SRL will be an independent line

One of the things people have been wondering is whether the Suburban Rail Loop will be an integral part of the existing suburban Metro network, or a standalone line.

Suburban Rail Loop

Melbourne’s existing rail network has its origins in the 1854 line from Port Melbourne to Flinders Street (since converted to trams), but also particularly in the electrification of the 1910s and 1920s, to the standards of the time, including 1500 volt DC power.

While the SRL will have many interchanges with the existing network, there’s no particular reason it has to use the same technology.

The State Government announced on Sunday that SRL will indeed be different.

Similar to the NSW decision to make their new Metro line independent of the double-deck suburban lines, the SRL will be completely separate from the suburban network.

From the press release:

It will be built as a separate rail line, meaning it can use state-of-the-art systems from around the world without having to retrofit technology into the existing network โ€“ saving time and money.

Passengers will be able to easily transfer across both networks, with the same ticketing system servicing both and up to 12 new stations connecting the existing rail system with the new standalone line.

SRL as a completely separate rail line brings a number of advantages.

Smaller, shorter trains running to higher frequencies can be used – better meeting the non-tidal capacity requirements of a line that doesn’t serve the CBD, while providing real Turn Up And Go services that make interchange from other lines and modes quick and easy.

The key would be to provide infrastructure that makes it possible to easily scale-up capacity as demand grows.

Nobody wants a repeat of the tram 96 situation, where the conversion from high capacity heavy rail to medium capacity light rail, combined with population growth, has seen heavy crowding, with demand swamping the trams.

A segregated fleet means platform screen doors can be used at every station, improving safety.

(Platform screen doors are flagged for the metro tunnel as well, though theoretically could also be retro-fitted at most stations between Sunbury and Cranbourne/Pakenham – with the possible exception of platforms shared with V/Line. And full platform shelter might be required to make it work.)

Singapore MRT: Little India station

Smaller trains may mean a smaller loading gauge, helping to reduce tunnelling costs… or indeed the potential to use standard gauge tracks.

Modern AC power can reduce costs as well – as I understand it, fewer substations are needed compared to the 1500 volt DC power used by suburban trains.

If the line is completely grade separated and independent, it also means driverless trains are possible. Again, the new Sydney Metro line uses these, as do an increasing number of urban train services around the world, including parts of the Singapore MTR, Vancouver’s Skytrain, and London’s DLR.

At this stage the Government seems reluctant to commit to full automation.

Of course there are some disadvantages from using different technology.

Fleets could not be exchanged with other existing Melbourne lines, limiting flexibility. The deployment of new vehicles, and the cascading of others around the network is common on some networks, including Melbourne’s trams.

These types of factors become less important as the network gets bigger. Overall it seems to make sense the way they’re going. The pros outweigh the cons.

I’m more concerned about them adding some intermediate stations (or at least future provision for them) to the longer stretches of the route, to help ensure plenty of people have access to the line.

Given the apparent wish to seek private investment, it would make sense to have stations at some locations which are not already developed to a high density.

There is also a strong argument for including Doncaster in the first section (currently flagged as Cheltenham to Box Hill) given Doncaster is one of Melbourne’s biggest centres with no rail connection.

Provision for a future connection from Cheltenham to the Sandringham line would also make sense.

And there are still questions about the Airport section of the line, connecting through to Sunshine. I suspect Sunday’s announcement means SRL trains will share the alignment with City to Airport trains, but use separate tracks – but given that’s SRL stage 2 or 3, that decision is a long way off.

Docklands Light Rail, London

It’s good to see the Suburban Rail Loop progressing. It looks like we can expect to see construction begin by 2022 – just in time for the next state election.

As it comes into service, it will revolutionise cross-suburban travel by providing fast frequent connections around the middle-distance suburbs – opening up opportunities in jobs and education.

It does mean it becomes even more important to reform and upgrade bus routes and service frequencies to help more people easily reach the rail network.

And building the SRL is not an excuse for not providing 7-day all-day frequent services on the suburban trains – as well as progressing other major rail infrastructure such as Metro 2.

Our growing city needs it all to help more people get around without adding to the traffic.


An early morning flight

3:30am alarm.

3:40am shower.

4:00am Left the house for a 4:30am rendezvous.

By 4:45 we were in a minibus headed for our embarkation point.

Time for a Sunday morning balloon flight – a Christmas present from last year from M.

Hot air balloons are very much at the mercy of the weather.

Our flight had been cancelled twice already due to the wintry blast of wind and rain that had been forecast.

