New Myki gates – about twice as fast as the old ones

I finally got around to going to look at the new Myki gates at Springvale station the other day. They’ve also been installed at Mitcham, and will be put in at Richmond soon.

From what I’d heard, they are faster than the existing older Myki gates installed in 2012-13.

The stories were true. They are faster.

Looking at the video frame-by-frame, my totally unscientific comparison shows that the new gate is about twice as fast as the old one.

Timing (seconds) New Old
Card touches to reader 0.00 0.00
Reader acknowledges success 0.33 0.73
Gate starts to open 0.53 1.06
Gate fully open 0.83 1.47

The older Myki gates are notorious for inconsistent speeds, with just the reader response sometimes taking several seconds — the video above shows the gate on a “good day”. Response times are arguably the Myki system’s biggest single problem (of many), affecting hundreds of thousands of users every day, causing long queues at many stations.

Hopefully these new gates will be consistently fast. At present they’re showing the kinds of speeds the system should have had all along, and more in line with other smartcard fare systems such as Brisbane’s Go Card and Perth’s Smartrider.

The new design omits displaying the balance and fare, I assume to discourage people from lingering. They can instead check their balance at a vending machine or Myki Check (blue reader), as well as online of course.

The new gates seem to have been provided by Vix (ERG), who ran the Metcard system, and also developed much of the Hong Kong Octopus smartcard system. Perhaps, just perhaps, they know more about designing and implementing public transport ticketing smartcards than Kamco, who implemented most of Myki.

Vix also seem to have taken over maintenance of the system in recent weeks, though a full re-tender of the operating contract is expected to go ahead in coming years.

It might also be that this is the first example of the Victorian government’s (under Labor) insistence on “open architecture” — that is, that the various components of the Myki system had to have documented interfaces, so that other vendors could come along later and build on it incrementally. But it’s not clear how this came about — did the Coalition approach Vix, or did Vix come up with a proposal?

What’s unknown is if more new faster equipment will replace the thousands of existing slow devices around the network. While it’d be nice to see consistently faster response times, it would cost a small fortune — on top of an already extremely expensive system.

What might be better, as I’ve raised before, is for someone (Vix?) to re-write the software that runs on the existing hardware.

Bonus video: 30 seconds of the gates in use at Springvale, so you can see my fast touch wasn’t a fluke. Note the curious occurrence, about 20 seconds in, of the lady who touches both left and right — apparently to let her friend through, presumably with a different card, as you’d expect the gates to reject the one card being used twice. Also note the double-width gate has been left open, in the absence of a staff member.

Further reading:

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.

When the trip home goes wrong

Obviously I wouldn’t normally do this, but let me tell you about my trip home last night. And then I’ll look beyond it to the big picture.

I wouldn’t normally do it, because despite problems, it’s usually pretty smooth. Last night… not so much.

5:20. Check Metro web site to see how the trains are running. The 5:41 from Flagstaff (to Frankston, stopping all stations) is cancelled due to driver training, so I decide not to go for it, but to aim for the next one, at 5:50.

5:37. Leave work. Plenty of time to get to Flagstaff.

5:45. Get to station. Departure boards say train is in 7 minutes.

5:48. On the platform, the departure board has changed: the Frankston train is delayed. I smell a rat. Despite no announcement, I board a lightly-loaded Dandenong to Caulfield, betting that my train will be diverted out of the Loop.

At Melbourne Central, people pack in. In the background I can hear an announcement advising people that — as I suspected — the Frankston train has indeed been diverted, and to go to Richmond.

By Parliament the train is packed.

Sardine factor: 8. #SpringSt #metrotrains

5:59. Many get out at Richmond. But those who took the advice didn’t actually make the connection. By this time, the Frankston train is due to have just left Richmond, and I can see the Frankston platform is deserted, so I stay on board the Dandenong train, hoping to overtake it before Caulfield.

6:10. The Dandenong train crawls its way to Caulfield, despite being an express, and arrives parallel with the Frankston train, which has lots of space thanks to bypassing 4/5 CBD stations. It’s due to leave Caulfield at 6:12.

6:12. I get through the crowds. A bunch of us are hurrying through the subway. It’s like running of the bulls. We come up the ramp to see the Frankston train pulling out, dead on 6:12.

Yes, it was on time. Metro will incur a partial cancellation penalty for bypassing the Loop, but will score for it being on-time. But is it good service? Not if it’s known that many people from bypassed stations wanted that train and were just arriving — and particularly as there’s no scheduled train which needs to use that platform for another 9 minutes.

