How many trains in peak compared to the past? And how full are the tracks?

This video is inspired partly by a shot in the House Of Cards titles, and partly by something my dad used to tell me — that you could stand at Richmond station in the evening peak and see trains on every track coming out of the city.

He may have been exaggerating a tad, but it’s often been said that in decades past the rail system had more trains running on it than at present.

That’s true to an extent. The inner part of the network was probably more intensively used in the past, though the outer sections of the network are busier than before.

For instance in 1939 in peak, trains out to Oakleigh were every 5-10 minutes, but out to Dandenong only about every 15-20 minutes — today they’re about every 5 minutes all the way.

And there’s been substantial growth in train numbers in the past ten years.

1939 vs 2006 vs 2015

How does the network compare overall?

I compared the 1939 timetables with 2006 (just as patronage, service growth and fleet expansion began to take hold) and also with the current 2015 timetables (last revised in 2014). I used departure times at the cordon stations (Richmond/North Melbourne) in the hour 5-6pm. (Note I’ve moved the range slightly where excluding a train a minute or two outside it would have given an artificially low or inconsistent figure.)

The verdict? More trains ran in 1939 than now, but not if you discount the Port Melbourne and St Kilda lines, which were converted to tram lines in the 1980s.

  • In 1939 it was 116 trains in that hour, but 15 of those were on the St Kilda and Port Melbourne lines (and another 7 were on the Inner Circle and Kew lines which no longer exist; but those trains also serve some stations that do still exist). So a reasonable figure to use is 101.
  • In 2006, the number had dropped to 87.
  • But by 2015, it had risen again to 109, about 8% higher than in 1939.

But the balance of trains has changed.

Melbourne PM peak hour trains, 1939 vs 2006 vs 2015

In separating them out into the graph, I’ve used the old line groupings, because it more clearly shows the changes:

  • Northern (eg lines through North Melbourne, including western suburbs) is up, though individual lines have changed in different ways. In 1939 the Williamstown and Upfield lines had a lot more trains than at present. This is countered by huge growth in the Werribee and St Albans/Sunbury lines — a fourfold increase in both, reflecting that they now serve growth corridors.
  • Clifton Hill is now about the same as in 1939 (if you exclude the Inner Circle), showing growth since 2006 primarily on the Thomastown/Epping/South Morang line, which almost doubled in peak services between 2006 and 2015, though that line is still slightly short of the 1939 number.
  • Burnley lines are up, 25 to 29 — Kew trains have been replaced by other services. There’s been basically no change since 2006, which reflects that patronage has grown more slowly. Almost all the other lines on the network serve growth corridors.
  • Caulfield is slightly up, though Frankston and Sandringham line numbers are about the same now as they were in 1939. The real growth is on the Dandenong line, which even just since 2006 has grown by 40%.

Update: This July 2008 paper from Paul Mees notes that in 1929, 113 trains ran in the busiest hour (including the Port Melbourne and St Kilda lines) — slightly fewer than in 1939. It was 108 in 1964 (also including those lines), and a 1969 prediction forecast 181 trains in 1985 (including the Doncaster line).

How full are the tracks?

The bottleneck in the CBD is basically the number of tracks emerging from the City Loop and direct from Southern Cross and Flinders Street.

How full are those tracks in that hour?

“Full” is hard to measure. A rail line signalled for 2-minute headways (which the City area is) could be considered full at 80% of that, eg 24 trains per hour. But loading times at stations, junctions along the way (especially flat ones), level crossing gate closures, and signal/track capacity further out all reduces that. And if we’re measuring outbound trains, then how many inbound trains can we feed in from the suburbs (given little stabling in the City area)?