That’s fine by me. I’m a little nervous with heights. Did I want to be high in the air in a balloon in turbulent weather? No, I did not.

For the first flight date, I’d optimistically booked a room in the hotel that serves as the meeting place.

Once the flight was cancelled, it morphed into a night away from home – dinner in the CBD, a stroll to the hotel through gardens, a sleep-in, enjoying the views, breakfast out and a walk in the Fitzroy Gardens in the drizzle.

Balloon taking off from Newport

Third time lucky, with the light wind of Sunday morning determining that we’d head to a park in Newport to take off, flying over the City from west to east – along with three other balloons.

It was a group of nine people, and indeed setting up and packing down is a group operation.

Two of us helped take the basket and the balloon off the trailer, and then once the two were attached, we held the end of the balloon as a big fan inflated it. This participation helped wash away any nervousness and replace it with enthusiasm.

Pretty quickly the balloon took shape, and the wind started to blow the basket around, with our pilot directing people to get in to help weigh it down until we were ready to go.

Some blasts from the flame and we were suddenly drifting upwards, quietly and smoothly.

Balloon over Melbourne Balloons flying over Port Melbourne towards central Melbourne

We headed over Port Melbourne, with amazing views of the bay, a cruise ship, and the Westgate and Bolte Bridges.

Steve, our pilot, delivered a small box to one lady, visiting from Colombia, who opened it to find it was an engagement ring from her companion.

She said yes. A round of applause, and we continued our sightseeing.

Here’s some video:

Being early Sunday morning, there were few cars around, so it was very peaceful – except when the flame was burning.

(In contrast, the helicopter ride some years ago was incredibly noisy due to the rotors.)

The flame, when used, was noisy and being just above our heads, was pretty warm too.

Steve explained some of the detail of how it all works. Broadly, you follow the wind, but you do have control of climbing and descent, and a little control to turn the balloon.

We drifted higher over the city centre, which was spectacular from above.

View over Melbourne from a hot air balloon 17/11/2019 6:04am Balloons flying over central Melbourne

Then over the Treasury and Flagstaff Gardens and the hotel where we’d met, reducing altitude over Collingwood.

It was still early – few people were out and about, but one bloke sweeping leaves in the street did look up. We exchanged waves.

After passing Collingwood Town Hall we continued over Yarra Bend Park. Groups of people were down below, dancing to loud music… by this point it was something like 6am, and a party was still going in the park. We drifted down low over them and they saw us and started waving and cheering.

A little further on in the park and the pilot was radioing the ground crew to let them know we’d be landing soon.

He prompted us to brace for landing… no doubt sometimes it can be a bit rough, but this was actually pretty smooth.

It was a spot near the freeway – which compared to the quiet of the park, was surprisingly noisy even from light traffic.

Deflating the balloon

The ground crew arrived, and we helped pack up the balloon – it’s a bit like folding up a sleeping bag back into storage, but involves more people.

Once the balloon and the basket were back in the trailer, we hopped into the bus to head back to the hotel for breakfast, regaled by tails of earlier flights. Steve recommended we Google for Glen Iris balloon landing.

“That was me!” he said. “And it was this balloon!”

“Glad you didn’t tell us before the flight” I replied.

But our flight was flawless.

I’m slightly nervous about heights, but the gentle take-off and landing were fine – and I can see why they cancel the flight if it’s too windy.

Flights are generally around dawn, so winter would involve less of an early start – but it’d be colder and wetter (from dew) while setting up before dawn. It was an early start, but weather was perfect.

It took a bit under an hour to fly/drift from Newport to Yarra Bend. It would probably take longer by car in peak hour.

(Obligatory public transport advocacy: the Metro 2 rail tunnel would do a similar trip in perhaps 15-20 minutes.)

But you can see why ballooning is a tourist activity, not a mainstream form of transport. The embarkation and disembarkation points are severely limited. You’ve got no guarantee of going where you need to go to.

And any form of transport that requires you to be trailed by a ground crew is never going to be mainstream.

Ballooning was first attempted in the 1780s – and it’s doubtful that it has ever been a terribly useful way to get around. But it’s still a lot of fun.

Postscript: Over breakfast, I overheard a NZ couple chatting with our pilot, about Melbourne’s public transport. Wherever in NZ they’re from, it’s better than there.

“Yeah it’s pretty good”, replied our pilot. “But I don’t understand why the trains don’t run more frequently in the suburbs. Sometimes you have to wait half an hour.”

Amen to that, Steve.


