Bentleigh station bus

It only took eight years

It’s a miracle!

Back in 2011, the train information on this Smartbus sign at Bentleigh station was switched off.

In 2016 during the level crossing removal project, the bus stop and sign were removed, then put back.

For a while the sign wasn’t working, but then the bus times were switched on. But not the train times.

On Monday, for the first time in over 8 years, the train times re-appeared. Eureka!

Bentleigh station Smartbus PID working again

Thinking ahead, and more broadly: the real-time bus information that was once unique to Smartbus is now more widespread. It’s made its way onto smartphone apps.

The opportunity here is for authorities to get some solid passenger wins for relatively little investment.

  • Roll-out street displays to more stops, showing departure countdowns for all routes. Sure, most people have a smart phone that can access this information, but it’s still better to “push” it to people.
  • Put Smartbus-style Passenger Information Displays (PIDs) announcing the next stop into all new buses – London, a place that is serious about their buses, has done this. For that matter, all of Melbourne’s trams are getting it.
  • Enhance them to be able to show other messages such as the current route, and disruption information (see London example below)

Displays inside new buses should be a no-brainer, given the other required infrastructure is already in place – when a Smartbus ends up on a “normal” route, it appears the displays work correctly.

Unfortunately the current program of 100 new buses for Transdev has missed this. They are adding new generation Myki readers, USB ports for charging, and better external destination displays, which is good. But no internal displays.

(Marcus Wong points out in his blog today that they’ve also missed an opportunity to shift to more hybrid or electric buses.)

Displays at stations are also handy, as bus drivers can see imminent train arrivals, and may be able to wait for connecting passengers.

London bus alert for Underground

Of course, more direct routes and better bus frequency and operating hours are the best thing to get more people using buses.

But making them user-friendly for new and regular users is also important, and should be an easy win.

State Library

State Library station

This blew my tiny mind.

Mind blown: State Library / Museum station

Speaking of Metro tunnel station names, the project publicity is increasingly talking about (new) North Melbourne station.

It’s a shame the old one wasn’t renamed to West Melbourne (as per the plan) last year when all the maps were reprinted for the opening of the Mernda extension.

Hopefully they get it done soon, well before the tunnel opens.

Brisbane Airport, view from train

Passengers for the Airport, change trains at Sunshine

Trouble afoot for the Melbourne Airport rail link?

Age: The new proposal would see airport trains use existing rail lines between Southern Cross and Sunshine, and add a new line between Sunshine and the airport, sources close to the project have said.

Herald Sun: …while most prefer an express route with only one stop, the state government’s plan to include the airport rail project in its $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop means travellers may have to change trains at Sunshine to get to the CBD.

This casts light on some of the thinking inside the State Government: that the airport trains might share tracks into the City, or that they might not reach the City at all!

I think we perhaps could live with the former, but the latter would be problematic.

There also seems to be talk of a bog-standard service frequency of every 20 minutes, which is half that of the Skybus and the busiest off-peak suburban lines.

Sydney Airport - bag claim

The goal of an airport rail link

Step back for a sec: It’s important to think about service outcomes, not infrastructure… and we should also not assume that everything needs to be resolved in one hit at enormous cost – with most people talking about a premium fare of some kind, super-expensive infrastructure is likely to drive up fare prices.

Let’s take it as read that the route is via Sunshine, with a stop there for interchange purposes.

My view is the goals are we need a travel time of 20-25 mins or so from the City to the Airport, and a service frequency of 10 mins. That’s what’s going to ensure the train is competitive with car travel, or taxi, and that it’s at least as fast as the existing Skybus, including ensuring interchange (whether in the CBD or at Sunshine) is quick and easy.

Bear in mind those two aims.

Sharing tracks

There are two sets of tracks from the City to Sunshine: the Sunbury line (which by 2025 will connect into the Metro tunnel) and the Regional Rail Link tracks, carrying V/Line services to Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.

The Sunbury line only carries 3 trains per hour at present at off-peak times, but hopefully will be 6 before too long. And those off-peak trains stop at every station, so Airport trains wouldn’t be fast enough if they shared those tracks.

By my count, the RRL tracks carry 6-7 trains per hour off-peak at present. So with some tweaking (and assuming electrification), you should be able to get another 6 airport trains per hour onto that line without too much trouble, and all running pretty fast from the City to Sunshine – typically they take 12 minutes at present.

It’s peak that is the problem. Between 5pm and 6pm there are currently 16 outbound trains on the RRL lines, so it’s getting close to full, particularly with the current situation of numerous flat junctions (yeah, fix those for a start).

Melton and Wyndham Vale trains are likely to run as electric services on the suburban tracks in the future, which might help, though you’d expect some of those paths to be needed by additional longer distance trains, to further relieve crowding.

But peak is only a few hours a day, and the competition (the Tulla Fwy) is also congested then, so as an interim measure, while they figure out/fund/build more track capacity, you could probably live with slightly longer running times or slightly lower frequencies to the Airport.

