Night Network: opportunities to make it better

Night Network has been running as a trial since the start of 2016, and solved some key problems:

  • The old NightRider buses were insufficient: often crowded, and had a route structure completely different from daytime, so (despite the crowding) most people didn’t know how it worked
  • Nightrider also provided no service in many areas that have excellent daytime services, so some of the people most likely to use public transport didn’t have late services.
  • Sunday trains started too late.

Night Network kind of solved these issues, and with 35,000 extra trips every weekend, is getting people on board. But it isn’t perfect, and the cost has been huge, at around $80 million per year.

The PTUA put out this material highlighting some problems and things that could be done to improve it:

PTUA calls for Night Network to stay – but must be made more efficient

This got some coverage in the Herald Sun: Trains lying idle during Melbourne’s 24-hour public transport scheme (Pay wall)

The study into the timetables came about when it was pointed out to me that on some lines, the trains spend a lot of time sitting at the terminus. I wanted to find out how long.

The Working Timetable, if you can get hold of it (it’s not currently online), shows which service the train goes to after reaching the end of the line.

This made it fairly easy — except that the Belgrave and Lilydale lines do a complicated dance, with trains running from the city alternately to each, with shuttles filling in the gaps. It results in uneven frequencies (non-clockface times) in the evenings and on the Night Services. It could be fixed by running one of the branches from Ringwood as a shuttle, as happens on the Cranbourne, Alamein and Williamstown lines.

Train at night

Anyway, the results showed that yes, on some lines the trains spend an enormous amount of time sitting idle. Perhaps inevitable for the shuttles, but Sandringham trains spend as much time stopped as they do running; some Belgrave trains wait for an amazing 62 minutes before heading off again, and you’ll find trains sitting waiting at Craigieburn, Upfield and Hurstbridge for more than 40 minutes each hour.

A big part of the problem is that the policy during the trial is for hourly trains. The idle time is far higher during hourly operation than before midnight with half-hourly services.

Perhaps secondary is that the timetable may have been written in a hurry to get it implemented by the start of 2016.

The Night Bus services still have the problem of a route structure that is completely different from day time — unlike the trains and trams (the half-dozen routes that run all night) which provide 24-hour service on weekends, which is much easier to understand.

So as the PTUA material indicates, it makes a lot of sense to refine the whole Night Network when the trial ends in mid-2017, to make it more efficient and economically sustainable, make it more useful for passengers, and make it permanent:

The aim should be a Night Network which provides:

  • train services on the busiest lines on Friday and Saturday nights, running at least every half-hour;
  • coordinated connecting rail buses or parallel trams on sections where patronage does not warrant all-night train services; and
  • 24-hour tram and bus routes filling in network gaps where no trains run.

  • The PTUA is also calling for rail bus services to run along train routes on weekday mornings, meaning 24/7 service along Melbourne’s rail corridors, a service that has run in Sydney since the 1980s.

Read more

Cheltenham and Mentone: rail going under road

Last year, rail under (trench) and rail over (skyrail) options were presented for Cheltenham and Mentone. On Monday the government announced both would be rail under.

As expected, the Park Road crossing in Cheltenham (just a stone’s throw from the Charman Road crossing) is being grade separated as well. Latrobe Street, a minor crossing south of Cheltenham, is staying for now, even though it may have made sense to close it to cars.

(From the Level Crossing Removal Authority web site)

There are of course pros and cons to rail under.

Probably higher cost, but possibility of building over the rail line (“value capture”) later — as proposed but not yet implemented at Ormond.

More disruption during construction. Expect a lot of road closures, and of course extended rail closures between Moorabbin and Mordialloc when they dig it all out. Unfortunately this will affect the new Southland station just after it opens.

Certainly more compulsory acquisition around Cheltenham. 32 properties are set to be demolished — far more than would have been needed for rail over.

The third platform at Cheltenham can currently handle trains to/from the City only. This will be upgraded to also link to the Frankston-bound tracks, allowing more operational flexibility. It might result in some consistency in short Frankston “stopper” services in peak, which currently start/end at a variety of locations: Moorabbin, Cheltenham, Mordialloc, Carrum.

