Mini-break in Sydney

Post backdated. Published 21/5/2018.

M wanted to see the Lady And The Unicorn tapestries before they head home to France from their exhibit at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

No big holiday likely this year, so how about we do a short break in Sydney?

Booking the flights

After looking at frequent flyer points on Virgin, mostly from last year’s Europe trip, we went ahead and booked.

Melbourne to Sydney up on Thursday night. Plenty of FF Economy seats available. 11,800 points. Done.

Sydney to Melbourne down on Sunday afternoon. No FF Economy seats available between about 10am (bleugh, too early) and 6pm (bleugh, too late).

Wait a sec – they have some business class seats available at 3pm. That could work. 23,500 points. M had enough, and I almost had enough – a small shortfall could be paid with $20.

Okay. M went onto the web site. Choose one of the eight available Business Class seats on the plane. Click. Booked. Great.

I went onto the web site. Click. Error. No more seats available.

Yep you guessed it — they only allowed one of the seats to be booked by Frequent Flying freeloaders. Perhaps to prevent people flying together in Business on points.

So I ended up a later flight home — 90 minutes later. Oh well. Time to sit in the lounge and write this blog.

Heading up

We planned to head to the airport straight after work.

Given the challenges of Melbourne traffic, I was thinking of opting-out of the Skybus ($18) and instead doing the cheapskate option: train to Broadmeadows, 901 bus to the Airport (effectively free, since I already have a yearly Myki Pass).

Slower? Probably; it takes about 50-60 minutes depending on the connection. But it avoids the traffic, which Skybus would be likely to get stuck in.

Checking the PTV network status shortly before leaving, the trains were running okay, but the buses… A look at the real-time departure information showed uneven frequencies, and there was a delay flagged… due to a landslide in Fitzsimons Lane in Templestowe.

Landslide affecting route 901

So we ended up on the Skybus instead, which was busy, but no waiting at all.

Have you ever noticed how when you approach Southern Cross Station from Bourke Street, the sign for Skybus, one of the things that occasional visitors are most likely to be looking for, is behind a pillar?

Southern Cross Station - Bourke Street entrance

As I suspected, Skybus was faster than via Broadmeadows, but not my much. The Citylink transit lanes should give the buses a good run, but don’t – presumably because they’re not enforced.

It took 42 minutes to get to the first stop at the airport.

No wonder Skybus no longer claim a 20 minute journey time.

Perhaps those new lanes opening soon will help… for a little while.

But really, if they have a priority transit lane, they should use it properly. Of course it doesn’t help that both Transurban (Citylink) and the Airport are lobbying against bus priority. Evidently they really want to cater for vehicles, not people.

Gate 13 at Melbourne Airport

The flight? It must have been an omen that our departure got switched to Gate 13, but at least Terminal 4 has improved in the last few years.

Delayed about half an hour, so we got into Sydney well after 9pm.

Smooth other than the delay. I got time to ponder why they give out copies of The Australian, which being a broadsheet is clearly completely unsuited to reading in a plane, at least in an Economy-class seat.

Trying to read The Australian in an Economy class seat on the plane

And the train from the airport?

Instead of a smooth 16 minutes straight from the Domestic Airport station to St James (at least as quick as a cab), due to trackwork we had to change trains at Central (up and down steps; there’s only one lift per platform), then catch a train the long way around the City Circle, so it took about half an hour all up (about as quick as a cab in peak hour).

On the bright side, the view of the Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay station is a nice welcome to Sydney.

St James station

The hotel

The hotel was a level of luxury to which I’m not really accustomed.

I usually book for location first, then price, then amenity. I like to be near to a busy railway station so we can use the hotel as a base, and stop past between activities.

There was a good deal at the Sheraton on the Park, near St James station, so we ended up there.

When I first started travelling in my 20s, I tended to stay at Youth Hostels for budgetary reasons. It’s fair to say this is the other end of the spectrum.

