Metro tunnel and level crossing works

I was going to blog a few quick things from the past couple of weeks. That post grew too big, so I’m splitting it up…

Bustitution is coming

With the number of rail projects underway, it should be no surprise that there seem to be major works happening somewhere, every school holidays.

In fact for the April school holidays there is so much going on that they’ve scheduled some works to happen beforehand, and labelled it an “autumn construction blitz“.

The big (weekday) shut downs include:

  • Werribee line (Werribee to Laverton) closed for two days last week for level crossing works at Aviation Road
  • Mernda line (Epping to Bell) for four days next week and then again (Epping to Thornbury) for a week in early April for level crossing works at Reservoir
  • Frankston line (Mordialloc to Frankston) for three days in early April
  • …and the big one: the Frankston and Cranbourne/Pakenham lines (Caulfield to City) will shut for more than two weeks around Easter

And that’s leaving aside a host of evening and weekend closures affecting numerous other lines, as well as V/Line.

Huddling in the shelter #bustitution

On Friday some detailed bustitution flyers were released. They’re worth a look if you’re on one of the affected lines. You’ll find them via the PTV page or on Metro’s web site.

One particular unfortunate change from previous shut downs is that recent infrastructure issues at Elsternwick now mean the entire Sandringham line is closed during works, even when they only affect South Yarra.

As usual, it’s worth checking information before you travel, and considering alternative routes rather than assuming catching the replacement buses is the quickest way to get where you’re going.

Mentone station March 2019 - bus interchange next to station entrance

Cheltenham and Mentone crossings

Last week some details of the Cheltenham and Mentone grade separations were released.

Mentone: One thing I’m less than happy about is that the station entrance will be a long way from the bus interchange. Currently the buses stop right next to the entrance to platform 1.

Mentone level crossing removal - design 2019

I hoped this might just be an issue with the artists impression. It’s not.

Cheltenham: I haven’t had a close look at this one yet (there’s precious little detail on either, in fact) but they have gone ahead with the plan to include a third platform.

The existing station has a third platform already. The difference is this one will be connected to the main line from both ends – enabling more operational flexibility. That why there are some references to a “third track” – this will not include an actual third track to Southland (to the north) or Mentone (to the south).

Dandenong area crossings

Designs have also been released for South Gippsland Highway at Dandenong South (Pakenham line) and Evans Road in Lyndhurst (Cranbourne line).

In both cases these are elevated road over rail – sky road!

LXRA: South Gippsland Highway bridge design

The problem with road over rail is it’s generally terrible for pedestrians, making them walk a long way in a hostile environment to get over the rail line.

I don’t know the area well, but this might be more of a factor in Lyndhurst (mostly residential?) more than Dandenong South (mostly industrial?).

Again, the lack of detail means it’s unclear to me if either of them include bike lanes over the bridges.

They both seem to only have a pedestrian path on one side of the bridge, and on South Gippsland Highway, it’s not clear where the existing bus stops will be moved.

If you’ve got feedback about the newly released designs, be sure to send it in via the Level Crossings web site.

Bus stop stripes

Sometimes I notice tiny things, and wonder what they’re about.

Have you noticed that some bus stops have a small colourful stripy bit of tape?

Bus stop timing point indicator: William Street

Intriguingly, many of them seem to match the colours of the logo of the bus operator for that route – even if the buses themselves are now all in the standard PTV orange livery.

Here’s one on a Ventura route (blue and yellow):

Bus stop timing point indicator: Bentleigh station

I should have guessed it, but a well-informed Twitterer had the answer:

They’re timing points. Spots along the route where the bus driver needs to check their timetable and may need to wait if they’re early.

Many of them seem to be at major stops such as railway stations, though some are not.

This raises another topic: with many level crossings being removed, which cuts delays along bus routes (particularly highly variable, unpredictable delays), are bus timetables being re-written?

It appears not. A few weeks ago I caught a southbound route 626 bus at Carnegie station that arrived at the stop almost five minutes early. And that was in the PM peak.

The 626 timetable still allows 8 minutes for the 850 metres between Chestnut Street/Dandenong Road (the stop before the station) and Koornang/Neerim Roads (the stop after the station).

Its sister route 623 is the same. You could (briskly) walk it in eight minutes.

