Save money! With privatisation!

Infrastructure Australia released a study today claiming that privatising public transport can save billions of dollars:

Media release: Franchising public transport services could deliver $15.5 billion in funding for new transport services (Full study here)

I had a quick read of the study and I have to say, I found it utterly unconvincing. The executive summary talks up privatisation, but the study text doesn’t really present any compelling arguments for or against it.

It provides a case study of Melbourne’s tram and trains, but the graphs showing patronage and punctuality/performance don’t really show how privatisation/franchising affected this. After privatisation in 1999, patronage was stagnant initially, only shooting up in the latter part of the 2000s when population growth, the economy and CBD growth really kicked in.

A section discussing service reliability (eg cancellations and punctuality) notes that the Auditor General concluded many of the factors there were taxpayer investment in infrastructure and fleet upgrades.

It talks about forecast cost savings from other PT services around the country being privatised/franchised, but doesn’t really talk about the cost savings out of Melbourne’s existing franchises (perhaps because there haven’t been any) – instead only talking about costs since 2004, which is five years after privatisation occurred.

The study does compare Sydney vs Melbourne operating costs (Melbourne is lower), claiming the main difference is public vs private operation, but seems to ignore the fact that Sydney trains have two staff aboard each service vs Melbourne’s one — something which changed before privatisation occurred.

Thanks to some well-placed headline figures suggesting that the savings can be spent on [insert local city upgrade here], it’s had plenty of media coverage around the country, including The Age and Brisbane Times.

Ultimately it’s not about who runs the services, it’s about whether it’s done well. Privatisation doesn’t change that.

New operators might bring in experience and innovation from their other operations, which potentially means improvements.

But the risk is if governments don’t put in adequate checks and balances, operators will simply cut costs and the service will decline, discouraging passengers and ultimately resulting in fewer people using it: higher subsidies per passenger, and traffic, equity of access and livability impacts on our cities.

UK/Belgium holiday in planning

Very busy the last few weeks, which is why the blog has been so quiet.

Long-time readers would know that I like to write about my interstate and overseas holidays in almost excruciating detail. Well brace yourself for another one – I’ve got a European holiday in planning for later this year.

It’s looking like England, Wales, and Belgium, with catching up with various family scattered around the place being a key priority.

It’ll be the first big family holiday in many years, and my first time in Europe this century — previous trips were in 1999 and 1998.

Eurostar hadn’t even opened the last time I was there, so you can be sure we’ll be using it to get to Belgium! It’ll be my first journey on an actual High Speed Rail service (I used the Brussels to Amsterdam high speed “Thalys” in 1998, but it was at regular speed due to flooding) and my first time using Oyster card!

Daniel’s 1998 Europe trip highlights from Daniel Bowen on Vimeo.

Obviously the terrible events in Manchester this week (and previous incidents in London, Brussels and elsewhere) are a concern, but ultimately you can’t cower at home because something might happen.

On the list of touristy things already are various sights in London, Cardiff, Brussels, probably Bath and perhaps Stonehenge or Avebury since we’ll be visiting relatives in that part of the country.

Any must-see suggestions?

More notes as I ponder:

  • London transport accepts most overseas PayPass cards, which will save us buying Oyster cards for everyone.
  • I’m wary of Britrail passes – it sounds like roughly the same cost if you prebook flexible fares a few weeks in advance.
  • We’re looking at Air B’n’b for places we’ll be staying more than a day or two, as it’s useful being able to easily cook some meals and do laundry. Hotels for 1-2 day hops.

    The week in transport

    This is an occasional series, when a few things happen during the week and I want to put a word in…

    ABC: Ticket inspectors taking tram user’s phone to seek proof of identity unacceptable, PTV says

    This is a concern, but context is important. It’s a matter of degrees. I think whether it’s acceptable or not depends on how they do it.

    If the AO has to verify an ID, and no other proof is able to be presented and they say “Hey are you able to show us your name and address from an app, otherwise we’ll have to wait for police to attend”, and the passenger agrees, then I don’t see a big problem with it.

