Sense8’s public transport. Can you name the cities?

I’m always interested to see portrayals of public transport in popular culture.

I’ve been watching the Netflix series Sense8 — I’m a bit over halfway through it. (And I just realised the Wikipedia article includes spoilers, so watch your step if you’re planning to watch it).

It’s pretty good — at least, I’m intrigued enough by the story to keep watching. It’s scifi, created by the minds behind The Matrix and Babylon 5, and set in the present day, with eight (hence the name) main characters in different cities around the globe.

In the title sequence they seek to highlight different parts of the world with lots of different shots from the cities featured. Here’s the video if you feel so inclined (it’s about two minutes long).

If you’re trying to highlight different cities, what helps distinguishes them apart from their skyline and famous buildings? Their public transport systems!

Public transport can visually differentiate cities a lot more than, say, freeways, given that motorway signs and cars look pretty much the same across the (western) world.

Perhaps they (at least subconsciously) thought a bit about this, because in the title sequence there are numerous shots of public transport. … Or perhaps there aren’t really that many, and it’s just me that notices them. (Actually there are shots of freeways and road bridges as well.)

Can you guess the cities? Some of them are pretty easy. They’ve doubled up on some, and I think they’ve missed one of the eight cities here.

Here they are in the order shown in the titles:

1.
PT in the Sense8 titles 01

2.
PT in the Sense8 titles 02

3.
PT in the Sense8 titles 03

4.
PT in the Sense8 titles 04

5.
PT in the Sense8 titles 05

6.
PT in the Sense8 titles 06

7.
PT in the Sense8 titles 07

8.
PT in the Sense8 titles 08

9.
PT in the Sense8 titles 09

10.
PT in the Sense8 titles 10

Those who have actually watched the series would know that one of these actually features heavily in the plot.

What are some other TV shows or movies that have prominently featured the PT systems of their cities (without it necessarily being the basis of the plot, such as Pelham 123) ?

Oh damn. Someone’s catalogued all the locations in the Sense8 titles (with assistance from the program makers).

Never mind — have a guess. No cheating now.

Farewell MX

Feebie afternoon commuter newspaper MX finishes its run today after 14 years of publishing in Melbourne (and shorter runs in Brisbane and Sydney).

Melbourne Express was its awkward morning competitor for a short time in 2001 — it was never going to last because morning distribution is so difficult. That brand name lives on in The Age’s morning updates.

Some may mock MX for being overly filled with show-biz news and lifestyle stories, but for years it had a good team of local reporters, and their focus on public transport-using readers meant they always gave the PTUA a good run, often on the front page. It was a great way to reach a key demographic… for advertisers too, of course.

Here are some of the more (for me) memorable stories:

30/8/2005: East-west tunnel? Or public transport? It’s a debate that’s been around for a while.
MX: road tunnel, or public transport (30/8/2005)

11/10/2006: Celebrating the PTUA’s 30th anniversary
MX: 30 years of PTUA (11/10/2006)

23/5/2011: When the PTUA’s “Problem Of The Day” poked holes in the new tram network map, MX went Full Tabloid on it:
MX: Map of crap (23/5/2011)

2/6/2011: And this one, critiquing in detail the screens at Southern Cross Station:
MX: Southern Cross screens (2/6/2011)

Alas, their coverage of local news changed somewhat earlier this year when MX had a revamp. Recently there’s been little local content in it; indeed it appears much of the paper has been a generic Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane production.

MX of course had other uses. Some would get it every day just for the crosswords. You could wave it angrily at cars that failed to stop at zebra crossings. You could use it to cover that horrible-looking stuff on the train seat.

Litter could be a problem on evening trains, though MX probably helped the push for recycle bins to be installed at suburban stations. (And litter on trains is unlikely to just vanish when MX is gone.)

Perhaps with the recent proliferation of smart phones (iPhones were still six years away when MX launched) it’s not surprising it’s wrapping up.

It’s hard to break news if you go to press at midday for distribution to people at 4-5pm when many of your readers will have seen the same stories at lunchtime on their phones and computers.

Notably, News Corporation has been advertising news.com.au heavily around public transport recently.

So long MX, it’s been nice knowing you.

And to all the journos there I dealt with over the years, past and present: Erin, Hanna, Inga, Lachlan, Maria, Michelle, Nadia, Rebecca and any I might have forgotten (and/or not saved in my phone!) — thank you and good luck!

PS:

A quick look through PTV’s 2015 network revenue protection plan

I noticed there’s a 2015 version of PTV’s network revenue protection plan on their web site.

It’s a lot less detailed than the one The Age FOI’d in 2010… perhaps because it was intended to be made public.

Some points of interest, with my notes in italics:

Pages 5-6 talk about the background — total loss of $51.6 million in revenue in 2014.

“Metro Trains and Yarra Trams hold revenue risk, sharing 70 per cent of the total metropolitan farebox revenue.”

There are a couple of important points in this section:

“[Passengers] are not fare evading if they have a statutory defence for travelling without a valid ticket; i.e. they took all reasonable steps to obtain a valid ticket before their journey, there was no reasonable opportunity to obtain a valid ticket during their journey, and they took all reasonable steps to obtain a valid ticket after completion of their journey.”
this is worth remembering. What is “reasonable” has long been a bit wibbly-wobbly, and ultimately decided by the courts, but the fact is if you are pinged and genuinely believe you took all reasonable steps to buy a ticket, you should be able to appeal it.

