A quick look at Caroline Springs station

On Tuesday I headed out to the new Caroline Springs station for a look around. It opened at the end of January.

I caught the 17:59 train from Southern Cross. It was heading to Bacchus Marsh, and it was full — at least by V/Line’s standards, which means every seat was taken — reflected in their official capacity figures. In fact, a dozen people were standing in my carriage by the time we left Footscray. Since the last time I’ve ridden an H-set, it appears that V/Line has fitted the seat sides with handles to help cope with standing passengers.

Passengers arriving at Caroline Springs

We rolled into Caroline Springs about 5 minutes late, and the first thing you notice is that it’s in the middle of nowhere; about 800 metres from the nearest houses. This of course is a complete contrast to most of Melbourne, where suburbs developed around the railway stations, at least up until about the 1930s when the rail network stopped expanding.

I touched-off with my Myki, and followed the crowd. A reasonable number of people were getting off the train here, given it’s only a half-hourly service in peak hour and the station’s only been open a couple of months.

Evidently Caroline Springs Station’s working name was Ravenhall, because it turns out that’s what shows up on the Myki transaction record… they still haven’t changed it! Local MP Marlene Kairouz says it will be fixed.

The other thing that changed is that the original plan for a single platform was revised in 2016, before the station opened, but after much of the station was built. It was sensibly modified to have two platforms, with a short extension to the duplicated track from Deer Park West to just past the station. Looking at the completed station, you can’t really tell it’s been modified along the way.

Subway at Caroline Springs Station

Leaving the station takes you via stairs (ramps also provided) and an underpass to the only exit to the north. There’s a car park, a bus interchange, and a bike cage. Several bikes were in the cage, but most people walked to their cars, with a few boarding the waiting bus, which left a couple of minutes later.

Car park at Caroline Springs Station

Bus stops at Caroline Springs Station

Bus stop at Caroline Springs Station

Bike cage at Caroline Springs Station

There’s a bike path that goes into the station precinct, and ends at the bike cage. I’m not sure if the road from the suburb, Christies Road, has bike lanes or if there’s any kind of separate bike path or connection to the nearby Deer Park Bypass trail.

Bike path to Caroline Springs Station

Here’s an odd thing: in the underpass was a surprising number of millipedes, mostly on the walls, some on the floor. This is not something I’ve seen before so visible in a station, but around Australia, including in Victoria, millipedes have caused train delays and even been blamed for a train crash in Western Australia. In 2012 they forced V/Line to ensure all trains were at least two carriages. I hope they’re aware of this latest occurrence.

Subway at Caroline Springs Station

Millipedes in the subway at Caroline Springs Station

As I looked around the car park snapping photos, the PA sprung to life: “For the gentleman taking photos, is there something we can assist you with?”

I snapped a couple more, then walked back into the station and paused by the booking office window. The station assistant came out of the back office where he’d presumably been watching the CCTV like a hawk. “Nah mate, I’m good, thanks.”

Touching-on my Myki as I re-entered the paid area, I waited for the train, and looked around the platform, taking a few more photos and trying not to look too suspicious to my vigilant friend.

There’s a fully-enclosed waiting room with an information screen and timetable display inside. With little weather cover around the station, that’ll no doubt be useful on cold winter mornings.

Waiting room, Caroline Springs Station

This next photo shows along the platform there are markers for where the different length trains should stop. You can also see the base of a future staunchion, which seems to have been installed as part of provision for electrification of the line, which is expected next decade. Good forward planning. The sign on the fence refers to the adjoining conservation zone, which probably means there will never be development immediately around the station.

Platform at Caroline Springs Station

Looking west you can see where the double track ends, with just single track extending beyond towards Melton.

Caroline Springs Station

The single track is going to be duplicated as far as Melton as part of a project to upgrade the Ballarat line that was announced last year.

Oddly they list “duplication of 17 kilometres of track between Deer Park West and Melton” — perhaps the already-duplicated section to Caroline Springs was technically part of the same project or something. No matter – it made sense to do it while building the new station.

Single track of course plays havoc with train operations. Any little delay can very quickly snowball, as trains have to wait for each other.

In this case, there should have been another train from the city to Ararat, due at 18:45, which should have enter the single track, before passing the inbound train I was waiting for, at Rockbank at 18:50, which would have reached me back at Caroline Spring at 18:55.

But that train to Ararat was some 26 minutes late departing the city — and may have delayed (or been further delayed by) the inbound trains following mine. It’s a precision juggling act that won’t be required to the same extent once the line is duplicated.

