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Why is rail patronage 50% higher in Sydney than Melbourne?

There’s a Wikipedia page “Commuter rail in Australia” which has a quick snapshot of the country’s heavy rail systems.

(The term “commuter rail” is problematic. In a North American context it often refers to systems that really cater only for peak commuter/work trips. Australian rail systems sit somewhere between here and metro systems, and are generally referred in Australia to as suburban rail. Confusingly the term sometimes used in North America is “regional rail”, as in serving an entire city/region. But I digress.)

Given Melbourne and Sydney now have similar populations, I thought a comparison of the two cities and their rail networks might be interesting.

CitySydney
(excluding Sydney Metro)
Melbourne
(excluding V/Line
but including Stony Point line)
Metropolitan population
(ABS)
5,312,1635,078,193
Urban density423 per sq km [1]508 per sq km [1]
Train operatorSydney TrainsMetro Trains
Number of lines8 plus branches15 including all branches
Stations175222
Track length1588 km
(Route length 721 km)
998 km
(Route length 430 km)
Fleet size230 eight-car trains
= 1840 carriages
226 six-car trains
= 1356 carriages
Usual all day frequency15 minutes10-20 minutes
Usual evening frequency15 minutes30 minutes
Timetabled stops per weekdayabout 46,000
(average 262 per station)
about 44,000
(average 198 per station)
All-night servicesNo
But there are Night Ride buses every night
Yes, hourly on weekends
But no all-night service during the week
Car parksMore than 30,000 spacesMore than 40,000 spaces
Annual ridership377.1 million (Source) [1]244.1 million (Source)

[1] These density numbers are probably unreliable. Better measures take into account statistical areas which might actually be rural or not available for settlement. Charting Transport has some good discussion on this.

[2] Sydney Metro patronage was about 2 million per month in late-2019, so extrapolated out would be about 24 million per year.


So then, how can we explain why Sydney’s ridership is more than 50% higher than Melbourne’s, when the population is only 5% larger?

It’s not station car parking. Melbourne has more car spaces at stations than Sydney.

Craigieburn line at Parliament Station, 2:57pm on a Monday

Longer routes probably help a bit, giving Sydney’s train network a bigger footprint across the city, though Melbourne actually has more railway stations.

Fares potentially might be a factor, though it’s really swings and roundabouts. Some (especially shorter trips, and off-peak) are cheaper in Sydney. Others (especially longer trips and those involving multiple modes) are likely to be cheaper in Melbourne – though Sydney’s $50 weekly cap makes even long trips pretty price competitive for everyday users.

Until now, Sydney has had a ridiculously cheap Sunday cap of $2.80 – compared to $16.10 Monday to Saturday. That changes from next week to $8.05, but it will also apply on Saturdays and public holidays.

Better train frequencies in Sydney would certainly be helping, making Sydney’s trains a more attractive proposition for more trips, especially when connecting from other lines. Melbourne has a few 10 minute lines, but these are in the minority, and drop back to 30 minutes in the evenings.

Remember, transport is supply-led. The better the service, the more people use it.

What about train journeys to the CBD? City of Sydney has 246,343 residents plus (under normal circumstances) 615,000 visitors/workers. City of Melbourne in contrast has 148,000 residents plus 763,000 visitors/workers. So in theory, Melbourne has a busier CBD.

Sydney train at Museum station

Broader urban planning is almost certainly a factor. Large suburban hubs such as Parramatta serve as alternatives to Sydney’s CBD, and importantly, are located on the heavy rail network.

