Queue for rail replacement buses

Bustitution looms again

Just a quick one as I’ve been very busy, and have also had a bad cold, so haven’t felt like much writing.

The next lot of major bustitution is upon us from Saturday morning, and including all of next week: no trains between the City and Caulfield.

You’ll recall that at Easter, this was a complete mess.

Have they learnt from that? Yes, I’m told they looked very closely at how it went, though they’re sticking with the strategy of funnelling most people into Caulfield, then bussing them from there.

Why? Because, they say, they know what went wrong, including during that looooong trip on the Monday morning:

  • What should have happened is that terminating trains used platforms 1 and 3. Frankston into platform 1, with passengers directed to a bus queue at the NW end of the station, going to the Arts Centre; Dandenong into platform 3, passengers directed to a bus queue at the SW end, buses to Federation Square
  • But Frankston trains arriving into platform 1 were delayed leaving again due to crowding on the platform.
  • Train controllers made the fateful decision to terminate some onto platform 2 instead, to keep trains moving.
  • This resulted in large numbers of people ending up in the one queue, and consequently long delays there, and on buses approaching Federation Square.
  • Bus drivers only have training for their specific route (they’re often brought in from far afield, so don’t necessarily know the local road system), so they couldn’t divert resources to the Fed Square route, nor could they divert some buses away from Fed Square to avoid traffic snarls

Okay, fair enough, let’s assume the root cause was a lack of staff clearing platform 1. They can fix that.

But that doesn’t explain why they let the queue for buses to Fed Square get out of control. Why didn’t they divert some of the crowds to the other queue?

They could also brief the bus drivers on both routes, and the options connecting them, for more operational flexibility. Sounds like this time they will divert buses if the Fed Square route clogs up.

And it doesn’t explain why the long delays for buses getting out of Caulfield across Princes Highway, nor why the Federation Square bus route was still a mess throughout that week.

To be fair, they say they’ll try harder this time to quickly clear incoming buses out of Fed Square, and deploying Variable Message Signs to encourage other traffic to avoid parts of that route, to try and keep things moving.

They’re also going to try express buses from Cranbourne and Pakenham all the way into the City (inbound AM peak only), to try and reduce loads closer in. It’ll still be a long journey in the traffic.

And for Dandenong line users they’ll have contingency plans if the line clogs up, offering the option of a bus connection from Oakleigh to Darling on the Glen Waverley line. They may also deploy buses to Moorabbin.

But they’ve resisted the idea of funnelling large numbers of passengers onto other lines by default, as it may just cause crowding and delays to spread more widely.

There also seems to be no consideration to also boosting regular crosstown route buses to neighbouring rail lines – though they did tell me they’d watch for people left behind, and try to boost tram capacity. Tram 67 and bus route 630 seemed to be the worst affected last time.

I also know they’ll continue to monitor closely each day and tweak things where possible. I don’t expect this will be the last big shut down for the metro tunnel, so they do need to keep working at improving things.

Let’s see what happens on Monday morning.

Temporary tram track

Temporary track to minimise disruptions

I think this is quite clever.

When trains or trams are partially closed for planned works, generally the less of the route is disrupted, the better.

But this is always limited by the placement of turnaround facilities. Witness the current Sandringham line closure: the major works are at South Yarra, but because (despite what was said beforehand) the infrastructure issue at Elsternwick hasn’t been fixed, the whole line is closed.

Over on the trams, they have an ingenious solution: a portable, temporary crossover. It was in use in Swan Street in Richmond (route 70) for a few days this week while tram platform stops are built:

This enabled them to terminate trams at Richmond station, with disrupted passengers able to either change to a train, or walk 400 metres to where trams could resume.

Apart from placement of the temporary track, they also needed to install some overhead wire. Of course it’s made easier to manage in this case by the road closure.

But it’s smart thinking, allowing trams to run as far as possible, reducing disruption for passengers, and avoiding the mess and cost of replacement buses.

Temporary track is nothing new. Back last century it was a common occurrence around the tram (and train) networks. But that was in a bygone era, when I suspect labour was cheap.