  • Northern direct tracks to Newport (Werribee, Williamstown lines): 11 trains, but these tracks are used by 5 Geelong trains in that hour as well. Regional Rail Link will help free them up for more suburban services. Then the problem will become the single track through Altona (often the cause of delays and bypasses), flat junctions (principally at Newport), and level crossings (at locations such as Yarraville, the gates have been known to close for almost 20 minutes at a time).
  • Northern Loop (Sunbury, Craigieburn, Upfield lines): 21 trains (plus 2 more trains to Seymour mix in at North Melbourne). This shows the value of having moved the Werribee line out of the Loop back in 2007 — allowing more trains to run in peak on all these lines. But the tunnel is close to capacity — one proposal sees Upfield line trains run direct from Southern Cross instead, and longer-term, if the metro rail tunnel is built, Sunbury line trains would use that. Of course, the single track on the northern section of the Upfield line may pose problems until duplicated, though ten minute services were provided as far as Coburg during the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
  • Clifton Hill Loop (South Morang, Hurstbridge lines): 15 trains. Some trains run express Jolimont to Clifton Hill, which reduces capacity somewhat, though the flat junction at Clifton Hill also makes it difficult to run trains through it at a consistently high frequency (outbound Hurstbridge trains may have to wait for inbound South Morang trains, and vice versa). Ditto single track on the Hurstbridge line.
  • Burnley Loop (Lilydale, Belgrave, Glen Waverley lines): 20 trains. Mostly expresses to Glenferrie, Camberwell, Box Hill and then out beyond Ringwood, but also 6 Glen Waverley trains. This Loop is also therefore close to capacity. Single track on the outer ends of the Belgrave and Lilydale lines can lead to delays.
  • Burnley direct (Alamein line, Blackburn and Ringwood stopping trains): 9 trains. It’s not hard to see why in the long term, the plan seems to be to move Glen Waverley trains out of the Burnley Loop, and allowing more trains to run both to there (direct from Flinders Street) and also to Lilydale and Belgrave.
  • Caulfield Loop (Dandenong line, Frankston stopping trains): 20 trains. Approaching capacity. 2 V/Line trains mix in with the Dandenong line trains at Richmond. The Dandenong line upgrade should help resolve level crossing issues, though duplication of the Cranbourne line is not currently in scope.
  • Frankston direct (Frankston express trains): 5 trains. Clearly scope to move more Frankston trains to run direct, replacing them with Dandenong line trains, but it would be a fine balancing act to ensure large numbers of Frankston line passengers wanting the Loop were handled well.
  • Sandringham direct: 8 trains. It’s not a growth corridor, but peak patronage does continue to grow, probably reflective of demographics (lots of CBD-based white-collar jobs). So there is scope there for an increase in services, though at some point the single platform at Sandringham becomes an issue. The old solution of terminating some trains at Brighton Beach might be the solution, unless Sandringham is upgraded with a second platform.

Belgrave train arriving Southern Cross

Other things to bear in mind

Trains in 1939 didn’t have the same capacity as those running now. 6-car trains now are slightly longer than the old 7-car Tait trains (which necessitated minor platform extensions as newer trains were introduced) and have more standing space, so the overall capacity of each train would be higher now.

Old-timers sometimes say that automation and modern technology has reduced capacity: for instance, they say that Tait trains with 9 (small) doors per side could load and unload quicker than modern trains with automatic locking doors, and blokes throwing switches for signals and points could respond more quickly as trains went past than the computers now controlling the infrastructure.

Required capacity on each line is reflective not only of population growth, but also of the number of people employed or attending education or other activities in the inner city and CBD, and needing to travel during peak hour.

As noted above, capacity of individual tracks has many factors, including signalling, dwell times at stations (which worsens as crowding gets bad), stopping patterns (consistent = good), train acceleration/deceleration, level crossings, junctions (preferably grade-separated, and the fewer the better), and even less visible factors such as capacity of the power supply.

In some ways the City Loop didn’t add greatly to CBD rail capacity. It helped distribute passengers around to more stations, and reduced the need to reverse trains. And associated upgrades (such as the “new” viaduct from Flinders Street to Southern Cross) did expand capacity. But ultimately the number of tracks out of the city stations to North Melbourne, Jolimont and Richmond is what determines track capacity in the City area — which is part of why Regional Rail Link went ahead, and why the metro rail tunnel is being pushed.

Average trip lengths are now longer than they were in the past. This means more demand for express trains (which burns up capacity if provided), as well as a bigger fleet and more staff needed to run the same frequency of service. More longer trips may also emerge via the fare cuts that took effect in January.

Where to from here?

With expansion of the CBD and Docklands, and a strong and growing economy (particularly the “knowledge economy“), demand for train travel into the congested core of the network is likely to continue to grow into the future.