V/Line blamed the long delay on the late arrival of another service… this was a train from Waurn Ponds on the Geelong line, which had suffered extensive delays right through that evening’s peak hour. It beats me why they run their operation like this, with delays on different lines cascading onto each other… but Metro’s not much better at times.

The Ballarat line upgrade project will bring a much needed boost in terms of track capacity and reliability. It’s good that Caroline Springs finally has its station, but further upgrades will help passengers at stations in Melbourne’s fast-growing outer suburbs, and right along the line.

Provided they can keep the millipedes under control.

Postscript: An update from Marcus Wong:

Whinging with credibility

Following a little jaunt out to Caroline Springs on Tuesday (more on this in the next post), with some tweets along the way, I had an interesting Twitter conversation with a disgruntled Geelong line user.

One of my tweets noted that a huge crowd waiting at the platform for a Geelong train had in fact fitted into the train when it eventually arrived. (The exchange is reproduced below.) My correspondent took umbrage at this, thinking it implied the Geelong line is all fine.

My view is that showing a photo of one train that a platform that looks okay doesn’t imply that every train is fine. It doesn’t even imply that the train in question didn’t become overcrowded down the line when it picked up more passengers.

Here’s the thing:

I have been told repeatedly by those in power — ministers (from both sides), senior bureaucrats, operator staff (from the CEO down), that they appreciate (and pay attention to) my observations because I call out both the positive and the negative. Good, bad or ugly.

It’s also gained the PTUA credibility with the media, who know they will get an honest assessment of a situation.

Remember the boy who cried wolf?

If I was 100% critical all the time, it wouldn’t be credible.

If I claimed the entire public transport system is 100% stuffed, it wouldn’t be credible. (If it was 100% stuffed, so many people wouldn’t use it and rely on it every day.)

I do tweet plenty of pictures of packed services. But I also try to put it into context, and to understand why it is so.

  • Running late? Why?
  • Previous service cancelled? Why?
  • Short train/uncommonly small bus/tram? Fleet shortage or some other factor?
  • Unexpected or poorly planned special event?
  • Or is the regular service simply inadequate for the usual demand?

The nature and cause of the problem will determine the solution, and who’s responsible for fixing it.

It’s not in my nature to be relentlessly cynical and negative all the time. Not even on Twitter.

Fortunately it appears that this helps progress the debate to solutions, rather than just get bogged down in endless criticism and whinging.

So I’ll keep calling it as I see it.

Thoughts? As always, leave a comment.

~ ~

~ ~

The tweets in question:

Learning to drive

Masters Hardware couldn’t launch a viable business against Bunnings.

As this photo shows, they also couldn’t construct a functioning pedestrian crossing:

But here’s one thing they did manage: they’ve provided empty car parks right across Australia for learner drivers to practice in.

Yes, we may be more public transport-oriented than most households, but we do have a car, and the time has come to teach my offspring how to drive.

They haven’t waited as long as I did (I was 27 when I got my licence), but neither have my kids jumped into it at the first opportunity. We ended up getting them Proof Of Age cards when they turned 18 because they hadn’t got Learners permits yet.

But it’s starting to happen now, and apart from paid lessons, we have headed down to Masters a couple of times. And both times, other L-platers have been doing laps as well.

As it turns out, it’s not perfect at South Oakleigh, because there’s an active supermarket at the other end of the car park, and an alarming number of motorists like cutting through the car park at diagonals to get to it. Sure, you may save five seconds, but you risk smashing into a learner driver.

Figuring out the clutch and manual gears seems to be about as hard and frustrating as I remember it being when I first learned.

(I’ve been thinking about upgrading my old car, which might include going to an automatic — more on this soon. Something for family discussion.)

Anyway, we’ll keep practicing, so thanks again, Masters.

Old photos from March 2007

Another in my series of ten year old photos: March 2007.

