Britain is a place many Australians look to with fondness, with many of us having relatives there, and it being a top destination for Australian tourists.
As a result, London is sometimes seen as a city to emulate, especially as our cities get bigger.
Our current crop of public transport managers certainly have links to Britain — the current CEOs of PTV, Metro and V/Line are all Brits (though the current and recent Yarra Trams CEOs have been French).
Here are some things I’ve learnt about London Underground – both from last year’s trip, from recently reading Christian Wolmar’s book about the history of the system, and from other research – and how they might relate to Melbourne.
1. Underground, overground
Most of London Underground isn’t underground. Tunnels are very expensive. Mostly it’s the central core of the network, where there was no other practical choice, that’s underground. Outside the central core, for the older lines, there was space to go aboveground, though recent network expansion has mostly had to go under.
This map actually shows you where the tunnels are on the network.
Melbourne lesson: it’s only recent new lines in heavily built-up areas that have been or will be underground: the City Loop, Metro 1 (under construction via Swanston Street) and the proposed but not funded Metro 2. Other new lines such as Regional Rail Link and Mernda are aboveground, because they’re either in new areas or along existing reservations.
2. Oyster isn’t perfect
The popular narrative is that Myki is crap, Oyster is perfect. Oyster is terrific, but perfect? No.
On our trip, most of us used credit cards; one used an Oyster card. We found we couldn’t top-up the Oyster card online, because our account was linked to a non-UK address. Instead it has to be done in person.
Oyster and the ability to use contactless/Paypass cards in London is fantastic. But not absolutely perfect. pic.twitter.com/P6TqA82Yav
— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) July 19, 2017
Fares also aren’t fully integrated. You will pay extra to change between tubes, other trains, buses, trams, river boats.
And we (occasionally) saw Oyster readers not working, mostly on buses. And “heritage” Routemaster buses don’t accept credit cards.
That said, on all other services, the system’s terrific “contactless” capability to accept most Paypass/touch credit cards directly is a real boon for tourists.
Melbourne lesson: Myki has a way to go to improve, especially with regard to reader response times. Only the new model readers are fast enough — over time this might be resolved as older equipment gets replaced.
We probably won’t get credit card options anytime soon, but phone apps may be on the way.
3. Branches and junctions
Conventional wisdom will tell you that a metro system has no branches — that trains run simple patterns from end to end.
Many of the more modern metros are like engineered like this. Singapore for instance, where each line is self-contained. Even getting to the airport involves changing to a shuttle service.
London Underground actually has lots of branches, which complicate operations, but are a legacy of it being such an old system.
And yet they’re replicating it on the new Elizabeth Line (aka Crossrail) — a central tunnel, with two branches in the east, and three in the west.
Even so, “flying junctions” and other infrastructure are used to avoid conflicts, and the interactions between lines are minimised. It helps prevent delays on one line quickly spreading to another.
Melbourne lesson: there’s been a gradual shift to separating out the lines, not just in terms of timetables but also maintenance and drivers.
But there’s a way to go yet. Currently in peak hour, the V/Line Gippsland and Dandenong lines share tracks, with the latter interacting with the Frankston line in the Loop, which in turn connects with the Werribee line, which (in the morning peak) also shares tracks with some Sunbury direct trains. The Sunbury line in turn shares tracks with the Upfield and Craigieburn lines, which share with V/Line Seymour trains. The Sunbury line also shares tracks with the Bendigo line, which in turn shares with the Geelong and Ballarat lines.
So during the morning peak, about half the rail lines in Melbourne and beyond (and many of the busiest) are actually interlinked! Sometimes you wonder how your morning train ever arrives on time!
The Metro 1 tunnel will help this when it opens in 2025, but timetable changes in the meantime would help minimise line interactions.
4. Some Tube lines are quite long
Conventional wisdom also says that metro lines are fairly short, which is why it’s okay if carriages are designed for high capacity, with most passengers standing.
The longest one seat ride on the Tube is 34 miles (54 km) from Epping to West Ruislip on the Central line, taking 82 minutes.
That said, this would take you through Central London and out the other side, which is probably not a common trip.
Still, a trip from Piccadilly Circus in Central London to Heathrow Airport is about 50 mins on the Tube, so there are some long trips being made.
Melbourne lesson: Flinders Street via the Loop to Pakenham is 80 minutes. Some have said this is too long for trains with few seats. The new High Capacity Metro Trains will have more standing space, but with more carriages as well, and an overall slightly higher number of seats than the current train fleets. Hopefully this is a good balance between seats and capacity, so most people won’t be standing for too long.
5. Different lines, different trains
While the whole Tube network is standard gauge, different lines are built to different load gauges, in other words, how big each train is.
Deep level tunnels on the older lines are much smaller than some of the “subsurface” lines, and have noticeably smaller trains. Victorian era engineering wasn’t up to the task of building larger deep level tunnels.
This means the fleet is segregated, with many trains unable to run on certain lines.
Melbourne lesson: You wouldn’t deliberately design it like this.
It does may make sense to run trains of one type on a line (same acceleration/deceleration characteristics can help with punctuality and timetabling, and dedicated fleets running to specific depots mean easier maintenance and repairs).
But you wouldn’t want this on a permanent basis, as it’s useful to shuffle the fleet around as newer trains arrive — just as is happening on Melbourne’s trams with the Cascade Plan.
6. The term “metro” may have come from London, not Paris
The term “metro” is now used around the world.