Why are pedestrian crossings so narrow?

Why is it that at most traffic lights, the crossings for pedestrians are so narrow?

Even in Melbourne’s CBD, where heavy pedestrian numbers are expected, most crossings are far too narrow for the number of people.

Little Bourke St/Russell St intersection, Melbourne

It appears that technically, anybody crossing outside the lines is in breach of Road Safety Rule regulation 234 (a) – which says you can’t cross a road less than 20 metres from a crossing.

But in many cases, people have little choice but to cross outside the lines.

Short “green man” phases at some intersections mean that you might miss the lights if you crossed between the lines.

At King Street (corner Bourke Street), shown below at lunchtime, there’s only 12 seconds to start crossing, and only 30 seconds in total to cross – because roads authorities have prioritised north-south car traffic. (Hopefully King Street is one of the ones to be reviewed and modified.)

The default crossing width seems to match the footpaths that feed into it.

But this doesn’t make sense, as waits for traffic lights mean people cross in large concentrated groups – quite a different pattern from moving individually along a footpath.

This is not just a CBD problem. Suburban crossings are often too narrow – either not providing required capacity, or not taking into account desire lines, such as the flows here at Bentleigh station to and from the westbound bus stop.

Bentleigh station pedestrian crossing

To give authorities some credit, a few re-designed crossings provide a lot more space to pedestrians – at least in the CBD.

In some cases these have been implemented alongside upgraded tram stops, for instance, where the ramps plus the platform plus widened crossings can nicely fill the half-block.

Bourke/Elizabeth Sts intersection, Melbourne

Of course it doesn’t matter how wide the crossings are if motorists keep blocking them – an ongoing problem given there is no enforcement of the rules.


Train punctuality – WWJD?

Last week the government announced timetable changes, including adjustments to the Cranbourne/Pakenham line. (I’ll just call it the Dandenong line for short. Almost everybody else does.)

Of the roughly 265 services per weekday, 93 will be adjusted. A few will be quicker by a minute or two, but most of the 93 will be slower – most of them by 1-2 minutes, but a few by up to 5 minutes.

During peak hour, I suspect most people won’t notice, because between the City and Dandenong it’s usually not worth looking at a timetable – there’s generally a train every 3-6 minutes.

Beyond Dandenong it’s less frequent, of course, and off-peak 20 minute frequencies kick as early as 8am on weekdays at Pakenham.

Striving for the impossible?

But let’s cut to the chase. What’s the point of an impossible-to-achieve timetable?

Over the past 12 months, this line has had the worst punctuality on the network (October 2018 to September 2019: Cranbourne 84.8%, Pakenham 85.9% within 5 minutes)

If some running times can’t be achieved, it absolutely makes sense to make changes.

But they also need to look at the causes of delays, and identify fixes.

  • Are there infrastructure issues? (Yes, there have been major disruptions due to new infrastructure, but is it also causing every day delays?)
  • Is the Cranbourne single track contributing to delays? (It’s hard to believe it’s not. Even the government’s own web site says duplication would remove the bottlenecks that cause delays and allow the number of train services to be doubled during peak times)
  • Is the flat junction at Dandenong causing issues?
  • What about the sharing of the City Loop tunnel with Frankston trains? Nobody could pretend that doesn’t add to track congestion.
  • Peak crowding? I’m sure that’s contributing. So how about boosting the service? Again, that’s possible if the Frankston trains come out of the Loop.
  • Not all of the changes are in peak hour. For instance the 1:40pm to Pakenham currently arrives and terminates at 2:58pm. Under the new timetable it takes 2 minutes longer. If services like this are taking too long now due to crowding, is it a sign the base off-peak service needs boosting too?
  • Will the new HCMTs help cut station dwell times? (And are other measures such as platform staff and announcements and the “burn lines” helping?)

The preference should be to fix issues like these, and then adjust the times…

We know they’re working on timetable changes.

Realistically, right here and now, what do they do?

And why has this been ignored for so long that some trains need to be given five minutes longer?

Crowded train, South Yarra

What would happen in Japan?

One reaction I saw from multiple people was along the lines of:

Slowing down trains? Outrage! This would never happen in Japan!

Um well… scrupulously punctual trains don’t just happen by magic. They have to work at it.

So what do they do in Japan? A little research, and here are some answers, courtesy of this paper.