PTV’s Network Development Plan’s proposals show the way forward, in terms of expansion of signal upgrades to High Capacity Signalling, high capacity trains, and re-organisation of lines through the city area to form dedicated high-frequency lines (including capacity expansion such as the metro rail tunnel).

All of which is expensive, but it’s got to be done — more than ever the rail network underpins Melbourne’s economic growth.

And remember that expanding evening, weekend and inter-peak into a 10 minute all-day service can be done far more easily, by making use of track and fleet capacity already available. This can help spread peak loads, by providing a much more usable service outside peak times, and helps to grow patronage when there is more spare capacity on the network.

(What have I missed? Leave a comment!)

Followup post: Line-by-line detail.

Should the City Loop reverse at lunchtime?

It’s taken me longer than I thought to get this post to something approximating shipshape. I’m not sure it’s perfect yet. Reminder: the views expressed on my personal blog do not necessarily represent the views of the PTUA.

CBD rail map circa 1981Following on from previous posts about the Loop, the next question is: Should the City Loop reverse directions at lunchtime?

The Loop was built to solve the problems of pedestrian crowding at Flinders Street, and to avoid having trains reverse at busy platforms in the City. They can’t all run as cross-city services, as there has traditionally been an imbalance in the number of suburbs, and trains, between the east and west.

The Loop was built to be bi-directional. At some stage during the design process, someone decided that Loop trains should stop at the underground stations first in the morning on the way into the City, and last in the afternoon on the way out.

On each of the four loop lines signalling will be designed for trains to run in one direction in the morning peak and for most of the day. The direction of running will be reversed for the evening peak.

— Victorian Railways Newsletter, June 1970

In the context of the original infrastructure and operating plan — with for instance trains from the east in the morning running around the Loop then into massive stabling areas just east of Flinders Street, and back the other way in the afternoon — this made sense.

But this doesn’t generally happen anymore — most of the stabling is now in the suburbs (though there is still some around North Melbourne), so it largely doesn’t matter which direction each Loop tunnel runs.

The problems of reversal

Heathrow tube map (before Terminal 5 opened)For passengers, it’s confusing. Unlike, say, Heathrow Airport’s loop (at least before the Terminal 5 stub opened), and others around the world, it’s difficult to represent on a map. Instead you need a whole series of maps. (Note the maps linked-to are not up to date, if you were hoping to use them.)

It’s limiting. You can’t get from the underground stations to Flinders Street and Southern Cross after 1pm on weekdays, for instance.

It results in long gaps between trains during the changeover. In the Burnley tunnel the last train inbound via Parliament is at 12:45pm. The next one (outbound) isn’t until 1:13pm. This limits the Loop’s usefulness just at the time when many are packing onto trams for intra-CBD travel at lunchtime.

It’s unfair to peak hour commuters going to particular stations, for instance Sydenham line to Southern Cross people, who either change trains or have a long trip right around the Loop, in both morning and evening peak.

The benefits of reversal

Running whole lines via the Loop means you are likely to have large numbers of people getting off trains at North Melbourne and Richmond and wanting to get into the Loop in morning peak, and out again in the afternoon. Without the reversal, you may not serve them very well… they may have to instead change at Southern Cross or Flinders Street, making for a longer trip.

With the reversal, peak hour commuters can follow the same route home as they took in, so for some people it is easier to remember.

The Clifton Hill example

In 2008 the Clifton Hill loop began running clockwise all day on weekdays. This was to avoid a bottleneck near Jolimont. It meant for the first time that it was possible to get from Flinders Street and Southern Cross to the underground stations in the morning.

It’s not perfect. There are often delays at Flinders Street before the train proceeds around the Loop. In some cases trains go out of service at Flinders Street — because a minor fault (one that can wait until the end of a run) has been found, and the run ends at Flinders Street. These problems could probably be resolved with changes to work practices.

Even if the train runs as timetabled, Jolimont to Parliament (via Flinders Street) now takes up to 14 minutes in peak (including sitting at Flinders Street for 2 minutes), against around 3 minutes direct.

Oddly at weekends, the Clifton Hill loop reverses, running anti-clockwise. Apparently this is to ensure the drivers remain qualified to run trains that way, and it ensure the outbound track from Flinders Street to Jolimont remains in use (it can become problematic otherwise). Are these good enough reasons to reverse the pattern and confuse everybody? I’m not convinced.

