Handling big events – the real problem is a lack of services

The Herald Sun had an interesting article describing the trip home from the football on Friday night, and the delays suffered by those in the crowd.

Apart from the football at the MCG, there was also a concert in the tennis centre, and soccer at Etihad Stadium. Edit: plus rugby at AAMI stadium.

In fact an earlier Age story had explicitly warned that the city would be busy.

Richmond station, NYE after early fireworks

The Herald Sun article notes a variety of issues: delays at the Richmond station gates, crowded platforms (and queues on the ramps), screens with wrong information, and trains too full to board.

Here’s the annoying thing: getting a hundred thousand people home should be easily handled by the public transport network, the trains in particular, if it’s planned right. The system deals with over double that every evening peak hour, and also on New Year’s Eve (though fare collection is waived then).

Obviously there are a few problems here…

Richmond station doesn’t handle crowds well. The current station is 55 years old; in 1960 it replaced a smaller station built in 1885.

Although the subway (at the MCG end) connecting the platforms is pretty wide, the ramps and platforms aren’t, and crowding tends to occur at the western end (particularly on platforms 9+10) when large numbers of people arrive at once. This is difficult to solve without expensive upgrades, which are needed, but probably aren’t going to happen any time soon. Encouraging people to move along to the far end of the platform will obviously help.

Yes, the gates slow people down, but this is probably not a bad thing if there’s crowding inside the station anyway — regulating the flow of people (and stopping them if necessary — a scenario common in places like London) helps stop it getting worse. So I suspect the populist calls to “throw open the gates” are a little simplistic.

Revenue collection is important — and large numbers of people using the service helps pull in the kinds of Real Money needed to keep it running and to upgrade it. On weekends in particular, just leaving the gates open would lead to a large amount of fare revenue lost.

One solution would be to include fares in the costs of event tickets — this is common in other cities around Australia, and might also make it possible to permanently close Yarra Park to car parking. Obviously this would mean even more provision being made for crowds using PT — and it probably needs to be shown first that this is a viable option.

It’s worth noting that free public transport (and a venue parking ban) was included with Commonwealth Games tickets in 2006. This didn’t prevent long queues getting back into the station after big events, as shown below.

Richmond station, Commonwealth Games 19/3/2006

For the Commonwealth Games, they had someone with a PA making frequent announcements, making sure the crowd was kept informed. If they’re not doing that now, it would also help.

I’m told there’s also signage around the MCG entrance pointing “parents with children” to the wide gates. What they really mean is “prams and wheelchairs”. The current wording creates unnecessary cross-flows, and should be re-written or removed.

Richmond station, Swan Street entrance, before an MCG game

PTV/Metro are encouraging people to go the long way around to the Swan Street entrance, and this is a good thing — though maybe they need to try harder, and remind people that apart from it only being an extra 2 minutes’ walk, it’s also likely to be quicker overall, as there is less queuing.

But the real problem here is the lack of extra trains.

You can get away with few extra trains if the base level of service is frequent, but at 10-11pm at night, it’s simply not — it’s a 30 minute service. (Notice how the reports of problems have been primarily at night, not after day games when the base timetable is every 10-20 minutes?)

Here’s how the timetable looked on Friday night: this is the Frankston line timetable being shown, but it also shows Dandenong line trains as far as Caulfield. The yellow shows the extra services.

Frankston/Dandenong line timetable showing extra services, 8/5/2015

On Friday night, PTV and Metro put on just a single extra train on the SE/E/NE lines after the Etihad soccer (crowd: 50,871), and another 1-2 extras on each of the SE/E/NE and Sunbury lines after the MCG AFL game (crowd: 52,152).

But the Herald Sun cited soccer crowds still heading home when the AFL finished almost an hour later, so it’s self-evident that it wasn’t sufficient. And this specific AFL game was a big win for Geelong — how many Collingwood fans left early, reducing the crowd size after the game?

It’s not just a Richmond problem either. Here’s Jolimont a couple of weeks ago (picture from Shane Shingles on Facebook)

Crowds at Jolimont after the football. (Pic: Shane Shingles)

I don’t get to the football a lot, but I’ve been to other big events which should be served well by public transport, and it’s often disappointing how long the crowd waits on the platform for a train home.