“It is not regarded as fare evasion if a passenger has breached the ticketing conditions without loss of revenue (e.g. by failing to touch on at the start of their trip when they have a valid myki pass for their trip).”
so whereas the conditions say you’re meant to touch-on every trip, if there’s been no loss of revenue, you’re not the person they’re chasing. However! I’d suggest it’s well worth touching-on every time, to verify that your fare is still current, your Pass hasn’t just expired, and your card is functioning correctly.

Page 11 notes they’re monitoring a number of recent changes… the January 2015 changes (free tram zone, and zone 1 metropolitan price capping), on-the-spot fines (introduced August 2014), Multi-Modal Authorised Officers (primarily to boost checks on the bus network), and the use of Behavioural Economics.

Myki gates being repaired

Cutting to the chase, from page 13 onwards they note actions. Some of the significant ones include:

Changes for a User-friendly ticketing system, which includes

  • encourage off-system use of Myki channels, eg retail and online — presumably the aim is to help reduce queuing, which is still a problem at busy stations
  • possible changes to vending machines to improve the interface — good move. Maybe they’ll finally fix the unwanted receipts issue
  • more monitoring of Myki device reliability — I remember being told that there’d be a level of automated monitoring, but if it was ever implemented, it’s not acted upon. If a reader or gate at a busy location is getting zero cards read when neighbouring devices are getting lots, it should trigger someone to go check it.
  • promoting card expiry and free replacements — this is still a problem, particularly for people who have never registered their cards. Do the on-system prompts even mention imminent card expiry?

Compliance

  • auditing station barriers — barriers being left open has been an issue in the past, though it seems to be improving
  • an interesting one: “include revenue protection considerations in special events planning” — perhaps this is one that’s led to the closing of barriers at AFL games
  • close ticket barriers; direct people to go buy a fare if they turn up when AOs aren’t present — this is common sense, of course, though how AOs deal with honest people who have been defeated by Myki system problems is also a big issue.
  • “support (bus) drivers in encouraging passengers to touch on” — again, makes sense, while ensuring bus drivers don’t put themselves at risk
  • “trial an alternative location for bus fare payment devices” — the current default placement of readers is in an illogical position, where the bus driver often can’t see if people touch on or not, and (on metro buses at least) they don’t let you touch-on using the touch pad next to the driver’s console.

Enforcement

  • “Behaviour change” work via regular visible AOs swarming over specific rail lines — I seem to recall one of those Brit railway documentaries showing this, with the additional effect of making it harder for fare evaders to just go to the next station and hop off there to avoid a fine
  • “Review AO training and guidelines with continued focus on customer service and incident management” — important given some highly-publicised incidents
  • New hand held Myki readers — sounds like the existing ones have problems. No surprise, given most of the originally deployed publicly-used Myki hardware has problems.
  • Develop a single AO uniform across all operators — good idea; like vehicle liveries, to have a recognisable uniform, and preferably not an intimidating paramilitary-style one.
  • Continue “cross-deployment activities” — AOs on and around buses have certainly been more visible recently, and it also mentions V/Line
  • “Undertake corralling exercises (banners and bollards) at platform tram and bus stops to increase ticket checks – tram” — hmm that should be fun. Of course it doesn’t happen in the busy Free Tram Zone anymore (apart from the first inbound stop). Note the first combined bus/tram platform stop outside the Casino opened recently.

There’s also a section on marketing and education, as well as one on measurement and monitoring, which ties into the regular fare evasion stats published.

Authorised Officers at a tram stop

What’s the fare collection strategy?

There’s not a lot of detail in the document. Fair enough, they don’t want to give away all their detailed strategies to potential fare evaders.

But there’s really not a lot on the higher-level strategy: specifically the nature of fare collection.

They hint at it on page 6:

“While it is not practical to achieve 100 per cent fare compliance across an open public transport system such as Victoria’s, there is scope to significantly reduce the cost of fare evasion.”

Right. But why do we have an open system?

We’ve moved to an open, mostly self-serve system since the late-1980s. A failed attempt to use scratch-tickets, and then removing most station staff and all tram conductors in the 90s. More recently we’ve seen the removal of all ticket purchase/top-up options from trams — as a result of a 2011 consultant’s report which has never been published.

But what decisions went into this, and given huge patronage growth since those decisions in the 80s and 90s, do those reasons still apply?

Some new suburban stations have been getting fare gates (for instance Williams Landing, Springvale, Mitcham). What’s the strategy there? I’ve heard it’s to increase the proportion of trips starting and/or ending at a fare gate, but where is this spelt out?

Could we have tram conductors back? What would be the costs? Would it be affordable? Or would modern cash handling, safety issues and today’s much larger trams make it impractical?

Presumably they’ve thought about these issues, but if the strategy is documented somewhere, it’s not public.

Recently I found this interesting bit of text on the UK Network Rail site, which attempts to explain similar decisions:

“On long-distance trains, it is often possible for the on-board staff to check every passenger’s ticket. On rural routes, trains stop more often but as they usually have fewer coaches and carry a smaller number of passengers, on-board ticket checks can also be effective.

However, on urban and suburban routes, where station stops are frequent and the trains are often busy, it is not always possible to check every passenger’s ticket between every station.

In the past, tickets have been inspected by staff at ticket barriers but it is very expensive to provide staff at every ticket barrier and also inconvenient for passengers.”

Agree or disagree, at least they’ve tried to explain the logic behind their fare collection regime.

Authorised Officers at a bus stop

Nonetheless, the PTV document is an interesting peek into the world of fare compliance. It makes sense for them to (fairly) improve compliance to ensure revenue loss to the system is minimised.

But it makes you wonder how thoroughly they’ve looked at the big picture.

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.