Richmond Station screens

A possible scenario

Let’s say two tunnels ran clockwise, two anti-clockwise, and some lines ran via the Loop, some direct.

For instance…

Sandringham, Frankston, Williamstown, Werribee, Glen Waverley all direct. (For now, Frankstons run half direct and half via the Loop. I think it would actually be unwise to run all Frankstons direct at this stage, because of how busy the line is. The same goes for any of the longer lines. You’d have too many people needing to change to Loop trains.)

Hurstbridge and Epping: run clockwise around the Loop. It should be clockwise to avoid the bottleneck junction at Jolimont. They should all run via the Loop because they share tracks from Clifton Hill inwards anyway.

Craigieburn, Upfield and Sydenham: let’s suppose these run anti-clockwise. While running them clockwise would be good to avoid a minor clash with Seymour trains, it would also overload them at North Melbourne with Williamstown/Werribee people wanting the Loop.

Now how about if we run Cranbourne/Pakenham clockwise around the Loop.

To balance it out, Belgrave/Lilydale/Ringwood/Blackburn trains would run anti-clockwise.

To make it work properly, there would need to be no delays at Flinders Street. Stop, passengers off, passengers on, leave straight away. It needs to be just another station along the line. Done properly, this would involve moving driver shift-changes to somewhere else; probably at the ends of lines.

How would that work for passengers? I’ve tried to work it all out in a table. Skip this bit if this kind of detail is likely to put you to sleep.



for Flinders St (FSS)

for Southern Cross (SXS)

Flagstaff (FGS)

Melb Central (MCE)

Parliament (PAR)


Direct to FSS

Stay on train

Change at FSS

Change at RMD to Burnley Loop

Change at RMD to Burnley Loop

Change at RMD to Burnley Loop


Direct to FSS and SXS (then to Newport)

Stay on train

Stay on train

Change at SXS to Caulfield or or Clifton Hill Loop train

Change at RMD to Burnley Loop

Change at RMD to Burnley Loop

Caulfield Loop (Cranbourne/ Pakenham)

to FSS then clockwise around Loop

Stay on train

Stay on train

Stay on train

Stay on train, or change at RMD to Burnley Loop*

Stay on train, or change at RMD to Burnley Loop*

Glen Waverley

Direct to FSS

Stay on train

Change at FSS to Caulfield Loop, or Newport train

Change at FSS to Caulfield or Clifton Hill Loop, or change at RMD to Burnley Loop

Change at RMD to Burnley Loop

Change at RMD to Burnley Loop

Burnley Loop (Belgrave/ Lilydale / Alamein)

to Loop anticlockwise, then FSS

Stay on train, or change at RMD to Glen Waverley, Sandringham or Frankston train*

Stay on train

Stay on train

Stay on train

Stay on train

Clifton Hill (Hurstbridge/ Epping)

to FSS then clockwise around Loop

Stay on train

Stay on train

Stay on train

Stay on train

Stay on train, or change at FSS to Northern Loop*

Northern Loop (Upfield/ Craigieburn / Sydenham)

to SXS, FSS then anti-clockwise around Loop

Stay on train

Stay on train

Stay on train, or change at SXS to Caulfield Loop*

Stay on train, or change at SXS to Caulfield Loop*

Stay on train

Newport (Werribee/ Williamstown)

Direct to SXS, then FSS

Stay on train

Stay on train

Change at SXS to Caulfield Loop

Change at SXS to Caulfield Loop

Change at SXS to Caulfield Loop or FSS to Northern Loop

Note: Approximate current CBD usage is: Flinders Street 37%, Melbourne Central 22%, Parliament 17%, Southern Cross 16%, Flagstaff 8%.

*The asterisks highlight the optional changes that people might make if they were in a hurry. The issue is that if too many of them change, it’s likely to create crowding at interchange stations, and on other trains.

Would they bother? I don’t know. It might not be worth the bother for most people. For someone arriving on a clockwise Loop train going to Parliament, if changing trains involves a wait of 0-4 minutes for a connection, to save perhaps 7 minutes, they might just stay on the train.

So what should happen?

I’m not sure.