One way of comparing is to look at each city’s biggest (suburban) shopping centres:

SydneyRailMelbourneRail
1Macquarie CentreY (Metro)ChadstoneN
2Westfield ParramattaYWestfield Fountain GateN
3Westfield Warringah MallNHighpointN*
4Westfield Bondi JunctionYWestfield KnoxN
5Westfield MirandaYEastlandY
6Castle TowersY (Metro)Westfield SouthlandY
7Macarthur SquareYWatergardensY
8Westfield HornsbyYWestfield DoncasterN
9Westfield PenrithYPacific WerribeeN
10Bankstown CentralYNorthlandN
Heavy rail access9/10Heavy rail access3/10

*We could quibble about Melbourne’s Highpoint – it has tram/light rail access. But this doesn’t provide the speed or capacity of heavy rail. (Knox almost got tram access… but the Bracks government extension fell short.)

In terms of heavy rail access, Sydney is clearly ahead. (And I didn’t count Sydney’s biggest shopping centre: Westfield Sydney in the CBD, which also is close to rail.)

This makes a huge difference not just to mode share for a substantial number of journeys, but also to heavy rail patronage.

Are there other factors in Sydney’s success? Almost certainly. Some more digging might involve looking at:

  • the spread of peak vs off-peak journeys
  • mode share/feeder service provision for easy station access
  • travel times including express trains
  • CBD commuter train mode share, and the role of higher capacity double-deck trains
Town Hall Station, Sydney

Planning for success

Sydney’s rail network might not be perfect, but they seem to be doing a lot of things right – patronage 50% higher than Melbourne’s doesn’t happen by accident.

Can Melbourne do better? I’m sure we can.

Urban planning outcomes can take decades to achieve. Are we heading in the right direction? Hopefully – it’s hard to say. We’re seeing urban consolidation in some areas, but the State is still investing in huge motorways (Sydney too, mind you) and the big centres like Chadstone and Fountain Gate keep expanding, with little or no effort into improving their public transport access, despite strong demand.

But if we can’t instantly fix urban planning, rail service frequencies are a lot easier to improve in the shorter term. It’s high time the Victorian government got serious about providing rail services that meet the expectations of a 21st century city of 5 million people.

30 replies on “Why is rail patronage 50% higher in Sydney than Melbourne?”

What about the topology of the networks? Not only does Sydney have a number of large centres across the city located on the network, it also has multiple connections across the city which means you can access those centres without having to travel to the CBD and out again as you would in Melbourne.

You should really include Sydney’s North West Metro line as, for all intents and purposes, is a heavy rail line. That gives Castle Towers shopping centre heavy rail access. In your figures, did you include the North West Metro in passenger numbers?

Good feedback, thanks all. I’ve given a Y to Castle Towers, and made a note that it’s Metro along with Macquarie Centre.

I didn’t include Metro patronage in the patronage or other numbers. Patronage is a bit unstable as the line is new, but I’ve added a note reflecting that trips on Sydney Metro were about 2 million per month in late-2019, so would extrapolate out to about 24 million per year.

Both cities experience high passenger loads in peak periods, but I reckon Sydney has greater numbers travelling in the ‘counter peak’ direction, because it has more destinations that are not the CBD. Most of Melbourne’s ’counter peak’ services run very empty.

As a current resident, I also anecdotally noticed that Sydney’s trains seemed to be more reliable as well, compared to when I previously lived in Melbourne until 2012, and especially compared to when I previously visited the city in 2003. I rarely noticed any delays from my first day in Sydney since 2012, whereas I notice at least one line in Melbourne that was delayed. I lived in Glenfield for the first several years, which is on the outer SW, but the trains came every 15 mins on weekdays during the day. It used to be half-hourly on weekends, but now even those days see trains every 15 mins.

Sydney also has stations put to good use with high-density development very close by. Major ones include Chatswood, Parramatta, and Bankstown with offices, apartments, and shopping centres within walking distance, and ones further afield like Hornsby, Penrith, Hurstville have a Westfield centre sometimes right next to the stations. Even some smaller stations like St Peters or Wollstonecraft have triple-story or taller apartments within walking distance.

There were (and still are) a lot of trackworks on the weekends, but they were visibly marked with big signs showing where the rail buses stop, and had several staff members who looked after us regardless of station size.

I cannot comment on the connections between the feeder buses and the trains, as I only have taken them rarely.