It originated with the Paris Metro, which came from the original operating company name: La Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris (Paris Metropolitan Railway Company). It’s unclear, but some believe the company name was inspired by the London Metropolitan Railway, which had opened about 40 years earlier.
Melbourne lesson: Well, you probably know this bit. In 2009 or thereabouts the State Government chose to call the suburban rail system “Metro” for the new operating contract that started that year.
Yes, the government owns the name, not the operator, so hopefully it’ll stick around now.
That still hasn’t stopped them partly rebranding again since then, when the umbrella “Public Transport Victoria” (PTV) brand took over from Metlink. And now we’re seeing an even bigger umbrella brand “Transport For Victoria” over the top of that, though thankfully so far that’s only appeared on printed material, not all over the system itself.
7. Much of the Tube is not accessible
Many of the stations were built before accessibility was seen as important, and 19th century engineering certainly didn’t prioritise something extravagant as ramps when building entrances to underground stations.
At the time, lifts were an emerging technology, not ready for prime time. So many Tube stations are still not step-free, though they’re slowly upgrading them.
Melbourne lesson: Thanks to enlightened thinking from the 1890s, and no underground stations at all until the 1970s, thankfully almost all our stations are step-free, though many are not compliant with DDA, and only some of these will be resolved via level crossing removal-related upgrades.
8. The Tube is only part of London’s rail network
London Underground comprises 11 lines, but numerous other railways also serve London.
In the rejuvenated Docklands area, there is the Docklands Light Railway, an automated mostly elevated system runs.
Privatised “National Rail” operators run services from beyond London, including many commuter routes. This causes some issues, with some long distance trains running with moderate loads until they reach the commuter belt, where they get crowded.
Some suburban routes have been taken over by Transport For London and are being upgraded and run as “Overground” services, offering high(er) frequencies, thus becoming more like The Tube.
Melbourne lesson: The issue of long distance trains serving commuters is a well-known problem on V/Line’s Ballarat and Geelong lines, where passengers from Caroline Springs, Tarneit and Wyndham Vale (and to a lesser extent, other stations on other lines) add to capacity pressures for those from further out.
There’s little question that something will need to be done to serve both demographics better. More short-run services in the short term, and better track separation and Metro services to growing suburbs in the medium to long term.
9. Frequent since opening
The Tube has run frequent services from the start. Wolmar’s book talks about 4 trains per hour on lines from day one — also shown on this timetable (above) from the opening of the Metropolitan line.
This reflects that the first lines served mostly busy built-up areas, not empty paddocks. Mind you, later some lines did expand in an effort to prompt residential development.
Melbourne lesson: A parallel might be the trams, many of which were built in already established areas, and were mostly reasonably frequent as soon as they opened (and still are today) whereas the trains ran farther afield, originally beyond the metropolis to developing areas, and were (and mostly still are) not terribly frequent – every 20 minutes is typical outside peak.
We need to catch up. There’s huge scope to run Melbourne’s trains at least every 10 minutes all day on most parts of the network, vastly improving the experience for passengers whether it’s a one seat ride, or involves connections.
10. Less peaky = busy all day
Melbourne’s rail network is very peaky. The most extreme case might be the Ringwood (Belgrave/Lilydale) line, where the number of trains through Camberwell in peak hour (approaching 20 per hour) is ten times the number in the late evening (2 per hour).
Peaky means we’ve built substantial infrastructure and fleet which only gets a workout for a relatively brief period every day. There are probably quite a few trains in the fleet that only run two services everyday – once every peak hour. This might be a product of demand, but it also means that outside peak times, passenger wait times are much longer, which suppresses public transport demand, even though overall travel demand is strong.
London Underground’s service, at least measured by trains per hour, is much flatter, with for instance the Piccadilly line running 21 trains per hour at most times of day, though the weekend Night Tube (overnight service) is “only” 6 trains per hour.
And this is reflected in passenger journey figures. A quick comparison:
- Route length: London Underground about 400 km / Melbourne also about 400 km depending on how you count it
- Train service kilometres per year: Underground 84 million km / Metro 23 million km
- Total passengers per year: Underground 1.37 billion / Metro 233 million
So it’s not that London Underground is a bigger network with longer routes; Melbourne’s rail network is a similar size (but not as well supported by other related systems like London’s DLR and National Rail, as noted above).
The key is that London Underground is a far more intensive network, with more frequent services, and far more passengers.
It also means that unlike Melbourne, London’s system better reflects overall city travel demand, not just CBD peak hour demand. Outside peak hour, travel demand (in both cities) is substantial, but the broader Melbourne public transport network’s lack of all-day frequent service isn’t good at capturing it — trams do okay, but trains and buses (which fill the gaps) are an issue.
Handling billions of passenger trips every year means making use of the latest technology. London Underground uses platform screen doors at some of the newest stations, as well as in-cab (high capacity) signalling to allow very high frequencies on the busiest lines. We’ll start to see those rolled-out when Metro 1 tunnel opens.
London is a bigger city than Melbourne, about twice the population. It’s got a 1900 year head start.
But Melbourne is growing fast. Our transport system needs to mature, and any sane policy should dictate that the backbone of the transport system should not be moving individuals in cars, but by mass transit.
City planning will also play a role, by concentrating development around public transport.
We might never have such an extensive rail network as London, but we can do a lot better than we are now — starting to adapt some of the best practices and technology from London and other big world cities would be a great start.