For long term projects, it still sometimes happens. Over Easter, the Dandenong and Frankston lines near South Yarra were ripped up and rebuilt as part of Metro tunnel works, and will be ripped up again as the junction to the new tunnel portal is built. There have also been tram tracks relocated on St Kilda Road which may need to be relocated again as the tunnel works continue.

But overall, temporary track is less common in modern times, at least on short term projects.

If only it were this easy on the railways.

Queue for rail replacement buses

Train Pain

If you were following me on Twitter on Monday morning, you’d know that I made a decision I came to regret: I travelled to work on the train to Caulfield and the express rail replacement bus into the City.

In short: the buses were hopelessly swamped by people. It was a long wait (43 minutes) in the bus queue; then a bus trip from Caulfield to the City that took more than an hour.

The trip that normally takes about half an hour from Bentleigh to the City instead took two hours.Read this Twitter thread for the grisly details.

In the cold light of day, here are some thoughts on this.

Flyer for April 2019 rail works

The good stuff.

The information has been pretty good. Lots of signage. Lots of staff making announcements on the train, on the station before the works started. It was pretty clear where to go.

There’s also been no shortage of advance warning: signs at local and CBD stations (the latter perhaps a little overwhelming), flyers handed out at stations, announcements on stations and trains, TV and radio advertising, press calls, web site updates.

There have been some errors along the way, and some of the media messaging was overly alarmist – leaving for instance some people assuming the Sandringham line is closed every day. It’s not – it’s only closed on some weekends. A simple calendar might have helped.

On the ground at Caulfield, they seem to have tweaked the verbal messaging from announcers to say “to the City”, which is much clearer (and more correct) than the previous “to Flinders“.

The massive tents at Caulfield are a smart idea. Ideally you don’t want long queues. But if you do have them, you especially don’t want people in long queues in the rain.

It reminded me a bit of the queues for rides at an amusement park. But not as fun.

I found passengers were remarkably calm while queuing. Maybe they were all posting furious messages on social media, but nobody got visibly shouty or upset, nobody jumped the queue, and (gods be praised) nobody lit up a cigarette inside the tent.

Metro was taking the operation seriously. I know this because I saw Metro CEO Raymond O’Flaherty walking around checking things out, with a suitably serious look on his face.

It’s school holidays and university mid-semester break (at least for some). This helps reduces travel demand, especially in the morning peak. The trains were quieter than usual. If these disruptions have to occur, now is the right time.

Running a stopping-all-stations every 7 minutes service from Frankston to Caulfield made sense to keep things simple and minimise passenger waits for trains. It’s similar on the Pakenham line, though Cranbourne passengers have to change at Dandenong, which adds to their travel time.

Happily for outbound passengers, trains on the Dandenong line run at least every 10 minutes until almost 10pm; until about 8pm on the Frankston line. High frequency makes outbound connections off the buses fairly easy.

On the bus there were delays due to traffic, but it seemed minimal delays due to just traffic lights themselves – apparently Vicroads was making some effort to cut delays to buses at lights, which was good… except…

Buses still faced long delays getting across Princes Highway because someone decided that cars on the highway are more important than scores of buses packed with people.

Edit: As far as I can make out, the express buses were split between Federation Square (via the M1) and Arts Centre (via Dandenong Road/St Kilda Road).

Caulfield station: a crowd exits the train to change to rail replacement buses

The problems

Train delays approaching Caulfield. Ours stopped for about six minutes, but this was nothing compared to some of the delays on the Dandenong line, with some trains stuck for an hour or more.

A big factor in this was crowding on the platforms. Caulfield station is not a modern design. Especially on platforms 2 & 3, the gates and ramps cause a bottleneck. (With the metro tunnel likely to increase Caulfield’s interchange role, an additional concourse would be a welcome upgrade.)

The track layout is also problematic – sometime in the past few years, the layout has been altered so that trains from Dandenong can only terminate on platform 3. The less busy Frankston trains could use platforms 1 & 2.

The sheer number of people meant crowding in the subway. The crowding in the subway backed up onto the ramp, and then up onto the platform, preventing empty trains from departing.

But the biggest problem was bus throughput. Standing in the queue for that 43 minute wait, there would be times when no buses at all would arrive for 5-10 minutes. Then a few would appear and fill up.

The crowds could have been handled much better if the stream of buses was constant.