I think what Sydney needs to improve would be better bicycle lanes connecting to stations, which, although improving, still leaves a lot to be desired compared to Melbourne. Also, the buses in the inner suburbs (and along Parramatta Road especially) can be really bumpy – I don’t remember having this experience in Melbourne. Finally, while Melbourne seem to have too many orbital road routes

Great read, thanks. I think you’ve got to factor the Melbourne tram network in to really understand what’s going on here. 200 million+ often short trips to layer across the data. Having said that, Sydney’s train network offer is a step above. Apples and oranges, maybe.

…sorry, unfinished comment.
Sydney seems to suffer with not enough, with road networks being very haphazard if one isn’t travelling into the CBD. Hopefully some of this will be alleviated with Westconnex (though that project has its problems), allowing for more opportunities in new pedestrian, bicycle, and light-rail friendly corridors in Sydney CBD and surrounding suburbs.

Melbourne seems to have so many stops to close to each other, often you can look down the track and see the next station a few hundred metres away this makes for a slow ride. Stations in and around Sydney are spaced further apart this makes for a better trip, plus the service patterns seem better, an express is an express first stop strathfied or kogarah in Melbourne express service are hit n miss basically running empty am to a outer terminus or empty pm direct to Flinders Street , and often when you get to Flinders Street it’s a four or so minute wait or the train is magically cancelled and and disappears in to the ether, Melbourne may benefit from a Chicago type ‘A’ ‘B’ stopping pattern or some variation ABCD-IJKL Then next train EFGH-MNOP, don’t get me started on suburban/regional services or the city loop one direction am the other pm. Melbourne needs to learn how to run a rail system.
No Daniel I am sure you cannot compare apples and oranges

The consistent high level of service is of course a big factor – compare a standing room only train at 8am on a Sunday morning with hourly frequency, to 15 minute frequency from pretty much first to last service in Sydney.

Express patterns operate fairly consistently, for example trains to Penrith through Parramatta always run express to at least Strathfield even at the dead of night. This keeps travel time reasonably competitive, although it is no panacea. It also has the effect of providing high service at major hubs such as Strathfield, Burwood, Hurstville etc. This means that even if most lines run every 15 minutes, major stations often have closer to 5-10 min frequency. Duplicated sections such as the North Shore to Gordon also receive a very high level of service (~7-10 mins for nearly the entire day).

This is something I have noticed, but the double-decker trains are much more comfortable for off-peak and shoulder-peak use (of course they have serious problems when it gets very busy). The high amount of seating means seats are generally guaranteed for all except peak trips, and the seating layout is more comfortable than the facing seats on Melbourne trains. Shoulder peak and off-peak trains can have standees for fairly long distances in Melbourne, it is pretty off-putting having a 30-minute long standing journey at 11pm when trains are running half-hourly (example, to Clayton or Blackburn). The obvious fix for this is to run the more metro-orientated trains more often…

Trams seems to have been hardly considered.

Melbourne has, arguably, the largest tram system in the World whereas Sydney’s light rail system is relatively small. Surely Melbourne trams will have taken a large chunk of the heavy rail traffic.

Hi Daniel. A couple of comments. You can’t really exclude Sydney Metro from the Sydney figures as it’s part of Sydney’s heavy rail commuter system and will be increasingly so over coming years as it is extended and the whole rail network transformed from a radial network to an integrated grid network. It’s more important to exclude the interurban lines and it seems you have done that as they are conveniently separated in the statistics. Including the metro would kick Sydney patronage above 400 million – allowing for the coronavirus slump.

I wouldn’t call the double deck trains higher capacity. I know there’s somebody in Melbourne who is a proponent of that notion (!), but their loading inefficiencies mean that they have the same effective capacity as an equivalent single deck train. The seating capacity is higher but the standing capacity is less.

Sydney employment is more decentralised than Melbourne and you’ve alluded to that. The existence of strong centres like Parramatta produces a lot of reverse commuting. There is even one entire cross-regional train line, the Cumberland line, in western Sydney.