If the freeway clogs up every day in peak, does it matter much if the train travel time goes a bit over 25 minutes at the same time? It would still be quicker, and as long as the travel time is predictable and consistent, it would still be time-competitive.

This would not be a unique situation. London’s Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express trains both run 4 trains per hour, and share tracks with other services. Gatwick Express in particular has running times that vary a bit according to other traffic on the line.

And this is of course no different to many other public transport routes, including street-based trams and buses.

Sure, eventually you’d need more capacity. That could mean extra tracks between Sunshine and the City. But it could also be the Metro 2 tunnel – latest thinking includes it providing a route for (electrified) Geelong trains direct into the City, taking them off the Sunshine route, freeing up yet more RRL paths. This would have a number of other benefits too.

But if we’re going to demand dedicated tracks all the way from day one (really, a multi-billion dollar tunnel for a measly six trains per hour?) it’ll just mean it takes longer to build, and will help push up the fares.

Dear tourists, don't go looking for the airport train. First departure not expected for about a decade.

Changing trains

Forcing people to change at Sunshine however, I think would be far more problematic.

It’s not unreasonable to expect an airport train would provide a one seat journey from the CBD, attracting a significant business market.

Also worth remembering that passengers from the suburbs (or in fact anywhere in the CBD that isn’t walking distance to the terminus, presumably Southern Cross) would have already changed service at least once.

The Metro 1 tunnel will provide better access to Sunshine for people along the Sunbury to Cranbourne/Pakenham line, including from Parkville and ANZAC (Domain) stations. Sunshine is also readily accessible from the Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo lines (assuming the latter is altered to actually to stop at Sunshine – for some reason it doesn’t at the moment).

But from other lines, it’s problematic. Doubly so for Alamein and Stony Point passengers, who may have already changed trains to reach the City… and not forgetting people who had to catch a bus or tram to the station at the start of their trip. Plus a lot of people would have luggage to wrangle.

There are some cities where you need to change trains between the CBD and the Airport. Singapore is one of them, with a cross-platform interchange and reasonably frequent service at most times of day.

But it’s slow. A random check of Google Maps reckoned around 49 minutes from Changi Airport MRT station to City Hall MRT, not helped by stopping all stations – but the change of trains alone was 7 minutes. Driving can be as fast as 20 minutes. That might be okay in Singapore where car ownership is restricted, but would it fly in Melbourne? I doubt it.

Singapore: Tanah Merah station, interchange for Changi Airport

And one more thing: It’s a hard enough sell at the best of times convincing Melburnians to change trains. I reckon an airport rail link that doesn’t serve the CBD would be political suicide.

Competitive travel times

Ultimately, the airport rail link needs to be price and time-competitive with taxis and driving from a variety of locations around Melbourne, including the CBD which is the hub of the existing public transport network. It must also be convenient for people, especially those with luggage.

It’s understandable with lots of infrastructure projects underway that the government is looking to see if it can cut costs – but they will need to take care that the airport link meets these goals.

Let’s hope they carefully consider the options.

More reading: Ben Lever (PTUA Ballarat) highlights the other upgrades needed, whether or not a new tunnel is built

Myki gates, Springvale station

Some thoughts on the Myki data leak

This, the other week, was interesting:

In a concerning revelation, researchers have found that myki, in conjunction with social media, can be used to uncover a wealth of information about card users.

ABC: ‘Shocking’ myki privacy breach for millions of users in data release

Here’s the report and media release from the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner:

Information Commissioner investigates breach of myki users’ privacy

Here’s the original study:

Two data points enough to spot you in open transport records

What happened was that PTV released a whole bunch of Myki touch on/off data for a “datathon” event, where people see what handy things they can do with the data.

It was “de-identified” – that is, Myki card numbers were removed and replaced with another identifier, which could link trips from a single card together, but not back to a card holder.

Or so they thought.

Part of the problem was they left in a flag indicating the card type. This is not just Full Fare (Adult) or Concession – it goes down to the precise type of Concession or free pass. For instance type 39 is a War Veterans Travel Pass; type 46 is a Federal Police Travel Pass.

With more than 70 types of card, some of the more obscure types are pretty rare, so if the person you’re trying to track down is using one of them, they’re probably not that hard to find, particularly if you know which stations they regularly use.

That’s presumably how the researchers found Anthony Carbines, State MP for Ivanhoe, I’m guessing travelling on a State Parliamentarian Travel Pass – by looking at the data, and matching it up with his social media posts, which included at least one from Rosanna Station.

I’m probably in there too. And so are you. (I’ve only seen a sample of the data; a mere 30 million card touch records out of the total 1.8 billion originally released.)

Myki machines at Southern Cross

Ultimately, it’s good that data sets like this are released. There actually should be a lot more of it – at present, the data released by PTV is very limited. Anything related to patronage or bus service performance is really difficult to find.