In an ideal world, I think you would go for each loop tunnel running in a consistent direction. Have some clockwise, some anti-clockwise, and ensure that you could get from any CBD station to any other, at any time of day, preferably with a combination that allows a backup if one loop tunnel is disrupted. It’s got a lot of benefits. And you’d ensure trains travelled straight through Flinders Street with the quickest stop possible.

But it’s not an ideal world. The prospect of some lines running direct (the majority, at least on this blog, seem to support it, and it’s starting to happen anyway), means that large numbers of passengers may want to change trains and travel between Richmond and Parliament/Melbourne Central, as well as North Melbourne and Flagstaff (eg trips which are considerably longer by going the long way around).

Because the Burnley and Caulfield Loops both go through Richmond, if they ran in different directions, I suspect you’d be almost bound to get lots and lots of people in the morning changing onto whichever one went anticlockwise to Parliament.

It would be fascinating to see some detailed analysis on it.

What do you think?

Voting results:

  • It’s better that it changes direction at lunchtime on weekdays. Leave it alone! — 6 (9%)
  • It should change direction at lunchtime on weekends as well! — 1 (1%)
  • Each Loop tunnel should run in a one direction all day. One way on weekdays, the opposite way on weekends. — 8 (12%)
  • Each Loop tunnel should run in a one direction all day; the same way every day of the week. — 43 (63%)
  • Ooh. Tricky. I’m really not sure. — 10 (15%)

Looping the loop

Reminder: the views expressed on my personal blog do not necessarily represent the views of the PTUA.

So, the result of the poll a few days ago was:

Run some lines via the Loop, some direct to Flinders St: 129 (66.8%)
Run each line half via the Loop, half direct to Flinders St: 57 (29.5%)
Squeeze everything into the Loop: 7 (3.6%)

Results of survey: How would you organise train timetables?

Just under 30% wanted about half the trains on each line to run direct, half through the Loop. This is how the Loop was originally run, theoretically giving people a choice, although in practice the longer-distance expresses (for example Belgrave and Lilydale) tended to be Loop services, and the shorter-distance trains (Blackburn, Alamein) tended to be Direct, which limited the choice for most people… in effect, in fact, being closer to the other option. (Source: Electric Traction, February 1981.)

I don’t know how the general public would react if asked the question about how the Loop should run. (Maybe someone should.) But I suspect increasingly people are aware of how “metro” rail systems overseas run: primarily point-to-point, minimising merges, junctions and all that messy stuff to pack as many trains along the track as possible, and accepting that some people will have to change to get where they’re going, or walk a little further to their destination.

So could you do it?

My personal view is in line with the majority here: they should be moving towards some lines running via the Loop, some lines direct. Having consistent patterns means it is predictable to passengers, and you can fit more trains onto the tracks without causing hiccups as they merge into the Loop tunnels.

As long as trains are frequent enough, and the interchange facilities are good enough — including signage (both static and electronic) — it’s not an insurmountable issue to change trains, if the payback is there with more reliable, more frequent, less crowded trains. Melbourne needs to do a lot better in these aspects, of course.

There are limits to what you can do in the real world. One would be rightly cautious for instance about shifting all peak-hour Frankston trains out of the Loop. (At present in peak, the stopping trains run via the Loop, the expresses run direct to Flinders Street.) The sheer demand from people trying to pack onto the remaining Loop trains at Richmond means it’s not something that can be done without causing much bigger problems.

(A similar poll on a PTUA member email list — which does not contain all members, only those who wish to participate in discussions — was more strongly in favour of the first option, with 96% for consistency, 4% wanting lines half into the Loop, half out. Nobody wanted to squeeze every possible train into the Loop. The PTUA doesn’t have a detailed policy on this yet; the poll was to help guide that.)

Stand by for another post, specifically about Loop direction.

The Loop

I ran this poll on an internal PTUA members’ email list. Let’s try it here.

Here’s the context:

Trains, particularly in peak hour, are packed. More trains are being purchased, but the decision has to be made about how to deploy them. (Even if it’s decided to upgrade infrastructure such as with the proposed new tunnel, that may take a decade to happen.)

All trains serve Flinders Street, which has a large capacity (14 platforms), and provides good access to the southern half of the Central Business District. For passenger numbers it’s also the busiest single station.

Suburban trains can run via the City Loop, or they can run direct between Flinders Street and Richmond, Jolimont, North Melbourne, bypassing the Loop.

