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.

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

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

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

10 minute trains – there is a rollout plan – but when will it get funded?

High-frequency trains (all day, every day) are critical for any big city, to ensure large numbers of people can get around quickly and easily.

As a PTUA study found some years ago, Melbourne is one of the few big world cities that doesn’t have them. To draw an analogy, it’s as if outside peak hour, we closed the freeways and highways except for one lane in each direction.

To delve into hyperbole for a moment: it’s the tyranny of infrequent services on so-called trunk routes. Those in power are basically saying: if you choose to use public transport, your time is not important. We’d prefer you drove.

But there is a rollout plan for ten minute trains.

Footscray station, Sunday morning

This week the Coalition announced that as part of a package of transport upgrades that include extending the South Morang line to Mernda, the line would also go to every 10 minutes off-peak on weekdays from October 2015.

Notably the service upgrade is costed at only $20 million (it’s unclear for how long, but often these recurrent figures are given in terms of 4 year budget cycles).

This underscores that higher all-day frequencies, which make public transport much more easy to use, don’t have to cost that much money. We have a big train fleet and plenty of track capacity to cope with extra services outside peak hour. The costs are largely in drivers and power, though it also adds to pressure on maintenance facility capacity, which is why this is being slowly expanded.

PTV, which established by the Coalition government to manage and plan the network, actually has a plan to gradually roll out ten minute services across most of the rail network — it’s part of their “Network Development Plan – Metropolitan Rail” (which I blogged about here). The process started with the longer (thus busier) lines a few years ago, and while it’s not ideal that progress is driven by politicians rather than transport planners, I suppose that’s the reality — so in a way it’s good that the importance of high frequency all-day services is recognised at the political level.

I’ve summarised the rollout (past, and proposed) of ten minute services (and new lines) below.

Notes:

  • The first toe dipped in the water of ten minute services was a short-lived experiment on the Werribee line. It wasn’t a good choice — the single track Altona Loop meant it was impossible to provide even frequencies on the line, so it never actually provided a ten minute service. It was abandoned in 2011. There were similar problems initially on the Frankston line, with half the trains running via the City Loop, and half direct — leading to very uneven frequencies at Flinders Street.
  • The 2016 proposal was originally tied to the opening of Regional Rail Link, but RRL will now open around April 2015. It’s unclear if it will be accompanied by any additional 10 minute services on Metro lines.
  • As noted above South Morang (weekdays) is now said to be happening in October 2015 if the Coalition is returned to government. It’s not clear what will happen if Labor is voted in.
  • One oddity from the plan: It appears the Sunbury line (between the city and Sydenham) would go to ten minutes, but then back to twenty minutes when the Airport line opens. This seems a bit strange, and perhaps someone messed up the plan — or perhaps it’s because eventually the Melton line would be electrified and combined with Sunbury trains provide a 10 minute service between Sunshine and the City.
  • By the time it’s complete, most of the network would be running every ten minutes, so you’d be able to get around much of Melbourne quickly and easily, and without having to look at a timetable to avoid long waits, including when making connections off other services.

Unfortunately PTV has almost totally failed to promote the existing ten minute services (despite them and the government promoting many far less useful improvements to trains), but anecdotally at least patronage does seem to be increasing — it’s not unusual on Saturday mornings to see a few standees on Frankston line trains inbound, which in the past few years have doubled in frequency and length, thus quadrupling capacity.

The question is… when will the politicians grasp how beneficial high frequency trains are, and fund the PTV rollout plan — not just a line at a time, but for the whole network?

The Frankston line X’trapolis – are you impressed?

You’d think from the tweets from Coalition MPs this morning that the arrival of the first X’trapolis train in service on the Frankston line was a miraculous huge leap forward for train travellers — a rocket-powered, laser-guided teleportation device that can get you to your destination in seconds.

It’s a bit like the Danger Mouse theme tune: “He’s the ace / He’s amazing / He’s the strongest, he’s the quickest, he’s the best!”

The government press release is equally enthusiastic:

X’Trapolis trains are the newest, biggest and fastest trains on Melbourne’s network. Running this train on the Frankston line will reduce crowding and get more people out of their cars and onto public transport.

X’Trapolis train debuts on Frankston line today

The truth is a little more nuanced.

X'trapolis train, South Morang line near Merri

Are these trains better?

So the claim is that these trains are bigger, faster, quieter and smoother.

Bigger? I’m not sure of the logic behind that. The trains are a similar length, and with a similar number of seats to other models, and a similar total capacity.

Faster? Perhaps — both the X’Trapolis and Siemens trains have theoretical speed limits of 130 kmh, but the Siemens is currently limited to 115, which is the same as the Comeng top speed. They have good acceleration, similar to the Siemens trains (1.2 m/s/s), and when I asked Metro’s CEO Andrew Lezala about it when the Bayside Rail Project was first announced, he said the overall speed was similar to the Siemens trains, presumably meaning if the entire line group went to X’trapolis and Siemens trains, they could theoretically speed up the timetable. And that, I suspect, is where the real, tangible benefit will be.

Quieter? I’m not sure there’s that much in it.

Smoother? Arguably not. Many people have complained about the ride quality of the X’trapolis trains, though some of this is due to track conditions, especially on the outer semi-rural ends of the Hurstbridge, Lilydale and Belgrave lines. Some train drivers have complained of getting back problems.

The newest X’trapolis trains do have very clear destination signs, and many more handles inside to hold onto if you can’t get a seat.

They also have slightly fewer seats, making an arguably more efficient layout, allowing people to move in and out and around the carriage more easily. And they have big bold interior displays, though these are obscured by the handles!

Bayside rail project - original timeline

Was their rollout rushed?

Clearly yes. The original estimate was that these trains wouldn’t start on the line until around October 2015. But of course, that’s well after the election, so they’ve brought it forward by an entire year.

As noted by Channel 7 on Monday, and The Age on Tuesday, there is just one X’Trapolis train deployed onto the Frankston line. It has been specifically speed-limited so as not to accelerate towards still-closing boom gates too fast, and has two drivers in the cab as a precaution.

The train seems to run just two round trips each morning, both timed to avoid the height of peak hour (so making poor use of the claimed additional capacity) before heading to sidings at Burnley for the rest of the day.

So will people be impressed?

It’s a publicity stunt, nothing more.

Yet I know some people suffer from train envy — I remember a friend from the then Epping line saying he wished they got the Siemens trains. Perhaps he wouldn’t have wished that had he seen the often filthy state of the seats.

But ask someone who regularly catches these trains if they’re anything special, and I doubt they’ll go over-the-top in praising them — they’ve had this model for years now.

In any case, it seems not everyone was impressed:

I suppose it’s good the politicians (who hold the purse strings) are so interested in public transport. But it’s important that the money isn’t all put into show ponies like “new” trains which aren’t really new, but into ensuring the whole system is frequent, reliable, fast, clean, and safe.