I know a bunch of planning goes into big events, but it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that more trains are needed, and they may need a few trains (and drivers) on standby to run if crowds are larger than expected, or the event finishes early or late. This in turn requires the operational flexibility to deploy resources independent of a set-in-stone timetable.

If they were really smart, just after the events start, they could crunch the Myki system data and work out how many people had arrived, and where they were likely to be travelling home to afterwards (their originating station that day), and check that against the services running on each line. At the very least, they should be analysing it for following weeks (though obviously it varies according to who is playing).

Clearly if the PT system is to maintain and grow its market share to big events, it’s going to have to provide a better service, or people will start to switch back to their cars.

A single train can move 1000+ people, and each track can run a train every 3 minutes or so. There’s no better way of moving tens of thousands of people out of the sporting/events precinct — if the system is planned and operated well.

The new Dandenong line plan

Last year the Coalition announced they were going ahead with an unsolicited proposal: to upgrade the Dandenong line. In summary, it included: grade separation of 4 level crossings, 3 stations associated with those rebuilt, planning and early works on 5 more grade separations, high capacity signalling, 25 new trains, a maintenance depot at Pakenham, and power upgrades.

On Tuesday the Labor government announced that they’d scrapped the Coalition’s plan, and were going ahead with a bigger version: grade separation of 9 level crossings, 5 new stations rebuilt, 37 new trains, a maintenance depot at Pakenham, power upgrades, and a high capacity signalling trial on the Sandringham line instead, ahead of a rollout across the rest of the network.

Dandenong line, Monday evening

The need

By most measures, the Dandenong line is the most crowded on the network, and is likely to get worse as it serves a growth corridor. Unlike the western suburbs lines, which are about to get a boost via Regional Rail Link, to date there’s been no substantial work undertaken to relieve it.

Timetable changes a couple of years ago provided some relief, but the May 2014 load surveys showed that in both AM and PM peak, crowding has got worse in the past year, with 35% to 44% of passengers travelling on trains above the “benchmark” crowding figure.

Dandenong load surveys - May 2014

What’s in the revised project?

Level crossing grade separations: Coalition 4; Labor 9: the revised plan will see removal of all the level crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong, making the entire line from the City Loop to Dandenong crossing-free. Note that all the crossings were on Labor’s list of 50 that they took to the election.

One thing evident from last year’s plan (and from the completed rebuild at Springvale) was that it was to include some planning for future track expansion. I’m told this is continuing. They are working out where extra tracks could go in the future, and not necessarily demolishing buildings right now (pointless if the land may not be needed for decades), but certainly not allowing new ones up that would get in the way. You might see carparking or other uses for the land, but no new buildings — similar to VicRoads and their overlays in places like Punt Road.

Station rebuilds: Coalition 3, Labor 4. No surprises here; it’s the stations that are adjacent to level crossings being removed. More crossings removed = more stations need to be rebuilt.

Existing stations will also get minor modifications: short platform extensions to handle the slightly longer trains.

New trains: Coalition 25; Labor 37. These will be a new design, a so-called “high capacity” model, carrying 20% more passengers than the current models. They’ll be a bit longer than the current 6-car trains, probably fitting more snugly into the platforms in the City Loop. I’d expect they’d have more doors, more efficient seating layouts, and no centre driver cabs (largely unused these days).

The key change is the number — 37 will be enough to run the entire Dandenong/Cranbourne/Pakenham line with one train type, meaning more consistent running times and loading times. As I said at the time, 25 wasn’t enough; it would have been messy running a mix.

The government is also promising at least 50% local content. Expressions of Interest will be sought in May, so they want to move pretty quickly. Presumably the frontrunners would be the two companies with train manufacturing facilities in Victoria: Alstom at Ballarat, and Bombardier in Dandenong. (The recent small X’Trapolis order was said to be enough to help keep Alstom going at least until this new procurement process is underway, so there are at least two viable bidders.)

Maintenance depot at Pakenham: It makes sense to have a depot out at the end of one of the lines, so the new trains don’t have to travel long distances out-of-service for maintenance. It also helps support local jobs, which would be welcome for the area.

