So, now we know which train is which…
If you’re a regular on Melbourne’s trains, particularly in the southern and western lines, you’d have noticed the recent changes to seat layouts, but the process of reducing the number of seats on metropolitan trains actually started some time ago, during the huge patronage growth of last decade.
Back in 2008, it was flagged that the second major order of X’Trapolis trains would have fewer seats, with a wider aisle, and more handholds. Further X’Trapolis trains ordered have been of the same design, and subsequently the older trains of that type were altered to also have 2 x 2 seating.
This made a lot of sense. In blocks of three seats, it’s common to see people failing to fill all three (the middle seat in particular is very cramped), choosing to stand instead, and the narrow aisle made it difficult for crowds to circulate around the carriage, especially when there aren’t many places to hold onto.
In 2009, then-operator Connex showed off a trial Comeng train design, which cut about 15 seats from each carriage. As of a few months ago you’d still see these three carriages around on the network.
Changing the load standard
In 2012, it emerged there was a proposal to modify the entire train fleet along these lines, and amend the load standard. This is confirmed by a Metro operations document which came to light last year.
Currently the load standard is 133 per carriage, or 798 per 6 carriage train.
It’s worth re-iterating that the load standard is NOT a maximum capacity; it’s a measurement of crowding. It originated in the 1999 privatisation contracts — if trains carried more than 798 people, it was meant to trigger action to add more capacity, such as adding extra services. (In practice it rarely seemed to trigger anything.)
The proposal is that the load standard be increased to a nice round 900, or 150 per carriage.
If one accepts that seats should be moderately reduced in number, making more space for standees, this actually makes sense — there’s no question that the new designs increase the capacity of each carriage.
Mass removal of seats: Comeng and Siemens fleet
Fast forward to 2016. In the past year, current operator Metro has made modifications to many Comeng and Siemens carriages, basically removing all of the seats closest to the doors.
This was done firstly on the Alstom Comeng fleet (which are recognisable from their green poles, handles and seat backs) and now similar modifications are being rolled-out on the EDI Comeng fleet (yellow poles, handles, seat backs). The latter are a bit different — because the closest remaining seats face the doorways, metal barriers have been installed as well, so people sitting have some space from standees.
Increasing numbers of Siemens carriages also have similar modifications, and their changes appear to be being done while replacing the horrible old plain blue seat cushions.
How many seats gone?
It varies by train type. My rough counts (NOT verified):
In the Siemens trains, it’s a removal of about 16 seats per carriage, or in a 6-car train a total of 96 out of 528, or 18.2%.
In the Alstom Comeng fleet, about 12 removed per carriage, for a total of 72 removed out of 536 (13.4%).
In the EDI Comeng fleet, I think it’s 17-24 per carriage, a total (if I’ve got my sums right) of 116 out of 556 (20.9%)
In the X’Trapolis trains, it was 12 removed, or 72 out of 528 (13.7%).
(By comparison, recent B-class tram changes reduced seats by over 30%, though that was partly countered by “bum-racks”… which ultimately don’t save much if any space, I reckon.)
The new design isn’t ideal. Clearly it’s a compromise between providing more standing space and making a modification that’s cheap and quick and easy to do — in many cases, whole 2-3 seat units are removed, rather than trying to chop up existing units, so aisles are still narrow on the Comengs. Door positions are not modified — that would be very expensive.
In the Comeng and Siemens trains there still aren’t enough handholds, so while there’s now more space around the doorways, the bulk of standees still remain around the doors.
(Why aren’t there enough handholds? I was told repeatedly during late 2000s that it was due to a fear of vandals swinging on them to kick out windows. It’s unclear if that ever actually happened, or if it was some paranoid fantasy from some desk-bound risk assessor. Either way, the change in X’Trapolis design indicates it’s no longer feared.)
For a while in the reconfigured Comeng and Siemens carriages, there were now virtually no Priority (disabled) seats. Almost all of them are the seats that have been removed. As this blog post points out, this is a big problem for some users, such as the vision-impaired. Apparently part of the issue was they ran out of stickers! New stickers are appearing now, though of course these seats are now farther from the doors.
A recent legislation change means that able-bodied passengers must now give up any seat to those with special needs. But this change hasn’t been communicated at all, and the wording is ambiguous, saying that it:
applies if all designated special needs seats to which a person with special needs has reasonable access in the bus, tram, carriage of a train or premises are already occupied by persons with special needs.
What if the carriage in question has no designated special needs seats? This has been the case for some carriages while the stickers are sorted out.
What if the only priority seats are unoccupied, but are at the opposite end of the carriage — some Comeng “M” carriages now have them only adjacent the driver’s cab (though perhaps that’s temporary) — and the person can’t easily get there?
Some people really like the new design. If you’re resigned to having to stand anyway, this provides more space in which to do so. I overheard one person exclaim “ooh, spacious!” when boarding, just after the new designs started to be introduced.
Of course, some are miffed about reduced seats, particularly those having to make long trips on busy lines. In the PM peak they might have to wait for longer for a seat to become available. There are tales, for instance, of people having to stand from the City Loop all the way out to Dandenong.
Is it good, is it bad? There’s no one right answer — different people have different views, and different needs.
I’ve certainly seen cases (typically after cancellations) where trains have been so crowded that with the old design, people would have been left behind on the platform.
But the issue of Priority Seats clearly needs to be resolved.
And ultimately the question is whether it reduces dwell times, allowing more trains to run, which can help counter the reduction in seats in each train.
When will the load standard change take effect? Not sure — some carriages haven’t been converted yet, but I’m guessing this year.
- See also: Next generation high-capacity trains – what can we expect?
- Just saying it one more time: The 798 or 900 load standard is NOT a maximum capacity