As we walked up, the doorman offered to help with our bags. I declined. After pulling my wheeled suitcase all the way from my house in Melbourne, I didn’t need to pay a bloke $5 to have him take it the last 25 metres to the reception desk.

That said, if the Sheraton want to remodel their front entrance, a ramp from the direction of the station would be a plus — currently the only ramp from the street faces the opposite direction.

The room itself? Very nice. As one would expect in a nominally expensive hotel.

We hadn’t booked (and paid extra for) the park view… instead it was a “city view” which turns out to be facing onto the back side of a building in the next street.

No matter. Escaping a Melbourne weather forecast of grey and drizzly, instead getting Sydney’s sun and top temperatures of 20-21 degrees every day we’d be there? Priceless.

Beware of fake email bills – and how the corporates are letting the side down

There are warnings of fake Telstra bills being sent by email.

They look like the real thing. The only clue that they’re not is that the View/Pay Bill button goes to a non-Telstra web site.

The lesson here is: check where the link goes. If it doesn’t go to an address that is clearly on the company’s web site (telstra.com), be suspicious.

…Which is why I’ve been asking South East Water about their email bills.

Those look legit, but the payment link goes to ippayments.com.au — in fact it’s worse — it goes first via a URL forwarder edmconnect.com.au (with a very long path/querystring)

So my simple question to them was: how is anybody meant to know this is legit?

Their response:

That I think shows a misunderstanding of the question.

IPPayments might be super secure (PCI compliant suggests that it is). But how does a punter know that?

They were still clearly not getting my point, so I persisted.

Still completely missing the point.

Okay, try another tack… provide an example of a company doing it properly:

No response. Radio silence.

Perhaps they finally understood; perhaps not.

It’s frustrating, because if you register for their online portal, you can make payments through that. You go to southeastwater.com.au and end up on southeastwater.secure.force.com — which I do recognise — it’s Salesforce.

Ideally they’d use a subdomain. Subdomains allow a company to delegate part of their web site to another one, for instance their online payment gateway.

If they can’t do that, they should direct users to their main web site, and have them click through to the payment gateway from there, so people at least can have some confidence that the web site they enter their credit card into is actually authorised by the organisation.

Paperless billing, using online instead? Great. But with so many scammers out there, corporations really need to make it easy for their customers to know they’re safe.

(Lead photo: Anonymous Hacker, by Brian Clug — Creative Commons. I love a hacker stereotype photo. ‘Cos all hackers wear masks when they’re working, in darkened rooms. I bet those screens are showing fast-scrolling green-screen character interfaces.)

Bushes and trees blocking footpaths

We all like some greenery in our neighbourhoods.

But as I noted in this rant blog post, one bane of pedestrians is bushes and trees overhanging footpaths.

They’re not really obvious unless you’re walking, but bushes and trees like this are everywhere.

I’m sick of having to duck out of their way. This is especially difficult when it’s dark. You can easily not spot the hazard as you approach.

Bushes blocking footpath

Local councils have regulations about this. In my area, City of Glen Eira local law says:

Trees must be trimmed to a height of three metres above the ground and, at least, vertically in line with the property boundary. Shrubs must not protrude beyond the fence line or encroach onto the footpath.

If a Council notice is sent requesting that trees or shrubs be trimmed, the work must be completed within 14 days.

Property owners who do not comply with a notice within 14 days will be issued with an official warning notice. This provides a further 10 days to complete the work. If action is still not taken within the required timeframe, a penalty notice of $200 may be issued and a contractor will be engaged by us to undertake the necessary work. The property owner is responsible for the contractor’s fees.

When I checked with the council, they said they don’t do proactive inspections. It’s up to people to report problems.

But how many people know what the rules are, and that you can report them? No wonder it’s such a widespread problem.

Bushes overhanging footpath

What the council does do is when looking at a reported site, they will look at the immediate surrounding area.

They also said that for overhanging branches from trees on the nature strip, the council is ultimately responsible — though it sounds like they’d prefer if property owners kept them under control.

One weekend I went for a walk along some main roads near home, and noted down some particularly problematic locations to report.