Finally, although I haven’t lived in Melbourne for many years, I’m suspecting that Melbourne’s road network and parking situation is still much better than Sydney’s. Driving in peaks in Sydney (even on Saturdays!) is an awful experience, often succumbing to gridlock and, even when you make it to your destination, it’s difficult to find parking. Combine this with attractive public transport coverage and frequencies and you can understand the attraction to public transport. Thanks yet again for a beaut report.

A very interesting comparison but by the end I was thinking oranges and lemons. We may all be Australian but our capital cities are all so different. I was once a believer in build it and they will come but now I think careful and perhaps cautious planning is the way.

Just on the Shopping Centres section, thought it would be worth mentioning Waringah Mall May not have Heavy Rail, but it does have a stop on our Bus Rapid Transit system B-Line, so it is connected relatively into the greater transport network

I think one key point you miss on this analysis is the patronage that trams would ‘steal’ from rail. If you removed all of Melbourne’s tram lines, your rail patronage would certainly increase, accomodating passengers who previously favoured trams instead. Think SE commuters who work on St Kilda Road.

Sydney does not have comparable light rail at this stage and therefore, I don’t think it’s a fair ‘apples to apples’ comparison.

Great comments everyone, keep them coming.

Just on the tram vs bus patronage figures, I’m intending to do a blog post on that specifically, when I get some good figures together.

Some rough numbers (need checking) I have now, as noted in the tweet above, were:

Melbourne buses ~120m, tram ~205m

Sydney buses ~300m, tram ~10m, ferry ~15m

In other words, Sydney’s bus patronage absolutely kills Melbourne’s (lots of former tram routes with strong patronage, I think), and if you combine all of Sydney’s non-train modes, they perform just as well as Melbourne’s non-train modes – within about 5%.

Living down the Frankston line, having a station at Southland has made my life much simpler. It’s really easy to stop off at the station and do a quick shop. A station at Chadstone would be a massive hit, just look at the amount of people that flock there on Boxing Day.

Another big thing to consider is Melbourne’s poor bus network. On weekends especially it’s much simpler to just drive then wait for a train and bus. I think if the bus network was improved you’d seem an increase in train trips. Unfortunately no one in Melbourne seems to really care about buses.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Suburban Rail Loop (if it gets built) and Airport Rail effects these numbers.

How much difference would all those small tram extensions to nearby train stations make, better connectivity = more patronage,.

Daniel I understand that we are writing about train patronage, on a side note I think tram routes 30 and 78 need to be joined this alone would improve connectivity to la trobe St and some stations along route 78 new route 37 perhaps

It is definitely a supply-led problem, frequencies are an issue. Particularly in inner Melbourne. Sometimes you only want to go, say 5km kilometres, but often you think stuff it, will take the car, because the train only comes every 20/30min, and heaven help you if you have to change lines. Trams at night & Sundays aren’t any better. I can understand train frequencies of every 20/30 minutes at the end of the line and edge of the metropolitan area, but they make no sense whatsoever in the inner to mid city.

In Melbourne we seem to run all of our train and tram services to the end of the line, we rarely terminate mid line or run short-stopping service patterns. In many European cities a service in the inner-city will have a train or tram every few minutes (Rodalies, RER, Cercanías, S-Bahn), but they stagger the terminating stations/stops, so by the end of a train line at the city edge, it will be every 20/30min. We could easily do that in Melbourne, such as off-peak/evening; every 5/7min to Boxhill,10/15min to Ringwood, 20/30min to Lilydale/Belgrave. And that could be replicated across most of the network on train and trams, giving the more densely populated areas of Melbourne a truer metro like service frequency and coaxing people out of their cars. And I think Melbourne used to do this once upon a time with the trams.