Back when the level crossing was there, it probably made sense to allow that much time. Not so much now.

Bus underneath the skyrail at Carnegie

As level crossing removals proceed across Melbourne, authorities should be reviewing bus timetables and taking the reduced delays into account.

After all, speeding up street-based public transport is one of the key non-motorist benefits of grade separation.

Timetable tweaks may not be enough to run extra services with the same buses, but they can at least help cut unnecessary delays – particularly for bus passengers not boarding or alighting at those timing points.

TMBG – and crosstown trips

On Saturday night at the Croxton Bandroom we saw They Might Be Giants playing a 1990s vs 2000s concert. The night before they’d done a 1980s vs 2010s concert.

It was great stuff, very enjoyable.

Now that I’ve heard Instanbul, Doctor Worm and Birdhouse In Your Soul live, I can die a happy man. And there were lots of other great songs – here’s a full set list. I particularly loved Man It’s So Loud In Here.


Obligatory transport content

The last time I went to an inner-north pub gig, we took public transport. This time we drove.

This was partly driving practice for my son on L plates, and partly because an earlier destination that afternoon would have involved bustitution.

Croxton Bandroom, Thornbury

Heading home from Croxton back to Bentleigh in the car took about 40 minutes, with little traffic apart from on some sections of Hoddle Street.

Google Maps tells me that by train it would have taken 56 minutes (including a 13 minute interchange at Flinders Street, which isn’t terrible, but isn’t terrific either) plus a short walk at each end.

A couple of observations on that:

  • Google Maps’ estimate for the car journey, leaving at 11:40pm, is 24 to 55 minutes. I’m not sure 24 would ever be achievable, but it’s not hard to see how it could be a very long trip if there was an event at the MCG/sports precinct.
  • Even at times of relatively light traffic, train can be reasonably competitive with driving in Melbourne, particularly on trips with no freeways – but it’s really pot luck on wait times, especially for trips involving interchange between lines.
  • Quick interchange helps make public transport trips quicker. Changing trains could take up to 30 minutes in the evening, or even 60 minutes after 1am on weekends. Higher frequencies make for quick interchanges, and mean PT is viable for far more combinations of trip start and end points – not just the places that a single route serves.

Trains every 20 minutes in daytime, and every 30 minutes after 7:30pm is completely inadequate for a city of Melbourne’s size. Fixing it would not be expensive because the infrastructure and the fleet is readily available.

Sydney is now at 71% of stations with a train at least every 15 minutes until 11pm. It’s time Melbourne caught up.

Some thoughts on transport network pricing

On Saturday I participated in an Infrastructure Victoria session on transport network planning. It was described as a kind of speed-dating session – seven speakers doing quick 12 minute conversations with groups of 4-5 people.

They suggested kicking off with an introduction to your view on the topic, then seeing where the conversation takes you. After a couple of goes you pretty quickly get into a rhythm.

The thoughts below started as an approximation of my opening comments, but I’ve added a bit along the way:

Fare pricing can be an important tool to help ease congestion – both on the roads and on public transport.

Crowded train and platform at Caulfield during service delays

The fare system we have now is a hangover from the 1980s.

Before then, trains trams and buses had complicated, separate fares.

In the early 80s they had a shake-up – and introduced the three zones in Melbourne, one inside the other.

There have been tweaks and adjustments, but that’s basically what we still have today.

  • In 2004 they removed the Short Trip ticket from zone 1
  • In 2007 they got rid of zone 3; it merged with zone 2
  • In 2010 they removed the City Saver zone from Myki
  • Then in 2015 they made it so if you pay for zone 1, you’ve also paid for zone 2.

So we now basically have a flat fare system in Melbourne. If you want to travel two stops on the tram, it’s $4.40. If you want to travel from Werribee right across Melbourne to Pakenham, that’s also $4.40.

Given governments have an eye on cost recovery, this may mean upward pressure on that flat fare. It’s already risen at CPI plus 2.5% for four years running.

And for short trips this can discourage people from using public transport – they might see it as cheaper to drive.

There’s no peak/off-peak difference. If I travel on the train at 8am when it’s packed, it’s the same cost as at 11am when there’s plenty of space. (Of course, there has to also be a good frequent time-competitive service available at 11am. Off-peak service is very patchy around the network.)

