Some thoughts on high speed rail in 2019

There must be a Federal election coming.

The Greens have declared their support for funding and building a full fast rail network on the east coast of Australia, serving Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne (as per the official study from a couple of years ago).

Yesterday Labor made a pledge to get started on buying the corridor for the same network.

And today the Coalition has pledged $2 billion for fast rail between Melbourne and Geelong – upgrades and additional tracks so that trains run at an average 160 km/h (rather than this being the top speed, as now). The investment would also include business cases for other projects.

The proposed east coast HSR network

The study is well worth a read if you’ve never had a look.

It would run between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Gold Coast and Canberra would both be served by spur lines. This means compromising on timetable frequency and operations. The study says this design reduces the required station footprints, and speeds up the journey for through trains.

High Speed Rail study - preferred alignment

Let’s assume this plan is the most feasible. Fast rail has shown proven benefits in many countries. If all this investment occurred in Australia, it could cut air travel and spark development along the route – at least in the areas served by a station.

But there’s a catch. There are doubts about HSR’s viability for interstate travel in Australia. Our geography – the distances involved – makes it really difficult.

Unlike in Europe or Asia, the planned line between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane is, I suspect, with current technology, a bit too long to be really competitive against air travel, with too few large intermediate destinations.

Will conventional rail technology increase speeds in the coming years? It’s hard to say. Regular service speeds of about 320-350 km/h seem to have been the maximum for about 20 years. (But I’m a terrible futurist.)

It probably makes sense to reserve the corridors, but I’m less sure about trying to build the whole east coast network right now – especially with such a backlog of public transport projects in major cities and along regional corridors.

Eurostar at St Pancras station, London

What’s most viable right now?

Rather than try and take on building a full HSR system which might cost tens of billions of dollars with sub-optimal travel time outcomes, what if the most obvious portion, Sydney to Canberra, was the focus for now?

That’s the sector that’s relatively straightforward. At an expected 64 minutes by train, it is a short enough distance to be competitive with air (55 minutes plus transit time, which could easily be another 30-60 minutes), and long enough to be competitive with road (about 180 minutes).

There are also fast-paced improving local connections at each end.

It would be a good first project, and if done well, gain good political support for further extensions or lines elsewhere, thanks to serving Canberra’s politicians.

To be fair, the study actually said this should be the first section. I’m just not sure the politicians are paying attention.

Think local and regional

While we wait for east coast high speed rail, there’s a compelling argument for upgrades to the existing regional lines for intra-state travel (such as Melbourne’s commuter lines to Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour/Shepparton, Gippsland) to get ensure the existing fleet can attain and stick to their maximum speeds for more of their trip: full duplication, for a start, and provision and separation of metro services, especially to Melton and Wyndham Vale.

In this respect, the Federal Coalition’s pledge today makes some sense. It seems like quite a lot of money for only a moderate time saving – if the train fleet needs to be replaced, should they be aiming for higher speed than average 160/top speed 200?

Of course, assuming it includes track amplification, there would also be capacity benefits for Melbourne’s west.

With any of these plans, high speed rail needs to be accompanied by boosts to local public transport connections around the regional stations. If a major rail line is reliant on park and ride, that will severely limit patronage.

So, as always, excuse my rambling. What I’m trying to say is this:

A full interstate HSR network along the east coast has a lot of potential… eventually. But I suspect shorter distance projects are probably more viable right now.

  • I see Albo recently claimed that Sydney to Newcastle by train is slower now than 50 years ago. I’d be interested if anybody has fact-checked this claim. Every such claim made in Victoria is invariably wrong.

Metro tunnel and level crossing works

I was going to blog a few quick things from the past couple of weeks. That post grew too big, so I’m splitting it up…

Bustitution is coming

With the number of rail projects underway, it should be no surprise that there seem to be major works happening somewhere, every school holidays.

In fact for the April school holidays there is so much going on that they’ve scheduled some works to happen beforehand, and labelled it an “autumn construction blitz“.

The big (weekday) shut downs include:

  • Werribee line (Werribee to Laverton) closed for two days last week for level crossing works at Aviation Road
  • Mernda line (Epping to Bell) for four days next week and then again (Epping to Thornbury) for a week in early April for level crossing works at Reservoir
  • Frankston line (Mordialloc to Frankston) for three days in early April
  • …and the big one: the Frankston and Cranbourne/Pakenham lines (Caulfield to City) will shut for more than two weeks around Easter

And that’s leaving aside a host of evening and weekend closures affecting numerous other lines, as well as V/Line.

Huddling in the shelter #bustitution

On Friday some detailed bustitution flyers were released. They’re worth a look if you’re on one of the affected lines. You’ll find them via the PTV page or on Metro’s web site.

One particular unfortunate change from previous shut downs is that recent infrastructure issues at Elsternwick now mean the entire Sandringham line is closed during works, even when they only affect South Yarra.