I used a stricter criteria than the council. The council standard is 3 metres of clearance. I decided I’d only report it where I had to duck to walk under it (I’m about 1.8 metres tall), or if it was blocking enough of the footpath that a parent with a large pram, or someone with a mobility aid/wheelchair would have to detour onto the grass to avoid it.

On a 6km walk, I found about two dozen problematic locations. About 90% of them were bushes and trees growing from private property. A small number were on the nature strip. And I reported a bunch of them.

On a subsequent walk, I found one far worse:

Tree branch across footpath

With most trees and bushes that overhang the footpath, you can brush past. Not this one.

The main branches are so thick that you’d do yourself an injury if you collided with it. It’s right at head height.

Someone had put a bit of hazard tape on it, but one wonders how it was ever allowed it to block the footpath like this.

Duly reported.

We’ll see what happens next.

Update 15/5/2018: Sometime in the last 72 hours, the tree in question has been pruned back markedly, such that it is now clear of the footpath.

Airport rail

Good morning! I’m over in The Age today writing about airport rail:

Ever wondered why we need airport rail? Catch Skybus in peak hour

Go read it.

Hopefully the two typos I’ve just spotted aren’t too jarring, and can be fixed online soon. (Too late for the paper — argh!)

Update 13/5/2018

A couple of people asked about the source for these numbers:

There are at least 24,000 workers in the airport precinct, making it one of the busiest employment centres in Melbourne. A staggering 96 per cent of them drive to work. No wonder the traffic is bad.

The source was the Melbourne Airport Landside Access Strategy, prepared by SKM for PTV in 2012. Unfortunately I’ve misread one of the numbers — the 24,000 was person-trips, so the number of workers would be half that.

However the real point of this was the 96 per cent figure, so I don’t think it invalidates my point. Since then, later figures indicate the number of workers in the precinct has risen to about 16,000 measured in the 2016 Census. 16,000 was also a forecast in the 2013 airport masterplan for 2018 numbers, so it’s growing faster than expected. The same masterplan had an estimate of 23,000 by 2033.

For 96% of workers in such a big employment centre to be driving to work is a really serious problem.

Which has more trains? The Upfield line or the Geelong line?

I can’t remember who asked the question, but it was a good one:

Which has more trains? The Upfield line or the Geelong line?

They’re quite different rail lines.

The Upfield line serves Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and runs via the City Loop. It runs electric Metro services through 16 stations (plus 3 City Loop stations). The route is 23km long, and takes about 36 minutes.

The Geelong line serves Melbourne’s outer-western growth suburbs at Wyndham Vale and Tarneit (along with Deer Park, also on the Ballarat line) as well as the city and suburbs of Geelong, all the way out to Waurn Ponds. It runs diesel V/Line services. It’s about 93km to Waurn Ponds via Regional Rail Link, also with 16 stations, taking about 75 minutes.

And the answer to the question? If I’ve got my numbers right, overall the Upfield line has more services each week: 749 vs 714.

But the Geelong line has more on weekdays (122 vs 108), and has a lot more services during peak.

Upfield vs Geelong train services

(Counts both directions. Night Coaches excluded. Night Network services were counted as part of the following day.)

Some things I noticed:

While the Upfield line peak is only three trains per hour (every 18-20 minutes), the Geelong line is more intensive, with 8 trains arriving at Southern Cross between 7:30 and 8:30am (some originating at Wyndham Vale).

The Geelong line is more tidal. Counting peak as before 9am, and 3pm-7pm, there are six more trains in the peak direction than counter-peak, meaning V/Line has to find central city stabling for those trains during the day. The Upfield line is balanced, partly because the peak service is basically no more frequent than off-peak.

Upfield train approaching Jewell

On weekends there’s no contest: the Upfield line runs every 20 minutes for most of the day, with the Geelong line at half that frequency — woefully inadequate for a train line serving suburban areas.

There are more trains in the evenings on the Upfield line, half-hourly, but not by much, as the Geelong line runs about every 40 minutes.