    On the other hand, if the AO demands to see it, and/or grabs the phone and/or intimidates the person into logging on, and/or watches them do so (eg observes their pass code) then that’s definitely a problem.

    Authorised Officers at a tram stop

    Age: Level Crossing Removal Program business case released: the Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) is 0.78

    As the business case documents reveal, the problem is that the standard methodology used for BCRs uses a discount rate that may not be appropriate, and also doesn’t count many of benefits that are commonly associated with level crossing removals.

    The core benefits anticipated as a result of the program include travel time savings, reduced vehicle operating costs, road travel reliability benefits, public transport user benefits and avoided collisions. As a standalone program, the LXRP is expected to deliver a Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) of 0.78 using a 7 per cent discount rate. Using a discount rate of 4%, the BCR is 1.34.

    The BCR has been calculated using a standard appraisal methodology. This excludes other significant benefits that the LXRP can be expected to deliver, including:

    • Wider economic benefits (WEBs), such as agglomeration benefits and additional tax revenue from increased
      labour supply, which are expected to be $555 million using a 7 per cent discount rate
    • Additional Benefits – such as improved network resilience to incidents, reduced perceived congestion benefits
      and the related benefits and costs of land use changes occurring as a result of the project – are expected to be
      $175 million using a 7 per cent discount rate
    • Local amenity benefits, increased activity centre connectivity/ consolidation, and benefits for emergency services.
    • Avoidance of wider social impacts (ie. to families and communities) caused by accidents at level crossings

    There’s a heap of other interesting stuff in the report… I haven’t read it all yet, though I did find a familiar photo, originally used in this post.

    Not hard to see why pedestrians, cars, buses, ambulances get delayed in Clayton. Grade separation needed!

    Leader: Westfield Southland shopping centre will introduce paid parking in preparation for the opening of the station.

    Charging after 3 hours not unreasonable. As I understand it, at other Westfields such as Doncaster, they charge beyond 3 hours, but you can get parking validated at the cinemas and so on so you’ll still be able to see a long movie and not get charged.

    Something had to be done — either a hard limit, or charging — before the station opened, or the shopping centre car park would inevitably fill with commuters’ cars.

    Leader: City of Port Phillip is to ban motorcycle parking along parts of Acland Street.

    Good. The current laws, which allow motorcycles to be parked basically anywhere on a footpath, are getting out of control. Motor vehicles take up too much space to be allowed in busy pedestrian spaces. Commonsense guidelines are not communicated to riders, and are unenforceable, and thus widely ignored. The lesson for the council here is to ensure that there is plenty of signage for the ban, and that it’s enforced — unlike similar bans in the City of Melbourne.

    Age: New Metro train timetables in August.

    The government had already announced that V/Line would get a boost. Geelong trains will run every 40 minutes on weekends (currently hourly) should help relieve crowding, though it looks set to mess up bus connections (if they don’t get a wriggle-on and re-write those timetables to match), and really, who decided the non-clockface frequency of 40 minutes is a good idea? Half-hourly would have been better.

    The Bendigo and Ballarat lines will also get more services, including an upgrade to hourly on weekends, and there’ll also be more trains to Ararat and Shepparton.

    Train arriving at Bentleigh

    The Metro changes include an end to the much-hated weekday off-peak Altona shuttles — these will now run all the way into the City. It’s not clear yet whether the Werribee trains will continue to stop all stations, or if these will run express part of the way; otherwise all the stations from Newport in will have 9 trains per hour, which is probably overkill for off-peak.

    There will also be a handful of extra peak services on the Craigieburn, Werribee, and Sunbury, though much of the capacity freed up by Regional Rail Link on the latter two will remain unused.

    Full details of Metro and V/Line timetables will be released in July.

    Old photos from May 2007

    Another in my series of ten year old photos.