It’s worth noting that they’re often looking at some seriously intense railway operations. The paper looks at the Tozai line, which carries 1.6 million passenger trips per day:

In many railway lines in big cities, 25 – 30 trains are running per hour per direction on a double track line during morning rush hours. This means trains are running every two to three minutes in one direction. Still, trains are very congested and it is not unusual that more than 2,000 passengers are aboard a train which consists of ten cars and is 200m long.

That’s far more and longer trains than on the Dandenong line, though that’s where things are likely to be headed in coming years.

How do the Japanese railway companies handle it? The paper says they look at their infrastructure and try to make the most of it:

Timetable planners are very cautious to avoid conflicts imposed by capacity constraints.

And station dwell times are certainly an issue:

Because trains are operated very densely, once a delay (primary delay) happens, the delay is propagated to other trains and a lot of trains are also delayed (secondary delay). Primary delays are quite often caused by passengers. If more passengers than expected get on/off a train, the dwell time becomes longer and the train is delayed.

The paper goes on to say that if infrastructure can’t fix it, or it isn’t practical to upgrade it, then yes, absolutely they do adjust train timetables to improve punctuality:

Various factors are relevant to the robustness of timetables. In particular, improvement or increase of facilities such as construction of new tracks is quite effective to increase robustness of timetables, but usually prohibitively expensive and sometimes impossible due to limitation of spaces. So, railway companies are more interested in improving robustness of timetables by slightly modifying them.

And it flags some of the options for modifying the timetables:

…potential adjustments are:

Dwell time of Train Z at Station A should be increased by five seconds.

Running time of Train W from Station B to Station C should be increased by 10 seconds.

Departing order of Train S and Train T should be changed so that Train T departs first.

Train U should stop at Station D.

The whole paper is worth a read if you’re interested in such things.

So then… do they slow down train timetables in Japan to maintain punctuality? Yes they certainly do.

I’d love to visit Japan one day. But whenever and wherever I go on holiday, I’m wary of observing things just as a tourist, and I try not to make assumptions about how or bad and efficient things are, based on limited experience.

Dandenong line, 6pm

So is our State government off the hook? Certainly not. The question is: are the root causes of delays being looked at? And we know Dandenong to Cranbourne is to be duplicated – by 2023 apparently, almost 30 years after suburban trains started on that line. Why has it taken so long?

And how about the other single tracks around the Metro network: Upfield, Belgrave, Lilydale, Hurstbridge, Altona Loop? They all cause problems – delays, and short shunting to prevent flow-on delays.

This isn’t Puffing Billy, a tourist attraction with a train only every couple of hours. Melbourne’s rail network underpins the entire economy.

If they are serious about the public transport network, then sufficient infrastructure is a must, and the other barriers to punctuality all need to be looked at and resolved.


Protip: the Myki gate doesn’t have to close behind the previous person before you can touch your card

Update – see below

At busy times, queues can form at station fare gates, especially when large numbers of people arrive from multiple trains at once.

Investment in more gates and faster (Vix) readers has helped – 950 new readers are being installed in 141 stations.

But it’s noticeable than some people wait for the person in front of them to go through and for the gate to close before touching their card. This slows things down.

You don’t need to wait. When the light acknowledging the previous person’s card goes off (or for older readers, when it says “Touch here”) you can touch your card – even if the gate itself hasn’t closed yet behind the previous person.

In the video above, hopefully you can see that the guy in front of me waits until the previous person has cleared the gate and the gate has fully closed, then he touches.

But I touch my card and follow before the gate has closed.

This helps keep the queue moving rather than a stop-start shuffle.

Given ongoing problems at some busy stations, I’m surprised authorities haven’t tried to educate passengers on this – particularly now all the busiest stations have the faster readers.

Keeping people moving through the gate line seems like a logical step to help improve flows through stations.

Update – it turns out there’s a complication! I’m told that at some locations, going through this fast may not be possible – the gate may get confused and close on you. This seems to be an issue with some of the red coloured gates in particular – not the yellow ones shown above. So if the gate is red, you’re right to be wary.

Photos from ten years ago

Old photos from October 2009

Here’s another in my series of old photos out of the vault from ten years ago.

We went to Bendigo for a couple of days, so here are a couple of snaps from that trip.

Bendigo bus to Kangaroo Flat
Tram museum, Bendigo

The only time I saw Powderfinger live was this “surprise” gig in Federation Square. (A surprise except a lot of people seemed to know they were coming.)

Powderfinger live in Federation Square, 2nd October 2009

I must have been checking out the then-new bus turnaround at the western end of Lonsdale Street. Much of the area has since been redeveloped, including The Age building at left.

