Five years ago today: A day on the trains

Five years ago today I posted this video: A Day on the Trains.

The footage for it was gathered over the space of a month or two in the dying days of the Connex Melbourne Empire in late 2009, and it was designed to capture a few scenes I thought might be changing in the coming years.

Obviously some things have changed, others remain the same.

  • Liveries: Connex (Metlink) became Metro (Metlink), and then became Metro/PTV
  • Metcard is gone, replaced by Myki
  • Many of the old CRT screens at stations have been replaced by newer flat screen displays

What else can you spot?

The system has become more busy, with more services on some lines. Punctuality has improved (thanks in part to padded timetables and station skipping), but cancellations haven’t. And transport is just as big an election issue as ever.

PS. I’ve since learnt that the skewing effect of large objects moving rapidly past the camera is called rolling shutter.

#Trainageddon: What can be done to reduce and better deal with disruptions?

First I knew of last night’s Trainageddon was when my son Isaac rang at 7pm. He and his friends were at South Yarra — stuck. I said No problem! Catch a Sandringham line train, I’ll meet you at Brighton… oh, that line’s out too.

Yes, a trackside fire at Richmond affected signalling, knocking out the Sandringham line between the city and Elsternwick, and the Cranbourne/Pakenham/Frankston lines as far out as Caulfield, as well as causing major delays on other lines through Richmond.

Rather than wait an age for replacement buses to arrive, I directed them to Commercial Road onto a bus to Elsternwick, and met them there in the car. (See? It pays to know your alternative routes.)

A little later my mum and stepdad reported in to say they too were stuck, in the city, in Swanston Street. A tram might get them most of the way home, but the obvious problem was huge demand for southbound trams, totally swamped by displaced train passengers.

Their strategy ended up being to catch an inbound tram towards the university, then stay on it when it reversed back, to be assured fitting on board. This took less time than expected as their tram, delayed, reversed at Latrobe Street. When they finally got to East Brighton, I gave them a lift home — I wasn’t the only one; the tram was way more crowded than you usually see at the terminus at 9:30pm (it’s usually deserted), and it was met by about half-a-dozen other cars picking people up.

It’s good to know that at least some people think about their alternative routes home.

This morning, numerous trains were cancelled on the lines affected last night, including about half of all Frankston line peak services.

This resulted in predictable scenes: packed trains, and many passengers left behind on platforms — during my trip in, I just squeezed onto a train at Bentleigh. Others were left behind at every station from Mckinnon into the city, and it was a very slow run from Richmond into Flinders Street, with the train hitting numerous automatic signal stops along the way.

Tonight things were a little better, but there were still problems, including the Caulfield Loop closed, and many cancellations, plus an unrelated incident saw the Northern Loop also closed for a short time.

Clearly, while the Federal and State Governments are busy pouring money into motorways (now they’re saying they’ll build BOTH sections of the East West Link), the rail network (you know, the one that won the Coalition the last election) is still suffering through neglect.

Prevention is better than cure

Obviously they need to look at how quickly trackside fires are responded to, and what can be done to prevent them.

Would better preventative maintenance stopped this from happening? If it’s true that it was rats biting through the cables, can different cabling covers help?

And why is the equipment designed in such a way that a relatively small fire knocks out four lines?

We’ve seen big changes in the form of concrete sleepers and upgraded air-conditioning over the last few years. What other changes can be made to the infrastructure to make it more resilient to faults?

Fixing #Trainageddon. Perhaps when finished they'll leave some rat traps.

Is the train network ready for major disruptions?

And here’s something that rarely seems to get raised: a big part of the problem is that the network isn’t designed to handle disruptions well, and particularly not in the inner-suburbs. There are very few places to reverse trains, meaning that partial suspensions often end up covering a long section of railway lines.

Replacement buses (once they are found, which can take some time) end up crawling through traffic to get into position, then crawling for many kilometres to get people to where trains are running. It’s like no thought has been given to how these will work — no consideration has been given to how the surrounding road network functions.

In this case, buses were tasked with getting people from the City to Caulfield or Elsternwick — a near impossible job given the normal road traffic levels just after peak hour, and the huge number of people involved. It was a similar case on Monday night when the South Morang and Hurstbridge lines were suspended between the City and Clifton Hill due to a trespasser being hit. Trams were also swamped then as well.

Metro contacts have told me they can theoretically reverse trains in the Loop portals, but I don’t know if that ever happens in practice. It probably wouldn’t have helped last night, given the location of the fire.

