A Metro (MTM) proposal has emerged for big changes to the operation of the City Loop for trains running through the Caulfield and Burnley tunnels.
The page below is from a document discussing CBD station capacity implications from the introduction of the High Capacity Metro Trains. I’m told the document is genuine.
It reveals that the Caulfield Loop will be required to run anti-clockwise all day – the opposite of the current weekday PM direction. Apparently this is due to signalling changes for the HCMTs, which will run in the Loop when they come into service in 2020, until the metro tunnel opens in 2025. It sounds like those upgrades have only been implemented in one direction.
The document goes on to say that to prevent overcrowding on the remaining trains running from Parliament to Richmond (Burnley Loop trains), they propose to have those services not stop at Richmond.
So, what does this mean exactly?
In AM peak, the Loop would run as at present, except Frankstons would all run direct to Flinders St (“full Cross City operation”) – this is good; it allows more Dandenong and Frankston line services.
The bigger changes are in PM peak:
- Caulfield Loop trains to/from Cranbourne and Pakenham would run anti-clockwise (Frankstons would all run direct to/from Flinders Street)
- Burnley direct trains (generally they are the stopping services to Alamein, Blackburn and Ringwood) from Flinders St would continue to stop at Richmond
- Burnley Loop trains (currently mostly express trains to Belgrave/Lilydale, and Glen Waverley services) would not stop at Richmond – they’d stop at Burnley instead for interchange
Here’s a diagram – modified from the PTUA’s guide to navigating the City Loop.
What it means for passengers
Not stopping Burnley Loop trains at Richmond is to avoid what could otherwise be dire overcrowding on those trains. But it would mean Caulfield people have to catch a train anti-clockwise around the Loop.
If going to the Frankston line, you would presumably change trains at Richmond or Caulfield. Sandringham line passengers would also need to go round anti-clockwise and change at Richmond.
For passengers from Parliament or Melbourne Central to any of the lines through South Yarra this inevitably means a longer trip outbound, about 10 minutes. Probably about the same at Flagstaff and Southern Cross, and quicker from Flinders Street.
It’s 3 minutes from Parliament to Richmond direct; the other way around it’s 13 minutes assuming no extended wait at Flinders Street. Which might be a big assumption – Metro’s challenge will be to eliminate or at least minimise this wait.
Metro will also need to prevent any transposals – where a train unexpectedly changes destination after people have boarded. This is especially important now that they’re in the habit of hiding the train’s destination on station displays to discourage late boarding.
The change to anti-clockwise all day is similar to when the Clifton Hill Loop changed in 2008 to run consistently clockwise on weekdays. It meant a longer AM trip for passengers going to Parliament, but cut the travel time for those going to Flinders Street – in that case, it was fairer, as they had previously gone the long way around in both directions.
Clifton Hill people don’t have the option of changing trains, but some of them hop off at Jolimont and walk to Spring Street in the morning.
Way more people than you might think hop off the trains at Jolimont in morning peak hour.— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) October 8, 2019
I’m guessing this grew strongly after the Clifton Hill Loop switched to clockwise all day in 2008. #MetroTrains pic.twitter.com/fBlLHWra9I
Ultimately, people may need to re-assess their travel patterns as a result of this proposal. Their nearest CBD station may not be their fastest option. (My nearest is Flagstaff, but Flinders Street is only slightly further away, and will become my fastest option under these changes.)
I’m sure we’ll adapt… just as Clifton Hill and Werribee people did in 2008, and Sandringham people did in 1996. Those lines continue to boom. But don’t be surprised if people are grumpy about it.
The change would be much easier to deal with if the Northern Loop was changed to run clockwise all day on weekdays, as it does on weekends. This would provide passengers from Parliament a quick way of getting to Flinders Street to pick up their trains. (It would add to loads, but not as badly as Burnley Loop trains, which have their full CBD load to carry from Parliament.)
For people starting their trip at Richmond, or changing off other lines at Richmond and wanting to use the Burnley group, they will be able to use the trains running direct from Flinders Street (about 8 trains per hour in peak hour), and change to expresses or Glen Waverley trains at Burnley instead.
More consistency? Yes, but at a cost
There are compelling reasons for running the Loop tunnels consistently all day, including better network legibility (especially for occasional users; PTUA gets hundreds of hits every month on the City Loop guide), cutting long midday gaps between trains, and fairer outcomes for those who go the long way around in both the AM and PM peaks.
This change will also enables Loop passengers to get to Southern Cross and Flinders St in the PM, not currently possible without changing trains. This is very helpful for V/Line passengers in particular.
But it’s at the expense of the consistency of stopping every train at Richmond, which is likely to cause confusion, especially initially, and will cause a blow-out in some travel times.
Could they leave Burnley Loop trains as they are? Yes, but I suspect the modelling is right: the crowding at Parliament and Richmond would be pretty bad, with people heading to Richmond crowding out Burnley passengers.
A few other questions spring to mind:
- Would the anti-clockwise direction be changed back when the metro tunnel opens and the Frankston Line returns to the Loop in 2025? (Probably not. People will have adjusted by then, I suspect if it happens, they’d leave it alone, and keep the benefits.)
- What boost in services will be seen on the various affected lines to make use of the extra capacity, and lessen the impact of the changes?
- For Caulfield Loop trains, will Metro successfully eliminate delays through Flinders Street and avoid transposals?
- How will Caulfield cope with the increase in interchange of Loop passengers to the Frankston line?
- Will Southern Cross cope with the passenger increase, especially when there are delays and escalator failures, some of which run for weeks at a time?
- Even though consistent Loop direction is in principle a good idea, given the problems with it, why didn’t the City Loop upgrades include bi-directional running for the HCMTs? True those trains will move to the metro tunnel in 2025, but won’t they eventually be redeployed to more lines as the Comeng trains get decommissioned?
- Was it really not possible to change the Northern Loop to cut travel time blow-outs?
Overall there are benefits to this proposal, particularly around better separation of services, which helps reliability and capacity – which is of course a key priority. And it helps connections to V/Line and non-Loop western suburbs lines at Southern Cross.
But this comes at the cost of travel time increases for some passengers, and inconsistent stopping patterns at Richmond.
Obviously making lots of changes at one time is hard, but this would be a lot easier on people if the Northern Loop was changed to run clockwise at the same time.
Especially without that, this proposal looks like one of those awkward compromises that adds some capacity and benefits, but unfortunately brings drawbacks for quite a few passengers.