One of the gaping holes in Melbourne’s public transport system is the lack of an all-day every day frequent service on the backbone: the Metro suburban train network.
Melbourne is one of the few cities in the world, outside North America, which doesn’t have frequent all day trains.
Other Australian cities are moving towards this. Perth has now trains every 15 minutes to most stations until around 8pm. Sydney does even better – they’re every 15 minutes until around midnight, and the new Sydney Metro line runs every 4 minutes in peak, and every 10 minutes the rest of the time.
The PBO costing
A few months ago the State Parliamentary Budget Office published their cost estimate for the Greens policy of trains and trams every 10 minutes, every day, all day until 9pm: $214 million per year – with $173 million of that being for trains.
Some people thought this was cheap. I actually wonder if it might be even cheaper. One source suggested to me that the train upgrades would be closer to $100 million per year.
How did they calculate it? The PBO’s source document doesn’t have much detail. I did ask, and they said they only included scalable costs, which in theory takes into account the cost savings inherent in using existing assets more efficiently.
The Greens policy scope is larger than some other proposals, as it includes 10 minute frequencies all the way to Pakenham and Werribee.
It’s unclear if the PBO took into account potential efficiencies from driver shifts – a driver who might currently run 1-2 peak services in a shift may also be able to drive some additional off-peak services for no extra cost.
The importance of the network effect
The cost would be partly offset by increased fare revenue.
The PBO’s estimate of increased revenue was based on work by Infrastructure Australia, but it’s not clear if this takes into account the network effect. That is, if you run a single route more frequently, that’s good, you get some more passengers. But run a lot of routes more frequently and you make exponentially more journeys more time-competitive, and get a lot more passengers.
It’s like when they made it so text messages weren’t confined to one phone network, but you could SMS anybody. Usage grew exponentially.
(Yes, I am old enough to remember these things.)
Apart from connections between different bus, tram and train routes being easier with high frequencies, it also makes life easier during works and disruptions, when sections of rail lines are replaced by buses, as connections (especially bus to train) involve less waiting around.
Objections to frequent trains
Interestingly, when faced with the idea that most of Melbourne’s trains could run every 10 minutes all day, a few people object to the concept.
Here are some of the points that I’ve seen raised.
“Huge infrastructure upgrades are needed first!”
No they’re not. Although there are sections of single track that are a barrier, most lines can run trains every ten minutes with no issues, because they already run more frequently than this in peak hour.
“There aren’t enough trains!”
Yes there are. While there might be some adjustments needed to maintenance, again, there would still be plenty of trains unused outside peak hours, so this shouldn’t be a big problem.
“It’s too expensive”
Big transport networks are expensive. According to the Budget Papers, the fees paid to MTM for running and maintaining the entire Metro network amount to about $1.1 billion per year.
So we might be talking about a funding increase of around 10% per year to make the network vastly more useful for people. And that doesn’t count increased fare revenue.
(Total rail network costs, including Metro, V/Line, V/Line coaches and the strange Capital Assets Charge, which is an internal government accounting trick, are about $3.9 billion. Against that higher cost, this is a tiny increase of about 3%.)
“Nobody travels in the middle of the day”
Melbourne is now a big city. Plenty of people travel outside peak hours.
Vicroads data shows road demand as strong right throughout the day, and weekend demand is nearly as strong as weekdays.
All-day frequent service can also help spread the peak load, by making it more attractive to travel outside peak.
“Off-peak trains aren’t crowded“
In some cases they are. For instance, western suburbs lines get very crowded during weekday off-peak and weekends – see below.
This plan would solve that, but the main benefit is sparking more demand by cutting waiting times (including connections from other services) to make public transport a more attractive option. This is because transport is supply-led.
“Express trains would be better“
Some argue that instead of trains every 10 minutes, there should be alternating stoppers and expresses every 20 minutes.
This is messy, eats track capacity, is harder for new users to understand, and means only a fraction of stations get the cut in waiting times. And each station skipped only saves about a minute of journey time.
Studies indicate that perceptions of waiting time can be up to 2.5 times that of travel time. Cutting waiting time is the priority to get more passengers on board.
Yes, it’s operating expenditure, recurring funds, which can be seen as bad for government budgets, unlike once-off capital expenditure. But this is the reality with a public service. You don’t build a hospital and then not staff it properly.
Better services would maximise use of the (substantial) rail infrastructure and fleet, and the cost would be partially recouped by increased fare revenue.
Spreading peak demand, just as was the case with the Earlybird fare, can also seen as a way of saving on upgrades to peak capacity (on public transport and on the roads), which are very expensive.
More broadly, it would assist economic growth by providing more opportunity for people to reach employment and education.
“Every 10 minutes? It should be every 5!”
Perhaps eventually, but let’s walk before we run.
With feeder bus services generally poor, who would use the trains if they ran every five minutes? The risk is they’d be under utilised.
Better to build up the patronage, then see which lines need a further boost.
“What about buses?”
Buses are important too, and many bus routes suffer the same problems as off-peak trains – more so, given some routes run only hourly. So yes, buses need upgrades.
But if you had to do just one mode, I’d start with trains:
- the fleet is ready to go
- they serve both short and long distance trips
- carrying capacity is much higher, including passengers per additional staff member deployed
- upgrading a network of just 15 lines provides far greater frequent service coverage across Melbourne
- trains are largely immune from road congestion, so the investment in new services is maximised
“It would lock up the road network”
Unlikely. Outside peak times, local arterial roads (the ones they typically have level crossings) are not under the same stress as at peak hour, and the proposal is for fewer trains running than at peak hour.
The introduction of 10 minute all-day trains on the Frankston, Dandenong and Ringwood lines has not caused chaos on the roads.
And the extra trains would attract trips out of cars onto public transport, giving more people a way to avoid road congestion.
That said, the continued removal of level crossings means there is the opportunity to boost train service levels with less effect on the road network.
Frequent trains mean huge benefits
Melbourne continues to grow, and all day traffic levels continue to grow.
Running the trains more frequently all day brings huge benefits for many, including better connections across the network, without breaking the bank.
You know the joy of walking onto a station platform and finding there’s only a few minutes until your train? This experience makes using the system far more attractive. That’s the power of high frequency service.
The State government is going great guns on infrastructure, but it’s time they moved on upgrades to services as well, especially a no-brainer like this.