One of the things planners should be aiming for in making public transport easy to use is ensuring that the choices are few.
The new Frankston line timetable does this in the off-peak (and evenings) with a consistent pattern: Frankston to Flinders Street (direct), stopping all stations.
In peak, in theory, there are two patterns: Frankston to Cheltenham, then express to Caulfield, to South Yarra, then to Flinders Street (direct); and Frankston to Flinders Street via the City Loop.
On weekends everything stops all stations and runs via the Loop (fair enough given lower frequencies are unlikely to cause Loop congestion, and cause long waiting times if changing trains — arguably this should also be the case on weekday evenings after 7pm).
So that’s three main patterns.
The problem is there are lots of other variations, particularly during peak-shoulder periods.
In peak hour
If you’re going into the city it’s not too onerous. Go to the station, catch the next train to the City. If you’re at Cheltenham or further out and it’s peak hour, you might want to wait for an express for a quicker trip.
If you’re coming out of the city, and you’re going to a station closer than Cheltenham, you’ll probably just jump on the first train stopping at your station. If not, you’ll want to go to Flinders Street or Richmond, as most of the express trains (eg, faster) don’t run via the Loop, and overtake the stopping trains.
But the peak-shoulder period is a mess. Between about 3-5pm, and again between 6-7pm, they’re all over the place. The patterns are such that if you miss a train at Southern Cross or a Loop station, you’re likely to wait longer than is necessary for the next one.
Between 6pm and 6:59pm (timed at Richmond), there are 8 trains to the Frankston line; the basis for a pretty good service. Even if they were evenly split between expresses and stoppers, that would be an average wait of 15 minutes between trains.
But they’re not evenly split.
There are expresses from Flinders Street, some of which also serve Southern Cross, but some don’t.
And there are stopping Loop trains. But there are other stopping trains direct from Flinders Street, and again, some of them also serve Southern Cross, some don’t.
If you’re at Flinders Street going to Cheltenham or beyond, it’s easy:
You get on an express: 6:09, 6:26, 6:46.
But it may not be obvious that you could also get the direct stoppers at 6:32 or 6:52, which don’t get overtaken by expresses.
If you’re at Flinders Street going to before Cheltenham, you want a stopper.
5:53 (via loop)
6:11 (via loop)
6:31 (via loop)
6:32 (direct, so it beats the 6:31 by 8 minutes)
6:52 (direct, ditto).
If you’re at Southern Cross going to Cheltenham or beyond, and we assume that those trains running via Southern Cross really do work (they often don’t), we have:
5:56 (stopper via loop, platform 12; it doesn’t get overtaken)
6:16 (express via Flinders St, probably platform 13)
6:19 (stopper via Flinders St, probably platform 13; it doesn’t get overtaken)
6:38 (express via Flinders St, probably platform 13)
6:46 (stopper via Flinders St, probably platform 13; it doesn’t get overtaken)
7:00 (express via Flinders Street, probably platform 13).
If you’re at Southern Cross going to before Cheltenham, the stoppers are:
5:56 (via loop, platform 12)
6:14 (via loop, platform 12)
6:19 (via Flinders Street, probably platform 13)
6:34 (via loop, platform 12)
6:46 (via Flinders Street, probably platform 13)
6:54 (via loop, platform 12).
If you’re in the Loop wanting Cheltenham or beyond, you’d do best to go to Richmond and change to the first express that comes along; unless the stoppers at 6:35 or 6:55 turn up, as they don’t get overtaken by expresses.
If you’re in the Loop (say at Melbourne Central) wanting before Cheltenham, you’ve got the 6:01, 6:18, 6:38, 6:58. But you’ll wait longer than necessary because some of the stoppers are running direct from Flinders Street.
Are you following all this so far?
The upshot of it is that although there are 8 trains in that hour, because they’ve split them across three patterns, it’s confusing enough that most people will give up and wait up to 20 minutes — which is longer than they would have to wait if they’ve managed to decipher the timetable and know exactly where to go and where to change trains to get home quicker.
But nobody is likely to figure that out. It’s like the timetablers are trying to play some kind of mind game with the passengers.
The official route description
Just to illustrate how confusing the whole thing is, here’s how the Metlink web site describes the service patterns on the Frankston line:
Trains will depart Frankston Station, Kananook Station… [list of stations snipped]… South Yarra Station, Richmond Station, City. Express services operate during peak periods – see below.
City stations are: Flagstaff Station (weekdays only), Melbourne Central Station, Parliament Station, Flinders Street Station and Southern Cross Station (Spencer Street).
City Loop: Direction of travel through the City Loop depends on the day of week and time of day. From 8 May 2011 most weekday services will operate direct to Flinders Street.
The main exceptions are weekday morning peak all stations trains which will operate to Flinders Street via the City Loop. Weekend trains will also operate to Flinders Street via the City Loop.
Weekday am peak direction services: Operate two main stopping patterns: A. Stop all stations to Flinders Street via the City Loop. B. Express service direct to Flinders Street. Most express trains stop all stations to Cheltenham, express to Caulfield, Malvern, express to South Yarra, Richmond and then direct to Flinders Street, with some extending to Southern Cross. Passengers for loop stations are advised to change at Flinders Street or Southern Cross.
Weekday off-peak, weekend and evening services: Stop all stations to City. From 8 May 2011 Weekday interpeak services will operate direct to Flinders Street, continuing to Southern Cross Station and then Werribee or Williamstown. Some counter-peak services operate express between Malvern and South Yarra. Note: the above is a general guide and some service variations exist. Please consult timetables for detailed information on stopping patterns.
Please note, I added paragraph breaks to that to help make it clearer. Ha! Oh, and I’ve excluded the description for the other direction.
You shouldn’t have to be a genius to get the most out of public transport: to get the quickest trip possible, and to minimise your waiting time.
The Frankston timetable isn’t too hard to understand during off-peak and the rush hour, but in shoulder-peak it’s utterly diabolical.
Update: This was finally fixed in 2014.