“Peak” crowding is not confined to commuting hours. CBD trams were already crowded at lunchtime before the Free Tram Zone was introduced. This has considerably added to crowding.

Crowding on tram route 96 in Bourke Street

There is the Earlybird discount – free rides before 7:15am. This is bit of a blunt instrument – it reflects what Metcard was capable of when it was introduced last decade. A free ride in the morning, but the usual price going home later. So there’s no incentive to make your trip home in the afternoon at a time when it’s quiet. It also only applies to Metro trains. Catch a bus to the station? Then you pay. This can encourage people to drive to the station instead.

There is a discount of sorts after 6pm – you only pay one fare for unlimited travel until 3am. That’s good, but it’s also a reflection on the old ticket system – when paper tickets were around, there wasn’t enough space for a notch for every hour of the day!

2-hour Met ticket from 1991-92

So having spent a billion dollars on a complicated smartcard system, we have it charging a $4.40 flat fare for almost everybody.

But the Melbourne flat fare doesn’t apply outside zone 2. It jumps dramatically if you travel beyond Melbourne.

People coming in from Geelong to Melbourne pay $13.40 one way – if instead they drive through suburban Geelong to Lara and get on the train there, it’s $4.40. The fare system is providing a huge incentive for people to drive through Geelong.

Free station car parks are also an issue. Some of them get misused by non-public transport users. But apart from that, they cost tens of thousands of dollars per space – then they’re given away to whoever is lucky enough to show up early enough in the morning to get them – even if they have options to use a connecting bus, or walk or ride to the station. Those options need to improve, of course. (And maybe they could if all the money wasn’t spent on parking.)

So there’s plenty of scope to reform fares – Myki is capable of more zones, and off-peak discounts, and concessions for those who need them. This could be the way forward – but whatever the system, it’s important that the fares are affordable, logical, and equitable.

They could start with easy stuff like re-introducing the once-proposed weekly cap, which would encourage Monday to Friday users to also use the system at weekends (as well as removing some confusion and doubt for people trying to decide between Myki Money and Myki Pass).

King Street, lunchtime

Road pricing isn’t really my area, but it’s not hard to see how it’s similarly flawed. The only road pricing in Victoria is the toll roads. Again, it’s a hangover from past decades – tolls are to pay private toll companies that built Citylink and Eastlink.

This means it’s free to drive through the CBD, but it costs money to bypass the City and drive over the Bolte Bridge instead, which is a crazy outcome.

So the pricing on public transport and on roads is problematic.

Politicians are terrified of changes, because inevitably someone ends up being disadvantaged, but it’d be good to see them have the courage to introduce reforms to fix some of these problems.

Some people will always object to reform, but if the benefits can be quantified and explained, the broader community will take it on board.

Why the Frankston line should come out of the Loop until 2025

I’m sorry to go all Neville Shunt on you and drone on about railway timetables again, but I’m going to do it anyway.

In an ideal metro system, that is a rail network designed to maximise capacity and frequency, one of the key things is to separate the busiest lines so they don’t share tracks.

Melbourne has been making that transition, but it’s time for the next step.

With that in mind, let me tell you why the Frankston line should be removed from the City Loop.

Carrum train arriving at Flagstaff

How the Frankston line runs now

Like many of Melbourne’s rail services, the Frankston line is a bit of a mess.

It’s often delayed and overcrowded, and that’s partly due to the timetable.

Here’s how it runs at the moment:

  • Weekday AM peak: about half the trains run express Cheltenham-Caulfield, Malvern-South Yarra, then direct to Flinders Street. The other half run all stations then into the Loop anti-clockwise to Flinders Street.
  • Weekday PM peak: reverse of the above. Except that expresses don’t stop at Malvern.
  • Weekday off-peak: all trains stop all stations, direct to/from Flinders Street. Almost all services are through-routed to Newport, so also run via Southern Cross and North Melbourne.
  • Weekend: trains stop all stations, into the Loop anti-clockwise to Flinders Street.
  • Saturday/Sunday early morning (all night service): trains stop all stations direct to/from Flinders Street

Confused yet? That’s five variations, excluding stopping patterns.

Apart from confusion, a huge problem is that during peak hours, when the rail network is at its busiest, half the Frankston line trains share the Loop tunnel with the Dandenong line. Two of the busiest lines on the network are squeezed onto the same track.