Bus delays

Some express buses earlier in the morning had departed with spare capacity aboard, despite people still queuing. (This was actually shown in the timelapse in Channel 7’s news story.)

This needs fixing urgently – apart from making some in the queue needlessly wait, it wasted bus capacity that could have been used later in the morning to keep more people moving. Express buses shouldn’t leave unless full if people are waiting. Only stopper buses need to leave with space for more passengers.

Ch7 9/4/2019 - Still from timelapse of trip from Caulfield to City

Bus throughput was also affected by severe traffic delays – buses despatched to the City had a slow trip in, limiting the number of trips they could run.

  • Unbelievably, Normanby Road in Caulfield was still available to general traffic in both directions, with buses having to negotiate a sea of bollards. Did they seriously not think to just close it off?
  • There were also delays on Sir John Monash Drive for buses trying to enter and leave the precinct. Given the numbers of passengers, it would easily be justified to close down that section of the road (from Queens Avenue to Dandenong Road) to other traffic – or allocate an extra bus lane that can be used to get onto Burke Road.
  • At the very least, more time should have been given for buses getting across Princes Highway.
  • Each morning peak the M1 has been clogged. On my trip was a crawl from joining the freeway at Burke Road, up until about Toorak Road. (Can the automated signage on the “managed motorways” be programmed to show bus lanes? If not, maybe this should be factored into designs for future rollouts.)
  • After leaving the freeway there was another crawl along Batman Avenue, mostly caused by the sheer number of buses.

At this point on my trip I was looking on Google Maps at the traffic further along and onto Flinders Street and thinking/hoping they’d route some buses over to the Arts Centre to avoid it – as has been the case during previous rail closures.

Unbelievably, they didn’t. Instead our bus and all the others headed straight into a kilometre-long queue of buses and other traffic.

You know how some people claim that unlike rail transport, buses can easily adapt to changing travel demand and traffic patterns. Yeah. Not unless someone tells the drivers.

Bus queue in Flinders Street, 8/4/2019

Eventually bus drivers started letting passengers out to walk the rest of the way. As I walked, I found a long queue of buses all the way to Federation Square.

Authorities implied it was because of the vegan protestors occupying the intersection at Swanston and Flinders Street. I don’t buy that.

  • Any westbound traffic delayed by the protest was separate from the bus route, because the section of Flinders Street used by the buses (from Exhibition to Russell Streets) was closed to other vehicles
  • Exactly the same problem happened again on Tuesday morning – with no protestors. And again on Wednesday morning.

To me it looked like the bus jam was due to a slow turnaround at Federation Square. They should have been getting buses unloaded and out again as quickly as possible so they could get back to Caulfield and pick up more passengers. Again the despatch procedures seem to need reviewing.

The lack of a dedicated bus lane on Batman Avenue didn’t help either, though it wasn’t as big a problem as on the M1.

For a bus and it’s driver, the round trip would have been at least 60 minutes inbound plus 30 minutes outbound. No wonder there were queues at Caulfield.

Buses queued at Caulfield during rail shutdown

Is the strategy right?

The government says 600 buses and coaches are being used this week for rail replacements, and presumably most of them are on the Caulfield to City run. But are they being used in the best way?

Getting everyone to Caulfield by train and then using lots of buses to the City worked during quiet times on the weekend when passenger numbers were lower. It struggled a bit with football crowds, but it really struggles with peak hour commuters.

It’s a firm reminder that buses can’t replace trains. It re-created the mess that occurs every weekday on the Doncaster corridor, where buses try to do that job.

The Doncaster buses are incredibly messy, but at least they have bus lanes on the freeway inbound, and along Hoddle Street and Victoria Parade. This was specifically ruled out by authorities – who chose instead to rely on traffic light priority (but then didn’t provide it crossing Princes Highway).

If they’re not going to give hundreds of packed buses the priority they deserve, would a better strategy be to shift more people onto the neighbouring rail lines, and run extra train services?

  • A bus connection from Moorabbin to Brighton Beach on the Sandringham line (as used in the past) for people from stations further south
  • Another from Westall to one of the Glen Waverley line stations for the Dandenong line passengers

With reduced holiday demand, and extra services, would they cope? (The Sandringham line is running extra services anyway – the usual 8 trains per hour in peak is 10 per hour during the works. These have been pretty crowded.)