Terrific piece of work. Thanks for very good attempt to make fair comparisons.
I wonder if parking in Sydney is a lot more expensive than Melbourne – e.g. shopping centres could charge for parking whereas in Melbourne they generally don’t. That may be another factor

Great report Daniel. The last couple of visits to Sydney for work, I have avoided cabs altogether and traveled by train (and some walking) alone. I visit inner city and outer suburban areas in these visits. It was an interesting challenge but it worked and saved quite a bit of money if you consider that a 45min taxi is probably over $100. Do a few of these in a day and it really adds up. The building over shopping centres and close to large corporate parks has helped as you point out.

It’s not just Shopping centres – Sydney just has more of every kind of trip generator closer to stations and even integrated, than Melbourne.

The other big example for Sydney? Hospitals! Royal North Shore Hospital has a pedestrian bridge linking it with St Leonards Station. Westmead station is right next door to Westmead hospital – the biggest hospital in Australia. Liverpool hospital is a very short walk from Liverpool station, same with St George Hospital. The closest hospitals to stations in Melbourne are Monash in Clayton (probably a 15 minute walk), Sunshine Hospital (also a lengthy walk from Ginifer), or St John in Berwick (also not a short walk). However, Melbourne also isn’t fixing this either – the new Western Hospital will be built next to Victoria Park in Footscray – further from the station. The hospital in Cobblebank will be built closer to the freeway, and nowhere near the train station. The Victorian Heart Hospital is being built on the Monash campus – also far from a train station, AND far from the Monash Bus Loop also, so even getting a bus is not going to be easy!

And even better – many stations have proper integration into the areas around. Castle Hill Station into Castle Towers is one of the newest ones, and has resulted in significantly higher visitations to Castle Towers Shopping Centre. Rouse Hill Station is also built next to the major town centre with massive expansion plans including a hospital within walking distance to the train station. Norwest’s location was chosen because of it’s proximity to Hillsong (regardless of your religious views, a venue with a capacity of 3,500 having five or more services per day is a significant trip generator). Parramatta is another well known linked station, and other stations such as Chatswood, Hurstville, Bondi Junction, North Sydney, Hornsby and Macarthur integrate a significant form of retail into its station – something we could only hope for with Southland.

As for other comments I’ve seen here:
Buses in Sydney aren’t just better because they used to be tram routes, they are better because serious investment has been put into them. The B Line (route B1) to the northern beaches has no timetable with frequencies advertised as every 2-7 minutes in peak hour, a minimum of 10 minute frequencies until 10pm, and at worst every 15 minutes only happening early morning or late night. This outperforms every single tram route in Melbourne! The popular 333 from Circular Quay to Bondi Beach runs every 10 minutes up to midnight and at worst every 30 minutes overnight. The Western suburbs also had massive investment in the T-Way system from Rouse Hill to Blacktown and Rousehill to Parramatta, as well as Parramatta to Liverpool, providing dedicated roadways and high frequencies along the T-Way. There’s also a significant volume of buses across the Harbour Bridge, with over 200,000 people crossing the Harbour Bridge by bus – the highest of any mode share!

@Roger – Parking at most shopping centres is free for 3 hours and paid thereafter, with Bondi Junction being the main exception only allowing 2 hours. In Melbourne, this is only seen at Eastland, Southland, Doncaster and Oakleigh, but in analysis, something like 90-95% of people never actually pay anything for shopping centre parking. However, all-day parking in Parramatta, Olympic Park and North Sydney is $25 for early-bird, with the CBD being even higher than that! Paid parking also applies all weekend even at night in Sydney CBD and other popular areas such as Newtown.

@Thede3jay While your points about hospitals are certainly right for most of Melbourne, the closest hospital to a train station is probably the Austin/Mercy in Heidelberg which is just across the road (say a 2 minute walk). The Epworth in Richmond is perhaps a 5 minute walk from West Richmond station. It’s bad for sure, but it’s not all bad everywhere!