Three pedestrian overpasses around Mentone, but two of them (at the shallow ends of the trench) will have extremely long ramps.

There will also be a big loss of trees — the options assessments last year forecast significant removal of trees whether the rail line went under or over, but rail over provided more options for replanting afterwards.

There have been complaints about tree removal around Murrumbeena for skyrail, but it’s worth remembering that the trenches at Ormond and McKinnon in particular resulted in a huge number of trees removed. Palm trees at Bentleigh got moved then put back, but other types of trees were simply chopped down.

Bike cages and bus stops? Locations aren’t clear yet. Hopefully these will be moved as close as possible to the station entrance, and available as soon as stations reopen.

Some diagrams indicate at Mentone the bus stops may be left further away from the station than some of the parking, which is completely illogical. And Cheltenham could do with some consolidation of bus stops, though this is partly related to the problem of buses to Southland departing from various different stops — not so much of an issue once Southland station opens.

Station parking

At both locations they may get 4 storey car parks in the station precinct. It’s unclear if this is to preserve current numbers of car spaces, or radically increase them.

Multi-storey car parks are extraordinarily expensive. The one recently built at Syndal cost an eye-popping $43,200 per space. And while it takes up less ground space than a single level car park, it’s not beautiful, especially as they failed to activate the ground level for retail or other uses. It’s not as tall as a 4 storey building, but it’s still pretty tall, even compared to the elevated station.

Syndal station
Syndal station car park

A big increase in station parking would be a mistake. It would increase local traffic, and undermine other more efficient modes such as walking, cycling and feeder buses.

As with many suburban stations, the car parking is visually very prominent, but the number of people arriving by car is far outweighed by the number of people walking to the station.

At Cheltenham, 2013-14 PTV statistics say there were 3,240 boardings per day. 26.1% arrive by car, 60.3% walk to the station.

At the very least, Cheltenham will have car parking above the trench, along either side of Park Road. This could have been a good development opportunity.

Reaction

So the anti-Skyrail people got their way. I wonder how happy they are with the consequences for people whose properties will be acquired and demolished?

The Opposition of course… are opposed.

Right… but context is important.

One of the primary reasons for skyrail on the Dandenong line is to limit the disruption. Part of this was the gas pipeline underneath Carnegie, but also the passenger numbers.

PTV stats indicate around 64,000 boardings per day on affected part of the line, outwards from Caulfield. In contrast, south of Moorabbin there are 25,520 boardings per day.

It’s a lot easier to shift 25,000 trips to buses around a 9km section of closed railway, than to shift 64,000 over 20km.

Interestingly, Cheltenham and Mentone are both within the strong Liberal seat of Sandringham, though the boundary with marginal seats is very close by.

Proximity to the beach and other geological factors may see the crossings further south result in a different solution. We’ll see.

But hopefully — despite the big trenches to be dug at Cheltenham and Mentone — disruptions can be kept to a minimum.

Works will start in 2018.

More info:

Walking in suburbia

On Monday I had an errands at Pinewood.

Pinewood? Yes, the minor shopping centre somewhere on Blackburn Road between Clayton and Mount Waverley.

I caught the bus up there — the 703 runs from near home in Bentleigh, via Monash Uni, then up Blackburn Road. Unsurprisingly perhaps, we had to wait at the Clayton level crossing for a train… thankfully only one train; it’s common for long delays here, though this was after peak hour.
Bus stuck at Clayton crossing

After my errand, I decided to walk back part of the way. It was only about 3km to Monash Uni, and the weather was cool and dry — perfect for walking. Good to try and get to my daily 12,000 step goal.

As with my travels during holidays and short breaks, I snapped a few photos, and tweeted a bit as I went. Always an opportunity to observe and learn. Later on I was asked if I’d be blogging it, so here goes.

