V/Line: a ride on RRL, and 24-hour time… mostly

I finally took a ride on the Regional Rail Link last night. In summary:

Trains from the city to Geelong depart regularly, but from numerous platforms — when I was there in peak, it was 5A, then 7A, 15A, 1, 3A… and when I’d been there at lunchtime, 2B had also been in the mix. It wouldn’t hurt to have some consistency. As it is, if you just miss a train, you’re likely to have to backtrack a long way to figure out where to catch the next one.

V/Line departures: Southern Cross, peak hour

I caught the Southern Cross to Tarneit on the 17:44 to Geelong/Waurn Ponds — peak hour, quite crowded, every seat on the 5-car train occupied I think. A few people standing (probably by choice).

Tarneit station quite busy, perhaps 100 or more people alighted there. Not bad for the fourth weekday of operation. The area around the station is somewhat dominated by the car park (hopefully new development on the northern side will reduce this. Good to see the platforms have multiple exits.

Tarneit station, evening peak

Tarneit station park and ride

Hopped on another train to Wyndham Vale a few minutes later — not nearly as crowded.

Then a train back into the City — counter-peak, mostly empty. It was late, and the departure disappeared off the platform screens for a few minutes, a bit odd.

Notably, a lady hopped off the inbound train at Sunshine and changed onto the Sunbury line outbound, so while no doubt Geelong to Werribee people have been inconvenienced having to now make a bus connection, the opening of RRL has also made other trips easier.

Despite it being after 6pm and dark, I saw no sign whatsoever of PSOs at either of the new stations. They are not currently on the list of stations served by them, which seems odd.

It was too dark to see any scenery on this little jaunt, or even to fully appreciate the speed. There was a brief good view of the bright lights of the distant city between Deer Park and Tarneit. I’ll have to go back in daylight.

Riding V/Line in the dark

Footscray station platform 3 doesn’t have departure screens. This is cunning, given this is for citybound trains that you’re not meant to board there. (Sunshine does have them as that platform is used in both directions, but I’m told it doesn’t display citybound departures.)

It’s about time

It’s great to see a brand new rail line so popular already.

But something else I noticed…

24-hour time isn’t common in Australia, but V/Line uses it. It’s on their web site, on the screens at Southern Cross, and on their timetables… in fact the paper timetable has a panel explaining 24-hour time.

V/Line explains 24-hour time

Oddly, it’s not on their Passenger Information Displays at their stations. They all seem to be 12-hour time, even on the new platforms which exclusively serve V/Line trains.

Wyndham Vale station, evening counter-peak

Is it important? Not greatly in the grand scheme of things. But some consistency would be good across the greater public transport network of course. I’m undecided which is better… 12-hour time is more well and understood, but 24 avoids AM/PM ambiguity, and most people would know it from the world of air travel. It’s also used internally by operators.

It’s not the first time we’ve had inconsistency on this in public transport. The Metcard system used 12-hour times on the cards and readers, but from memory used 24-hour time when the readers showed expiry times.

Deer Park PSOs

This is Deer Park station. (Superb pic snapped a few years ago by my friend Tony.)

Deer Park station (pic by Tony Malloy)

And this is the new pod for Protective Services Officers at Deer Park station.

Deer Park station

According to the official list, PSOs are now deployed there.

Marcus Wong’s PSO tracking spreadsheet says they started there on July 1st.

Deer Park of course is one of the stations that gets the least frequent train services in Melbourne. It’s served by V/Line’s Ballarat line trains, and about every second service runs express through the station.

Given PSOs are only on duty after 6pm, they’ll see very few trains and people compared to their cousins at Metro stations.

People: The official PTV station stats don’t include the V/Line stations, but the unofficial stats I got a couple of years ago had a figure of 79 boardings at Deer Park every weekday, the fourth-lowest in Melbourne. It’s probably reasonable to assume that many of them board at the station in the morning, and come back and alight there in the evening.

Trains: The station is adjacent to the fast-growing suburb of Derrimut, but the few people using the station is reflective of the small number of trains stopping there.

After 6pm:

  • Weekdays from the city: 6:08pm, 6:28pm, 7:47pm, 8:45pm, 10:15pm and 11:45pm (Friday only)
  • Weekdays to the city: 7:08pm, 8:25pm, 10:18pm
  • Saturdays from the city: 7:33pm, 9:08pm, 10:33pm and 12:08am
  • Saturdays to the city: 7:05pm, 8:11pm, 10:10pm
  • Sundays from the city: 7:33pm, 9:08pm, 10:33pm
  • Sundays to the city: 7:05pm, 8:11pm, 10:11pm

The PSOs are professionals of course. But gee it must be dull waiting up to an hour and a half between trains, and seeing barely any people pass through the station.

On the bright side, those few people hopefully feel safer. Anecdotal evidence matches a recent survey by UniPollWatch which found 85% of passengers believe PSOs have made the rail network safer, and The Age’s online survey said 77% feel safer.