Smartbus advertising at Caulfield station. It was nice to see them promoting the frequent service, but there was only one problem: it wasn’t true. The Smartbus serving Caulfield (route 900) has never been better than every 15 minutes in peak. (And really, the frequency/radio thing is a bit lame.)
Smartbus advertising (March 2007)

The Town Hall tram stop in Collins Street. Yes, even back then, the entrance ramp was a bottleneck at busy times. Note the canvas roller for the destination displays – these days they’re all LEDs.
Collins Street/Town Hall tram stop (March 2007)
Collins Street/Town Hall tram stop (March 2007)

Train bingo at Richmond – tracks to/from platforms 2, 3, 4 and 5 have trains. Back then, Richmond’s platforms and ramps were largely uncovered. More shelter was added in 2015.
Trains at Richmond (March 2007)

Delays on platform 5 at Flinders Street. As I recall, it was a stinking hot day.
Delays on platform 5 at Flinders St (May 2007)

Glenhuntly station, then my local for some days of the week. A Comeng train crosses while a Z3-class tram waits. Despite the current level crossing removal program, this hasn’t changed – trams still wait while trains crawl across.
Tram waits for train, Glenhuntly (March 2007)
Tram waits for train, Glenhuntly (March 2007)

Also Glenhuntly; a Comeng train on platform 2, while a Siemens train arrives on platform 1. The earlier Siemens liveries were pretty ugly, but the Connex version was quite pleasing to the eye, I thought.
Trains at Glenhuntly (March 2007)

The Railway Museum at Williamstown, from a visit that month. Who is, or was Bill Bragg? Presumably not related to Billy Bragg the singer. I don’t know – searching Google didn’t find any answers. Anybody know?
Railway Museum, Williamstown (March 2007)

Also at the Railway Museum. I’ve been visiting since I was a kid. In many ways it hasn’t changed much.
Railway Museum, Williamstown (March 2007)

Flinders Street station; delays on platform 8.
Flinders Street Station (March 2007)

In 2008 I used this photo to compare to an old one from the same angle, and The Age subsequently reprinted them.
Sunday Age 12/10/2008

Another angle at Flinders Street, on the same day, in the mirror.
Flinders Street Station (March 2007)

Back at Glenhuntly, what a surprise, someone is queuing where they shouldn’t.
Glenhuntly; car queuing on level crossing (March 2007)

Something you never see anymore: the marker for a wheelchair to board a 3-car train. 3-car trains were the bane of evening and weekend travellers, resulting in horrible crowding at times. Nowadays they’re almost all 6-cars all the time.
3-car train wheelchair boarding point (March 2007)

Comeng train fleet to be upgraded

Recently I got to have a look at proposed upgrades to the Comeng train fleet.

Skip the introduction

A short history of the Comeng trains

Comeng trains are named after the Comeng (“Commonwealth Engineering”) factory where they were built, with the carriages being brought into service between 1982 and 1989. The factory in Dandenong is now run by Bombardier, and in the grounds you can find a plaque from 1983 with the same logo you’ll still see on many of the trains.

Comeng plaque from 1983

Most of the trains are still in service, making them between 29 and 36 years old. Of the 570 built, there are still 555 Comeng carriages in service (92.5 x 6 car trains, though Vicsig has a lower figure), making them the most numerous in the Metro fleet, though they are about to be overtaken by X’trapolis trains in number.

Along the way they’ve undergone various upgrades:

  • Refurbishment 2000-2003 by then operators National Express (M>Train) and Connex, which unfortunately split the fleet into two incompatible halves
  • The “Concorde” program to make them compatible again in 2006 after National Express made a hasty exit in 2004
  • Air-conditioner upgrades following the well-publicised failures of summer 2008-09
  • Seat removal around the doorways in 2016 to help get more people on-board and provide more standing room

Comeng trains at the platforms, Flinders Street Station

Next steps

The Rolling Stock Strategy released in May 2015 flagged another set of upgrades to keep Comeng trains going into next decade until they can be replaced by the new “High-Capacity Metro Trains” (HCMTs) to be introduced from 2018.

Specifically, the strategy flagged: $75 million for maintenance and refurbishment to extend the life of the current Comeng train fleet, with an expected phase-out from 2022-2025 — though of course it remains to be seen if this happens as quickly as that.

In the next few months we’ll start to see visible signs of this. The work is being done at the Craigieburn Train Maintenance Facility (TMF), which was opened in 2011 and is the “home depot” for the Comeng fleet.

This makes sense in the context of the Five group railway plan, which flagged that the overall train fleet would be semi-permanently dedicated to specific lines. The Comengs would run on the Northern (Upfield, Craigieburn, Sunbury) and Dandenong lines, obviously to be replaced by the HCMTs first on the Dandenong line, then the Sunbury line (when the two are connected via the metro rail tunnel from 2026) then presumably the others.

Comeng trains at Craigieburn TMF

I was invited by Metro to have a look, and headed up to Craigieburn one Friday afternoon. It was surprisingly busy with people leaving the city, as well as school kids heading home.

