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 โ€“ 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.

Heading to the wild, wild west (Cornwall)

(Backdated. Posted 16/8/2017)

We bade our farewells to the family and my uncle K gave us a lift to Taunton station.

First step to our next destination was a train to Exeter, or to be precise, Exeter St Davids. As with Bath a few days earlier, Exeter is served by multiple railway stations, originally built by different railway companies.

Exeter Central is, as the name would suggest, more central, but it’s Exeter St Davids that opened first, and is now the busier main station. (Some people complain that Melbourne Central Station isn’t the main/central station. It seems that situation isn’t unique.)

We had to change trains at Exeter, but first we peered outside (pouring with rain, pretty much the first rain we’d encountered on the trip) and bought some sandwiches to eat on the way.

Our next train was heading for our destination: Penzance. It was the grandly named Cornish Riviera Express. Apparently this name has been used since 1904. It was mentioned on the station displays, though I didn’t notice any specific branding on the train itself, which was a standard High Speed Train (Intercity 125) set.

The train to Penzance, from Exeter St Davids

Grey and green, somewhere in Devon

We zoomed along through Devon, with some great scenery despite the grey skies.

Due to the hilly countryside, there are a large number of railway viaducts providing views over towns such as Plymouth. This is the view from the Keyham Viaduct – apparently it’s 27 metres up in the air. (Here’s what it looks like from below.)

Plymouth: rail viaduct over St Levan Road

Yet another grand bridge built by Brunel carried us across the River Tamar and into Cornwall. In fact we passed over numerous bridges, with some very impressive views along the way. Of course you can’t really see the bridges when you’re in the train, though in this case we got a good view of the parallel road bridge.

And then… we stopped at St Erth, one station short of Penzance, about 10 kilometres away.

For a while we didn’t move. My spidey sense detected something wrong. Then the announcement.

A truck (sorry, a lorry) had struck a bridge up ahead. The conductor, sorry train manager (fair enough, these HST trains are pretty long, and they actually have quite a few staff) got on the PA and apologised profusely, but we’d need to hop off the train here and wait for replacement buses.

We all got off the train in the drizzle and sheltered in the undercover part of the platform. The train manager and her colleagues were on their two-way radios trying to find out about replacement buses and/or whether the train would continue on once engineers had checked the safety of the bridge.

After a few minutes they said that due to the delay, the train would be short-shunting and heading back to London.

One of the rail staff suggested, given there was no ETA on trains resuming, that people exit the station and try their luck with the local buses. I checked Google Maps for buses – they ran about every 20 minutes from here to Penzance. I also checked the Uber app. Nothing nearby. So in light drizzle, we joined a queue of the braver passengers at the bus stop on the main road.

St Erth station, Cornwall

Bustituted on the way to Penzance

A bus arrived and a rail staffer hopped on first to check with the driver about them accepting rail tickets. The bus driver, who in fact is from the same parent company, seemed more concerned with just keeping to his schedule, and let everybody aboard gratis, so we squeezed on with our luggage and had a slightly more lurchy, cramped arrival in Penzance than expected.

We’d come halfway around the world and we’d been short-shunted and bustituted.

The train had been due in Penzance at 3:11pm. The line was shut until about an hour after that, but the bus got us there about the same time the line re-opened, so we probably ended up saving some time. As it was, the Train Manager had said we should be able to claim a refund on our tickets, so a few days later, I did just that. I haven’t actually had a response yet. (I don’t know how it works when the incident is outside the train company’s control.)

Update: On 14th September, GWR emailed me to say they’d be refunding us ยฃ60, by cheque. Will be interested to see if a cheque shows up in the mail.

GWR web site: Trains delayed

From the bus station, we walked to hotel, just off the main drag, which curiously is called Market Jew Street. Apparently the name is a derivation of the Cornish Marghas Yow meaning Thursday Market.

The bloke on the hotel front desk asked “Where from Oz are you?” Melbourne – “Ah! I had a working holiday there, lived in Hawthorn for a while.” Small world.

(Few people in Australia say “Oz”, by the way. It appears to be particularly British slang for Australia.)

Across from the hotel was a shop full of various secondhand goods, and a Dalek in the window. Nice. (Weeks later, regular Doctor Who writer and actor Mark Gatiss would spot it too, and if you Google for Penzance Dalek, it looks like everyone who’s been through town has seen it.)

Nearby was a house marked with a non-blue plaque noting that the aunt and mother of the Brontรซ sisters had once lived there. History.

We headed down towards the sea to explore.

Chapel Street, Penzance

Letter box by Penzance Harbour

It wasn’t cold and it wasn’t raining, but the weather was more than a bit breezy. Powerful waves were hitting the coastline.

I was keen to look closely, but keener still to keep my feet dry, as in an attempt to pack light, I’d only brought one pair of shoes on the trip. As you may be able to hear from my exclamation, this was not entirely successful.

Western Promenad, Penzance

No pirates were obvious, but they wouldn’t be, would they?

Trivia from Wikipedia on The Pirates Of Penzance: The work’s title is a multi-layered joke. On the one hand, Penzance was a docile seaside resort in 1879, and not the place where one would expect to encounter pirates. On the other hand, the title was also a jab at the theatrical “pirates” who had staged unlicensed productions of H.M.S. Pinafore in America.

Apparently the lack of international copyright had caused problems for Pinafore.

Nowadays the locals seem enamoured of Poldark, which is filmed and set around Cornwall.

Other sights included a drydock, ship in situ, and various other shippy infrastructure which indicated it’s very much a working harbour.

Drydock, Penzance

Penzance Ship Repairers

Penzance Harbour

The Dolphin Tavern, Penzance

After a long walk around, we ended up back in the middle of town, and decided to eat dinner at a pub we’d spotted – The Dolphin, by the water. Most delicious.

Then some more walking around before we headed back to the hotel.

How many catch V/Line in peak hour?

Last night on the TV news they seemed to be struggling for an accurate figure of how many were affected by the closure of the Geelong line. One said “hundreds”, another said “up to a thousand”.

Figures on V/Line’s web site, which summarise the number of people on each train so you can plan your trip to avoid the packed ones, indicate that about three thousand catch the Geelong line each peak hour.

The figures appear to show 100% when the services are over-capacity — eg when people end up standing or sitting in aisles on the trip.

POTD: Overcrowding on V/Line

Looking at all the lines, the figures (into Melbourne before 9am; out of Melbourne between 4pm and 6:30pm) are:

I knew they’d grown strongly since the Regional Fast Rail upgrades were completed mid last decade, and the 2007 price cut, but I’m almost surprised to see the Bendigo and Ballarat lines up within about 10-15% of the Geelong figures. This probably emphasises why V/Line and the Department of Transport have been so keen on the Regional Rail Link project, to get all the busiest lines on their own tracks within the suburban area.

The Bendigo figures are likely to drop when Sunbury and Diggers Rest stations join the electrified Metro network later this year. This will also free up some carriages to run on other lines.

Obviously off-peak passengers are also affected by line closures, and we don’t have figures for them. To a greater extent than Melbourne suburban services, V/Line services are very concentrated in the peak (trains every few minutes in some cases), but quieter outside it (mostly hourly). Something they could/should do to help spread the peak load is upgrade off-peak frequencies.

PS: I see some real figures have made it into an Age Online story this morning.