There was a PTV outage of realtime bus info that day. It seemed to affect the apps, the Next Stop announcements and displays inside the bus, as well as real-time Smartbus signage. Apparently it took until sometime on Tuesday to get it resolved.
Smartbus sign partially working

For a short time in the 90s I recall working in this office block. My view is it’s not a beautiful location, surrounded by car parks. The problem with suburban office blocks is not just that the PT is often woeful (or certainly inferior) but there’s few options within walking distance to eat lunch or go shopping at lunchtime. No doubt some people like that it’s a drive-able commute, but I definitely prefer working in the CBD.
Office park

Slip lane for vehicles exiting the Monash Freeway turning northbound onto Blackburn Road. Most of slip lanes have zebra crossings. Not this one. It’s actually the law that vehicles must give way to pedestrians here, but as a pedestrian, I’d never assume that motorists actually know this.
Slip lane, Blackburn Road and Monash Freeway

Pedestrian signal button at the same location. Too bad if you’re mobility-impaired and can’t navigate off the path to press it — or if there’s a huge muddy puddle in the way.
Traffic light

Blackburn and Ferntree Gully Road intersection. Lots and lots of traffic lanes. You get a zebra crossing to get over the service road, and another to get across the slip lane. Then you have to wait for the other six lanes of traffic.
Blackburn and Ferntree Gully Roads

Ferntree Gully Road outside the Monash waste transfer station. Not a friendly pedestrian environment. You’re expected to veer left then right to cross… the visible desire line looks like many people don’t.
Pedestrian crossing on Ferntree Gully Road

I’ve often wondered what the point of these narrow bus bays is. It’s awkward for the bus to pull in, and it still blocks the traffic lane. Why bother?
Bus stop, Ferntree Gully Road

Howleys Road. There are often complaints that bus shelters don’t provide proper weather protection. Not these! Only one problem — no bus route serves this road. Obviously it did once, but now the shelters sit idle. Too much to ask for them to be relocated? (The bus stop signs have been removed, but there are still designated 24/7 bus zones.)
Bus shelters, Howley Road

The northern entrance into Monash Uni Clayton campus isn’t beautiful, and the giant roundabout is difficult to navigate as a pedestrian. It’s called “Scenic Boulevard”… perhaps that only applies if you’re in a car. To be fair, it’s probably got little potential as a principal route for pedestrians.
Monash Uni, pedestrian entrance from the north

As you go further through campus, the pedestrian environment improves, particularly the paths from the student accommodation to the main part of campus. This is a curious design though. The busiest path to the right misses the zebra crossing by a few metres.
Monash University

Happily, the main part of campus has mostly very wide pedestrian spaces. Being off-semester, it wasn’t too busy, but I bet it gets very busy when all the students are around. (See also: Monash University master plan)
Pathways at Monash University

The new Monash University bus interchange is under construction. Hopefully it will provide better cover. So much for the bus loop we all know and love.
New bus interchange under construction, Monash University

Waiting for the 601 shuttle to Huntingdale station. The bus is so frequent that it made me wonder if anybody reads these timetables. It might be more useful to just have a frequency guide. Locals say it doesn’t really stick to time anyway — after all, for a service like this, maintaining frequency is more important than specific times.
601 timetable

Being outside semester, those times didn’t even apply. A reduced service runs: every 12 minutes… to meet a train running most of the day every 10 minutes. Yeah.

I was taking a phone call at the time (ironically from a public transport bureaucrat) so I didn’t get a photo, but the bus was pretty busy, with most seats filled. On campus I’d run into a contact and his colleagues, and one of them told me the 601 bus suffers greatly from overcrowding in first semester, when all the students come back. Monash campus numbers are increasing… sounds like the bus needs a boost too.

Rain the previous day had put parts of Huntingdale station car park under water, but it didn’t seem to bother some people.
Huntingdale station car park under water

Wouldn’t you think that at a busy train/bus interchange like Huntingdale, the platforms would have real-time information? Nope. (There is a Smartbus/train Passenger Information Display on the street, but it wasn’t working. Unclear if this was temporary due to the outage that day, or long-term like the Bentleigh PIDs.)
Huntingdale station

After all that walking (and more later), I didn’t quite reach my 12,000 step goal that day — only 11,171 according to my phone. Oh well, not for lack of trying.

