The “five group railway” is something that’s been on the cards for a while. The Age highlights it today in this article: Metro plan to split Melbourne rail network into five lines hangs on union fight
It has its origins last decade — the 2008 Victorian Transport Plan talked about “creating a Metro system”, in the context of strong patronage growth and the evolution of Melbourne’s commuter railway into one that can cope with far more passengers than it can currently handle, reflecting Melbourne’s growth, and in particular the CBD and inner-city.
Melbourne’s railway system was designed as an old style commuter railway, carrying people to and from the city with branches, junctions and single track lines to maximise reach. The City Loop was a major boost to the rail system at the time but the four tunnels have to cope with trains from 10 separate inbound lines
The operation of this sort of railway is complex, the capacity of lines is not maximised and reliability of the service overall falls. One delayed train can affect the whole system.
Melbourne will soon be at the point where we cannot run more train services on key lines. Metro rail systems are designed to run higher capacity trains from end to end of lines using dedicated tracks – the trains can run at higher frequency without interfering with other routes. The focus is on simple timetables, frequent services and consistent stopping patterns.
Metro systems like those in London and New York have key interchange stations to allow people to change trains easily or switch to trams and buses to get to where they want to go.
PTV’s plans for this have also developed over the years. It’s reflected in the 2013 Network Development Plan — this map shows the rail network as it is now (apart from delayed Southland station), with the opening of Regional Rail Link. As you can see: five groups. (Yes, they left Stony Point off the map… I assume because it doesn’t go into the City.)
Metro (to be precise, the current operator, Metro Trains Melbourne, MTM for short) has gone in hard supporting the idea, and bit by bit, is splitting the network into the five groups. The first four are named after the four Loop tunnels, though not all trains would use the Loop:
Northern — the Sunbury, Craigieburn and Upfield lines, all using the Northern Loop.
Clifton Hill — the Hurstbridge and South Morang lines, all using the Clifton Hill Loop.
Burnley — the Belgrave and Lilydale lines, using the Burnley Loop, and also the Glen Waverley and Alamein lines, running direct to Flinders Street.
Dandenong — the Pakenham and Cranbourne (eg Dandenong) lines, using the Caulfield Loop.
…and the fifth…
Cross-city — the Frankston line running direct to Flinders Street then out to the Werribee and Williamstown lines. And also the Sandringham line, direct to Flinders Street and likely to be fairly independent. (In practice some Craigieburn trains share the Cross-City tracks into Flinders Street.)
Independence is the key. At present trains and drivers move from line to line across the day, meaning a delay on one line can quickly flow to another. In fact MTM claim in peak the reduction in interdependencies could mean a punctuality improvement of up to 10%.
From that point of view, separation makes sense for passengers.
Taking it further
Behind the scenes, PTV and MTM seem to be moving towards partial segregation of the train fleet. The High Capacity Metro Trains project will see Dandenong line get its own dedicated fleet of trains, with a maintenance centre at Pakenham, though the same model of train is likely to roll out to other lines later on. More on this in a minute.
But MTM want to take it further, and this is where it starts to get controversial.
Complete operational independence of the groups, including separate stabling and maintenance facilities
Removal of some points that provide connections between groups of lines, which Metro says will speed up services (though in some cases only by ten seconds or so), and reduce track faults
— This could help, but of course it comes at the expense of flexibility, such as being able to route trains around obstructions, and limiting the places trains can be terminated during disruptions — leading to longer-than-otherwise sections of line replaced by buses. They wouldn’t want to go too far.
Fleets dedicated to specific groups: in 2013 the plan was for Cross-City to be Siemens, Comeng for Dandenong and Northern, X’trapolis for Burnley and Clifton Hill. Since then the plan has changed to get X’trapolis trains onto the Cross-City lines as part of the Bayside Rail project, which means more Siemens will presumably move onto the Dandenong and/or Northern lines until the new fleet arrives
— Provided they don’t actually take steps to make parts of the fleet incompatible with some lines, or with each other. Over time, trains will need to be cascaded through the system as new ones come into service, this makes some sense, as it means more consistent performance (eg acceleration) on each line, and should simplify maintenance.
Restriction of most drivers to specific groups… including not training them to drive on the other groups (thus cutting training costs and time). Drivers don’t like this, though it’s not unusual on networks overseas. MTM would keep a central pool of drivers qualified for all routes for disruptions and other operations.
— While getting drivers trained would be quicker, perhaps meaning they can ramp up additional services more quickly, for passengers this could be a problem if the central pool of fully-qualified drivers isn’t sufficient, leading to worsened delays during disruptions. Perhaps the answer is to simply not swap drivers between groups on a particular day? Not sure.
Driver de-centralisation, where most drivers start duty at outer termini rather than changing over at Flinders Street, including complete segregation of staff within line groups.
— Again, controversial with drivers, but it’s not hard to see the benefits of cutting delays at Flinders Street, though theoretically it should be possible to swap drivers there pretty quickly. It largely happens today on the Clifton Hill group.
Some claim that MTM wants to run each group as a separate company — in fact Labor claimed that the original 2014 Dandenong line upgrade proposal was basically geared to be a PPP whereby MTM gained control of the line long after their contract for the rest of the network might have ended.
— This of course makes no sense to passengers — we’ve seen the problems before of separate companies running separate lines, leading to competition between operators, fleets made incompatible with some lines, and unnecessarily inflexible operations.
Many drivers are campaigning against some of these changes, as seen on the MTM Memes blog, for instance this post: Bungled timetable or saving us from Liberal deceit? — I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it, but it raises some interesting points.
I suspect there’s a balance to be found here. Day to day operation, including high frequencies, predictable patterns and reducing the cascade effect of delays across lines would absolutely benefit from operational separation.
Less useful to passengers might be the kind of organisational separation that MTM seems to be pushing for.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.
PS. Thursday morning: This blog post a couple of years ago talked about limiting drivers to specific lines. Note the extensive comments from a train driver. Also worth noting, there are currently limitations on how many times a driver can drive a train on the same section of track each day, for safety. But two things make me question the safety reasoning: firstly it doesn’t apply to shuttle runs, and secondly I’ve been told this was only introduced in the 1980s, with the opening of the City Loop. It’s not some long-held standard. It’s not hard to see how it restricts operations, and to me it would make sense for it to be reviewed.