Signalling: We’re back to the PTV plan for the Sandringham line to get the first trial with High Capacity Signalling (also known as, depending on precisely what you’re talking about, moving block, or Communications-based train control — CBTC for short). That line is almost completely isolated from the rest of the network, particularly V/Line and freight trains, so it will be easier to test the technology with a lower risk of a huge SNAFU taking out a whole rail line.

It will mean whatever trains will run on the Sandringham line will need HCS equipment, though it’s unclear if that would include a dedicated fleet. Perhaps more likely it’ll be modifications to existing trains, with enough flexibility that they’re not tied to that line.

The wish to trial HCS first might be related to the delay in the emergence of a definitive standard for this type of technology, and rumoured disagreements between the various players about precisely which technology from which company should be adopted. It’s a complicated area.

It’s important to note the Dandenong line will still get a signalling upgrade. It won’t be HCS/CBTC, but it will be modern conventional signalling. The view recently (such as on Regional Rail Link) has been that when a line is rebuilt (as parts of the Sunbury line were), the ageing electrical and signalling equipment is ripped out and replaced with new stuff, which is more reliable once installed, and has better provision for future upgrades. I’d assume we will see the whole line from the City to Dandenong allowing a train every 2 minutes (currently 3 minutes). Usually the practical maximum is 80% of the theoretical capacity, so that would allowing about 24 trains per hour — currently the line has about 15 + 2 V/Lines in the busiest hour.

Of course a rail line runs most smoothly if no messy junctions are used on the most frequent part of the network. The logical consequence of this is that the remaining Frankston Loop trains will be altered to run direct into Flinders Street, but this hasn’t been specifically stated yet. I wonder if consideration has be given to a flying junction (that’s gunzel talk for grade-separated) where the Cranbourne and Pakenham lines meet?

I’m told V/Line trains will continue to run all the way into the City. No current plans to terminate them at Pakenham.

The upgrade is independent of the Metro Rail Tunnel project. I’m not sure exactly how they calculated it, but the government say the changes will boost total capacity by 42%, even without the tunnel. Indeed, the tunnel really only increases usable track capacity from the west, though given the Dandenong line would use it, it would allow the Frankston line back into the Loop.

The government claims delivery of the various upgrades would be in the period 2016-2018, which sounds quite ambitious to me. No doubt they want things well underway or preferably finished by the 2018 election.

Dandenong line, AM peak at South Yarra

Still missing?

Much the same as last time. Duplication of the Cranbourne line, which still has about 10km of single track. It hasn’t been included in the project scope, but must be done if cascading delays are to be avoided. It’ll be a ridiculous situation if billions is spent, but a single little delay near Cranbourne can still easily jeopardise services on the whole line.

Also missing is any word of a revamp of connecting bus services, with more Smartbus-like services feeding into the stations. The key to having a rail line live up to its potential is ensuring people can easily get to the stations.

The emerging pattern now is for PTV to embark on this type of upgrade when new stations open. But given the various upgrades in this project will be introduced in stages, there’s no real reason such a revamp has to wait. Indeed, given some stations will lose parking during rebuilds, it might help ease the pain of disruptions during the project.

As the Urban Melbourne web site points out, the other thing missing is something specific on land use planning around stations. There’s an opportunity for more development, particularly on big slabs of land currently taken by car parks (where it wouldn’t take space needed later for track expansion).

The way forward

Labor’s made some interesting claims as part of justifying the change of plans. Firstly they allege the Coalition secretly removed HCS from the project scope in October (eg before the election), due to cost blowouts, and they claim to have a letter proving it.

Secondly, they’re citing concerns with the unsolicited proposal process, including the prospect of Metro (MTM to be precise) being franchised to run the Dandenong line well after their contract for the rest of the network might have expired and another operator possibly appointed for the rest of the network. That could have been messy — the old days of Connex and M&Train led to issues. And there were concerns about the cost to taxpayers of the ongoing payments to MTM over the life of the contract, relative to the project cost.

On the face of it, the outcomes for train passengers and road users from the revamped version are better, but the devil will be in the detail. And let’s hope the government works hard to make sure the outcome for taxpayers is good as well.

Public transport timetables finally in GTFS format

Information is power, so they say. So it follows that good accurate information on public transport services is needed to make the most of them.