V/Line Geelong and the “good old days”

I’m working on some more substantive posts, but meanwhile, here we go again: a random claim that the trains used to be faster than today.

“In 1955 it took under one hour to travel by train to Spencer St station (Southern Cross). In 2017 it takes 70 minutes. Hmmm. Something is wrong with this picture.” – Glenn, reader comment in The Geelong Advertiser

Yes indeed something is wrong with this picture: it’s not true.

Let’s take off the rose-coloured glasses.

1954 times

Once again via Mark Bau’s excellent timetable web site, the 1954 timetable shows the fastest train to Geelong was 55 minutes, nonstop, at the not-very-convenient time (at least by today’s standards) of 8:25am (outbound).

The more useful (for Geelong to Melbourne commuters) outbound train at 5:10pm (the “Geelong Flyer”) took 57 minutes — also the time of the fastest inbound train. The 6:10pm outbound train took 60 minutes. These were all nonstop.

Trains that stopped along the way, therefore were useful to more people using intermediate stations (remembering that Werribee was part of the country service back then), took around 77 to 100 minutes — the slowest being the 7:05am Melbourne to Geelong, stopping along the way at North Melbourne, Footscray, Newport, Laverton, Aircraft, Werribee, Little River, Lara, Corio, North Shore and North Geelong.

Comparing to 2017

The fastest train I can see in the 2017 timetable takes 55 minutes (5:33pm outbound from Melbourne), the exact same time as the fastest train in 1954. This not only takes a longer route via Regional Rail Link (about 81 Km vs 72.5 Km via Werribee), but it also makes three stops along the way: Footscray, Sunshine and North Geelong.

The fastest inbound trains are 59 minutes, for instance the 7:23 from Geelong, stopping at North Geelong, North Shore, Corio, Lara and Footscray.

Most other trains take 62 to 65 minutes, and have more stops. The slowest I can see is 68 minutes; the weekend lunchtime and evening trains from Warrnambool, for instance the 1:49pm from Geelong, stopping at North Geelong, Lara, Wyndham Vale, Tarneit and Footscray — a diesel loco-hauled train, which has slower acceleration than the newer V/Locity sets commonly used on the shorter-distance services to Geelong.

(Have I missed something? Leave a comment.)

V/Line North Melbourne flyover

It could be better

This is not to say V/Line shouldn’t be better. I’ve written before that their timetabling results in unnecessary conflicts and delays, and how their departures from Southern Cross are a complete mess.

The operation of the new Regional Rail Link track, opened in 2015, which gave them their own route from western Melbourne into the city, leaves a lot to be desired.

For instance, inbound V/Line trains are given ten minutes between Footscray and Southern Cross — amazingly, this is two minutes more than most Metro trains, which make an additional stop at North Melbourne. Sad!

Still, the fact remains that the Geelong line is just as fast as it was in the 1950s for express trains, and in fact is much faster for services that stop along the way.

And this is despite there being far more trains on the line today — back in 1954 there were only 9 trains per weekday to Geelong. Today there are 44.

Gold Coast Light Rail: tram priority far better than anything in Melbourne

The Gold Coast Light Rail, also known as G:Link opened in July 2014, making it Australia’s newest completed tram/light-rail line.

I was very impressed when I rode it last week. As you would hope and expect, they’ve put a lot of thought into the design, and there are a number of things Melbourne can learn from it.

Gold Coast Light Rail: Hospital terminus

The route

The line is 13 kilometres, from Broadbeach South, parallel to the beach, through the very busy, dense centre of Surfers Paradise, up to the Gold Coast University Hospital at the northern end.

While not ideal — it doesn’t serve the airport or connect to the rail line to Brisbane — they obviously built it with later extensions in mind, as both termini have additional currently unused track which is intended to be used should the line be extended.