Targeted infrastructure upgrades (points and signals), to add reversing facilities at, say, Jolimont, South Yarra, Burnley (if it can’t handle them already), along with the ability to isolate those parts of the network, would be a big help for planned and unplanned disruptions, by shortening the lengths that need to be filled by buses — reducing travel times, and allowing the substitute bus fleet to run more services.

On the western side it isn’t too bad, as Footscray can be used, but the Craigieburn and Upfield lines probably also need looking at (the latter is frequently suspended between the City and Coburg). And further out it’s not so bad, as on most lines there are numerous stations where it can be done — and of course the road network is less clogged, and passenger demand is lower.

Across the network many things need fixing of course, but given the frequency of major disruptions, the ability to minimise the effect of disruptions when they occur should be near the top of the list, to reduce the impact on passengers when the inevitable next problem occurs.

A new train map is coming (and: network status boards)

Update October 2014: There’s a later draft

PTV are trialling a new train network map. They’re seeking feedback on it, and you’ll see it at some stations now (Bentleigh, Malvern and Moorabbin, I think).

Note, just to remove all doubt: unlike the PTV network plan, it’s not a concept for new rail lines; it’s a prototype of a map of the existing network.

PTV Rail network map: concept design, April 2014

View the map larger, in a new window

My initial impression: I quite like this.

Colour-coding the lines helps make sense of the way the network actually runs (or will run in the near future). It allows them to add detail such as the stations usually skipped by expresses on particular lines, which lines run via the City Loop, and which sections run as shuttles. This helps people navigate — for instance if you’re coming from the Dandenong line going to Armadale, you’ll probably have to change trains at Caulfield.

The caveat here is that the train network is not currently operated consistently. Loop operations (even leaving direction aside) are very confusing. Express stopping patterns are all over the place on some lines. The Frankston and Newport lines are connected… but only on weekdays.

The operational variations on the various lines might need some work. See the difference between Williamstown and Alamein, for instance; potentially confusing.

A big difference is this map also adds V/Line services. With Myki now phased-in for short-distance (commuter-belt) V/Line services, one barrier to city people using them (the need to buy a separate ticket) is gone. This is an interesting move. It does take extra space, thus makes everything smaller — is the benefit worth it?

The part-time Flemington Racecourse line is shown prominently in black. I suppose that’s a good (for occasional users) and bad (implies it’s fulltime). I’m told it’s showing terminating at Southern Cross because that’s how it’s likely to be (at least on weekdays) in the near future, due to rail viaduct capacity issues, so they’d rather encourage people to change there instead of Flinders Street.

Somehow the order of lines shown at Flinders Street seems wrong, but I think that’s because I know Glen Waverley direct services don’t actually terminate next to Sandringham services.

The Skybus connection is shown, but the Broadmeadows to Airport Smartbus connection isn’t. Neither are the 401 and 601 university weekday high-frequency shuttles, specifically designed to connect to the rail network.

In the first version of the map that got out in the wild over the weekend, there were at least two errors: Violet Town and Euroa had been transposed, as had Ballan and Bacchus Marsh, and the colours indicating Myki validity had crept beyond where they should have. The stations have now been corrected (though Myki still creeps beyond Wendouree, Eaglehawk, Marshall and Traralgon) and PTV expect to do quite a few more tweaks over coming months as a result of feedback.

They don’t expect a more general rollout of the map until Regional Rail Link opens next year. It costs a small fortune apparently.

But what’s wrong with the current train map?

PTV Metro train map, 2013Everyone will have their own views, but the current train map (below) has a few problems. For instance:

It doesn’t show where the lines go. Someone unfamiliar with Melbourne might assume there’s a line from Sunbury to Upfield, for instance. And it doesn’t show any operational detail; the map implies all trains run via the Loop, for instance. It gives little hint as to where the best places to change trains are.

Meanwhile, we’re losing two-zone trips next year, so there won’t be a huge need to show zones as at present. The new map started being designed well before this, but it’s good to be able to take advantage of it to show other useful detail.

What about multi-modal?

I think the new map is a good step in the right direction.

But if they’re starting to mix things up on a map (Metro and V/Line), I think another thing they should be looking at is showing the network frequent trams and buses that back up the train network… though of course, that would be a much more complicated and difficult visualisation to get right.

But other cities are moving into this, and you can see the benefits from it, as described by Vancouver’s Translink:

People traveling along FTN (Frequent Transit Network) corridors can expect convenient, reliable, easy-to-use services that are frequent enough that they do not need to refer to a schedule. For municipalities and the development community, the FTN provides a strong organizing framework around which to focus growth and development.

