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.

New Siemens train layout

Metro has been trying modified carriage layouts on the trains. Some Comeng trains have had seats removed near the doorways, and now a Siemens train has shown up with a similar treatment.

My immediate reaction (from a quick ride a few minutes ago)…

The pros: the larger doorway area should help speed up loading and unloading, and provide space for more people in crowded conditions. Based on how people have reacted to the Comeng layout, this seems to work.

The cons: still very few hand holds away from the doorways, especially in the middle of the carriages.

Fewer seats overall of course; about 16 removed per carriage, including many (all?) of the “priority” seats.

Siemens train: new layout February 2015

Siemens train new layout February 2015

Siemens train: new layout February 2015

What do you think?

For the trainspotters, it’s carriage 832M and friends.

Update: Here’s a couple of snaps from December of the similar Comeng train layout.

New Comeng train layout, December 2014

New Comeng train layout, December 2014

Victoria’s first 21st century rail megaproject: benefits from Regional Rail Link

Victoria’s first big 21st century rail megaproject is almost complete. Regional Rail Link was started and mostly funded by Labor (State and Federal, in part as stimulus money during the Global Financial Crisis), and largely built under the State Coalition.

Construction itself is now complete, with driver training and other preparatory work happening ahead of the expected opening in April June.

The line provides an enormous amount of additional track capacity in the western suburbs… but of course this is only of use if it’s used.

So what are the benefits, and what do we know about how it’ll be used?

Wyndham Vale station, looking south

Tarneit/Wyndham Vale get their new stations and new rail line, served by some Geelong trains. The infrastructure for starting suburban diesel trains from Wyndham Vale into the City has also been provided, but it’s not clear that option will be used initially. The opening of the stations will be accompanied by a bus route revamp in the area, focussed on the new stations, which makes a lot of sense, and pleasingly have had extensive community consulation.

Geelong line – more reliable travel time in the suburban part of the journey, as V/Line trains won’t get stuck behind slower Werribee line trains. It’s unclear if the trip will take longer though — this was a subject of some controversy when RRL was first planned, and still hasn’t been clearly answered. While it’s a longer distance, the track speeds are higher than the old route, so hopefully the running time won’t be much longer.

We know the Geelong line will go to 20 mins off-peak (probably every 40 minutes to Armstrong Creek due to the single track beyond South Geelong), a move which was probably possible in the past, but will be easier to reliably operate with RRL in place. This boost was promised by Labor before the election, and amusingly matched by the Coalition, who claimed they’d been planning it all along… but they hadn’t actually told anybody about it. Ah, secret railway business.

Ballarat and Bendigo lines — ditto; more reliable travel times. Likely to be faster, particularly during peak when in the past they had to wait for Sunbury line trains. Scope for some extra services, though this is still constrained by the single track sections further out. These trains are already using the new RRL tracks from Sunshine into the City, but timetables haven’t yet been adjusted. The question will be whether the April timetable makes use of this properly, and whether V/Line get their act together at the city end to reduce or eliminate delays coming into Southern Cross, where they should now have plenty of platforms to accommodate all the incoming trains.

The 2021 draft documents suggested the three lines combined would have up to about 15 trains in the busiest hour, but the infrastructure should allow some growth beyond that.

Sunshine station

Sunbury line — apart from between Sunshine and Sunbury, no V/Line trains have to share the metro tracks anymore, meaning a virtual doubling of capacity between Sunshine and the City.

Right now (as of the last load survey in May 2014) figures show crowding on the line has eased, following a roughly 50% boost in peak services over the past 6 years, thanks in part to moving the Werribee line out of the Loop in 2008, and also thanks to the Sunbury electrification, which added stations but also added overall track capacity by removing short haul V/Line trains off the line.

However with Zone 1+2 fares having been cut by about 40% since the start ofg the year, we may see a lot more people on suburban trains across the network, so the question is how quickly will the government move to boost services on the line to cope — particularly in peak hour, but also at off-peak times when crowding can be a problem. The new Calder Park train stabling, expected to open later this year, will help with this.

Sunbury line load survey May 2014

Werribee line — again, once RRL opens the Geelong line trains will be off the Werribee line completely, and with crowding already bad before January, they’ll need to make use of that capacity to boost services.