There was opposition while the line was being built, but it now seems to have been deemed a success, with the project helping to spark billions of dollars of investment along its route.

An extension to Helensvale Railway Station got underway in 2016, expected to open before the Gold Coast hosts the Commonwealth Games in 2018.

Behind hoarding at the northern terminus you can see work is already underway.

Gold Coast Light Rail: Surfers Paradise

Tram lanes

From what I saw, along almost all of the route the trams travel in their own dedicated lanes. This has resulted in closure of vehicle traffic lanes, and in some sections of Surfers Paradise Boulevard, means car traffic can only travel southbound. The nearby Gold Coast Highway caters for through-traffic.

This has turned Surfers Paradise Boulevard from something of a traffic sewer (as I recall it in 2011) into almost a transit mall, with a small amount of parking for southbound cars, but mostly they move slowly through seeking to access side streets and off-street parking.

I did see what I’m guessing was an Uber X car, doing a couple of laps trying to find their booked fare. At one point he stopped and a couple climbed in, only to get out again when it became apparent it was the wrong Uber.

There is a small section of shared roadway where cars and trams mix, northbound only between Thomas Drive and Cypress Avenue towards the northern end of Surfers Paradise — it appears this is to provide vehicle access to a few side streets.

Gold Coast Light Rail: shared road lane

Gold Coast Light Rail: shared road lane

Traffic light priority

What’s really eye-opening to a Melburnian is the traffic light priority for trams.

T lights are used extensively along the route. But unlike Melbourne, they don’t go green for trams unless trams are approaching. And when they do, they anticipate the tram’s arrival, triggering the T light to prevent the tram having to wait.

Yes, real traffic light priority. Not just reducing delays, but keeping the trams moving.

This video shows it in action.

Melbourne has almost nothing like this. The closest we have is the two former rail lines, 96 and 109, where trams approaching former rail level crossings get priority, sometimes even with boom gates.

But we have many, many other routes running in their own lanes/alignments that could benefit from this technology. At the very least, it should be implemented in places like St Kilda Road, Dandenong Road (subject to a trial in 2015 – what was the result?), Victoria Parade, Burwood Highway, Flemington Road, Royal Parade, Plenty Road…

And there should be no reason that approaching trams in mixed traffic can’t also be detected so they can get a green.

Gold Coast tram priority isn’t perfect. In the very densest part of Surfers Paradise I saw trams waiting at red lights. It wasn’t actually obvious why this was the case, as it appeared a tram green could have been inserted into the sequence without unduly disrupting other motor and pedestrian traffic.

The other issue is that sometimes the tram didn’t get the green soon enough, and had to slow down slightly. This is a noticeable issue on Melbourne’s 96 and 109 routes as well. Perhaps it’s to enforce a slower speed limit at possible conflict points with cars.

Gold Coast Light Rail: not perfect priority

Tram stops and tram accessibility

Stop distances are far wider than most in Melbourne.

By my calculations there’s an average of about 850 metres per stop, though some in the dense area of Surfers Paradise are a bit more closely spaced.

All stops have platforms, and all trams are low-floor, meaning the entire route is accessible for mobility aids and prams — as you would hope for such a recently built system.

Gold Coast Light Rail: tram stop

The trams

Possibly unique, inside the trams there are dedicated spots for surf boards, though I didn’t see any in use.

There is extensive use of ads covering the windows. Visibility from inside looking out seemed mostly okay on a clear day. But it may be quite a different story at night, especially when raining.

Announcements and screens indicating the next stop helps obviously, but it was difficult to see inside as the tram arrived to tell which section was least crowded.

Gold Coast Light Rail: tram stop

Ticketing

Card readers are at stops, not on the trams. Of course this is possible where there is only a small number of stops — it would be difficult on a huge system of hundreds (thousands?) of stops, as in Melbourne.

Each platform has a ticket machine and information. I saw no platform staff (sometimes seen at busy Melbourne CBD stops) though it appeared common for the stops to have small retail (eg coffee shops) built-in.