As usual, it’s worth checking information before you travel, and considering alternative routes rather than assuming catching the replacement buses is the quickest way to get where you’re going.

Mentone station March 2019 - bus interchange next to station entrance

Cheltenham and Mentone crossings

Last week some details of the Cheltenham and Mentone grade separations were released.

Mentone: One thing I’m less than happy about is that the station entrance will be a long way from the bus interchange. Currently the buses stop right next to the entrance to platform 1.

Mentone level crossing removal - design 2019

I hoped this might just be an issue with the artists impression. It’s not.

Cheltenham: I haven’t had a close look at this one yet (there’s precious little detail on either, in fact) but they have gone ahead with the plan to include a third platform.

The existing station has a third platform already. The difference is this one will be connected to the main line from both ends – enabling more operational flexibility. That why there are some references to a “third track” – this will not include an actual third track to Southland (to the north) or Mentone (to the south).

Dandenong area crossings

Designs have also been released for South Gippsland Highway at Dandenong South (Pakenham line) and Evans Road in Lyndhurst (Cranbourne line).

In both cases these are elevated road over rail – sky road!

LXRA: South Gippsland Highway bridge design

The problem with road over rail is it’s generally terrible for pedestrians, making them walk a long way in a hostile environment to get over the rail line.

I don’t know the area well, but this might be more of a factor in Lyndhurst (mostly residential?) more than Dandenong South (mostly industrial?).

Again, the lack of detail means it’s unclear to me if either of them include bike lanes over the bridges.

They both seem to only have a pedestrian path on one side of the bridge, and on South Gippsland Highway, it’s not clear where the existing bus stops will be moved.

If you’ve got feedback about the newly released designs, be sure to send it in via the Level Crossings web site.

Bus stop stripes

Sometimes I notice tiny things, and wonder what they’re about.

Have you noticed that some bus stops have a small colourful stripy bit of tape?

Bus stop timing point indicator: William Street

Intriguingly, many of them seem to match the colours of the logo of the bus operator for that route – even if the buses themselves are now all in the standard PTV orange livery.

Here’s one on a Ventura route (blue and yellow):

Bus stop timing point indicator: Bentleigh station

I should have guessed it, but a well-informed Twitterer had the answer:

They’re timing points. Spots along the route where the bus driver needs to check their timetable and may need to wait if they’re early.

Many of them seem to be at major stops such as railway stations, though some are not.

This raises another topic: with many level crossings being removed, which cuts delays along bus routes (particularly highly variable, unpredictable delays), are bus timetables being re-written?

It appears not. A few weeks ago I caught a southbound route 626 bus at Carnegie station that arrived at the stop almost five minutes early. And that was in the PM peak.

The 626 timetable still allows 8 minutes for the 850 metres between Chestnut Street/Dandenong Road (the stop before the station) and Koornang/Neerim Roads (the stop after the station).

Its sister route 623 is the same. You could (briskly) walk it in eight minutes.

Back when the level crossing was there, it probably made sense to allow that much time. Not so much now.

Bus underneath the skyrail at Carnegie

As level crossing removals proceed across Melbourne, authorities should be reviewing bus timetables and taking the reduced delays into account.

After all, speeding up street-based public transport is one of the key non-motorist benefits of grade separation.

Timetable tweaks may not be enough to run extra services with the same buses, but they can at least help cut unnecessary delays – particularly for bus passengers not boarding or alighting at those timing points.

TMBG – and crosstown trips

On Saturday night at the Croxton Bandroom we saw They Might Be Giants playing a 1990s vs 2000s concert. The night before they’d done a 1980s vs 2010s concert.

It was great stuff, very enjoyable.

Now that I’ve heard Instanbul, Doctor Worm and Birdhouse In Your Soul live, I can die a happy man. And there were lots of other great songs – here’s a full set list. I particularly loved Man It’s So Loud In Here.

Obligatory transport content

The last time I went to an inner-north pub gig, we took public transport. This time we drove.

This was partly driving practice for my son on L plates, and partly because an earlier destination that afternoon would have involved bustitution.

Croxton Bandroom, Thornbury

Heading home from Croxton back to Bentleigh in the car took about 40 minutes, with little traffic apart from on some sections of Hoddle Street.

Google Maps tells me that by train it would have taken 56 minutes (including a 13 minute interchange at Flinders Street, which isn’t terrible, but isn’t terrific either) plus a short walk at each end.

A couple of observations on that:

  • Google Maps’ estimate for the car journey, leaving at 11:40pm, is 24 to 55 minutes. I’m not sure 24 would ever be achievable, but it’s not hard to see how it could be a very long trip if there was an event at the MCG/sports precinct.
  • Even at times of relatively light traffic, train can be reasonably competitive with driving in Melbourne, particularly on trips with no freeways – but it’s really pot luck on wait times, especially for trips involving interchange between lines.
  • Quick interchange helps make public transport trips quicker. Changing trains could take up to 30 minutes in the evening, or even 60 minutes after 1am on weekends. Higher frequencies make for quick interchanges, and mean PT is viable for far more combinations of trip start and end points – not just the places that a single route serves.

