One thing you notice on many of the world’s big metro systems is that people don’t check the timetable… because there is no timetable to check. Or if there is one, nobody bothers.
It’s becoming the same way around some parts of Melbourne.
Trams — most people use TramTracker displays at stops or on their phone, or they just rock up at the stop with the (not unreasonable) expectation that the next tram isn’t too far away. They want to know how many minutes until the next tram, not that it’s the 9:24.
Buses — not many individual Melbourne bus routes are very frequent. But a few are, such as the 401 and 601 University shuttles, and some of the Smartbus routes run every 6-7 minutes in peak hour.
Trains — it’s the same in peak hour on a number of train lines. If your commute is say Newport to Southern Cross, then with 9-12 trains between 5am and 7pm on weekdays, you’re probably not going to bother checking a timetable.
In fact I’m told that increasingly, Myki touch-on data shows that where the trains come every 10 minutes or better, people are arriving at the station at random intervals, rather than timing their arrival at the station just before a scheduled train.
As I found recently in my non-scientific poll, increasing numbers of people use real-time information to check departure times, not static timetables… or don’t bother at all, because their service is frequent.
How do you check #MetroTrains train times? 🚇
Or are your usual trains frequent enough that you don't bother?
— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) August 31, 2017
Maintaining headways, not timetables
What if we took it a step further? What if we said that for any service with a frequency of, say, 8 minutes or better, that the timetable no longer matters?
Some operators call this Headway Running. It recognises that maintaining a service at regular intervals is more important than having them depart at specific times.
There’s a clear benefit to passengers. Here’s an example:
This is the weekday Sandringham line timetable for Elsternwick to the City in morning peak.
7:36 7:43 7:51 7:58 8:06 8:13 8:21 8:28
Basically a train every 7-8 minutes. It’s a busy line.
So what happens when a train is cancelled? Even in the most reliable systems, it can happen. Let’s say the 7:58 goes AWOL.
7:36 7:43 7:51 —- 8:06 8:13 8:21 8:28
Everything’s fine until the 7:51. Then a big gap. Assuming each train is normally evenly loaded, you get twice as many people trying to squeeze onto the 8:06 as the others. In the real world this can result in people being left behind because there’s no space, affecting the following trains.
Longer station dwell times occur because of the crowding, as people try to get in the door, meaning the 8:06 runs late, making the problem even worse. It could take another half-hour for things to get back to normal.
What if the train operator could alter the times of the trains around the missing one, to reduce the gap?
(Some lines, Sandringham included, have infrastructure or other constraints that may or may not allow this in real life. And on some lines, differing stopping patterns make this more difficult. Assume for a moment these aren’t a problem.)
What if they were able to delay the train before by 2 minutes, and run the train afterwards 3 minutes early?
7:36 7:43 7:53 —- 8:03 8:13 8:21 8:28
The biggest gaps are now 10 minutes, which is worse than the usual 7-8, but heaps better than 15. The affected trains might have 30% more than the usual boardings, rather than double.
Most passengers wouldn’t even notice the time difference. They might notice the crowding is worse than normal, but that’s better than it being crush-loaded and/or being unable to board.
Remove the padding
There’s another benefit. Current timetables have had padding added to try and ensure punctual departures. On my line, the Frankston line, in 1997 the running time from Frankston to the City (via the Loop) was 70 minutes. It’s now 78 minutes (with only 1 minute added due to an extra station; Southland to open soon). Glenhuntly to Caulfield is now consistently timed at 5 minutes; in 1997 it was 3-4. Hawksburn to South Yarra now allows 3-4 minutes; it used to be 2-3.
With frequent service, as long as you have enough trains/trams/buses, you can unshackle them from having to wait for a specific departure time, and run them as fast as you can, as long as the frequency can be maintained. Hold them back a bit if one gets too far ahead of the next one, but otherwise, don’t wait for minutes everyday for the timetable to catch up.
— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) August 31, 2017
Tweak the timetable at quiet times
Another benefit could be that timetables could be altered to reduce frequency when the capacity doesn’t demand it, such as between Christmas and mid-January.
Demand reduces markedly during this time, but the strategy currently employed to reduce service is a blunt instrument — on the trains at least, in years when they do it. Some services are simply dropped out of the timetable, leaving some huge, uneven gaps in the service.
(The trams actually seem to get this right, with more nuanced reductions, for instance frequency might drop from 5 minutes to 6 minutes, which is fine, provided the capacity is sufficient.)
Could we have headway running on frequent services?
The operating contracts in Melbourne mean the operator gets penalised for the cancelled train. If the other trains run late or early, they get penalised for that too.
There’s a strong argument for giving them the flexibility to alter services to minimise gaps between them — particularly when the service is very frequent, but even for less frequent services.
At some locations where very frequent services run, it’s a no-brainer. For instance St Kilda Road trams heading towards the City, where there can be a tram every minute or two, but sometimes longer gaps appear which cause overcrowding.
On the trains, this type of thing can be difficult because lines share tracks in the central area, so delaying one train can affect another.
The plan is over time for them to be separated out — hence the metro tunnel project. Eventually more lines will be independent. When that happens, you could do as other metro systems do, and feed more trains into the system, filling up capacity, maintaining a service every few minutes without worrying that a particular train arrives at 8:03 exactly.
Does it let operators off the hook?
Operators under these conditions would be off the hook for meeting specific times, but face other challenges in keeping an even frequency running. It may be quite difficult to shift drivers and vehicles around by a few minutes if they are coming from or going to other runs, or are due for a break.
And you’d still penalise operators for a cancelled services. The change would be that you wouldn’t penalise them for punctuality if (according to an agreed criteria) alterations are made to minimise gaps between services.
The point is, there are many cases where this would be better for passengers, so it would be good if it was an option on some routes.
The new contracts haven’t been published yet, but as I understand it, they will miss this change, despite increasing numbers of frequent services across the city. A shame.
Maybe next time?
Update 9am: Sorry to add this addendum, but there’s probably actually two questions here:
1. Should operators run to timetables, but have punctuality penalties waived if they shift things around to reduce gaps when cancellations occur? Cancellation penalties would still apply. Arguably this could apply at times/on services of lower frequency.
2. Should they get rid of (public) timetables altogether and run to headways permanently? This is a high frequency thing. What threshold would people find acceptable?