Some photos from July 2004

Another in my series of old photos from ten years ago

In 2004 the situation with crowded trains hadn’t really hit as a big political problem, which is why it took until 2006 for the government to decide not to scrap all the Hitachi trains after all, but expand the fleet. It was certainly occurring at that point however, and I snapped this photo one morning at Richmond. I was particularly pleased with it — it conveys the sense of frustration from passengers really well.
Crowded train, Richmond, July 2004
[Another pic from that same morning]

At Southbank there used to be a regular display from a group called Chalk Circle… one day I found that had this image of The Goodies.
The Goodies, chalk art at Melbourne Southbank, July 2004
[Original blog post]

They’re a common hazard now, but chuggers were around even back then:
Chuggers at Southbank, July 2004

The view looking west along the Yarra. Despite it being almost 20 years since trains ran over the Sandridge bridge, it still looked like a rail bridge. It’s only in recent years that it’s been fully renovated and made available to the public again.
Looking west along the Yarra, July 2004

Jeremy using the computer at home (see another view here). Note the floppy drive. In the foreground is a Harry Potter DVD — I’d ordered it from Amazon UK because in Australia at the time you couldn’t buy the widescreen version.
Jeremy using the computer, July 2004

By way of a bulk sale of their Summertown CD, my mate Tony organised a private concert in his house of Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier. [Original blog post]
Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier, July 2004

Melbourne Rail Link: has it been properly planned?

As I’ve written already, both the Metro Rail Tunnel and the Melbourne Rail Link provide similar benefits in terms of rail capacity in the central part of Melbourne’s rail network. In those terms, they are roughly equivalent.

But MRL does have problems. For example, I think it connects the wrong lines.

Connecting lines

Both MRL and the Metro Rail Tunnel (I’m going to abbreviate it as MRT, in lieu of another convenient acronym) create an extra track pair through the city, connecting two existing lines together, freeing up capacity elsewhere. The whole idea is to isolate rail lines, to let them run independently.

MRT does it by connecting the Sunbury and Dandenong lines through a tunnel via Domain and Parkville, creating a cross-city connection.

MRL does it by connecting the Frankston and Ringwood lines through a tunnel via Montague and the City Loop, creating a connection from the south to the east, via north and west of the CBD.

Such a connection has obvious impacts on passenger movements. Let’s look at one example: Richmond.

Interchange at Richmond

Does anybody want to take the long way around?

Richmond is a major interchange, but isn’t significant as a destination at peak hour. It is during big events in the sporting precinct. As such the handling of big crowds is a huge issue, to the point where special measures are often in place to deal with the large numbers of people, particularly just after events conclude.

The current trip from South Yarra to Richmond is 2 minutes. Via MRL it could easily be 15 minutes or more. And remember, it doesn’t just affect the Frankston line — it also affects passengers at the MATH stations (Malvern, Armadale, Toorak, Hawksburn), who in the future are likely to not have Dandenong line trains stopping at their stations.

A trip from Malvern to Richmond is currently 8-11 minutes, depending on stopping patterns. Via MRL it’ll be around 21-24 minutes or more.

So then, what is the consequence of this?

Is this extra travel time enough to prompt large numbers of people to try and change to another train to avoid going all the way around?

At times of big sporting events, when the train system is trying to shift the bulk of a 100,000-strong crowd out of the MCG, will the Dandenong and Sandringham lines be completely swamped by Frankston line people trying to get home as quickly as possible?

Will people who are actually trying to make a connection from the south to the east be happy to take the 15 minute detour (say, students heading to Swinburne in Hawthorn), or will they also want to use the other lines to cut their travel time? What effect on dwell times (and thus, track capacity) would there be from large numbers of people changing trains at Richmond and South Yarra?

I don’t know what the answer to these is, but you’d hope they’ve been looked at.

Flagstaff station, peak hour

Lots of other issues – have they been studied?

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are questions about how they’d build extra platforms at/under South Yarra (something MRT never resolved, and so ruled out).

How will it get under the river? Where will the extra platforms at Southern Cross be? I expect there are solutions to these (including the sewer), but have they been worked out, and costed?

Is Montague, with scads of potential users, really more important than Parkville, which has scads of users now? If the rail tunnel can’t run north-south to relieve St Kilda Road trams, what will be done to help them cope? I can think of lots of potential ideas on that one, but it’s unclear if this has been properly thought about and measured against prospective demand.