Trams make up a decent percentage in the patronage difference, however they mostly serve the inner suburbs within 5 kilometres of the Melbourne CBD; very few trams travel more than 10 kilometres out. For example, all trams from Glenhuntly and Malvern depots mainly serve Melbourne Uni and don’t venture much further outbound (east/south east) past their depots. For example, route 72 only goes as far as Camberwell, taking a scenic tour of inner south-eastern Melbourne beforehand. Unfortunately, Melbourne really doesn’t have proper light rail (excluding the 96/109 “train track” sections), although the 75 and 86 would come close – their only failings are the fact that turning cars (for example, those U-turning out of the East Burwood shopping centre to head back to Blackburn Rd) can still stop trams if the cars were there first, unlike with a (railway) level crossing where the cars always have to give way. Likewise with other sections that look like train tracks – Kings Way, Dandenong Rd, Mount Alexander Rd etc., cars can still get in the way where that would never be allowed if it was a train line rather than a tram.

The rest of suburban Melbourne is stuck with buses that mostly run every 40-60 minutes which stop running at any time between 5PM and 9PM depending on the bus route, with a large number not running on Sundays, or even Saturdays in some cases. Buses generally start running at 6AM (compared to 4-5 for trains and trams) but on the weekend the first bus can be as late as 10AM when it reaches the terminus, if not 11AM. I would be shocked if Sydney’s bus services did the exact same thing.

Additionally, “regional” V/Line trains serve a few suburbs which are relatively close to the city (compared with Frankston for example), notably Melton and Tarneit (and arguably Bacchus Marsh), reducing passenger numbers on the Metro (MTM) system. Meanwhile, Sydney runs electric interurban trains to the outlying suburbs, rather than regional diesel-powered trains. The only electric “interurban” train Melbourne had was back in the 90s when Comeng sets occasionally ran to Warragul, but the government tore down the overhead wires and put an end to that (up until the 80s, we also had electric L class locos which ran both passenger and freight services to Warragul and beyond).

One annoyance we also have is the lack of off-peak (morning/evening/weekend) express services. Having to stop at 40+ stations for a trip to the city is a royal pain, especially on the lines where the stations are bunched closely together like glorified tram stops (a relic from the 1880s suburban steam era when we literally had a Thomas the Tank Engine hauling 4-wheeled carriages not dissimilar to Annie and Clarabel). For example, during the week, most Lilydale and Belgrave trains run as limited express services (skipping most stations between Box Hill, Camberwell and Richmond) between 6AM and 8PM, but on the weekend and at night there is only one option – all stations except East Richmond, taking an hour to get there (even from Box Hill it takes half an hour). Speed limits also play a part, despite the tracks being upgraded and most of the level crossings gone on the Lilydale/Belgrave lines, the track speed is still restricted to a hopeless 65 km/h for the most part, and in the areas where a whopping 80 km/h is allowed, it’s mostly plagued by sharp/medium speed corners. The same speed issues (and sharp corners) also affect the Mernda and Hurstbridge lines.

In a pre-Covid world, a lot of people would take a train to/from a sporting event in Melbourne that would otherwise drive. It’s not controversial to say that MTM has a lot to improve here.
-Timing trains to leave when people want to leave, being adaptable if a game runs late or if a large crowd starts leaving before the game finishes if it is one-sided
-If multiple specials are scheduled for a particular line, not cramming everyone onto the first service then running the next couple virtually empty
-If Melbourne is to be stuck with 30-minute+ frequencies at night forever, the specials should at least be spaced out thoughtfully where possible. I’ve lost count over the years where a special would depart just before the next regular service was due to arrive e.g. Game finishes at 10:10, Regular services at 10:15pm and 10:45pm, with the first special leaving at 10:43. Come on.
-We’ve all seen countless photos of platforms at Jolimont or Richmond at crush load with no trains in sight.
I guess my point is, if irregular train travellers only have these experiences to go on, why on Earth would they switch from driving to taking the train for any other journeys?

What about the fact that, our lines have been closed so often due to grade separation projects?

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