Lonsdale Street bus turnaround, October 2009

Remember these? Back when you could buy a tram ticket on a tram.

Metcard vending machine on a tram, October 2009

Yes, trams used to get crowded before the Free Tram Zone was instituted. But most of the trams are bigger now, and more frequent, and more crowded. (They also take about the same amount of time to get across the CBD, sometimes a little longer, according to timetables.)

Busy tram, Bourke Street

Collins Place. Basically unchanged from this angle.

Collins Place, Melbourne, October 2009

The ups and downs of escalators

It’s not your imagination. Some City Loop escalators are running slower in peak hour.

Normally: Fast in peak, slow off-peak

Normal practice (for decades now) is to run the Loop station escalators at a reasonable clip during peak hour, and set to slow down outside peak. This is pretty annoying for many of those catching trains at off-peak times.

Why slow them down outside peak? It’s not clear.

  • Perhaps to save power – but isn’t the travel time of off-peak passengers important too?
  • Perhaps some off-peak passengers are uncomfortable with the higher speed. But then, they have the option of lifts.
  • Perhaps it’s one of those operational policies put into place in 1981 when the Loop first opened that’s never been reviewed.
Escalators at Flagstaff station
Flagstaff station, evening peak. Note the skylarkers on the right. Safety first!

Trialling slow speeds in peak

Anyway, just in the last couple of weeks Metro has been running the down escalators in peak at the slower speed at some stations.

They say it’s a trial to improve safety.

My initial reaction to slower speeds: I wonder if it could backfire:

  • The slower speed may encourage more people to walk on the escalator, increasing risk of a fall
  • It’s a known problem that some people overbalance or suffer from vertigo while standing on escalators. Slower escalators means they’re on them for longer. Would this mean more risk?

A study of 600 escalator incidents over 9 years showed people were more likely to fall off escalators going up than down – but slowing upwards escalators in peak would cause capacity issues – see below.

To my surprise, I’m hearing that the initial results of the trial have been favourable.

But I guess we’ll see how it pans out.

Escalator capacity: walking vs standing

By the way, some people claim that everybody standing (nobody walking) on escalators is faster. I think that’s slightly misinterpreting the results from the well-known London Underground trial back in 2015.

What it does provide is more capacity – because standing people are more space-efficient than walking people.

But it’s only faster if having both standing and walking is resulting in queues at the entrance to the escalator – this could particularly be an issue if the majority of people want to stand.

Queues for escalators at Parliament station
Parliament station, northern end, morning peak

Southern Cross is pretty bad for escalator crowding, especially during their frequent outages.

Of the underground stations, Parliament station might be the worst for escalator crowding, particularly during morning peak. (See above)

In most cases I’d rather walk, but there might be some justification at that location to encourage everybody to stand.

It’s probably easier to convince people to stand if the escalators are not running slowly. And the faster speed will clear any queues more quickly of course.

At the northern end of Parliament, it might also be an option to ask the small number of people entering in morning peak to use the lift down to the platform rather than the mostly empty third escalator – opening up more capacity for those exiting. (This may not be an option at other stations with higher proportions of interchange and counter-peak flows.)

Escalators at Parliament station
Parliament station escalators

The design, capacity and provision of escalators is no doubt being studied carefully for the new metro tunnel stations. You’d hope they will handle expected growth in coming decades, especially at Parkville which may become a future Metro 2 interchange.

But building more escalator and lift capacity into existing underground stations would be incredibly expensive – so in the City Loop, this is another case where it makes sense to look at operational practices to make the most of the current infrastructure.

Net Toxic Custard newsletter

The end of Toxic Custard

Before blogging and the web, there was email and Usenet and FTP sites.

Just over 29 years ago I started writing online, sending out literal undergraduate humour to mates at Monash University and beyond mostly via email, under the truly ridiculous name “Toxic Custard“.

It got into the student newspaper, then in 1996 it went onto the web and became the early version of this blog. Along the way the content has continued to morph, to more autobiographical material, and more recently a concentration on transport.

The email list still exists… and to my surprise it’s still got about 600 people on it.

But I’m shutting it down – because it requires manual intervention to crank it up and send it out, which I rarely get around to doing, and because it relies on YahooGroups, which recently announced most of its features are being shut down. Emails to lists will be the only thing left, but it’s probably pretty safe to say these won’t last much longer. It’s obviously not a business Yahoo wants to be in anymore.

Edit: In classic Yahoo style, the final email to the list took almost 24 hours to be delivered.