All trains not serving all CBD stations is inevitable, but what is the likely passenger demand from the Frankston and Ringwood lines for Flinders Street, and where are those passengers likely to change? Are the Frankston and Ringwood lines likely to be well-matched as far as future passenger/train demand goes? Ditto the other pairs: Sandringham and Newport, Sunbury and Dandenong.

And this is the real problem: the Metro Rail Tunnel project has its faults, but has had years of study (much of it published) done into it, part of a broader network development plan that studied not just where the tunnels would go, not just the number of trains flowing through, but also the effects of different upgrades on where and how passengers travel.

MRL in comparison has come from nowhere. There’s a complete lack of evidence that it’s gone through the kind of thorough study and planning that a multi-billion dollar project should have to get to a point where the State Government is funding it*.

Maybe in the few months since the project materialised, all these questions have been resolved. Maybe. But it doesn’t look like it.

That doesn’t bode well for avoiding cost blow-outs, nor for Melbourne getting the best solution for the billions that will go into it.

  • *The State government might claim MRL is fully funded, but the budget allocations so far are minimal — $40m this year, $50m in 2015-16, $140m in 2016-17, $600m in 2017-18. So around 90% of the cost of it is as-yet unfunded. It could easily slip off the funding radar after a couple of years, in the same way the Metro rail tunnel has.
  • In comparison the East West Link, you know, the road they said before the last election they weren’t even thinking about building, is being pushed along. For instance, the western section has $3.2 billion against it by 2017-18.

Plea to stay safe – from a Melbourne train driver

This was posted on Facebook by a Melbourne train driver last week. It’s well worth a read. Given he says “please share this” (and other copies doing the rounds are screen dumps, making it difficult to read, especially for those with vision issues), I’m posting the text in full here:

I try to keep my posts upbeat, but right now, I need to vent. As most of you know, I am a train driver. Today, in the space of ten minutes, I had no less than ten people stupidly risk their lives, either trying to catch my train, or save one minute on their journeys.

Running an Upfield train to town, the first station after departing Upfield is Gowrie. The pedestrian crossing is at the approach to the station and is fitted with gates and a very noisy alarm. Four people bypassed the safety gates and ran across in front of my train as I approached the station at 55km/h. The tracks were wet. The train weighs around 250 tonne, not counting passengers. The wheels are made of steel and so is the track. There is no “instant gratification” when you hit the brakes. This time they were lucky.

Next station is Fawkner, right in the middle of the cemetery. Two more did the same dash, they were lucky, also.

Merlynston Station. A woman is held back by the safety gate. She looks at the train. She acts agitated. She waits, but just as I depart, pushes through the bypass gate and only a long loud whistle from me causes her to retreat. She then walks back, pulls out her phone and hides her face as I drive past.

Batman Station. Level crossing, boom gates dropping into position, lights, bells – everything warning “Do Not Cross”. Cyclist decides to beat the booms, rides across on the wrong side of the road, looks at me defiantly and nearly gets knocked of his bike as the boom on the other side reaches it’s lowest point.

Coburg Station (Getting a pattern here?). Level crossing. Two more cyclist. one, a MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra) edges up to the crossing on the wrong side of the road, and looks at me, calculating whether he has time to get across before I depart. He is joined by a lady cyclist in her thirties in a dress. She looks, too. At the last moment, they look right and see another train coming from the other direction and pull their bikes out of it’s path with very little time to spare.

Needless to say, I wasn’t happy. This happens on a daily basis. Fatalities do occur. Lives are lost and others ruined. How do you educate the public? If you need to catch the 7.30 train, get to the station at 7.25. Don’t assume it will be late. If the gates are closed, the booms down, the bells ringing, the lights flashing, it’s not the starting gun for a race, it means stop and wait – seriously. Wouldn’t you rather be ten minutes late for work instead of early for your funeral?

I was just going to put this behind me, but as I was cooking tea tonight, the news had a story of an 86 year old man, who “misjudged the speed of a train” at Edithvale, pushed his bike through a crossing and is now no longer with us. It was three thirty in the afternoon and the train was full of school kids. I had a fatality about five years ago, at Aspendale, one station closer to Melbourne. You see it happening. You can’t stop your train. You hear the thump. You live with it forever. You are angry that people can be so careless with their lives.

Think. Act.

Please share this if you think even one person might learn from it.

Rant over.

(Found via Reddit. Original Facebook post.)

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.

Tube
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