There would be some level crossing impacts from more trains of course, but the shorter route for buses would mean fewer delays for them, and if enough extra trains could be provided, they would cope with passenger numbers so much better. (A packed train would be about 20 bus loads of people.)

For passengers closer in, the mix of stopping and express buses from Caulfield to the City would get a better run thanks to reduced passenger numbers and congestion – in the station at Caulfield and on the roads into Federation Square.

This sort of operation might use fewer resources, making the overall rail closure cheaper.

Boosting regular routes

A more radical change would be to run the above Westall and Moorabbin shuttle bus connections, but also deploy some of the hundreds of buses being used to boost local cross-suburban routes that connect the train lines, more widely distributing passengers across more stations.

Some passengers are seeking out these local tram and bus routes anyway, including some prompted by advice from Metro staff who knew about the chaos unfolding at Caulfield.

There have been reports of crowding on the 630 bus (North Road) and 67 tram (Glen Huntly Road) thanks to no extra services and (some) use of small trams. Presumably this is also an issue on the inner-suburban tram routes in the southeast.

For me, I used this method to get home on Monday. It was 58 minutes from Flinders Street to Bentleigh (via Middle Brighton and the 703), and that included a 17 minute wait for a late bus. Far better than the two hour trip in the morning.

Bus 703 being used by people avoiding the Frankston line closure

Boosting those local bus routes and encouraging their use would be making the best use of buses – which are not really suited for long haul high capacity routes. It would also help educate passengers on their alternate routes during future unplanned shutdowns.

Obviously it’s a fine balancing act to try and make sure the swarms of passengers displaced by the rail shutdowns don’t swamp other services and replacement buses.

A good balance has not been reached this week.

Queue at Caulfield for replacement buses, Monday morning

The first weekday is always the worst. The queues at Caulfield have moved better on subsequent days. But that’s not an excuse.

It’s like when they say the first week of the university year is worst. Waiting for people to give up and try something else (such as driving) is not a good outcome. (Fair enough, for universities, sometimes travel patterns genuinely change after the first week or two.)

As of day three, the bus delays haven’t gone away – on the M1 and Batman Avenue, and around Caulfield, they have continued each peak hour.

The strategy used for this works period needs to be reviewed.

With continuing (and very welcome) works on level crossings, the metro tunnel, and upgrades for the new trains, these major rail closures will keep happening. While they do, the city and its transport network need to continue to function.

Bustitution: Ormond station signage

On the buses

I’ve been on a break at home, having a rest and trying to get stuff done around the house.

Alas, this is now at an end, and while I guess I’ve had a rest, I certainly haven’t got all the stuff I planned done. And people telling me “nobody ever does” isn’t helping.

My break was timed to miss most of the big south-east rail shutdown.

  • Moorabbin (Frankston line) and Westall (Dandenong line) to the City have been replaced by buses between 2nd and 13th of January.
  • The Sandringham line was also bustituted between Elsternwick and the City between 2nd and 5th of January.

This is all due to works for the metro tunnel near South Yarra station, in preparation for building the tunnel portal there. There are also works preparing the Dandenong line for the High Capacity Metro Trains.

Here are a few snaps of the view around South Yarra station, comparing October with last week. (Sorry they don’t all match up exactly; I wasn’t that organised.)

October, looking southwest:

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works October 2018, looking SW

…and a similar-ish view a few days ago:

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works January 2019, looking SW

More striking is this: October looking southeast:

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works January 2019, looking SE

…and a few days ago – the hill and all the trees are gone!

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works October 2018, looking SE

And here’s a view from a few days ago from near Chapel Street, looking northwest:

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works October 2018, looking NW from near Chapel Street

At Caulfield there also seemed to be a fair bit going on:

Caulfield station: works January 2019

Also observed: at South Yarra the extensions to platforms 5 and 6 are nearing completion.

Upgrades and new infrastructure are important, and if you’re going to close rail lines, early January is the time to do it.

The question is: how good is the information provided to people, and how smooth are the replacement buses?

I would say: not too bad. Buses always struggle replacing trains, but I think they’re getting better at this.