The blog will keep going. Those wanting to receive posts by email have a couple of options:

Subscribe to all posts – I’ll be sending out invitations to this to those on the old list.

…or you can subscribe to just transport posts (via MailChimp):

* indicates required

There are also options to get new posts via RSS feeders (just add this URL), and I promote most of them via Twitter and Facebook. Edit: Of course you can just read it on the web.

I also occasionally blog on technology and various geeky tidbits at

Thanks to all who stayed on the email list over the years.


How much would trains every ten minutes cost?

One of the gaping holes in Melbourne’s public transport system is the lack of an all-day every day frequent service on the backbone: the Metro suburban train network.

Melbourne is one of the few cities in the world, outside North America, which doesn’t have frequent all day trains.

Other Australian cities are moving towards this. Perth has now trains every 15 minutes to most stations until around 8pm. Sydney does even better – they’re every 15 minutes until around midnight, and the new Sydney Metro line runs every 4 minutes in peak, and every 10 minutes the rest of the time.

The PBO costing

A few months ago the State Parliamentary Budget Office published their cost estimate for the Greens policy of trains and trams every 10 minutes, every day, all day until 9pm: $214 million per year – with $173 million of that being for trains.

Some people thought this was cheap. I actually wonder if it might be even cheaper. One source suggested to me that the train upgrades would be closer to $100 million per year.

How did they calculate it? The PBO’s source document doesn’t have much detail. I did ask, and they said they only included scalable costs, which in theory takes into account the cost savings inherent in using existing assets more efficiently.

The Greens policy scope is larger than some other proposals, as it includes 10 minute frequencies all the way to Pakenham and Werribee.

It’s unclear if the PBO took into account potential efficiencies from driver shifts – a driver who might currently run 1-2 peak services in a shift may also be able to drive some additional off-peak services for no extra cost.

Departure signage at Flinders Street station

The importance of the network effect

The cost would be partly offset by increased fare revenue.

The PBO’s estimate of increased revenue was based on work by Infrastructure Australia, but it’s not clear if this takes into account the network effect. That is, if you run a single route more frequently, that’s good, you get some more passengers. But run a lot of routes more frequently and you make exponentially more journeys more time-competitive, and get a lot more passengers.

It’s like when they made it so text messages weren’t confined to one phone network, but you could SMS anybody. Usage grew exponentially.

(Yes, I am old enough to remember these things.)

Apart from connections between different bus, tram and train routes being easier with high frequencies, it also makes life easier during works and disruptions, when sections of rail lines are replaced by buses, as connections (especially bus to train) involve less waiting around.

Objections to frequent trains

Interestingly, when faced with the idea that most of Melbourne’s trains could run every 10 minutes all day, a few people object to the concept.

Here are some of the points that I’ve seen raised.

“Huge infrastructure upgrades are needed first!”

No they’re not. Although there are sections of single track that are a barrier, most lines can run trains every ten minutes with no issues, because they already run more frequently than this in peak hour.

Comeng trains at Craigieburn TMF

“There aren’t enough trains!”

Yes there are. While there might be some adjustments needed to maintenance, again, there would still be plenty of trains unused outside peak hours, so this shouldn’t be a big problem.

“It’s too expensive”

Big transport networks are expensive. According to the Budget Papers, the fees paid to MTM for running and maintaining the entire Metro network amount to about $1.1 billion per year.

So we might be talking about a funding increase of around 10% per year to make the network vastly more useful for people. And that doesn’t count increased fare revenue.

(Total rail network costs, including Metro, V/Line, V/Line coaches and the strange Capital Assets Charge, which is an internal government accounting trick, are about $3.9 billion. Against that higher cost, this is a tiny increase of about 3%.)

“Nobody travels in the middle of the day”

Melbourne is now a big city. Plenty of people travel outside peak hours.

Vicroads data shows road demand as strong right throughout the day, and weekend demand is nearly as strong as weekdays.

All-day frequent service can also help spread the peak load, by making it more attractive to travel outside peak.

Off-peak trains aren’t crowded

In some cases they are. For instance, western suburbs lines get very crowded during weekday off-peak and weekends – see below.

This plan would solve that, but the main benefit is sparking more demand by cutting waiting times (including connections from other services) to make public transport a more attractive option. This is because transport is supply-led.

Express trains would be better

Some argue that instead of trains every 10 minutes, there should be alternating stoppers and expresses every 20 minutes.

This is messy, eats track capacity, is harder for new users to understand, and means only a fraction of stations get the cut in waiting times. And each station skipped only saves about a minute of journey time.