Back in 2005, before the first wave of Real smartphones prompted by the iPhone, Google launched Google Transit.

The idea is simple: with access to all of a region’s public transport timetables, people can easily find out how they get from A to B — as easily as they can plan a trip on foot or in a car.

PTV-liveried train, tram and bus

Various transport agencies, including Victoria’s then-Metlink, have launched their own Journey Planners over the years, many based on proprietary software from a mob called MDV. …Z-something. (I’ll find the name later, but the same company did the planner for London.)

Metlink also did a substantial amount of work to get the data together to make those Journey Planners work — in an environment with numerous small bus operators, for instance, some of the minutiae of minor bus services was actually known to very few people, and not very well documented!

Despite quite a clunky user interface, the Journey Planner more-or-less works most of the time. It had some pretty weird results early on, but these were mostly problems with the data rather than the software. But it has bugs — recently using it, it was telling me it couldn’t work out a trip for me, but then did so anyway — and none of the maps I clicked to display would work.

The Victorian authorities have dipped their toes into the area of publishing the timetable data. Back in 2009 it was published as part of a Victorian Government initiative called App My State. The PTUA used the data in a 2010 study to prove that buses didn’t connect very well with trains (with a web-based App to fulfil the conditions of the data’s use). I think that put a few noses out of joint, and that data set was pulled offline and never updated.

Then last year PTV published an API (that’s Application Programming Interface to non-geeks) to look up bits of the data. But the nature of the API is you can only see a little bit of data at a time. It’s what’s used by the official Journey Planner, but ties developers to a specific method of access.

The official journey planner, or indeed any online journey planner worth its salt is often easier than ringing up to ask for advice, and easier than wrestling with dozens of printed timetables and a Melway (which is what I used to do). But they’re all clunkier than Google’s offering, which started as a super-smooth desktop web site, and has morphed into a super-smooth experience on phones and tablet devices — and is built into many devices, making it very handy for visitors.

Google Transit covers every state except Victoria. (August 2014)

The pressure has been on the Victorian government to release data in the open GTFS format (which Google Transit accepts) for years. (My notes indicate I raised it with Metlink as early as 2008.) Every other state has already done it, with Google Transit covering numerous cities around Australia.

Now, announced via a post on Reddit on Monday afternoon, they’ve finally done it.

Apart from enabling Google Transit, because it’s an open format, it also means a myriad of other innovative tools can use the data, though Google Transit is one of the best and most widespread thanks to its integration into Google Maps.

Some things to note:

Firstly, for now it’s timetable data, not realtime data. I’m told realtime is coming — GTFS has a realtime capability — but given at my local station they have trouble getting realtime train information from a display onto the platform relayed to the display outside on the street, I’m not holding my breath on that.

Secondly, it’s not actually in Google yet. a GTFS feed isn’t the same as it actually being in Google. Google has to sort that out with the government, so that the data is slurped in, on a regular basis as things change. But the biggest barriers to that are now gone.

Hopefully it’s not too far away, and the joy of easily planning trips using the World’s Best Journey Planning tools, currently available in every other state of Australia, is finally possible for us in Victoria.

It’s only part of the puzzle of course. The trip the Journey Planner advises for A to B right now might be quite different an hour later, thanks to many routes being unpredictable, inconsistent, or infrequent. That makes things difficult for users to remember, and problematic if there are delays en route. A frequent, consistent, legible network will help with that. But that’s another story.

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.

Tram changes: Some make sense. Some, it seems, less so.

Via a couple of stories in the last few days, The Age has revealed proposed changes to the tram network, probably to take place from mid-year with the next big round of timetable changes.

Some context

First, some context. All the changes need to be seen in light of fleet changes, and growing patronage.

The load surveys for trams track crowding on trams at the pressure points, specifically the CBD fringe, and in the CBD itself. The “Average Maximum Capacity” figures for the last published survey in 2014 show worsening crowding on many routes.

(See also: What are the load standards for the different types of trams?)