The tickets are part of the Go Card system, offering smartcards or short term (single trip) tickets.

Other than drivers, there are few staff on the system. I did see what appeared to be the equivalent of Melbourne’s Authorised Officers, groups of two or more uniformed staff roaming around, it appeared with ticket checking equipment, but I didn’t see them checking tickets.

Some trams included advertising nagging people to pay their fare – as with Melbourne, the system is open, but they sometimes have ticket checking blitzes.

Gold Coast Light Rail tram interior

Gold Coast Light Rail: tram stop

Interchange

When you ask Google Maps to plot you a trip from Gold Coast Airport to Surfers Paradise, it tells you to hop aboard the 777 bus (which runs every 15 minutes, 7 days-a-week, which I think might make it a better level of service than just about any single Melbourne bus route, though some combined services would surpass it).

Then it tells you to alight the bus and walk ten metres and board a tram the rest of the way.

Gold Coast Airport to Surfers Paradise

Frankly I didn’t believe it. Ten metres? They’re making it up.

But when you step off the bus, you see it’s true. The Broadbeach South interchange is really nicely setup – buses arrive either side of the tram, which is on its terminating track in the middle of platforms on either side.

Gold Coast Light Rail: Broadbeach South tram/bus interchange
(Apologies, I have broken my own rule here and neglected to get a good photo with a camera that properly captures the LED displays.)

When the light rail line opened, local bus routes got a shake-up. This makes sense – with a new 13 km trunk route, it’s logical to change bus routes around to feed into it rather than parallel it, though a few routes still make the north-south route parallel to the trams.

Quite obviously the designers have given some thought as to how to make interchange, particularly at Broadbeach South, as easy as possible. Other connecting services weren’t quite as good, but still — I don’t think we have anything this good in Melbourne. (There is a tram/bus interchange at Queensbridge Street outside the Casino, but it’s in a location which is unlikely to see many passengers changing between those services.)

The interchange includes bicycle parking, and there are shops nearby, though no retail directly integrated into the stop.

Gold Coast Light Rail: Broadbeach South bike parking

Gold Coast Light Rail: tram timetable

Timetable

And how often to the trams run?

Well the “timetable” (which is actually a frequency guide) sums it up: every 7.5 minutes on weekdays, 10 on weekends, 15 evenings and early mornings, and 30 overnight on weekends.

On weekdays overnight, the 24/7 700 bus, which normally connects with the tram at Broadbeach South, is extended to parallel the tram route, running every half-hour on weekdays overnight.

This means this line runs a better off-peak, evening and overnight service than almost any Melbourne tram route, though we have more frequent peak services on some routes.

Specific times aren’t published at stops, nor on paper timetables — the stops have realtime departure countdowns, and the paper timetables only have the frequencies. This is probably almost okay when the trams are every 10 minutes or better… less so when only every 15 or 30 minutes.

The Translink web site (and it appears Google Maps/Transit) includes specific times.

Gold Coast Light Rail: tram stop

Lessons for Melbourne

The trams in Melbourne and on the Gold Coast are operated by the same company, Keolis DownerEDI Rail (KDR).

Gold Coast’s single line opened only in 2014, and is built to modern standards. Melbourne’s tram system is vast, and aging. We can’t expect our network to be brought up to these standards overnight.

But we can learn a lot from the Gold Coast.

More frequent services at all times would cut waiting times and make trams more attactive to passengers.

The opening of the line helped boost Gold Coast public transport overall by some 22% in the first ten months. Improving Melbourne’s tram connections (such as ensuring trams don’t terminate just short of railway stations) would help the whole public transport network to grow.

Tram priority is something holding Melbourne’s trams back — and is an important part of the Gold Coast system. Putting in some proper traffic light priority to prevent trams having to wait at traffic lights would be almost imperceptable to Melbourne’s inner-city motorists, but help ensure tram travel is more time-competitive and that our huge investment in tram infrastructure is more efficiently used.