I’m sure the train network would run very smoothly if it carried no passengers.

People wanting a stopping train crowd onto the platform.

6:19. An announcement: normally the next train is a stopper, but that’s delayed 8 minutes, the next train is an express.

6:20. In fact, next stopping train is delayed at least 15 minutes at Parliament due to an ill passenger. This basically means it’s delayed indefinitely. That express train that’s still a couple of minutes away… they wouldn’t consider altering it to stop would they? No, of course not. Metro’s contracts ensure they have punctuality targets to meet.

6:25. The express train arrives. Plenty of space, but few people get on it. I consider travelling home to Bentleigh via its next stop, Cheltenham, but who knows how long that would take.

The express. But most people are waiting for the stopper.

The following train is scheduled for 6:36.

People are muttering under their breath.

An automated announcement tells us to spread along the platform to help the trains run on time. Yeah, thanks for that. We already had.

Another Frankston line regular, a lady who works for one of the NGOs, who I’ve chatted to before on the train, remarks to me that it’s a shemozzle tonight — and she’s glad I’m on this line so I (as an advocate) can see it firsthand. If only the Minister were standing here with us…

6:36. After we’ve stood at Caulfield for almost 25 minutes, a stopping train arrives on time. Miraculously it’s not too crowded, I suspect because the bulk of people are on that delayed train stuck at Parliament.

6:48. The train is on-time arriving at Bentleigh. The same can’t be said for many of my fellow passengers and I of course; delayed by about 25 minutes.

Delayed trains = long wait for bus home for some #Bentleigh #NotVerySmartbus

I glance at the nearby Smartbus sign. It says the next bus eastbound is 29 minutes away. Compared to a quick connection, the train problems plus this could add up to almost an hour’s delay for some people — those who originally intended on catching the cancelled train, and rely on the bus connection.

Every day I see scores of people using the 703 Smartbus to and from the station. It means they don’t have to have a car just to use the train. It frees up car spaces for those who do have to drive to the station. As I’ve posted before, Smartbus services are very popular. But the 703 doesn’t meet the government’s own service standard for Smartbus, and after 6:30, the frequency drops markedly: eastbound it’s 6:02, 6:19, 6:31, 6:46, 7:20, 7:44, 8:52, and that’s the last bus.

On the other Smartbus routes they take the rail feeder service a little more seriously: for instance the 903 out of Mentone station is about every 15 minutes until 9pm, then every half-hour until midnight (sadly with a 16 minute connection from the trains, also every half-hour after 10:30pm).

On this occasion, it’s worse: the 6:46 bus presumably left on time, just before the train arrived. You can’t blame the bus driver — the part of the Smartbus sign that shows train arrivals hasn’t worked for more than three years.

So what are the problems?

Let’s step back a bit. This is not meant to be just a rant from me. What are the big picture problems here?

Driver training has caused lots of cancellations. Sure, it’s needed because of the new track at Springvale and elsewhere, but these projects take years to develop, and it indicates an underlying shortage of drivers, and problems with recruitment.

Is this going to happen every time there’s a track layout change?

Advice to passengers about bypassed trains, if it was made early enough, would allow more people to avoid the disruption, but often it comes too late (though this is slowly improving).

Holding a diverted train for a few minutes would help displaced passengers avoid a long delay, by reducing gaps caused by cancelled or delayed services, but operationally the rail system can’t seem to handle it — even where hundreds of passengers would benefit and it would cause no problems delaying other trains.

Remember, by 6:12, when the bypassed train was leaving Caulfield leaving displaced passengers behind, the following stopping train was already at least 8 minutes late at Parliament — but it seems nobody is watching out for the impacts on passengers; they’re just focussing on getting individual trains through on time.

The operator contracts also don’t deal with this sort of thing well. The operator would be penalised for delaying the train.

Likewise the contracts don’t encourage the operator to alter express trains to help fill a long gap, because that train would then arrive late at its destination.

Regular loop diversions due to short delays (there might have been other reasons this time; it’s unknown), in time, lead to more passengers jumping on the first train out of the city. In the case of the Caulfield Loop, this adds pressure on the Dandenong line, already one of the busiest on the network.

Finally, connecting bus services are generally not co-ordinated, and are often infrequent, causing a cascading delay for people caught up in problems. Smartbus services in particular should be up to a reasonable standard, such that people can rely on them to get home from the station, even when there are train delays. Where installed, the signage helping bus drivers know about approaching trains should also work.