Meanwhile the new E-class trams are rolling out onto route 96, and its D-class trams in turn are moving to route 19 (see below), with their B-class trams then moving to other routes. This is what Yarra Trams refers to as their Cascade Plan, and although it hasn’t been properly published, there’s a fair bit of detail in this document which has leaked out:

Yarra Trams fleet cascade plan, 2012

The oldest of the smaller Z-class trams are being retired. Overall it means more large trams on the network — so not necessarily growth in the fleet size, but certainly growth in fleet capacity.

Route changes

So, what are the proposed changes?

Route 8 (Toorak–City–Moreland) would be removed. The southern section would be served by an extension of route 55 (West Coburg–City–Domain) through to Toorak. The northern section (which mostly overlaps with route 1) would be served by a diverted route 1 to Moreland, as well as route 6 (Glen Iris–City) being extended to the current route 1 terminus at East Coburg.

Route 19 (North Coburg–City) will go to all D-class trams. Those are the longer low-floor trams introduced last decade, moving off route 96 as the E-class trams come in. The catch is trams will run slightly less frequently, though the precise details haven’t yet been released.

There’s one other unconfirmed change worth noting: All CBD routes would be upgraded to run at least every ten minutes off-peak on weekdays. This would presumably affect route 55 along William Street, and others such as those on Swanston Street which currently run at lower (typically 12 minute) frequencies.

These changes mostly makes sense. Having the 55 go to Toorak makes cross-town journeys from Toorak/South Yarra to Kingsway/South Melbourne easier. Those who want to go up St Kilda Road can still change at Domain Interchange, which was re-built in 2013 to enable a cross-platform transfer (in both directions) for this.

The northern section changes should make little difference to frequency, but depending on the balance of big trams, hopefully will add some capacity.

The question for busy Swanston Street (specifically the Domain via City to University section) will be whether a higher proportion of large trams makes up for one less route.

And for route 19 — will slightly fewer, but slightly bigger, trams provide enough capacity? That route is very busy at peak times, but also after dark. We’ll only know when we see more detail, and how it works in action.

Domain Interchange, shortly after it re-opened in April 2013

City Circle

The City Circle is also planned to have changes, with the proposal that it run in one direction only, with the route bypassing HarbourTown, thus returning it to an actual circle(ish). It sounds like this change is yet to be approved/locked-in.

At this stage it’s unclear if that would remain at the current 12 minute frequency (or perhaps 10 if bypassing HarbourTown), thus half the total current number of trams running, or some other arrangement.

Let’s assume for a moment that it’s reasonable to push the tram system as a whole towards modern, air-conditioned, low-floor trams, to increase accessibility and competitiveness with cars.

Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t make sense to cut the Ws from the City Circle in the context of:

  • rampant CBD crowding (in part due to the new Free Tram Zone) meaning having City-only routes actually makes more sense than ever to work alongside Suburb to City routes
  • the cost already spent to restore W-class trams
  • popularity of W-class trams with tourists (and locals), given their heritage value (even if they mostly don’t use heritage colours!)
  • eventual future provision of accessible trams on other routes covering almost all of the streets included in the City Circle

The unconfirmed information floating about is that instead of a cut in service, there’ll be the same number of trams, but all running in one direction. This would mean instead of both directions every 12 minutes, only one way (clockwise?) every 6 minutes.

That’d be pretty silly. Any delays from City Circle trams to other services would be removed in one direction, but doubled in the other. Likewise any relief to other overcrowded services would be in one direction only.

Crowded tram

Why no information? Why no consultation?

Perhaps the real problem here is that, as is far too common, bits of information are leaking out without any visibility of the entire plan, and the thinking behind it. (Remember, much of this was originally intended to happen next month, but will now presumably be in June when Regional Rail Link opens.)

Rather than put it all out there when asked last week by the media, there’s been no further clarification on what’s become public.

There’s already confusion. For instance some people seem to think Moreland Road in Brunswick will lose regular tram services, which isn’t the case.

Has this plan been flagged at the Yarra Trams Meet the Manager sessions held this month? I don’t know.

Changes are needed on the trams, and much of what’s proposed seems to make sense, but it’d be better to explain it all than to just assume that will the public hear the headlines and believe it’ll all be good — unfortunately the reality is that many will assume it’s all bad.

PS. There’s a petition running to retain W-class trams on the City Circle and at least one other route.