Obviously I wouldn’t normally do this, but let me tell you about my trip home last night. And then I’ll look beyond it to the big picture.
I wouldn’t normally do it, because despite problems, it’s usually pretty smooth. Last night… not so much.
5:20. Check Metro web site to see how the trains are running. The 5:41 from Flagstaff (to Frankston, stopping all stations) is cancelled due to driver training, so I decide not to go for it, but to aim for the next one, at 5:50.
5:37. Leave work. Plenty of time to get to Flagstaff.
5:45. Get to station. Departure boards say train is in 7 minutes.
5:48. On the platform, the departure board has changed: the Frankston train is delayed. I smell a rat. Despite no announcement, I board a lightly-loaded Dandenong to Caulfield, betting that my train will be diverted out of the Loop.
At Melbourne Central, people pack in. In the background I can hear an announcement advising people that — as I suspected — the Frankston train has indeed been diverted, and to go to Richmond.
By Parliament the train is packed.
5:59. Many get out at Richmond. But those who took the advice didn’t actually make the connection. By this time, the Frankston train is due to have just left Richmond, and I can see the Frankston platform is deserted, so I stay on board the Dandenong train, hoping to overtake it before Caulfield.
6:10. The Dandenong train crawls its way to Caulfield, despite being an express, and arrives parallel with the Frankston train, which has lots of space thanks to bypassing 4/5 CBD stations. It’s due to leave Caulfield at 6:12.
6:12. I get through the crowds. A bunch of us are hurrying through the subway. It’s like running of the bulls. We come up the ramp to see the Frankston train pulling out, dead on 6:12.
Yes, it was on time. Metro will incur a partial cancellation penalty for bypassing the Loop, but will score for it being on-time. But is it good service? Not if it’s known that many people from bypassed stations wanted that train and were just arriving — and particularly as there’s no scheduled train which needs to use that platform for another 9 minutes.
I’m sure the train network would run very smoothly if it carried no passengers.
People wanting a stopping train crowd onto the platform.
6:19. An announcement: normally the next train is a stopper, but that’s delayed 8 minutes, the next train is an express.
6:20. In fact, next stopping train is delayed at least 15 minutes at Parliament due to an ill passenger. This basically means it’s delayed indefinitely. That express train that’s still a couple of minutes away… they wouldn’t consider altering it to stop would they? No, of course not. Metro’s contracts ensure they have punctuality targets to meet.
6:25. The express train arrives. Plenty of space, but few people get on it. I consider travelling home to Bentleigh via its next stop, Cheltenham, but who knows how long that would take.
The following train is scheduled for 6:36.
People are muttering under their breath.
An automated announcement tells us to spread along the platform to help the trains run on time. Yeah, thanks for that. We already had.
Another Frankston line regular, a lady who works for one of the NGOs, who I’ve chatted to before on the train, remarks to me that it’s a shemozzle tonight — and she’s glad I’m on this line so I (as an advocate) can see it firsthand. If only the Minister were standing here with us…
6:36. After we’ve stood at Caulfield for almost 25 minutes, a stopping train arrives on time. Miraculously it’s not too crowded, I suspect because the bulk of people are on that delayed train stuck at Parliament.
6:48. The train is on-time arriving at Bentleigh. The same can’t be said for many of my fellow passengers and I of course; delayed by about 25 minutes.
I glance at the nearby Smartbus sign. It says the next bus eastbound is 29 minutes away. Compared to a quick connection, the train problems plus this could add up to almost an hour’s delay for some people — those who originally intended on catching the cancelled train, and rely on the bus connection.
Every day I see scores of people using the 703 Smartbus to and from the station. It means they don’t have to have a car just to use the train. It frees up car spaces for those who do have to drive to the station. As I’ve posted before, Smartbus services are very popular. But the 703 doesn’t meet the government’s own service standard for Smartbus, and after 6:30, the frequency drops markedly: eastbound it’s 6:02, 6:19, 6:31, 6:46, 7:20, 7:44, 8:52, and that’s the last bus.
On the other Smartbus routes they take the rail feeder service a little more seriously: for instance the 903 out of Mentone station is about every 15 minutes until 9pm, then every half-hour until midnight (sadly with a 16 minute connection from the trains, also every half-hour after 10:30pm).
On this occasion, it’s worse: the 6:46 bus presumably left on time, just before the train arrived. You can’t blame the bus driver — the part of the Smartbus sign that shows train arrivals hasn’t worked for more than three years.
So what are the problems?
Let’s step back a bit. This is not meant to be just a rant from me. What are the big picture problems here?
Driver training has caused lots of cancellations. Sure, it’s needed because of the new track at Springvale and elsewhere, but these projects take years to develop, and it indicates an underlying shortage of drivers, and problems with recruitment.
Is this going to happen every time there’s a track layout change?
Advice to passengers about bypassed trains, if it was made early enough, would allow more people to avoid the disruption, but often it comes too late (though this is slowly improving).
Holding a diverted train for a few minutes would help displaced passengers avoid a long delay, by reducing gaps caused by cancelled or delayed services, but operationally the rail system can’t seem to handle it — even where hundreds of passengers would benefit and it would cause no problems delaying other trains.
Remember, by 6:12, when the bypassed train was leaving Caulfield leaving displaced passengers behind, the following stopping train was already at least 8 minutes late at Parliament — but it seems nobody is watching out for the impacts on passengers; they’re just focussing on getting individual trains through on time.
The operator contracts also don’t deal with this sort of thing well. The operator would be penalised for delaying the train.
Likewise the contracts don’t encourage the operator to alter express trains to help fill a long gap, because that train would then arrive late at its destination.
Regular loop diversions due to short delays (there might have been other reasons this time; it’s unknown), in time, lead to more passengers jumping on the first train out of the city. In the case of the Caulfield Loop, this adds pressure on the Dandenong line, already one of the busiest on the network.
Finally, connecting bus services are generally not co-ordinated, and are often infrequent, causing a cascading delay for people caught up in problems. Smartbus services in particular should be up to a reasonable standard, such that people can rely on them to get home from the station, even when there are train delays. Where installed, the signage helping bus drivers know about approaching trains should also work.
Not Trainageddon, but still affected hundreds
Last night wasn’t Trainageddon. It wasn’t hours of delays, or a large number of lines.
But it was a combination of disruptions and poor customer service that is incredibly frustrating to passengers caught up in it, and it came on the same day as morning peak delays on the Craigieburn, Williamstown and Werribee lines.
Every time your train is stuck inexplicably in a tunnel, every time a service is cancelled, the experience is not just eroding your quality of life. It is eating away at our city’s global competitiveness.
— Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
in the London Evening Standard, 15/10/2009