Not Trainageddon, but still affected hundreds

Last night wasn’t Trainageddon. It wasn’t hours of delays, or a large number of lines.

But it was a combination of disruptions and poor customer service that is incredibly frustrating to passengers caught up in it, and it came on the same day as morning peak delays on the Craigieburn, Williamstown and Werribee lines.

The impacts are felt far wider than just the individuals caught up in it. For a knowledge economy like Melbourne’s, it has greater consequences. Let me dig out that Boris Johnson quote again:

Every time your train is stuck inexplicably in a tunnel, every time a service is cancelled, the experience is not just eroding your quality of life. It is eating away at our city’s global competitiveness.

– Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
in the London Evening Standard, 15/10/2009

Can you spot the problem here?

Back in the day, the PTUA ran a campaign called “Problem Of The Day“. It highlighted a basic problem on the public transport network each week, by a way of a photo or a video. It was a good way of highlighting that many of the issues are not those that require billions of dollars to fix, but could be resolved with relatively little money and more thought from authorities as to how the system works for passengers.

Eventually it ran out of steam because the supply of good photos dried up — though perhaps the idea should be re-visited.

Anyway, in that vein, the two photos below are from a recent trip to Shepparton. Can you spot the problem here?

Shepparton bus stop

Shepparton local bus

Hint: it was not a once-off problem.

Update: Marcus got it. The bus network maps, web site and bus stops, all show route numbers. It appears none of the buses do.

Why is this important? Well if the buses aren’t showing the route numbers, why bother even having them?

And given that according to the map both routes 7 and 6 run from Shepparton Marketplace to “Shepparton” via different routes – if you’re waiting there or along Benalla Road and you see a bus going to “Shepparton” (but you don’t want to go all the way to the terminus), how do you know which route it’s on?

Mckinnon, site of a pivotal moment in the railway security debate, looks set to get PSOs #SpringSt

Mckinnon station was the site an infamous incident in 2010 that perhaps, more than any other, solidified popular support for the state Coalition’s policy of two Protective Service Officers on every station after 6pm. It was an unusual event, but very frightening for those involved: passengers coming home from Friday night football.

Passengers had to fend for themselves for several minutes as the train sat idle while a mob brandished broken bottles and hurled rocks at the windows.

Passengers who were attacked by a group of youths have questioned why they had to defend themselves for so long, only for the train to move on once police reached the scene, carrying away dozens of potential witnesses with it.

Police defend train attack response

I would think it’s entirely likely that the presence of PSOs would have nipped this in the bud, or prevented it from happening entirely.

So it’s significant that Mckinnon’s PSO pod looks to be complete. There might be internal works going on, but I won’t be surprised if PSOs start duty there soon.

Mckinnon station: new PIDs and PSO pod on the platform

As I’ve written before, the anecdotal evidence is the increasing presence of PSOs is increasing public confidence in the railway system at night… but it’s not clear if this is translating into increased patronage. Time will tell if this and other measures help (a few years ago, evening trains on this line went from 30 to 20 minutes until about 10pm, for instance).

One incident in a blue moon doesn’t necessarily justify a permanent, two-person, armed presence, of course. It remains a concern that at relatively quiet stations like this, little or nothing will happen, while other stations continue to suffer through security incidents, including before 6pm when there is no security presence. (The 2009 stats showed just one assault recorded at Mckinnon, and it was before 6pm.)

There’s still an argument to be made that security around stations is better and more cost-effectively served by fulltime regular staff, backed up by a rapid response force that can be quickly deployed when required, along with a fulltime security presence at hotspot stations where security is a genuine concern, as well as more patrols on the trains themselves.

Meanwhile, PIDs (Passenger Information Displays) are also appearing at Frankston line stations. Bentleigh got them last week (on the main two platforms only; not on little-used platform 3), and as you can see in the picture, they’ve also been installed (but are not yet running) at Mckinnon. Hopefully this will be part of upgrades at every station along the line — it is likely to be of more long-lasting benefit than the lick of paint stations are getting.

At Bentleigh the PIDs is a nice accompaniment to the “rainbow” network status board, though notably the Smartbus sign just outside the station still isn’t showing train times after more than three years.

As with all such useful upgrades (particularly the 7-day 10 minute frequencies, but also the improved realtime information) the hope would be that in time it gets pushed onto all the other lines and stations.

Of course, truly reliable services, and good, frequent, connecting buses remain elusive.