute, and I think it’s getting worse over time.

From the outside, the bounce is noticeable, but to the untrained eye it doesn’t look too bad.

But inside the train it’s a different story. As you can see, in a Siemens train the bump causes the end-of-carriage sections to make a lot of noise. It’s generally less noisy on Comeng trains, particularly near the front of the train, but I’ve found every so often there’ll be the sound of bits of carriage bouncing against each other.

The adjacent tracks don’t seem to have the same problem. Unfortunately it’s in a position where you can’t really get a good look at the tracks as trains go past.

It’s probably not the worst on the network. Here’s an example from a few years ago near Montmorency, filmed by Rod Williams — and apparently fixed after Channel 7 took a look:

There are many locations like this (though not usually as bad) around the network, raising recent concerns about the level of maintenance, though the regulator doesn’t consider there to be a safety problem.

Even assuming it’s safe and nothing’s about to come off the rails, it bumps the passengers around (which can cause standees to wobble and fall if not holding on tight), and in the long term, this type of lurching around can’t be doing the carriages any good at all.

The area of Metro’s maintenance (and other) arrangements is subject to a lot of speculation at the moment. Lots of email screeds full of unsubstantiated claims are flying around (cough: Sunstone), but one thing’s for sure — upkeep of the track and fleet shouldn’t be something to skimp on.

A lot of work has been done in recent years to install concrete sleepers, and generally upgrade the tracks. The question must be: has it been adequate?

On a section where the tracks are straight, on one of the busiest parts of the network, there should be no excuse for the trains bouncing and lurching around like this.

Update 11/8/2015: After months more of bouncing around, it appears the specific section of track I highlighted above (between South Yarra and Richmond) has now been fixed.

New Siemens train layout

Metro has been trying modified carriage layouts on the trains. Some Comeng trains have had seats removed near the doorways, and now a Siemens train has shown up with a similar treatment.

My immediate reaction (from a quick ride a few minutes ago)…

The pros: the larger doorway area should help speed up loading and unloading, and provide space for more people in crowded conditions. Based on how people have reacted to the Comeng layout, this seems to work.

The cons: still very few hand holds away from the doorways, especially in the middle of the carriages.

Fewer seats overall of course; about 16 removed per carriage, including many (all?) of the “priority” seats.

Siemens train: new layout February 2015

Siemens train new layout February 2015

Note below the special needs seats all seem to be now located near the driver’s cab. This would obviously be an issue for someone with limited mobility, even assuming they know those seats are there. If it were me, I’d encourage people with a need for a seat to always speak up and ask someone else to give up theirs, even in the absence of such designated seats.

Siemens train: new layout February 2015

What do you think?

For the trainspotters, it’s carriage 832M and friends.

Update: Here’s a couple of snaps from December of the similar Comeng train layout.

New Comeng train layout, December 2014

New Comeng train layout, December 2014

Update 17/3/2015: There’s been coverage of this story by Channel 9 and the Herald Sun overnight.

The change will be rolled out to the entire Siemens and Comeng fleets, and it’s hoped this will help the train system better cope with growth until the next order for high capacity trains is rolled out, presumably sometime later this decade.

The seat reduction is said to be around 15% — about half the comparable changes on the B-class trams recently. I think this is a reasonable balance — the first problem is just fitting people onto the train; hopefully once they’re on board, most people travelling a long distance can get a seat at least part of the way.

Currently some modified trains have no allocated Priority Seats for those who specifically need them. Obviously it’d be nice if someone who needs a seat was always offered one (no matter if it’s a special Priority Seat or not)… but in any case, the Priority Seats will be re-allocated — apparently they ran out of stickers!

And by the way, the feedback I’ve heard from passengers has been very positive, especially those who board having to stand. “Spacious!” I heard one exclaim the other day.

Metro Bingo :-(

Given the Flemington/Showgrounds line isn’t running this morning, and the Stony Point line has planned bustitution, I’m going to go ahead and declare that we have Metro Bingo this morning due to the storms.

Metro Bingo :-(

And no, it’s not much better on many of the roads.

Road conditions

Good luck to everybody (myself included, shortly) trying to get to work this morning.

PS. My trip in wasn’t too bad. Although the train was running about 30 minutes late, I had only waited a few minutes for it. It was crowded but not packed.

Judging from the re-tweets/favourite reactions to this, I’m not the only one who thinks huge umbrellas aren’t a great thing on busy streets:

The train journey home was actually less smooth. Our train broke down at Richmond and was taken out of service.

And a reminder: in times of train troubles, it pays to know your alternative routes. Connecting from another line via bus or tram is possible from almost all stations, and, particularly if you’re there when the disruption starts, is generally faster than waiting for hastily-organised replacement buses to arrive. Check this excellent web site: Alternative Metro Travel Options