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.

Southland station: now expected to open 2017

I remember when Labor and the Coalition both pledged to build Southland station.

It was 2010. I told my kids, who were excited. They were 15 and 12 at the time, just the ages when they were looking forward to exploring the city and suburbs on their own, going to places like Southland with friends.

This train will not stop at Southland station. Because there still isn't one yet. #SpringSt

Of course it was the Coalition who won the 2010 election. In 2012 I looked back at progress — at the time, not much. By 2013 a little bit of detail of the plans had emerged — for a basic station. No matter, said I — the fancy amenity can all come later. The important thing is just to get it built.

Toilets? Not that important. There are some in the centre on the ground floor, about 150 metres (or one train length) away.

Bus interchange? Not that important — almost all the bus routes that serve Southland already intersect the Frankston line at other stations.

In fact given that one could reasonably expect Westfield to expand the centre towards, up to and perhaps over the railway station once it’s clear it’s bringing more punters, much of any facilities provided would be likely to be replaced anyway.

Even with the bare-bones design, it took until 2014 for full funding to be provided in the state budget, with expected opening in 2016.

When I quizzed her about it last year, then-MP for Bentleigh Elizabeth Miller told me that construction would start in early 2015. At that point, the only progress had been a few banners unfurled at the site.

This week she noted that she had been the MP when the funding came through. Yes well, that’s good, but perhaps if that had happened in 2012 instead of 2014, and the station completed before the 2014 election, she might have held onto her seat. Nearby Carrum, Mordialloc and Frankston might have also stayed with the Coalition. The problem was, between 2012 and 2014, the Coalition was so fixated on the East West Link that they dropped the ball on even relatively cheap public transport promises like this. Such as contrast.

The news this week is that PTV is running consultation sessions (19th March 5:30-8:30pm, Cheltenham Community Centre and 21st March 9am-2pm at Southland) — and that toilets are back in scope.

They’re also wanting to know community views on an entrance via Tulip Grove, on the other side of the railway line. It seems someone at PTV had their wits about them when they spotted a property in the street had come up for sale, and bought it, to be used for construction — no compulsory acquisition required. I think it’d be good to provide permanent station access as well, with parking restrictions in the street to prevent shoppers parking there — but it makes sense to ask the locals what they think.

(I’m guessing it was number 60 Tulip Grove — that seems to have sold mid-last-year.)

But they’re now saying the station is expected to open in 2017.

By that time Southland Station is built, my kids will be 22 and 19, both old enough to drive — though at current trajectories of interest, I’m not assuming that they will be driving. That’s another story of course, but fundamentally if we’re hoping fewer people drive in the future, they will need other, viable options to get around.

With appalling bus services and very inconvenient train access, it’s hardly surprising that Southland remains so car-dependent, and it’s a battle every weekend to find a spot to park. The sooner the station opens the better.

PS: I understand the station is not planned to be Premium (fulltime staffed), despite the presence of public toilets. This is likely to be the first of this type of station, and will probably mean an Exeloo-type installation. Additionally Hallam station, also not Premium, was the subject of an election promise for toilets, so is likely to get an Exeloo. Presumably this type of automated self-cleaning toilet is an option for other stations as well, both staffed and unstaffed.

Update 8/3/2015: Comments from some local residents have prompted me to dig out a site plan I came across last year. It’s from 2013, so may have been revised, but hopefully is indicative of the current plan. No doubt we’ll hear more at the consultation sessions.

Southland station: Concept development diagram, Option 4 (March 2013)

It’s hard to see here — click here to see it bigger.

Update 11/3/2015: PTV has published more details, and plans and artist impressions on their web site.

As per the comments, the plan has changed a bit from the above diagram, with the platforms moved further south along the line.

Southland plan - published by PTV 11/3/2015

It’s worth noting that the intent is not to reposition the tracks. This is apparently difficult/expensive due to the nearby bridge over Bay Road. This rules out an island platform for the station.

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.