Some observations about the bus replacements

Here, if you feel so inclined, is a brain-dump of observations:

The earlier they can advise people, the more likely some affected passengers can avoid it, such as booking leave. I was lucky enough to be able to do this. The more notice the better. (In this case, details were published on 11th December, about 3 weeks out. I think they can do better.)

Some people will always miss the notices, and just rock up to the station. So prominent signage on approach and at station entrances is helpful.

Some of the notices need review. I have my doubts about the detailed bus timetables posted at stations – their usefulness and their scope for incorrect interpretation.

The signage pointing the way to the temporary stops seems pretty good. Big and bold.

Signs at replacement bus stops could improve. They generally don’t have any detail, such as bus stopping patterns, or days of operation. There were sightings of people waiting at the stops a day early – the signage was up, but the trains were still running.

Likewise, last year some of the signage came down a few hours early, leading to confusion on the final night.

Location of the stops seems okay – from what I’ve seen, it’s consistent with past occupations, mostly along main roads to ensure a relatively quick ride.

An exception is citybound at McKinnon, where they can’t make up their mind if it’s outside the pub again (where staff tend to be located, and there’s a temporary shelter), or 50 metres up the road (where the bus stop sign has been installed).

Supply and despatch of buses seems to have mostly been good, though there have been some long queues in the City in PM peak.

Less confusion around Myki touch-on (the buses are free). But there seems to be no consistency around whether all-door boarding is used or not.

Information needs to be consistent. Signage tends to say “to City”, which is very clear. But many announcements I’ve heard at stops have said “to Flinders”. This is less clear. On one bus I was on, when it was announced that “this bus is express to Flinders”, 80% of the passengers got off the bus, then most of them got back on. I think “City” would be better.

Also: “to Flinders“? I know that’s how some refer to it, and I know I’m being a pedant, but it’s really “Flinders Street”. Flinders is a completely different place.

The replacement bus routes have split different passenger groups to different services, and seem to have worked well. Lighter than usual traffic at this time of year certainly helps.

Rail replacement bus, Frankston line, AM peak, January 2019

Travel time from my limited samples: Bentleigh to City (Arts Centre) is around 40-46 minutes, depending on time of day. Routes varied – some buses take Dandenong Road/St Kilda Road, others take Burke Road and Citylink. I haven’t sampled other routes – how’s it been?

They still haven’t fixed the Patterson bus zone, which remains 7am-7pm Monday to Saturday, despite rail buses running until around 1am (and all night on weekends), and even regular buses serving the stop every day until around 10pm. Should I just go park my car there every Sunday until they fix it?

The rail shut down has meant there has been extra pressure on nearby routes: trams and buses that run towards the City or connect with other rail lines that are still running. Little or no effort seems to have been put into additional services – apart from the Sandringham line, which is part of the Frankston replacement route for some passengers this week.

Sandringham line at Flinders Street during Frankston/Dandenong line shutdown, PM peak, January 2019

Only some of the replacement bus routes are in the PTV database, typically the all stations services, so planning a trip may result in travel times that are longer than reality. This may be related to the terrible timetable display web pages, but a resolution really ought to be found. (The Beta PTV web site shows promise.)

There have been some BIG issues with the PTV timetable data recently. South Gippsland coach routes still have non-existent (during works) Metro train connections from Dandenong to the City, which gives incorrect results in the Journey Planner for some trips. And lots of other data is showing up with errors, such as Peninsula bus route 788 missing most of its trips.

What else have people (who have perhaps been commuting more than I have!) seen during the shutdown?

Train replacement bus stop

Why shut down trains in December? Because there’s something even bigger coming in January

For the past five days — from 8:30pm last Thursday, to last night (Tuesday) — the Belgrave, Lilydale, Alamein and Glen Waverley lines were replaced by buses between the city and Camberwell/Darling.

Thankfully it’s over now. But it was a huge disruption, affecting passengers on a full quarter of the network.

PTV station boarding figures from 2014 indicate the affected stations have 113,700 boardings per weekday. Assuming most of those passengers travel into the area where trains weren’t running, and most make a return trip, we’re probably talking about more than 200,000 trips per weekday impacted.