The City Loop (that is, Parliament, Melbourne Central and Flagstaff) skirts the eastern and northern sides of the CBD, but it’s only four tracks, so while a train running via the Loop provides easier access to more parts of the CBD, this section is something of a bottleneck, unlike the direct tracks into Flinders Street.

Approximate current weekday CBD station loads: Flinders Street 37%, Melbourne Central 22%, Parliament 17%, Southern Cross 16%, Flagstaff 8%.

Map of City Loop

So, to the question:

As a generalisation, how would you prefer to have train timetables organised? The options are:

Run some lines via the Loop, some direct to Flinders St.

(Pros: A consistent pattern. Allows more trains, without them interfering with each other. Some passengers who use Flinders St will get a quicker ride.
Cons: Some passengers will need to either walk further from Flinders St, catch a tram, or change trains along the way, and interchange facilities at North Melbourne and Richmond aren’t perfect)

Run each line half via the Loop, half direct to Flinders St

(Pros: Nobody has to change trains if they don’t want to.
Cons: Each pattern gets lower frequencies, so if you do want to avoid a change, you may have to wait longer to avoid it. Converging lines entering the Loop tunnels may cause some delays, and/or reduce the total number of trains that can run)

Squeeze most trains from most lines into the Loop
(Pros: More or less as it’s done now; many are used to it.
Cons: Severely limits services to around about the level we have now, and not solving the overcrowding issues).

Which would you choose?

Have I missed any Pros and Cons? Got some other revolutionary idea? Leave a comment.

Seems this Google form doesn’t prevent you voting twice. Please don’t. I’ll post the results in a couple of days.

Update 25/2/2011: The poll results are here.

Flagstaff station turns 25

Next Thursday marks 25 years since the completion of the City Loop. Flagstaff Station was the last loop station to open — on the 27th of May 1985.

It’s the only station in Melbourne that is closed on weekends — being in the middle of the legal precinct, it’s a bit quiet around there on Saturdays and Sundays, though there are increasing numbers of residential buildings in the area.

It’s probably the least used of the CBD stations. That said, with a lot of office buildings nearby, it gets pretty busy during peak hour, but is quieter in the middle of the day and in the evening.

I hadn’t seen much of it until recently when I started using it regularly. Maybe you haven’t seen much of it either.

Flagstaff station entrance
It’s named after the gardens above, of course. The gardens in turn are named after the flagstaff, erected on the hill in 1840 to signal ships in the bay. This entrance is in the corner of the gardens, and saves you crossing Latrobe Street if you’re headed for the north side of the street. This picture was taken a few months ago, after the Connex logo had been covered up, but before the Metro logo had taken its place.

Flagstaff station morning peak
In the morning peak, as each train arrives, swarms head up the escalators, through the fare gates on the concourse and then up more escalators to William Street. Chuggers, when present, are just outside the fare gates, and it’s also where you’ll find the not-very-busy Myki Mates, and Authorised Officers (inspectors). I quite like the main concourse; it feels very spacious, very airy for somewhere underground.

Flagstaff Station main entrance
Most people head out onto William Street, coming out in the shadow of the huge adjacent Commonwealth Law Courts Building, and flooding William Street’s southbound footpath. In the evening peak the tide comes back the other way. The building includes the Family Court, and metal poles in the footpath around this area are to protect from attacks with cars.

Flagstaff station signage
Thankfully the Connex logo didn’t get onto everything. This signage didn’t need to be changed when Metro took over. It’s amazing how many people should probably use the lifts but don’t look for the signs, and can be found trying to get their bicycle or pram up the escalator.

Flagstaff station off-peak
Outside peak hour it can be dead quiet (not helped by less frequent trains, and agonisingly slow escalators). This picture was taken in the middle of a weekday.

Flagstaff station evening peak
By the time evening peak rolls around, the platforms fill up again.

Asbestos warning, Flagstaff station
Barely noticeable on the platforms are these little signs, warning future renovators to come of the precautions they should take.

I don’t mind the design of Flagstaff. It doesn’t have to cope with the influx of people that Melbourne Central does, so it gets away with not having the open platform design.

And for a station designed in the 70s and opened in 1985, the interior design hasn’t aged too badly.