Last Thursday the state government announced more details around the Metro rail tunnel, and related projects.
High Capacity Signalling
Upgrading existing rail lines to High Capacity Signalling (HCS) has the potential to boost track capacity by up to about 50%, though to reach that, you would need to remove level crossings too.
Originally HCS was to have been trialled on the Sandringham line. The Napthine government proposed putting it straight onto the Dandenong line (without a trial) but on Labor getting back into government in November 2010, the plan reverted to the Sandringham line.
This has now been amended again: they want to trial it between Lalor and South Morang.
(Artist’s impression of high capacity in-cab signalling, from a PTV video)
As I understand it, the overall HCS project after the trial includes doing the busiest parts of the Sunbury and Cranbourne/Pakenham lines as well — from Watergardens through to Dandenong, allowing 30 trains per hour through the rail tunnel — though from day 1, it’ll be more like 19, increasing over time.
They are aiming at a system whereby conventional and high-capacity (in-cab) signalling can co-exist, enabling V/Line and freight to continue on those lines even if not equipped for in-cab. Equally, for the South Morang pilot period, trains won’t necessarily run all the time using the new signalling.
But why trial it at South Morang? According to the government:
- The X’trapolis fleet (used almost exclusively on the South Morang line) is better suited to being equipped for it
- Greater scope to roll it out on the remainder of the Clifton Hill group, with big benefits on the inner portion — more beneficial than the Sandringham line.
My wild additional speculation reading between the lines:
- Outer end of the line means less impact if it goes wrong
- Greater scope for patronage/service growth in future, since the South Morang line serves a growth corridor (unlike the Sandringham line)
- This section got new signalling just a few years ago when the line was duplicated beyond Lalor. Can we hope that the infrastructure is more easily upgradable than that on the Sandringham line?
Platform screen doors
But what really got attention was something probably less important, but more prominent and visible: platform screen doors.
These are common in Asian cities, and in some parts of Europe.
There’s an obvious safety benefit, but they also have significant advantages in reducing dwell times. Passengers know precisely where to queue to quickly board the train after others have disembarked.
Most Melbourne peak hour commuters already know that at busy times, you try and wait alongside the doors, so those alighting can walk straight out, and then you board. But it’s always a bit of a lottery as to where the doors will come to a stop. Platform screen doors and line markings on the platforms could help this, including outside peak times, when the system can still be quite busy.
Platform screen doors mean it’s predictable. And the quicker the loading, the more trains can run.
It’s only possible if the trains have consistent door positions — which Melbourne’s current various trains don’t. The way this will be solved is by only running the new High Capacity Metro Trains (HCMTs for short) through the tunnel. The government recently expanded the number to be ordered to provide enough trains for the full Cranbourne/Pakenham to Sunbury service. The other train types will run on other lines… once again, elements of Metro’s “five group railway” come into play.
Pieces of the puzzle
It’s been a mixed bag in recent years, with different rail projects working at cross purposes.
Caroline Springs station in Melbourne’s west has almost been completed, but funding has just come through to duplicate the line, so the station’s going to have to be partly demolished and modified (to an island platform layout) before it’s even opened. A prime example of the poor planning we often see in Victoria. When the station was funded, some of us wondered if the duplicated track should be extended a few hundred metres to meet it…
— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) May 15, 2016
Sadly, a similar thing happened with Footscray station. The brand new bridge had to be partly rebuilt for Regional Rail Link.
RRL’s new West Footscray station is also to be modified, to get an extra platform. The government claims the station was planned to be futureproofed, though it’s unclear if they knew this specific upgrade was coming.
Who knows how much money is wasted by rebuilding brand new infrastructure.
Thankfully in some areas they seem to be getting a little better organised. This diagram (appendix 3 “Scope of works” from the Melbourne Metro business case) lays out how the tunnel project fits with the various other projects completed, planned and underway — Regional Rail Link, the new HCMT fleet, various track duplication/amplifications. As you’d hope, these all largely fit in with the 2013 PTV rail network development plan. Consistency is good. This is precisely what’s needed for effective future planning.
“Throw away the timetable”
It’s good that there continues to be official recognition of the importance of a Turn Up And Go service at the highest levels.
Of course, an all-day ten minute service is possible right now on much of the rail network, without a rail tunnel, and without fancy new signalling. It shouldn’t be about peak hour only — I bet few people use timetables when using trains on the busiest, most frequent lines currently.
Three lines — to Frankston, Dandenong and Ringwood (as well as shorter sections to Clifton Hill and Footscray) already run every ten minutes on weekends (and most of them during the day on weekdays too), and patronage seems to be slowly growing, despite an almost complete lack of promotion.
But what of the rest of the network? Even the service plan post-2031 (as seen in Appendix 3 of the Business Case) has a disappointing 3 trains per hour outside peak times beyond Sunshine, as well as beyond Newport. For many stations that means no extra trains at over today’s off-peak timetable — you’ll still wait 20 minutes for a train. You’ll still want to be checking your timetable for that.
Sure, this is a limitation of trunk lines branching to different destinations (at
Newport Sunshine to Sunbury/Melton, and at Newport to Williamstown/Altona Loop/Werribee), but you’d hope they could do better than this.
But the infrastructure will support more frequent timetables. I sense a continuing campaign for more services outside peak.
And these issues aside, after so much lack of investment over decades, it’s encouraging to see a state government taking on some of these big ticket rail projects.