In the past 6 years, the load survey shows the Werribee line has gone from 13 to 21 services, and in that time has gained Williams Landing station. But the line has evidently seen greater passenger growth than the Sunbury line, with far more trains above the load standard. In fact it has 46% of AM peak passengers travelling on crowded trains, the highest proportion anywhere on the network.

I’m hearing the zone changes have eased demand at Laverton, in favour of Williams Landing, but given the huge population growth in that area, I’d also expect overall patronage to keep growing.

Werribee line load survey May 2014

Williamstown line — theoretically could get a boost, but not seen as a priority as it doesn’t serve growth corridors, and the last load survey showed crowding was well below the levels seen on other lines. One would hope at least the 22 minute peak frequency shared with Altona will be fixed to 20.

Altona Loop — technically part of the Werribee line, the changes in 2011 when the third (turnback) platform at Laverton opened were primarily of benefit to the outer section of the Werribee line (early 2011 was when the line got a big increase in services). It helped add capacity for the Altona Loop stations, but degraded the service in other ways: peak hour service dropped back to an almost impossible to memorise 22 minute frequency, and at off-peak times on weekdays shuttle trains run every 20 minutes only as far as Newport.

This means that at off-peak times, if you want to travel to a City Loop underground station, you need to catch three trains — one to Newport, another to North Melbourne or Southern Cross, then a third to the Loop.

One of the reasons widely cited for the shuttle trains (and the 22 minute peak timetable) was a lack of capacity between Newport and the City, given the need to share the line with Geelong trains. RRL will see the Geelong trains off the line, and it has been flagged many times that this would bring an end to the shuttles, with off-peak Altona Loop trains going all the way into the city — in fact Labor pledged it during the 2014 election campaign. It would help those passengers, but also ease off-peak crowding on the Werribee line by enabling the Werribee trains to run express Newport to Footscray, bypassing busy inner-city stations like Yarraville.

But with a lack of assurances from the powers that be, there are now fears this won’t happen after all, or at least not any time soon. (Do you use the Altona Loop? Click through to find out how to help the campaign.)

Jill Hennessy at MTF forum: Altona rail
Source: Metropolitan Transport Forum — video from Western Suburbs forum

Other lines indirectly benefit: the Frankston, Craigieburn and Upfield lines gain some isolation from V/Line operations which currently can snowball across the network.

So, RRL brings a lot of scope for extra services

With the zone 2 fare cuts, anecdotal evidence is that patronage is on the rise again, right across the rail network. The government is going to need to stay ahead of the growth, to avoid the politically sensitive situation of widespread packed trains that we saw in the later years of the Bracks/Brumby government.

This time, they’re a bit more prepared. RRL unlocks capacity for a number of lines, and planning work is underway to unlock capacity on other lines around the network. The key is for the funding for upgrades (and that includes infrastructure, fleet and services) to keep on coming.

You wouldn’t expect them to use all the extra capacity from day one, but they should where they have the train fleet available and the crowding is worst (eg the Werribee line and Altona Loop), as well as a plan to roll out additional service boosts over time.

Of course it shouldn’t just be directed at easing train overcrowding. Trains, like no other transport mode, have the ability to get large numbers out people out of the traffic on the Westgate Bridge and the other river crossings, if good frequent services are provided.

And remember — all-day, 7-day frequent servicesevery 10 minutes or better — are actually relatively cheap on the upgrade list, because they largely use fleet and infrastructure already provided for peak hour. Frequent services help the people who can, make more trips outside peak hours, and just like in the world’s biggest cities, help turn our train system into a mass transit solution that gets people out of cars by providing good connections between lines, and Turn Up And Go services.

  • Update 20/2/2015: The government has postponed the opening to June, blaming a lack of V/Line rolling stock due to the previous government delaying the order.

Our new Premier on the need for frequent public transport #FrequencyIsFreedom

One should never read too much into politicians’ rhetoric, but it was rather good to see comments from Premier-elect Daniel Andrews on Monday in free commuter newspaper MX:

“Yes, we need better local roads and yes, we do need to invest in that infrastructure, but the transformational infrastructure is a better public transport system. One where you don’t need a timetable, one where you can comfortably and optimistically leave the car at home knowing that you’re getting on to a first rate public transport system.”