The effects have been felt right across the eastern suburbs:

  • Long queues of passengers at Parliament and Camberwell, and long queues of buses in nearby streets
  • Extra passengers on tram routes in the area, including 70, 75, 109, 72 — to the point where many have been unable to board along the route — and to a lesser extent 5, 6, 3
  • Extra passengers on buses in the area, including 906, 907, 302 and 304, prompting some extra buses, but from what I hear, nowhere near enough
  • Extra passengers on nearby train lines including Cranbourne/Pakenham and Frankston
  • More private vehicles on the roads, slowing down buses and trams, as well as clogging up the Eastern Freeway

For those who braved the train replacement buses, there have been long delays, both at interchange hubs such as Camberwell, and on the buses themselves, which have been caught in traffic. On Friday there was the additional challenge of the weather.

Rail upgrade works are important; everyone knows they need to happen. And there are lots on at the moment, with level crossing removals, and plenty of other projects bubbling along.

Why in December?

The number one question people have been asking is:

Why such a big shutdown in December? Why not January, when there are fewer people travelling?

It’s because… there’s something even bigger coming in January.

Nothing’s been officially announced yet, but I’ve been told several times (and it wasn’t flagged as confidential) that major works will shut down the entire Caulfield group in early January.

Caveat: The details I have are sketchy, and the details may have changed, or I could be totally wrong in what I’ve heard. So take this with a grain of salt:

My understanding is that from the 2nd to the 7th 9th of January, all Cranbourne, Pakenham and Frankston trains will terminate at Moorabbin and Westall Caulfield (or possibly even Oakleigh, according to my scribbled notes), and my assumption is that Sandringham trains will terminate at Elsternwick.

Update 7/12/2017: Corrected the above, as official information has now been published. See the bottom of this post.

The entire inner-city section of those lines will be replaced by buses — though they may get creative and bus some people over to other lines, just as they’ve done with parts of the Glen Waverley line recently. You’d hope they’d put extra trains on other lines, and co-ordinate with authorities managing roads, trams and buses as well… given the past few days.

The affected stations on these lines to be closed account for 165,880 122,830 boardings per weekday, about 45% 8% more than the Burnley group of lines.

Trust me when I say that as a Frankston passenger, this is not going to be fun. Maybe I should book some annual leave?

Rail works, Patterson station, July 2016

Why don’t they give us longer notice?

Some of these projects are years in planning. It beats me why authorities don’t flag them further in advance more than a couple of weeks.

Even now, as people continue to ask why the Burnley group works didn’t wait until January, they don’t have an answer to share.

If people had more notice, some of them might be able to plan leave from work, to make things easier for themselves.

Workplaces might be able to adjust shift times, or organise car pooling or working from home.

At the very least people might be able to understand the context of the overall works plan, and why some projects are scheduled at particular times.

It’s perfectly possible to give 2-3 months notice… because it’s been done before.

Back in 2012, then-public transport minister Terry Mulder made the decision to flag major works up to 3 months in advance.

As you can see thanks to the Web Archive, this Department of Transport page from March 2012 listed major works up to the end of May.

This didn’t last long. As I recall, within six months, they were back to flagging works only a couple of weeks in advance, though Yarra Trams has a list that includes some advance changes, and sometimes the Level Crossing Removal Authority gives longer notice of major shutdowns.

Publicising major works well in advance wouldn’t help everybody, but it would help some. And the more people who can plan their holidays or travel around those disruptions, the better for everybody.

Update 7/12/2017 – Official info released

The day after this blog was published, Metro and PTV largely confirmed the January closure, though the details have changed a bit along the way.

This notice has appeared on the Metro web site: Buses replace trains: Flinders Street – Moorabbin & Westall, Tuesday 2 January – Tuesday 9 January 2018 (also on the PTV web site)

and: Buses replace trains: Caulfield – Dandenong, Wednesday 10 January – Thursday 25 January 2018 (all day in the first week, then in sections in evenings only after that — click through for details). (Also on the PTV web site)

It appears the Sandringham line will not be affected, however there will be express buses from Moorabbin to Brighton Beach, meaning many Frankston line passengers will be added to that line. There are also buses from Westall to East Malvern on the Glen Waverley line. Hopefully both lines both get additional services.