Monday to Thursday nights, the Geelong line has a last train that’s far later than any Metro line: departing Southern Cross at 1:15am.

On the Upfield line, stopping patterns are fairly simple. Between North Melbourne and Upfield every train stops at every station.

The only variations are at the City end due to the City Loop:

  • some trains via the Loop clockwise (weekday AM and weekends)
  • some anti-clockwise (weekday PM)
  • and some direct via Southern Cross (Night Network, after midnight on Friday and Saturday nights)

Geelong-bound train approaches Tarneit

There’s a myriad of stopping patterns on the Geelong line, at least on weekdays.

Firstly, trains originate and terminate at: Waurn Ponds, Marshall, South Geelong, Geelong and Wyndham Vale, as well as a few running to/from Warrnambool — combined with varying platforms at Southern Cross, this leads to confusion for passengers at the Melbourne end looking for their next train.

And the station stopping patterns are all over the place. Just between Geelong and Melbourne inbound, just before 10am on weekdays, I can see:

  • All stations to Tarneit, then express to Sunshine
  • Express North Geelong to Lara to Wyndham Vale, then express Tarneit to Sunshine
  • All stations except Ardeer
  • Express North Geelong to Lara, and express Tarneit to Sunshine
  • Express Lara to Wyndham Vale, and express Tarneit to Sunshine
  • Express North Geelong to Lara, and express Tarneit to Footscray
  • Express Lara to Sunshine
  • Express Tarneit to Ardeer
  • Express North Geelong to Lara, and express Wyndham Vale to Footscray
  • Express Lara to Tarneit, then express to Sunshine
  • All stations (from Wyndham Vale)
  • Express Lara to Footscray
  • Express North Geelong to Lara, express Little River to Tarneit to Sunshine
  • Express Geelong to Footscray
  • Express North Shore to Lara to Wyndham Vale, and express Deer Park to Sunshine
  • Express North Geelong to Corio, and express Deer Park to Sunshine

Unless I’ve miscounted, that’s 16 different stopping patterns in just the first 22 trains to Melbourne on a weekday. Amazing. It must confuse the drivers no end.

With all these variations, plus the line sharing tracks from Deer Park in with the Ballarat trains, and Bendigo trains from Sunshine in, it’s no wonder the punctuality is a mess. For it to work, every train would have to be right on time, every time… which they aren’t, because regional train designs are really slow for loading the large numbers of passengers who use these services.

The Geelong line has single track at the outer end, for most of the way from Geelong to Waurn Ponds, though this is set to be duplicated soon. For now though, it causes issues, including some counter-peak trains not stopping at Marshall because while there’s a passing loop, there’s no platform on it.

Camp Road grade separation, Upfield line

The Upfield line’s single track is also a bottleneck. So you’d think it would be a priority to fix? But no — the recent Camp Road level crossing removal (costing around $85 million) made provision for it, but didn’t actually fix it.

The single track doesn’t just make running frequent services difficult; it also means any little delay can quickly snowball – and to avoid this, Metro will often terminate/originate trains at Coburg instead, leaving a big gap in services between Coburg and Upfield. This just yesterday in morning peak hour, following an earlier disruption:

Despite this, it is actually possible to run more trains on the Upfield line, every 10 minutes as far as Coburg. How do we know this? Because it happened during the 2006 Commonwealth Games to better serve venues at Royal Park. These days there’d need to be some jumping through hoops at the city end, since the Northern Loop is full until the Metro tunnel is completed, but some trains direct into Southern Cross would be possible.

Changes coming?

Regional Rail Link brought trains to Melbourne’s outer west, but brought with it the challenges of services for regional Victoria sharing with suburban travellers — something at which V/Line really hasn’t excelled.

In the near future we’ll get an idea of what the State Government has planned for the regional rail network. Separating it from suburban services — giving Tarneit and Wyndham Vale a Metro service — has to be a priority.

And hopefully the Upfield line (and all the other Metro lines) will get full duplication and frequent all-day services… in our growing city, this is nothing less than Melburnians need and should expect.