    If you drive out of the car park at Southland, down the ramp from the 2nd level, near the railway line, you may have noticed that there’s a sign there saying to “Give way to pedestrains“. Evidently it’s been that way for at least ten years. Late in 2017 it’ll finally make sense: “pedestrains” are obviously pedestrians walking to the railway station about to open at last.
    Southland shopping centre sign typo

    Ah, back in the days when Connex ran the rails.
    Age headline: Connex fined

    This was at Skateworld in Mordialloc. Evidently it had been taken off a train – I’m guessing it’s old Comeng seating, though the seat cushions had been changed.
    Ex-train seat at Skateworld in Mordialloc

    “Worst fares in Australia”! This was a splash resulting from a PTUA study comparing fares around Australia for different distances into the CBD, which showed that in most (but not all) cases, Melbourne’s were highest. With the 2015 cut for long-distance fares, it’s changed a bit since then.
    Age headline: Worst fares in Australia

    Here’s the graph for single fares — the thick blue line is Melbourne:
    Single fare comparison 2007

    And another was done that included a handful of world cities — adjusted for Australian dollars:
    International fare comparison 2007

    Finally, this was before the wholesale disposal of CRT televisions started. I think the message here is: don’t buy a “Konka” television.
    Konka TV dumped

    Which way to the Airport?

    (Apologies in advance for the length of this post. It got away from me a bit, but hopefully it’s interesting.)

    The debate around a Melbourne Airport rail link has progressed in the past few months, with all sides broadly agreeing it has to happen – the only question is when.

    The Coalition and many others say now; the ALP say (assuming the Albion route) it should only happen after the Metro tunnel opens in 2026. Even Melbourne Airport, which famously makes millions from car parking, wants rail access.

    (Some say it’s not viable at present, for instance Alan Davies presents these arguments, and he’s posted no shortage of related articles.)

    Tuesday’s Federal Budget threw in $30 million of funding for a business case. Undoubtedly it’s a political move to help force State Labor into backtracking, but it may help things progress a little further.

    (Is that a lot of money to write a business case? Presumably it can include some very in-depth investigations.)

    Melbourne Airport Rail Link. Remember this promise. #SpringSt

    What kind of rail link, and why?

    Even with the Albion route being the default, it’s worth stepping back and considering why we want it, and what kind of rail link we want to have.

    The main reasons for building it are to provide more capacity and consistent travel times as the Airport continues to grow, and the roads around and approaching it get busier. Melbourne is now ranked as the 50th busiest airport in the world, and one of the only ones that big without rail transport.

    The capacity advantage of rail is obvious. The current Skybus service, even with 88 seat double-decker buses every ten minutes, is swamped by demand, frequently leaving people behind to catch the next bus. While they can run more buses, given the biggest cost of running an extra service is the driver, there is a limit, and this drives up costs.

    Consistency of travel time is the other big problem for Skybus. It frequently gets caught in traffic snarls around the CBD and on the motorway. Longer travel times mean more buses have to be used to maintain the service frequency, preventing higher frequencies.

    Congestion could be bypassed by dedicated bus lanes and traffic light priority – in fact this would be the next logical step, before rail. But the government has shown zero indication that it’s interested in providing this – despite the recommendations of its independent umpire on such matters Infrastructure Victoria, which has said that such measures are required.

    Melbourne Airport bus. Deliver a high level of onroad priority to bus services linking Melbourne Airport to central Melbourne, including better signalling and managed motorway improvements, over 0-10 years. This will maximise the capacity, efficiency and reliability of these services and defer the need for a more costly investment in a heavy rail line to Melbourne Airport to the 15-30 year period. Upgrading airport bus services will make this mode more attractive for use by employees at the airport and surrounding facilities and for travellers, reducing demand and congestion on the Tullamarine Freeway.

    (For years, Skybus prominently advertised its twenty minute travel time. This recently disappeared off their web site — they now say 30 to 45 minutes. It’s unclear if this is a temporary omission during Citylink works, or permanent, in recognition that they often don’t meet it due to traffic congestion.)

    There are other advantages to rail, such as ride quality and passenger comfort which are difficult to replicate with buses.

