CBD rail capacity myths: Loop tunnel usage, Stations served, the European solution

In this blog post I hope to address a few myths around Melbourne’s rail system that I’m seeing floating around.

Train loading at Flagstaff, 5:50pm

The Loop tunnels have hardly any trains!

I’ve heard from a couple of sources in the past week (one on mainstream radio) the claim that nothing needs to be done about rail capacity in the CBD, because trains only run in the tunnels every 10 minutes or so.

It might be true in off-peak hours, but is certainly not true in peak, when most tunnels have a train every 3 minutes or so.

Looking at evening peak, the hour 5:00-5:59pm, Loop trains departing Flinders Street:

Clifton Hill tunnel 5:03 5:07 5:10 5:15 5:20 5:23 5:27 5:31 5:36 5:41 5:46 5:50 5:53 5:59
Caulfield tunnel 5:00 5:06 5:09 5:12 5:15 5:18 5:22 5:24 5:27 5:30 5:35 5:38 5:41 5:44 5:47 5:50 5:53 5:56
Burnley tunnel 5:01 5:03 5:07 5:10 5:13 5:15 5:17 5:20 5:23 5:26 5:31 5:33 5:36 5:39 5:43 5:48 5:51 5:56
Northern tunnel 5:02 5:04 5:07 5:10 5:13 5:19 5:22 5:24 5:27 5:30 5:33 5:36 5:39 5:42 5:44 5:47 5:50 5:53 5:59

(Trains departing Flinders Street running direct have been excluded, of course.)

The single biggest gap is 6 minutes, and the Clifton Hill tunnel has a few 5 minute gaps (See: PTUA on capacity for Doncaster trains), but for most of the hour, gaps of about 3 minutes are the norm.

If more trains are to run — and they need to, because some lines are very crowded during peak — something has to be done.

Potential upgrades include:

  • Measures to speed up dwell (loading) times at stations — such as trains with more doors, indicators to show which carriages of an approaching train are less full, wheelchair “humps”, or where they aren’t possible, platform staff to help with wheelchairs
  • Higher-capacity trains — including more efficient seating layouts to fit more people aboard
  • Running more trains direct to/from Flinders Street, not via the Loop — already the case for Werribee and Sandringham trains, and some Craigieburns and Frankstons and others in peak. For minimal conflicts at junctions, and maximum legibility of the system, all services from particular lines would run direct (see below)
  • Signal upgrades — planned for the Dandenong line; remembering that the highest capacity signalling involves retrofitting the trains as well, so it can be a tad expensive
  • More tracks — this is what the government’s Melbourne Rail Link and the older Metro Rail Tunnel plans offer, in conjunction with much of the above, to separate out Melbourne’s rail network into 6 independent groups of lines

Other measures include boosting off-peak and shoulder-peak services to encourage more people to travel outside peak hours if they can, and even pricing changes such as off-peak fares (or schemes such as Early Bird — rumoured to be being phased-out from 2015) to encourage this.

Another crowded train

But train X won’t serve station Y!

This isn’t a myth — it’s already a reality, though the ALP has fallen into the trap of claiming Frankston trains won’t serve Richmond (and the sporting precinct) under the Coalition plan. That’s not quite right — Frankston trains will stop at Richmond, but only after running via the CBD.

It’s true: under both rail tunnel plans, some lines will serve fewer CBD stations than they do at present.

Under both plans, the Sandringham and Glen Waverley lines won’t serve the City Loop.

Under the Melbourne Rail Link plan (backed by the Coalition), Frankston and the Camberwell lines won’t serve Flinders Street, but will stop at the other CBD stations (as well as Richmond). Dandenong and Sunbury won’t serve the underground stations, but will stop at Flinders Street and Southern Cross. (The Coalition tends to play this down in their rhetoric.)

Under the Metro Rail Tunnel plan (backed by Labor), Dandenong and Sunbury trains won’t serve Southern Cross, Flagstaff or Parliament, but will stop at (well, under) Flinders Street and Melbourne Central. (The ALP’s web site doesn’t seem to mention this when criticising the Coalition’s proposal.)

These are the compromises you end up having to make as the rail system gets busier. Not every train can serve every station, particularly the underground Loop stations, which only have four tracks.

This process started in the 90s when Sandringham trains came out of the Loop on weekdays, and has continued since then, with Werribee and most Frankston trains, as well as Glen Waverley on weekday mornings.

Rather than have a mix of trains on each line running direct to Flinders Street and via the Loop, it’s better to have some consistency, and run some lines direct and some via the Loop, for several reasons:

  • It avoids problems with running inconsistent frequencies. If trains alternate between via the Loop and direct, you get very uneven gaps in the timetable, because the running times are so different. It also means many people wait longer than necessary for a train.
  • Consistency is less confusing — witness the daily Frankston timetable confusion between 4-5pm and 6-7pm when stopping trains run half direct, half via the Loop.
  • It means less conflicts at junctions, so fewer delays as trains wait for one another. This improves punctuality, and capacity of the network, allowing more trains to run… which is the point, remember?

To avoid big problems, connecting services need to run frequently, and interchange needs to be as simple and quick as possible, so people can still quickly get to their destination, even if it involves changing onto another train (or for that matter onto a tram).

#Myki gates at Flagstaff still not working

Why not the European solution? Terminate the trains at the CBD edge, and get people to change to a shuttle service?

In many big European cities, the suburban trains terminate at the edge of the city centre, and people have to change to a “metro” connecting train to complete their journey.

This makes sense in old cities, where in the mid-1800s, when the trains to the suburbs (and farther afield) were first built, and they couldn’t knock down vast areas of the central city to accommodate them, and they hadn’t figured out how to put them underground yet.

When they did start building underground railways, initially they were limited in tunnel size, so generally smaller trains were used. Hence the London “tube”, where the trains are quite cramped, and the tunnels only barely bigger than the carriages. So it’s common for people to come into the cities on larger suburban trains, and change to frequent metro services to get around the city centre.

London’s cramped stations and Underground trains — photo by Phil Ostroff on Flickr

But in Melbourne, and other Australian cities, the railways came as the cities were established, so our large central railway stations such as Flinders Street are already pretty central.

You really don’t want to have thousands upon thousands of people changing trains unless you have to.

It would be creating lots of problems, and solving none, to stop the suburban trains at Richmond, North Melbourne and Jolimont and make people change onto a short-distance CBD-only service. Providing adequate interchange and terminating facilities would mean you’d need huge expansion of those stations. And it would be a complete waste of most of the rail capacity and platforms at the existing CBD stations.

A variation might be running all suburban trains to Flinders Street, and having dedicated City Loop (circle) services. But again, you’d be needlessly making a lot of people change trains who don’t currently have to. And remember one of the reasons for building the Loop in the first place was to reduce pressure on Flinders Street with regard to passenger numbers. With recent growth, its subways and other pedestrian routes are under strain.

With modern engineering, newer European city railway tunnels have brought those larger suburban and longer distance trains directly into the central city: Paris’s RER is a good example of this, as is London’s Crossrail project now underway.

There are a lot of good things to admire and copy steal adapt from European railway systems, but that’s not one of them.

Update 17/6/2014: The anonymous Coalition blogger SpringStSource has quoted extensively from parts of this post in an article posted today. It’s worth a read, but I’m wary of the rhetoric from both sides on these issues.