Studies indicate that perceptions of waiting time can be up to 2.5 times that of travel time. Cutting waiting time is the priority to get more passengers on board.

It’s opex

Yes, itโ€™s operating expenditure, recurring funds, which can be seen as bad for government budgets, unlike once-off capital expenditure. But this is the reality with a public service. You donโ€™t build a hospital and then not staff it properly.

Better services would maximise use of the (substantial) rail infrastructure and fleet, and the cost would be partially recouped by increased fare revenue.

Spreading peak demand, just as was the case with the Earlybird fare, can also seen as a way of saving on upgrades to peak capacity (on public transport and on the roads), which are very expensive.

More broadly, it would assist economic growth by providing more opportunity for people to reach employment and education.

“Every 10 minutes? It should be every 5!”

Perhaps eventually, but let’s walk before we run.

With feeder bus services generally poor, who would use the trains if they ran every five minutes? The risk is theyโ€™d be under utilised.

Better to build up the patronage, then see which lines need a further boost.

“What about buses?”

Buses are important too, and many bus routes suffer the same problems as off-peak trains – more so, given some routes run only hourly. So yes, buses need upgrades.

But if you had to do just one mode, I’d start with trains:

  • the fleet is ready to go
  • they serve both short and long distance trips
  • carrying capacity is much higher, including passengers per additional staff member deployed
  • upgrading a network of just 15 lines provides far greater frequent service coverage across Melbourne
  • trains are largely immune from road congestion, so the investment in new services is maximised

“It would lock up the road network”

Unlikely. Outside peak times, local arterial roads (the ones they typically have level crossings) are not under the same stress as at peak hour, and the proposal is for fewer trains running than at peak hour.

The introduction of 10 minute all-day trains on the Frankston, Dandenong and Ringwood lines has not caused chaos on the roads.

And the extra trains would attract trips out of cars onto public transport, giving more people a way to avoid road congestion.

That said, the continued removal of level crossings means there is the opportunity to boost train service levels with less effect on the road network.

Citybound train at Murrumbeena skyrail station

Frequent trains mean huge benefits

Melbourne continues to grow, and all day traffic levels continue to grow.

Running the trains more frequently all day brings huge benefits for many, including better connections across the network, without breaking the bank.

You know the joy of walking onto a station platform and finding there’s only a few minutes until your train? This experience makes using the system far more attractive. That’s the power of high frequency service.

The State government is going great guns on infrastructure, but it’s time they moved on upgrades to services as well, especially a no-brainer like this.


Big changes proposed for the City Loop

A Metro (MTM) proposal has emerged for big changes to the operation of the City Loop for trains running through the Caulfield and Burnley tunnels.

The page below is from a document discussing CBD station capacity implications from the introduction of the High Capacity Metro Trains. I’m told the document is genuine.

It reveals that the Caulfield Loop will be required to run anti-clockwise all day – the opposite of the current weekday PM direction. Apparently this is due to signalling changes for the HCMTs, which will run in the Loop when they come into service in 2020, until the metro tunnel opens in 2025. It sounds like those upgrades have only been implemented in one direction.

The document goes on to say that to prevent overcrowding on the remaining trains running from Parliament to Richmond (Burnley Loop trains), they propose to have those services not stop at Richmond.


So, what does this mean exactly?

In AM peak, the Loop would run as at present, except Frankstons would all run direct to Flinders St (“full Cross City operation”) – this is good; it allows more Dandenong and Frankston line services.

The bigger changes are in PM peak:

  • Caulfield Loop trains to/from Cranbourne and Pakenham would run anti-clockwise (Frankstons would all run direct to/from Flinders Street)
  • Burnley direct trains (generally they are the stopping services to Alamein, Blackburn and Ringwood) from Flinders St would continue to stop at Richmond
  • Burnley Loop trains (currently mostly express trains to Belgrave/Lilydale, and Glen Waverley services) would not stop at Richmond – they’d stop at Burnley instead for interchange

Here’s a diagram – modified from the PTUA’s guide to navigating the City Loop.

City Loop proposal

What it means for passengers

Not stopping Burnley Loop trains at Richmond is to avoid what could otherwise be dire overcrowding on those trains. But it would mean Caulfield people have to catch a train anti-clockwise around the Loop.

If going to the Frankston line, you would presumably change trains at Richmond or Caulfield. Sandringham line passengers would also need to go round anti-clockwise and change at Richmond.