    Tullamarine Freeway

    The need for speed

    What about speed? For rail, this is highly dependent on the route. And while ten years ago I’d have said it has to be 20 minutes from the City, I’m now less sure this is critically important, as the competing modes (private car, taxi) increasingly get caught in a traffic mess of their own making.

    This was brought home to me last year when visiting Singapore. To get to the airport, you catch the East-West line to Tanah Merah, and change to a shuttle train the rest of the way. It’s not spectacularly fast, and it’s certainly not faster than driving in uncongested conditions. But it’s incredibly popular, partly because it’s reliable, easy (even with the change of trains; it’s a cross-platform interchange between frequent services) and cheap.

    So for Melbourne, I suspect as long as the travel time is consistently 30 minutes or less, it’s probably okay, as long as frequency is high.

    Frequency and service span: the 2012 study said departures every 10 minutes, and operations 24 hours a day (presumably frequency reducing overnight, as Skybus does now). I’ve got no argument with that. It’s one of the things Skybus has got right, and the trip much easier than it was when the service was only half-hourly.

    Fares: undoubtedly part of what’s holding back public transport mode share (despite Skybus booming, it’s still only 9% percent of airport trips) is the $19 each way price tag, with no discount for return trips, not even same day — so if you want to see somebody off, or meet them, it’s $38 just for your fare. Ka-ching!

    For most public transport, the biggest part of the operating cost is the staff. So undoubtedly the bus mode itself, limiting passengers to 88 per bus and driver, is a contributor to the fares.

    Even though this is cheaper per kilometre than other Australian airport express public transport, it’s still expensive compared to other local trips – most costing $4.10, including the train plus local bus option to the Airport which takes 3-4 times as long). Some level of premium isn’t unreasonable, but almost five times the price seems excessive, particularly when travelling in a group.

    Airport workers can get a discount, rumoured to be in the region of $120 per month.

    Sydney’s airport rail link is also quite expensive, but they have a weekly cap roughly equivalent to two trips, so if you’re working there every day, the $13.80 per trip premium for using the airport stations drops to a more reasonable $27.00 per week.

    And it seems Sydney’s link patronage is increasing:

    So what are some of the options for Melbourne Airport rail?

    Suburban trains – some world airport links just use extensions of the regular suburban network. This means carriages not necessarily specially designed for airport travellers, but it may also mean that providing the service is more economically viable, which may result in cheaper fares. (See: Sydney, London Tube, and more recently Dallas and Seattle, and Perth’s link under construction.)

    Dedicated trains – often express, and you can have carriages designed for luggage. But very expensive if that’s all the train does, and that can mean limited usefulness for airport workers.

    Regional/Interstate trains – some propose diverting the Bendigo line through the airport, or even making it part of an eventual High Speed Rail project. One weakness of these plans (apart from the fact that HSR may never happen) is you could end up with long distance trains serving a busy CBD to Airport route.

    It’s the old Sunbury/Swan Hill problem again – before electrification, when Sunbury commuters were served by long distance trains, they packed trains as far as their stop, then left a near-empty train to trundle sometimes halfway across the state to its eventual destination.

    Of course it would be possible to run City to Airport-only trains on the same tracks (and would be necessary for a decent frequency), though that might complicate the infrastructure, operations and ticketing.

    Singapore Changi airport

    Then there’s the monorail/light-rail/standalone shuttle train option, which has come up recently. Two main issues with these: firstly the Citylink contract might trigger compensation if the rail line is something other than part of the suburban network (though I’m sure a clever government could figure out a deal).

    Secondly it limits the route’s network connections if it only runs to one CBD station… which depends on the route of course. And the beauty of rail options compatible with the existing suburban rail network is it can run as part of an existing line, and/or feed into the City Loop, increasing one-seat trips and providing more connections.

    On the pro side, such a link might well be more affordable and built sooner than heavy rail.

    (Extending the route 59 tram to the Airport would be useful for local Airport workers, but far too slow for anybody else.)

    Even assuming heavy rail, which route?

    As far as routes go, four options were considered by the 2012 study initiated by the Baillieu government.

