Last week the government announced timetable changes, including adjustments to the Cranbourne/Pakenham line. (I’ll just call it the Dandenong line for short. Almost everybody else does.)
Of the roughly 265 services per weekday, 93 will be adjusted. A few will be quicker by a minute or two, but most of the 93 will be slower – most of them by 1-2 minutes, but a few by up to 5 minutes.
During peak hour, I suspect most people won’t notice, because between the City and Dandenong it’s usually not worth looking at a timetable – there’s generally a train every 3-6 minutes.
Beyond Dandenong it’s less frequent, of course, and off-peak 20 minute frequencies kick as early as 8am on weekdays at Pakenham.
Striving for the impossible?
But let’s cut to the chase. What’s the point of an impossible-to-achieve timetable?
Over the past 12 months, this line has had the worst punctuality on the network (October 2018 to September 2019: Cranbourne 84.8%, Pakenham 85.9% within 5 minutes)
If some running times can’t be achieved, it absolutely makes sense to make changes.
But they also need to look at the causes of delays, and identify fixes.
- Are there infrastructure issues? (Yes, there have been major disruptions due to new infrastructure, but is it also causing every day delays?)
- Is the Cranbourne single track contributing to delays? (It’s hard to believe it’s not. Even the government’s own web site says duplication would remove the bottlenecks that cause delays and allow the number of train services to be doubled during peak times)
- Is the flat junction at Dandenong causing issues?
- What about the sharing of the City Loop tunnel with Frankston trains? Nobody could pretend that doesn’t add to track congestion.
- Peak crowding? I’m sure that’s contributing. So how about boosting the service? Again, that’s possible if the Frankston trains come out of the Loop.
- Not all of the changes are in peak hour. For instance the 1:40pm to Pakenham currently arrives and terminates at 2:58pm. Under the new timetable it takes 2 minutes longer. If services like this are taking too long now due to crowding, is it a sign the base off-peak service needs boosting too?
- Will the new HCMTs help cut station dwell times? (And are other measures such as platform staff and announcements and the “burn lines” helping?)
The preference should be to fix issues like these, and then adjust the times…
We know they’re working on timetable changes.
Realistically, right here and now, what do they do?
And why has this been ignored for so long that some trains need to be given five minutes longer?
What would happen in Japan?
One reaction I saw from multiple people was along the lines of:
Slowing down trains? Outrage! This would never happen in Japan!
Um well… scrupulously punctual trains don’t just happen by magic. They have to work at it.
So what do they do in Japan? A little research, and here are some answers, courtesy of this paper.
It’s worth noting that they’re often looking at some seriously intense railway operations. The paper looks at the Tozai line, which carries 1.6 million passenger trips per day:
In many railway lines in big cities, 25 – 30 trains are running per hour per direction on a double track line during morning rush hours. This means trains are running every two to three minutes in one direction. Still, trains are very congested and it is not unusual that more than 2,000 passengers are aboard a train which consists of ten cars and is 200m long.
That’s far more and longer trains than on the Dandenong line, though that’s where things are likely to be headed in coming years.
How do the Japanese railway companies handle it? The paper says they look at their infrastructure and try to make the most of it:
Timetable planners are very cautious to avoid conflicts imposed by capacity constraints.
And station dwell times are certainly an issue:
Because trains are operated very densely, once a delay (primary delay) happens, the delay is propagated to other trains and a lot of trains are also delayed (secondary delay). Primary delays are quite often caused by passengers. If more passengers than expected get on/off a train, the dwell time becomes longer and the train is delayed.
The paper goes on to say that if infrastructure can’t fix it, or it isn’t practical to upgrade it, then yes, absolutely they do adjust train timetables to improve punctuality:
Various factors are relevant to the robustness of timetables. In particular, improvement or increase of facilities such as construction of new tracks is quite effective to increase robustness of timetables, but usually prohibitively expensive and sometimes impossible due to limitation of spaces. So, railway companies are more interested in improving robustness of timetables by slightly modifying them.
And it flags some of the options for modifying the timetables:
…potential adjustments are:
Dwell time of Train Z at Station A should be increased by five seconds.
Running time of Train W from Station B to Station C should be increased by 10 seconds.
Departing order of Train S and Train T should be changed so that Train T departs first.
Train U should stop at Station D.
The whole paper is worth a read if you’re interested in such things.
So then… do they slow down train timetables in Japan to maintain punctuality? Yes they certainly do.
I’d love to visit Japan one day. But whenever and wherever I go on holiday, I’m wary of observing things just as a tourist, and I try not to make assumptions about how or bad and efficient things are, based on limited experience.
So is our State government off the hook? Certainly not. The question is: are the root causes of delays being looked at? And we know Dandenong to Cranbourne is to be duplicated – by 2023 apparently, almost 30 years after suburban trains started on that line. Why has it taken so long?
And how about the other single tracks around the Metro network: Upfield, Belgrave, Lilydale, Hurstbridge, Altona Loop? They all cause problems – delays, and short shunting to prevent flow-on delays.
This isn’t Puffing Billy, a tourist attraction with a train only every couple of hours. Melbourne’s rail network underpins the entire economy.
If they are serious about the public transport network, then sufficient infrastructure is a must, and the other barriers to punctuality all need to be looked at and resolved.
- Lead picture: Kudanshita station, Tokyo (Wikimedia)