In 2025, the Dandenong line will move out of the City Loop into the new metro tunnel. The Frankston line will then use the City Loop for all its services.

But until then, the Frankston line should come out of the Loop.

Here’s why.

PTV train map August 2018

1. Fix the confusion

Train lines with different stopping patterns at different times of the day/week are confusing. The change of Loop direction doesn’t help, of course.

It’s particularly confounding for users who either only occasionally use the network, or who don’t always travel at the same time of day.

Just ask anybody making a cross-town trip (say Bentleigh to Spotswood) where they should change trains for the quickest journey:

  • Morning peak: travelling east to west change at Southern Cross; west to east change at Flinders Street (but you might not need to change)
  • Evening peak: travelling east to west change at Flinders Street; west to east change at Southern Cross
  • Weekday off-peak, including evenings: no change, the train will probably go straight through
  • Weekend: travelling east to west change at Southern Cross; west to east change at Flinders Street

Another example from me personally: Flagstaff is my usual stop, closest to work, so I use that if the train goes there. But if the trains aren’t running through the Loop, Flinders Street is almost as close (an extra five minutes walk). This means that if I’m heading home outside peak hour, I have to look at the timetable to check when the Loop trains run, which then determines which station I walk. It shouldn’t be this hard.

Consistency is one of the keys to making public transport easier to use. They don’t for instance run half of tram route 58 via William Street and half via Swanston Street. They shouldn’t do this with the trains either.

The peak express trains make sense to speed up long journeys and make use of the Caulfield-Moorabbin third track, but the Loop variations should be removed.

Dandenong line, Monday evening

2. Run more Dandenong trains

Each City Loop tunnel can take a train about every 2-3 minutes. To make the Frankston line trains fit into the Loop, the Dandenong line timetable has gaps.

The Dandenong line serves a huge growth area. It’s really busy and getting busier. The gaps create an irregular frequency which means some trains are more crowded than others.

Currently a third of Caulfield Loop paths are given to the Frankston line (on roughly a 9 minute cycle). Giving the Loop tunnel over to the Dandenong trains exclusively would allow a more consistent frequency, allowing all the paths to be used, with a train every 3 minutes between the City and Dandenong, better catering for patronage demand.

Some gaps would still needed to fit the V/Line trains, but this is only 2 paths per hour, not the 6-7 per hour the Frankston line currently takes.

X'trapolis trains at Flinders Street

3. Run more Frankston trains too

Untangled from the Dandenong line, they could also run more Frankston line trains. Currently in peak these are tied to the same 9 minute cycle (2 trains every 9 minutes).

Freed from this, they could increase to fully use the capacity of the line, relieving crowding at the height of the peak.

How many extra services are possible depends on the operating pattern, but theoretically you could be looking at a train about every 3 minutes – again, a 50% boost – if the express trains had a couple of additional stops – perhaps a skip/stop pattern between Caulfield and South Yarra – or just stop all those trains at the MATH stations and give the inner city a high frequency service to relieve the crowding.

Delayed Frankston line train diverted out of the Loop

4. Reduce delays

The current interaction of the Frankston and Dandenong lines means that if one is delayed, both are delayed.

In fact the delays can easily flow across more than half the rail network.

There are currently timetabled interactions between numerous lines: in peak hour, Dandenong interacts with Frankston, which interacts with Werribee/Altona Loop/Williamstown, which interacts with Sunbury, which interacts with Upfield and Craigieburn.

The Sunbury, Werribee, Frankston and Dandenong lines also mix it with V/Line services from Bendigo and Gippsland.

As Metro’s network planner Huw Millichip noted in this ABC article last week, this means that the single track in Altona affects half the network.

“For example, a train out of Altona is one of the first trains we timetable because that one’s very constrained because of the way it needs to work through the Altona loop because it’s a single-line section. When that train gets to North Melbourne, it then effectively dictates the position of all the other trains that come through North Melbourne.”

Add the Cranbourne single track as well, and no wonder there are constantly delays in peak hour!

Some of those intertwinings are not easily severed until the metro tunnel opens in 2025, but Frankston and Dandenong can be separated now, reducing the effect of late running.