— Daniel Andrews, MX 1st December 2014

(My emphasis added)

Daniel Andrews at Bentleigh station during the 2014 Victorian election campaign

…as well as these comments on election-eve:

“I want to make sure we build the best possible public transport system. I simply won’t ask Victorians to get out of their car and into a second-class public transport system. They won’t do it, and I won’t ask them to.”

— Daniel Andrews, Channel 10 news, 28th November 2014

Public transport that’s frequent enough that you don’t need a timetable is critical to willingly get people out of their cars and out of the traffic.

Frequency is particularly important to cater for a network of services to make anywhere-to-anywhere trips are possible with the minimum of waiting.

To draw an analogy, you don’t need a timetable (or face a 20-30 minute wait) when driving your car through a major intersection or freeway interchange.

Some services already run frequently — in peak hour particularly. Thanks to governments of both persuasion now recognising its importance (and/or being forced to add services thanks to overcrowding), as well as the transport bureaucracy getting behind it, more parts of the network are getting to that magic “every 10 minutes” standard, though promotion to actually tell people it exists is lacking.

In fact while there are some issues with proposed Transdev bus service changes in 2015, one change that’s welcome is route 903 between Box Hill and Mordialloc (including Chadstone) will be upgraded to every 10 minutes on Saturdays. Unfortunately the western end of that Smartbus route, at Altona, will suffer from service cuts of up to 50% — the current 15 minute off-peak service will go to 30 minutes. Apparently this is due to the former government’s wish to squeeze more efficiencies out of the bus operators — not necessarily a bad thing, but it may have gone too far. A case of one step forward, one step back?

There is a plan for frequent services

PTV have a plan to make more buses and trains run more frequently, all day every day. Trams are almost there, but could also do with a boost. (The PTV tram plan hasn’t been revealed.)

And the beauty of it is, many service upgrades are possible now, particularly at off-peak times, without huge investment in infrastructure, so there’s a huge opportunity to make a lot of progress in the next four years.

We’ll find out who the new Public Transport Minister is today — let’s hope they and the Premier will be keen to push ahead with implementing Melbourne’s frequent network.

Update: Lynne Kosky: Very sad to hear of former transport minister Lynne Kosky’s passing at just 56. It was under her that serious PT investment (especially train fleet expansion) started. This interactive graphic shows the projects underway in 2009, during her time as minister. (And no, she didn’t start Myki… that was a Peter Batchelor creation). RIP.

Update: New minister: Jacinta Allan is the new Public Transport minister. In related portfolios, Luke Donnelan got roads, and Richard Wynne got planning.

Yes, train punctuality has increased – thanks to timetable padding

One day until the state election.

They do great work, and it’s rather good to see the ABC’s Fact Check unit looking at Victorian issues just before the election.

A couple of days ago they did a segment on train punctuality:

  • The claim: Denis Napthine says his Government has “improved train punctuality”.
  • The verdict: With punctuality running at over 92 per cent across the Metro network, trains are more often on time now than under the previous Labor government.

They looked at the statistics, and they also considered stop skipping, which figures indicate is done on less than half of 1% of services — not enough to greatly influence the result, though sometimes done to excess.

But as commenters on their web site have noted, they didn’t look at the other factor: timetable padding.

Comparing times on the Frankston line: during peak (morning inbound, afternoon outbound), and when it’s quiter (Sunday morning inbound and outbound), we can clearly see that running times have increased — 3-4 minutes was added in 2012.

Frankston line running times, 1997-2012

It’s a similar story on other lines.

Is padding the timetable always bad? No. If network congestion or loadings are such that trains can never achieve the timetable, then allowing more time would be justified.

But in some cases there is now so much padding (for instance, Hawksburn to South Yarra now allows 4 minutes in peak; Richmond to Flinders Street direct allows up to 7) that trains regularly sit idle at stations waiting for the timetable to catch up… or (accidentally) depart before their scheduled time.

So it’s hardly surprising that punctuality has increased.

  • They also haven’t mentioned Loop bypasses, which are a particular problem for the Altona Loop (perhaps thankfully the only suburban section they can do it on) but also the City Loop. These count as a partial cancellation, but when they happen they improve punctuality stats.
  • Additionally it’s notable that the government always talks about punctuality, not cancellations, because the latter has barely changed. That’s outside the scope of ABC Factcheck though; they look at what is claimed, not what isn’t.
  • See also: Alan Davies at Crikey: Did the ABC fact checkers get it right on train punctuality?