Perhaps the problem with not adequately cleaning the data is that they’re out of practice. Almost everything currently available either has nothing to do with passengers directly, or is at such a high level that it could never be used to find individuals.

More data should be out there. Ultimately, the public transport network is funded by taxpayers, and it should be a lot more accountable and transparent than it is.

One thing’s for sure: if they have a go at releasing this level of detailed data again – and I hope they do – they’ll need to be more careful to remove information that could be used to re-identify individuals.

Acland Street Sunday morning

Is the importance of car parks inflated?

One of the tropes of urban planning is that traders think car parking (and car access generally) for their customers is far more important than it might actually be.

Here are some live examples in Melbourne right now.

Save Inkerman!

In Caulfield, traders reckon their businesses will suffer if separated bike lanes, part of the Principal Bike Network, replace car parking. Some residents, who seem to believe they have the unalienable right to park on a public road in front of their house, are also not happy.

Read more about the Inkerman Road proposal here

Save Inkerman sign on fence, Caulfield

Save Elizabeth Street!

Even in the CBD, belief in the importance of car parking is a thing. Some traders in Elizabeth Street are up in arms at proposals to give more place to pedestrians:

Andrey Eierweis (from Ekselman watchmakers and jewellers): “We’re losing business because there’s no access to the shops and people can’t find a parking spot close enough.”

And he makes this amazing claim: “The city’s dying. No one’s coming here.”

No sir. The city’s not dying. It’s busier than ever. That’s precisely why the council is proposing these types of changes, to make space for more people.

Perhaps what you mean is no one’s coming into your shop. Which is a different problem.

It should be noted that Ekselman possibly is a business that genuinely does benefit from parking nearby, because, the article says: in the past they had sold and repaired a lot of large clocks but that had dried up because of a lack of parking.

The parking in front of their shop disappeared when the tram superstop was installed some years ago.

I suspect that if their business relies on people being able to bring in large clocks by car, they should move their premises to a different street. Most CBD streets have easier parking than Elizabeth Street.

Read more about the Elizabeth Street plan here

Meanwhile in Sydney Road

Meanwhile in Sydney Road, some traders object to the council proposing a trial of fewer car spots, in favour of separated bike lanes.

Jessica Tolsma (Jessicakes – great name!): “The proof in Melbourne is that when you remove parking from strip shops like Acland St and Bridge Rd, it doesn’t work and decimates businesses.”

Read more about the Sydney Road trial here

So how bad is Acland Street?

Is Acland Street doing as badly as the Sydney Road traders claim?

Recently removed the parking was removed and the footpaths were widened, and a new two-platform accessible tram terminus was constructed. So how bad is it?

I stopped past on Sunday morning for a quick look. At 10:30am, the street wasn’t especially busy, but there were certainly some people walking around browsing the shops, and some of the cafes were packed.

Acland Street, Sunday morning

On neighbouring Barkly Street, which is still a through-route and does have lots of parking, there were plenty of cars, but no people browsing the shops, though one bloke in the barber was having a haircut.

Barkly Street, Sunday morning

According to this report from Victoria Walks, despite what the traders in Sydney Road might think, the Acland Street traders decided to study it rather than shout it down.

The traders quickly discovered that more than half of all their customers walked to Acland St to shop – and only around a quarter drove. More than that, though: more than half the shoppers in the area lived locally, and locals made an average of 184 visits to the shopping precinct every year. In fact, almost a quarter of the people surveyed said that they shopped in Acland St every day.

It’s also worth noting that Acland Street has substantial numbers of car parks within walking distance, so the removal of spaces on the street presumably didn’t have a huge impact even on motorists.

I don’t know Sydney Road and Inkerman Road well enough to cast judgement, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Acland Street was far from unique.

No shortage of studies have shown that providing better access for cyclists and pedestrians is actually an economic positive.

In part this is because car spaces are just so space-inefficient, and limit the number of shoppers.

A study of Lygon Street, Carlton, found that while the average cyclist’s retail spending is only $16.20/hr compared to a car driver’s $27.00/hr, six bicycles can park in the space required for one car. Therefore, while one car space equates to $27.00/hr retail spending, six bicycle spaces equate to $97.20/hr.

I would also imagine that passing cyclists and pedestrians are far more likely to stop on a whim than passing motorists, because they can more easily see into shop windows, and don’t have problems parking – which in busy centres is an issue even where kerbside parking is provided.

Perhaps it’s the same phenomenon as with park and ridethe most visible, space-hogging access mode is assumed to be the most important. Another factor might be that traders themselves might tend to drive, because they often have stock or equipment to carry to/from their shops, so they see access to their shops from the perspective of a motorist.

In any case, actually getting some actual evidence about their customers (and potential customers) wouldn’t go astray — rather than just assuming they all need to drive.