Metro alert 18/2/2019: Frankston trains bypassing the City Loop

5. No more surprise Loop bypasses

Frankston trains are regularly altered to bypasses the City Loop. Metro does this to reduce Newport/Frankston delays cascading onto the busy Dandenong line.

Statistics from PTV show that in the past 12 months, 587 Frankston trains were altered to bypass the Loop, or about 10 per week.

The Pakenham and Lilydale lines had more bypasses. But most Frankston trains aren’t scheduled to run via the Loop anyway – I calculate the bypasses to around 3.7% of scheduled Frankston Loop services – more than double the number of any other line.

Spontaneous changes like this play havoc with passengers, and add to pressures at interchange stations like Richmond.

In the PM peak, Loop bypasses often mean people miss their trains home, delaying them even more, and causing crowding on other services.

If Frankston trains never ran via the Loop, some people would have to change trains, but others would adapt their travel patterns to avoid the Loop in the first place.

In fact, so many Frankston trains are bypassing the Loop that people are getting used to it.

When my morning train is altered to bypass the Loop (for instance, yesterday), I see fellow regulars who usually go to Flagstaff who are (as I am) staying on to Flinders Street and walking from there. That to me says for many people it’s already a regular thing.

Train diverted out of Loop - still plenty of people wanting Flinders Street

7. Patronage won’t suffer

The same thing happened on the Sandringham line (removed from the Loop in 1996) and the Werribee line (removed 2008). People adapted their travel patterns. Those lines are now busier than ever.

Watch the Sandringham line at Richmond – many people change to the Loop, but more people stay on it to Flinders Street.

Of course nobody likes losing their one seat ride, but history has shown that in the long term, these types of changes allow a lot more trains to run, fewer delays – and that helps get more passengers on board.

This is precisely how most big city metros work. Think of London Underground: interchanges galore enabled by frequent services.

Flinders Street Station, February 2019

Caveats

There are some essential measures that need to accompany making all Frankston trains run direct:

  • They must run through to/from Southern Cross, every service, without fail. This ensures people headed to the west end of the City (and North Melbourne and beyond) have the confidence that they don’t need to change service.
  • Trains passing through Flinders Street need to move through without any delays for layovers or timekeeping or driver changes.
  • Dandenong line services have to be boosted to fill the void – this means both paths in the Loop, and capacity for those people who do need to change trains
  • Interchange facilities at Caulfield and Richmond need to be improved. At Richmond they’ve improved the shelter and the Passenger Information Displays in the past few years – the same is required at Caulfield. And in the longer term, Richmond needs a widening of the central subway; Caulfield probably needs an additional concourse – which will also be needed once the Metro tunnel opens.
  • To make full use of the Dandenong line capacity, the Cranbourne line needs full duplication

In a dream world, there’d also be cross-platform interchange between Loop and direct trains, but that’s a huge complicated undertaking.

More immediately achievable is that all day frequency also needs to improve. These lines do quite well at most times of day, but evenings and early morning need attention, and running more lines at 10 minute (or better) frequencies all day would help people get around all of the network.

Metro tunnel construction in the City Square

The time to do it is now

This can’t wait until 2025 when the metro tunnel opens.

Fortunately, the planets have aligned. 2019 is the perfect time to get the Frankston trains out of the Loop, because:

  • all the level crossings out to Dandenong are gone, so the line can now be filled with trains to make the most of capacity. Before now, it would have locked up the local road network, and prevented people at places like Hughesdale and Clayton even getting to the stations
  • extra trains are coming into service in the next few months as the first HCMTs come online, so the fleet is set to grow in size
  • Frankston is a politically sensitive line, but we just had a state election, so the government can have some confidence that any change now will give grumpy people a chance to get used to it, and reap the benefits from reduced delays and increased capacity, before the next election
Crowded train, Frankston line

It has to happen

Ultimately, moving Frankston trains out of the Loop will cause some inconvenience and consternation – even if only for the 6 years until the metro tunnel opens.

But Melbourne is growing fast, and we’ve moved a long way from the days when every rail line on the network could squeeze through the four tracks in the Loop.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below – but remember, the public transport system is run for the benefit of everyone, not just you personally.

A change like this about making the overall rail service more reliable, cutting delays and unplanned bypasses, and better using the capacity to its fullest, to cut waiting times and overcrowding.