I’ve been past Craigieburn numerous times, but the last time I stopped off was not quite ten years ago, for the opening of the new station and extension of suburban services. On that day, then-Premier John Brumby (pictured) and Transport Minister the late Lynne Kosky (I think she’s standing on the other side of Brumby) rode a train to the new station to officially open it. Brumby was whisked away by car, but Kosky, to her credit, stayed longer to answer questions and meet the public.

Then-Premier John Brumby at Craigieburn station opening, 30/9/2007

The new Train Maintenance Facility itself is impressively large, and is part of a larger complex of sidings north of Craigieburn station, and alongside the rail line north to Seymour, Shepparton and Albury.

After signing in, we took a look at the various changes they’re trying out.

Prototype changes

This front cab design isn’t going to be used… it’s not very appealing, is it. Sounds like instead they’re likely to go for a stripe design with more blue.

Comeng prototype exterior design proposal (not used)

What is changing is the marker lights (the small bulbs above the cab windows) will change to LEDs. The handlebars at the front, often used by train surfers, will may be removed (in a future project) — apparently they used to be useful for drivers to do diagnosis on faults, but are rarely used for legitimate purposes now.

Comeng trains at Craigieburn TMF

The interior prototypes have been reviewed by a number of stakeholders, and include a raft of tweaks.

Several designs of seat cushion are under consideration:

Comeng train proposed interior upgrades

More visibly different “special needs” seats (you may recognise the pattern from the trams; apparently this is likely to become the standard PTV design):

Comeng train proposed interior upgrades

Possible implementation in a future project: wheelchair spots at second door as well as the first, which may be useful where larger number of wheelchairs need to board on a single trip:

Comeng train proposed interior upgrades

Extra hand straps, similar to those on the X’trapolis trains, and designed not to cause an issue when tall people bump into them!

Comeng train proposed interior upgrades

Centre poles (except in the doorways for wheelchair boarding) like E-class trams:

Comeng train proposed interior upgrades

Not shown on the day were that handles on the backs of seats will be made larger. This may make up for the problems they have installing hand holds along the carriage, away from the doors.

They are not removing the fifth seat of each row (as has been done with the X’trapolis trains), as this is technically difficult/expensive on the Comeng fleet. However they may remove a small number of seats at the ends of carriages.

Carriage connections

It’s not illegal to move between carriages, but it is illegal to ride (eg stand) on the inter-carriage platform while the train is moving. This is relatively common, and is a favourite spot for nicotine addicts who just can’t bear to be on a train without a cigarette.

It’s less common for people to try and enter and exit the train this way — but it does happen.

Riding there or boarding is dangerous – it wouldn’t be hard to fall and slip underneath the train, especially if it’s moving. The carriages may bounce around, and you’re only held in by a some bars and a chain. Being outside the carriage structure, there’s also no protection in a collision.

On my trip up to Craigieburn, I’d noticed a few school kids had changed carriages via these doors, some while the train was moving.

The platforms are also used to gain access to the roof, which often has fatal consequences.

Metro can’t just lock the doors – they may be needed in an emergency situation. So they’re looking at ways of enclosing the connection, as in the Siemens and X’trapolis trains. The two designs they’re trying out are similar to what’s found in those trains.

Bellows, similar to the Siemens fleet (but leaving the doors in place):

Possible Comeng inter-carriage door upgrade option 1, Craigieburn TMF

Possible Comeng inter-carriage door upgrade option 1, Craigieburn TMF

Similar to the X’trapolis design — this one has some teething problems as they’ve found a gap appears when the train goes around sharp corners.

Possible Comeng inter-carriage door upgrade option 2, Craigieburn TMF

Upgrades to come

These upgrades will start to appear in service from about the middle of this year.

I’m told that later changes next year will include an overhaul of the air-brake system and Passenger Information Displays as well as CCTV.

I still look fondly on the Comeng fleet – back in the day, when they were the only air-conditioned carriages, in hot weather it was a joy to see one approaching.

It’s good that there’s a plan to improve them to keep them in service a bit longer, since it will mean as the newer trains come into service, they can initially be focused on growing the size of the fleet to cope with patronage growth. It would make no sense to throw away good carriages for want of a little TLC.

Barring any out-of-left field plans to keep them running (one proposal was to use them on the Geelong line, hauled by diesel engines), eventually the Comeng fleet will be phased-out next decade, having done at least 40 years service.

Thanks to Metro Trains for inviting me.

Edit 11/3/2017: Minor changes to the text to correct some errors. Some of the proposals in the prototype unit are for evaluation for later projects, and are not being implemented across the fleet at this stage.