Trains every 20 minutes in daytime, and every 30 minutes after 7:30pm is completely inadequate for a city of Melbourne’s size. Fixing it would not be expensive because the infrastructure and the fleet is readily available.

Sydney is now at 71% of stations with a train at least every 15 minutes until 11pm. It’s time Melbourne caught up.

Some thoughts on transport network pricing

On Saturday I participated in an Infrastructure Victoria session on transport network planning. It was described as a kind of speed-dating session – seven speakers doing quick 12 minute conversations with groups of 4-5 people.

They suggested kicking off with an introduction to your view on the topic, then seeing where the conversation takes you. After a couple of goes you pretty quickly get into a rhythm.

The thoughts below started as an approximation of my opening comments, but I’ve added a bit along the way:

Fare pricing can be an important tool to help ease congestion – both on the roads and on public transport.

Crowded train and platform at Caulfield during service delays

The fare system we have now is a hangover from the 1980s.

Before then, trains trams and buses had complicated, separate fares.

In the early 80s they had a shake-up – and introduced the three zones in Melbourne, one inside the other.

There have been tweaks and adjustments, but that’s basically what we still have today.

  • In 2004 they removed the Short Trip ticket from zone 1
  • In 2007 they got rid of zone 3; it merged with zone 2
  • In 2010 they removed the City Saver zone from Myki
  • Then in 2015 they made it so if you pay for zone 1, you’ve also paid for zone 2.

So we now basically have a flat fare system in Melbourne. If you want to travel two stops on the tram, it’s $4.40. If you want to travel from Werribee right across Melbourne to Pakenham, that’s also $4.40.

Given governments have an eye on cost recovery, this may mean upward pressure on that flat fare. It’s already risen at CPI plus 2.5% for four years running.

And for short trips this can discourage people from using public transport – they might see it as cheaper to drive.

There’s no peak/off-peak difference. If I travel on the train at 8am when it’s packed, it’s the same cost as at 11am when there’s plenty of space. (Of course, there has to also be a good frequent time-competitive service available at 11am. Off-peak service is very patchy around the network.)

“Peak” crowding is not confined to commuting hours. CBD trams were already crowded at lunchtime before the Free Tram Zone was introduced. This has considerably added to crowding.

Crowding on tram route 96 in Bourke Street

There is the Earlybird discount – free rides before 7:15am. This is bit of a blunt instrument – it reflects what Metcard was capable of when it was introduced last decade. A free ride in the morning, but the usual price going home later. So there’s no incentive to make your trip home in the afternoon at a time when it’s quiet. It also only applies to Metro trains. Catch a bus to the station? Then you pay. This can encourage people to drive to the station instead.

There is a discount of sorts after 6pm – you only pay one fare for unlimited travel until 3am. That’s good, but it’s also a reflection on the old ticket system – when paper tickets were around, there wasn’t enough space for a notch for every hour of the day!

2-hour Met ticket from 1991-92

So having spent a billion dollars on a complicated smartcard system, we have it charging a $4.40 flat fare for almost everybody.

But the Melbourne flat fare doesn’t apply outside zone 2. It jumps dramatically if you travel beyond Melbourne.

People coming in from Geelong to Melbourne pay $13.40 one way – if instead they drive through suburban Geelong to Lara and get on the train there, it’s $4.40. The fare system is providing a huge incentive for people to drive through Geelong.

Free station car parks are also an issue. Some of them get misused by non-public transport users. But apart from that, they cost tens of thousands of dollars per space – then they’re given away to whoever is lucky enough to show up early enough in the morning to get them – even if they have options to use a connecting bus, or walk or ride to the station. Those options need to improve, of course. (And maybe they could if all the money wasn’t spent on parking.)

So there’s plenty of scope to reform fares – Myki is capable of more zones, and off-peak discounts, and concessions for those who need them. This could be the way forward – but whatever the system, it’s important that the fares are affordable, logical, and equitable.

They could start with easy stuff like re-introducing the once-proposed weekly cap, which would encourage Monday to Friday users to also use the system at weekends (as well as removing some confusion and doubt for people trying to decide between Myki Money and Myki Pass).

King Street, lunchtime

Road pricing isn’t really my area, but it’s not hard to see how it’s similarly flawed. The only road pricing in Victoria is the toll roads. Again, it’s a hangover from past decades – tolls are to pay private toll companies that built Citylink and Eastlink.

This means it’s free to drive through the CBD, but it costs money to bypass the City and drive over the Bolte Bridge instead, which is a crazy outcome.

So the pricing on public transport and on roads is problematic.

Politicians are terrified of changes, because inevitably someone ends up being disadvantaged, but it’d be good to see them have the courage to introduce reforms to fix some of these problems.

Some people will always object to reform, but if the benefits can be quantified and explained, the broader community will take it on board.