So from that point of view, the scheme is working. But it’s an expensive policy to have two officers at every station, no matter how busy or quiet. It’s unclear if it’s actually reducing crime, and it’s also unclear if it has increased evening patronage on the rail network — particularly at places like Deer Park with hopelessly infrequent train services.

The officers are rotated around through different stations. Just as well — they’d be bored out of their skulls if they were at quiet stations like Deer Park all the time.

  • From the sounds of it, many locals use the 400 bus to Sunshine, rather than the local train. The bus runs much closer to housing in Derrimut, about every 20 minutes in peak on that part of the route. Only every 40 minutes off-peak and weekends, but that’s heaps better than the trains. No doubt many others drive.
  • When Regional Rail Link opens next year, trains through the station will increase markedly, but it’s unclear if any extra will stop. The possible 2021 V/Line timetables suggested a train every half-hour from Melton during off-peak daytime hours, which would be a vast improvement, though nowhere near the service level of Metro stations a similar distance from the city.
  • PTUA analysis of crime stats from before the PSOs were introduced was based on Metro/Connex data, and didn’t include Deer Park or other V/Line stations, but it did make clear that Melbourne-wide, about half of all reported assaults at stations aren’t after 6pm; they’re during the day.

A new train map is coming (and: network status boards)

Update October 2014: There’s a later draft

PTV are trialling a new train network map. They’re seeking feedback on it, and you’ll see it at some stations now (Bentleigh, Malvern and Moorabbin, I think).

Note, just to remove all doubt: unlike the PTV network plan, it’s not a concept for new rail lines; it’s a prototype of a map of the existing network.

PTV Rail network map: concept design, April 2014

View the map larger, in a new window

My initial impression: I quite like this.

Colour-coding the lines helps make sense of the way the network actually runs (or will run in the near future). It allows them to add detail such as the stations usually skipped by expresses on particular lines, which lines run via the City Loop, and which sections run as shuttles. This helps people navigate — for instance if you’re coming from the Dandenong line going to Armadale, you’ll probably have to change trains at Caulfield.

The caveat here is that the train network is not currently operated consistently. Loop operations (even leaving direction aside) are very confusing. Express stopping patterns are all over the place on some lines. The Frankston and Newport lines are connected… but only on weekdays.

The operational variations on the various lines might need some work. See the difference between Williamstown and Alamein, for instance; potentially confusing.

A big difference is this map also adds V/Line services. With Myki now phased-in for short-distance (commuter-belt) V/Line services, one barrier to city people using them (the need to buy a separate ticket) is gone. This is an interesting move. It does take extra space, thus makes everything smaller — is the benefit worth it?

The part-time Flemington Racecourse line is shown prominently in black. I suppose that’s a good (for occasional users) and bad (implies it’s fulltime). I’m told it’s showing terminating at Southern Cross because that’s how it’s likely to be (at least on weekdays) in the near future, due to rail viaduct capacity issues, so they’d rather encourage people to change there instead of Flinders Street.

Somehow the order of lines shown at Flinders Street seems wrong, but I think that’s because I know Glen Waverley direct services don’t actually terminate next to Sandringham services.

The Skybus connection is shown, but the Broadmeadows to Airport Smartbus connection isn’t. Neither are the 401 and 601 university weekday high-frequency shuttles, specifically designed to connect to the rail network.

In the first version of the map that got out in the wild over the weekend, there were at least two errors: Violet Town and Euroa had been transposed, as had Ballan and Bacchus Marsh, and the colours indicating Myki validity had crept beyond where they should have. The stations have now been corrected (though Myki still creeps beyond Wendouree, Eaglehawk, Marshall and Traralgon) and PTV expect to do quite a few more tweaks over coming months as a result of feedback.

They don’t expect a more general rollout of the map until Regional Rail Link opens next year. It costs a small fortune apparently.

But what’s wrong with the current train map?

PTV Metro train map, 2013Everyone will have their own views, but the current train map (below) has a few problems. For instance:

It doesn’t show where the lines go. Someone unfamiliar with Melbourne might assume there’s a line from Sunbury to Upfield, for instance. And it doesn’t show any operational detail; the map implies all trains run via the Loop, for instance. It gives little hint as to where the best places to change trains are.

Meanwhile, we’re losing two-zone trips next year, so there won’t be a huge need to show zones as at present. The new map started being designed well before this, but it’s good to be able to take advantage of it to show other useful detail.

What about multi-modal?

I think the new map is a good step in the right direction.

But if they’re starting to mix things up on a map (Metro and V/Line), I think another thing they should be looking at is showing the network frequent trams and buses that back up the train network… though of course, that would be a much more complicated and difficult visualisation to get right.