(My emphasis. That’s the most important point. For public transport to be competitive with cars, this is essential. It’s not like, as Jarrett Walker describes, you can only drive out of your driveway every half-an-hour — but that’s what most PT users face.)

The train-only network map is still useful — good for showing the mass transit, backbone of the public transport network. But a frequent network map would be great for showing all the places you can easily get to in Melbourne on public transport — which is a lot more than just the rail network.

Also: the status board, and the bigger picture

Are maps even in important?

Sure they are. Good maps mean people can navigate their way around more easily, so they’re more likely to use the system. More passengers means more impetus to keep upgrading services.

Bentleigh station: "Rainbow" network status board

But this is about more than just a map. Related is the trial rollout of “rainbow” network status boards, installed this week at Moorabbin, Bentleigh, Malvern, and in the PTV Hub at Southern Cross. The colours on the board match those on the new map… including Alamein, which has a distinctive colour on the map to draw attention to the fact that you usually have to change at Camberwell.

It’s a little early to judge these, though I note that they don’t show next train departures — this is present on other displays at Malvern, but not at Moorabbin and Bentleigh and most other stations.

I’m told they can modify the design based on feedback, so it’ll be interesting to see how this evolves. One issue I think is that line-specific info is shown at the bottom — only a “traffic light” indicator is shown at the top, which means the information you need may not be easy to find.

I’d hope that once these boards are running well, they roll them out quickly to the bigger interchange stations, where they’re likely to be most useful.

Both the map and the status board are part of measures to standardise train operations: the slow move towards more predictable routes, consistent stopping patterns, consistent platforms at the larger stations, and “metro”-like frequent operation on dedicated tracks. And there are also moves to improve the flow of information from operators (on all modes) through to PTV so a better view of the overall network is available, including online.

Clearly they’ve got a long way to go, but this is a step forward.

Other maps:

See also:

Update October 2014: There’s a later draft

The government loves talking about train punctuality. Cancellations? Not so much.

For some reason, while the government have been crowing about train punctuality this week…

…they haven’t been talking much about Service Delivery, aka Cancellations.

I wonder why not?

Oh, could that be because it’s barely changed in 5 years?

Connex/Metro: Service delivery (eg cancellations), last 5 years

There’s certainly been a lot of work on the train network, including more concrete sleepers and track relaying to prevent buckling, better air-conditioning in the Comeng fleet, and additional maintenance capacity.

But cancellations still hit the trains regularly due to other causes — including many this week.

And with more than 50,000 services running every month, even 1% of the timetable not delivered is a lot of cancelled trains, which of course happens most often in peak hours when the system is under stress, generally affecting a disproportionate number of passengers, and causing severe overcrowding.

Overall it’s about the same as it has been for years.

So yes, perhaps it’s not a surprise that they’re not talking about it.

  • I deliberately left off a trend line, because one-off events such as the pre-Black Saturday heatwave skewed the result. If the data for Jan/Feb 2009 is removed, the Service Delivery trend is slightly down, but I don’t think this is a good representation of how things are tracking long-term.
  • Other lowlights for Metro include February 2011 (major storms), and summer 2012-13 when there were a lot of stolen copper wire incidents, culminating in the February 2013 incident involving the bat.
  • The upgrades to deal with heat can’t be over-stated. Lots of track has been re-laid, and air-con faults are now much rarer. I’d expect the resilience of the network in hot weather to be much better than it was pre-2010, though not perfect of course.

Working? Christmas shopping? Fewer trains running today. #MetroTrains #SpringSt

Just a reminder that as noted last week, there are reduced train (and tram) timetables running from this week until Australia Day.

For my fellow Bentleigh people, I’ve marked the weekday cancelled trains for you:

Bentleigh to City summer timetable 2013-14

Basically for us on the Frankston line, train frequencies are halved at most times of day on weekdays for the next five weeks. Despite being politically sensitive, the Frankston line is the only one to have cuts in weekday off-peak hours.

Despite the claims, it doesn’t appear to be operationally necessary to do this for works on the Regional Rail Link project.

It actually makes me wonder how much the government is saving through cutting services like this, and how wise it is to have the deepest cuts (bars those lines actually losing trains due to construction works) affect the line that runs through so many marginal seats.

You’ll be wanting to check the timetable before you head down to the station.

And remember when the next election comes around that the government reduced your train service for over a month, causing long waits (and crowding?) while also raising fares.

By the way: it’s easy to print your own personalised stop timetables (at least for the “standard” timetable), courtesy of the PTV (formerly Metlink) web site.