For passengers from Parliament or Melbourne Central to any of the lines through South Yarra this inevitably means a longer trip outbound, about 10 minutes. Probably about the same at Flagstaff and Southern Cross, and quicker from Flinders Street.

It’s 3 minutes from Parliament to Richmond direct; the other way around it’s 13 minutes assuming no extended wait at Flinders Street. Which might be a big assumption – Metro’s challenge will be to eliminate or at least minimise this wait.

Metro will also need to prevent any transposals – where a train unexpectedly changes destination after people have boarded. This is especially important now that they’re in the habit of hiding the train’s destination on station displays to discourage late boarding.

"Burn line" hiding the train destination - passenger information display at Caulfield

The change to anti-clockwise all day is similar to when the Clifton Hill Loop changed in 2008 to run consistently clockwise on weekdays. It meant a longer AM trip for passengers going to Parliament, but cut the travel time for those going to Flinders Street – in that case, it was fairer, as they had previously gone the long way around in both directions.

Clifton Hill people don’t have the option of changing trains, but some of them hop off at Jolimont and walk to Spring Street in the morning.

Ultimately, people may need to re-assess their travel patterns as a result of this proposal. Their nearest CBD station may not be their fastest option. (My nearest is Flagstaff, but Flinders Street is only slightly further away, and will become my fastest option under these changes.)

I’m sure we’ll adapt… just as Clifton Hill and Werribee people did in 2008, and Sandringham people did in 1996. Those lines continue to boom. But don’t be surprised if people are grumpy about it.

The change would be much easier to deal with if the Northern Loop was changed to run clockwise all day on weekdays, as it does on weekends. This would provide passengers from Parliament a quick way of getting to Flinders Street to pick up their trains. (It would add to loads, but not as badly as Burnley Loop trains, which have their full CBD load to carry from Parliament.)

Interchange at Richmond

For people starting their trip at Richmond, or changing off other lines at Richmond and wanting to use the Burnley group, they will be able to use the trains running direct from Flinders Street (about 8 trains per hour in peak hour), and change to expresses or Glen Waverley trains at Burnley instead.

More consistency? Yes, but at a cost

There are compelling reasons for running the Loop tunnels consistently all day, including better network legibility (especially for occasional users; PTUA gets hundreds of hits every month on the City Loop guide), cutting long midday gaps between trains, and fairer outcomes for those who go the long way around in both the AM and PM peaks.

This change will also enables Loop passengers to get to Southern Cross and Flinders St in the PM, not currently possible without changing trains. This is very helpful for V/Line passengers in particular.

But it’s at the expense of the consistency of stopping every train at Richmond, which is likely to cause confusion, especially initially, and will cause a blow-out in some travel times.

Could they leave Burnley Loop trains as they are? Yes, but I suspect the modelling is right: the crowding at Parliament and Richmond would be pretty bad, with people heading to Richmond crowding out Burnley passengers.

New metro trains: View along carriage

A few other questions spring to mind:

  • Would the anti-clockwise direction be changed back when the metro tunnel opens and the Frankston Line returns to the Loop in 2025? (Probably not. People will have adjusted by then, I suspect if it happens, they’d leave it alone, and keep the benefits.)
  • What boost in services will be seen on the various affected lines to make use of the extra capacity, and lessen the impact of the changes?
  • For Caulfield Loop trains, will Metro successfully eliminate delays through Flinders Street and avoid transposals?
  • How will Caulfield cope with the increase in interchange of Loop passengers to the Frankston line?
  • Will Southern Cross cope with the passenger increase, especially when there are delays and escalator failures, some of which run for weeks at a time?
  • Even though consistent Loop direction is in principle a good idea, given the problems with it, why didn’t the City Loop upgrades include bi-directional running for the HCMTs? True those trains will move to the metro tunnel in 2025, but won’t they eventually be redeployed to more lines as the Comeng trains get decommissioned?
  • Was it really not possible to change the Northern Loop to cut travel time blow-outs?

Overall there are benefits to this proposal, particularly around better separation of services, which helps reliability and capacity – which is of course a key priority. And it helps connections to V/Line and non-Loop western suburbs lines at Southern Cross.

But this comes at the cost of travel time increases for some passengers, and inconsistent stopping patterns at Richmond.

Obviously making lots of changes at one time is hard, but this would be a lot easier on people if the Northern Loop was changed to run clockwise at the same time.

Especially without that, this proposal looks like one of those awkward compromises that adds some capacity and benefits, but unfortunately brings drawbacks for quite a few passengers.