    PTV 2012 airport rail study: shortlisted routes


    This is the default (base case) design now planned by the State government. It would see the new line branching off the Sunbury line at Albion, travelling northeast along the existing Albion freight railway corridor (presumably on new tracks) into the airport.

    Pros: Would link into the rail tunnel, which means trains from Dandenong would run all the way to the Airport, providing a one-seat ride not just from the City, but also much of the southeast, as well as the CBD, the Parkville hospital and university district.

    Cons: A little slow, with a possible travel time from Melbourne Central of about 30 minutes. This is because it would share the line from the City to Albion with other trains.

    Still, if you allowed say 20 minutes from the City to Albion (as fast as the existing stopping Sunbury trains), then it shot like a rocket to the Airport along a new line (it’s about 15 km), under 30 minutes should be easily doable.

    Costs thrown around seem to be in the billions, which seems very high, despite the relatively short section that doesn’t use an existing alignment. But perhaps that’s the cost of the new (double, electrified) line along that alignment.

    The State Government maintains it’s not practical before the metro tunnel opens in 2026, because the City Loop is full. To which I say: if Airport rail is dependent on the tunnel, why not build it in parallel, so both can open in 2026?

    Mind you, with some clever planning, in the shorter term Airport trains could probably run direct to Southern Cross, or via the City Loop (with Craigieburn or Upfield trains diverted) until the tunnel is built.

    Some argue that the Sunshine to CBD track capacity will be eaten up by the Sunbury and Melton lines by the time the tunnel opens. One group proposes a completely separate line to Sunshine/Albion for it. That could be very pricey, and I think falls into the trap of rejecting incremental changes: theoretically one day the line will be too full (for a few hours a day in peak), therefore we must have an impractically expensive workaround.

    Sydney airport train ad at Melbourne Airport

    Broadmeadows or Coolaroo suburban line extension:

    Until last decade, the popular view was that you could just extend the Broadmeadows line west to the Airport. A reservation had been put in place in the 60s when the Airport was first built.

    Pros: cheap. Good for Airport workers living along the existing line. (Remember, this is a substantial number of people, well over 10,000, and they travel to the Airport every day.)

    Cons: apparently out of whack with the current Airport masterplan, which assumes rail would come in from the south, in line with the Albion plan.

    Slow. Travel time likely to be around 35 minutes. (City to Broadmeadows is 29 minutes, and there’d be almost no opportunity to overtake unless extra tracks were built).

    Congestion could be an issue on the existing line; patronage is growing fast.

    Finally, the Craigieburn extension (opened in 2007) has put this option in doubt, because if there was a branch off the line, frequencies to the Airport (and Craigieburn) would be halved.

    One variation involves diverting the Upfield line through Coolaroo to the Airport.

    Dear tourists, sorry, when they say the airport rail link "begins here", they mean in about ten years

    Going direct:

    Via Highpoint and/or Flemington – the study grouped these separately, but they have similarities. This concept sees a line running more-or-less direct from the Airport, with long tunnels connecting via Highpoint, then either to the existing line at Flemington, or connecting near Footscray.

    Pros: quick travel time, assessed by the 2012 study as around 20 minutes, possibly a little slower if there are several stops along the way.

    Could provide stations to serve existing destinations such as the very busy Highpoint shopping centre, and proposed housing at Flemington around the racecourse. Perhaps also Airport West shopping centre, and even the new suburb to be built on ex-military land at Maribyrnong, just announced.

    Cons: very expensive as it’d need a lot of tunnelling. Track capacity might be an issue at the City end. You could build more tracks, but where would they go in the CBD?

    Lots of options

    There are numerous options, and variations of each. They all have their pros and cons.

    Personally I lean towards conventional suburban heavy rail, linked to the current network, either via Albion or (if we decide to solve north-western suburban issues as well, at additional cost of course) one of the direct tunnelled routes connecting Highpoint.

    But ultimately, given widespread agreement that we need an Airport rail link, we as a city need to work out what we want it to do, and how we want it to work.