But other cities are moving into this, and you can see the benefits from it, as described by Vancouver’s Translink:

People traveling along FTN (Frequent Transit Network) corridors can expect convenient, reliable, easy-to-use services that are frequent enough that they do not need to refer to a schedule. For municipalities and the development community, the FTN provides a strong organizing framework around which to focus growth and development.

(My emphasis. That’s the most important point. For public transport to be competitive with cars, this is essential. It’s not like, as Jarrett Walker describes, you can only drive out of your driveway every half-an-hour — but that’s what most PT users face.)

The train-only network map is still useful — good for showing the mass transit, backbone of the public transport network. But a frequent network map would be great for showing all the places you can easily get to in Melbourne on public transport — which is a lot more than just the rail network.

Also: the status board, and the bigger picture

Are maps even in important?

Sure they are. Good maps mean people can navigate their way around more easily, so they’re more likely to use the system. More passengers means more impetus to keep upgrading services.

Bentleigh station: "Rainbow" network status board

But this is about more than just a map. Related is the trial rollout of “rainbow” network status boards, installed this week at Moorabbin, Bentleigh, Malvern, and in the PTV Hub at Southern Cross. The colours on the board match those on the new map… including Alamein, which has a distinctive colour on the map to draw attention to the fact that you usually have to change at Camberwell.

It’s a little early to judge these, though I note that they don’t show next train departures — this is present on other displays at Malvern, but not at Moorabbin and Bentleigh and most other stations.

I’m told they can modify the design based on feedback, so it’ll be interesting to see how this evolves. One issue I think is that line-specific info is shown at the bottom — only a “traffic light” indicator is shown at the top, which means the information you need may not be easy to find.

I’d hope that once these boards are running well, they roll them out quickly to the bigger interchange stations, where they’re likely to be most useful.

Both the map and the status board are part of measures to standardise train operations: the slow move towards more predictable routes, consistent stopping patterns, consistent platforms at the larger stations, and “metro”-like frequent operation on dedicated tracks. And there are also moves to improve the flow of information from operators (on all modes) through to PTV so a better view of the overall network is available, including online.

Clearly they’ve got a long way to go, but this is a step forward.

Other maps:

See also:

Update October 2014: There’s a later draft

Pictures from Violet Town

It was 44 years last week since the 1969 crash of the Southern Aurora into a goods train at Violet Town in northeast Victoria. (Upgrades to safety systems should ensure such a crash doesn’t happen again.)

The CFA has published a set of photos and a fascinating article about the disaster — well worth a read.

As it happens I went through Violet Town just after Christmas, with time to spare, and snapped a few pictures.

The station, about a kilometre north of the accident site, is a very peaceful spot.
Violet Town station

I assume as the result of remodelling works, this odd crossing within the station grounds has been half fenced-off, but is open from one side.
Violet Town station

On the citybound platform are recognisable Myki reader mounting points and one of the big Myki/Kamco equipment boxes — with the change to the Myki rollout plan in 2011, this and other stations beyond the V/Line commuter belt might never get Myki. (I wonder if anything is inside the box?) A newer Albury-bound platform didn’t seem to have the mounting points.
Violet Town station

The modern-day daytime equivalent of the train that crashed, a southbound Countrylink XPT zoomed through… notice how much it bounces around — perhaps a result of continuing problems with the track upgrade on the line.

Train myths: a hundred years ago the Ballarat line was quicker – No it wasn’t

The Committee for Ballarat has an excellent campaign going to improve rail services. Unfortunately as sometimes happens, some myths crept into the rhetoric around the launch of the campaign.

“In the early 1900s you could do the Ballarat to Melbourne trip by steam rail in an hour — these days it takes an hour and a half.”

Committee for Ballarat — quoted in the Ballarat Courier

It’s tempting to automatically assume things are crap now, and were better back in the “good old days“. But this is entirely wrong.

Southern Cross station, V/Line train

We know this because Mark Bau’s excellent web site of old timetables includes a timetable from 1905. This shows, for instance, a stopping train departing Spencer Street at 7:40am, arriving at Ballarat at 11:08am — a trip of some 3 hours and 28 minutes.

An express train (stopping only at Melton, Bacchus Marsh, Ballan, and Ballarat East (quite similar to many express services today) departed at 4:40 and arrived at Ballarat at 7:25, for a travel time of 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Nowadays a typical train stopping along the way might be the 9:07am, arriving Ballarat 10:33 (1 hour and 26 minutes), whereas one of the fastest appears to be the 4:36pm express train, arriving at 5:41pm, or 1 hour and 5 minutes.

In other words, it’s now about twice as fast to catch a train to Ballarat as it was a hundred years ago. (And the services are more frequent, too, though only about hourly at off-peak times.)

Of course, this doesn’t invalidate the aims of the Committee’s Fast Track campaign, which aims for more frequent trains, more reliable services, faster travel times and better mobile phone coverage along the route.