Dandenong line capacity boost undersold

On the weekend I was chatting about the Dandenong skyrail proposal to rellies at their house near Hughesdale station. They are keeping an open mind; they are not immediately under the rail line, and they can see the obvious benefit from getting the level crossings removed quickly, but are concerned about some aspects, which it sounds like are not being adequately explained.

For instance: condition and maintenance of any parkland created by the elevated rail. The Level Crossing Removal Authority (LXRA) seems to be forming the view that they would fund at least ten years of maintenance.

And of course after media attention last week a lot of local chatter is about the future need to expand the line to four tracks. (Three tracks isn’t nearly as useful as four.)

It’s worth noting that the skyrail project, along with other measures, buy a lot of extra capacity for the line.

How much? I’ve been trying to work it out, but official information is really scarce. The official figure thrown around is 42%, but this doesn’t seem to take into account all the upgrades.

Dandenong line at Richmond


Looking at what might well be the busiest hour, inbound AM peak 7:31-8:30am at Caulfield, there are 15 Metro services and 2 V/Line services scheduled, or 17 trains per hour in all.

The current signalling allows for a train every 3 minutes, or 20 trains per hour. The widely used practice is to use 80% of the theoretical capacity (to allow for short delays), which means the line is using just over its practical capacity. No wonder delays so easily occur.

Each train’s desired load standard is 798 (133 per carriage), but seat modifications currently underway are meant to increase that to 900 (150 per carriage). Remember, this is NOT a capacity figure.

New signalling

Firstly, the signalling (with conventional technology) to allow a train every 144 seconds (eg 25 trains per hour), in line with a long term plan that was kicked-off with the Westall upgrade project some years ago.

Staying within the 80% of theoretical capacity (so it runs more smoothly than now) therefore gives you 20 trains per hour — 18 Metro and 2 V/Line.

Why not high-capacity (in-cab) signalling? They want to prove it first on the Sandringham South Morang line — not unreasonable given the complexities of shared running between Metro, V/Line and freight. What they are saying is that any upgrades in the mean time will be future compatible with in-cab signalling.

Removing the crossings

Secondly, you couldn’t just do the signalling upgrade without removing the crossings, because it would lock up the road system across the south-eastern suburbs, delaying motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and bus users alike. So grade separation helps unlock that track capacity.

Dandenong line, 6pm

High capacity trains

The third major point is the trains to run on the line. The new High Capacity Metro Trains (HCMTs) will run on the Dandenong line in the next few years. As detailed in this extensive post from last year, they’ll start as 7 car sets with a load standard of 1100 people (157 per car).

This is achieved by having continuous usable space and, I expect, fewer seats. Hopefully a balance will be found between carrying capacity and ensuring those travelling the longest distances can get a seat.

Later on, when the Metro rail tunnel opens, the plan is for the HCMTs to expand to 10 car sets — a load standard of 1570. (Crush load around 2000.)

Longer trains obviously involves extending platforms — something not possible in the City Loop, but included in the Metro rail tunnel and the rebuilt skyrail stations. It will also obviously be necessary on all the other stations out to Cranbourne and Pakenham, as well as Sunbury (as the rail tunnel will connect them).

Put it all together – what do you get?

Somewhere in the mix would need to be duplication of the Cranbourne line, and flying junctions (overpasses) at Dandenong so trains don’t get delayed waiting for each other there.

So, pulling together all the various upgrade figures (which have been gleaned from various government information — it doesn’t seem to all be in one place anywhere), what do we get?

Dandenong line capacity

The government often quotes a 42% capacity boost. As I understand it, that figure includes the level crossing removals and new trains, but excludes the metro rail tunnel. I’m trying to find out how precisely they get that figure, but taking the tunnel into account, it woefully undersells the true capacity boost anyway.

Perhaps these numbers don’t exactly tally with the official ones, but 28,000 per hour is huge. That’s about the equivalent of 12 lanes of traffic. Behold, the power of mass transit!

From trying to explain some of this to my relatives, it’s clear to me that the government/LXRA hasn’t communicated this point very well (if at all).

With all these upgrades, a huge amount of extra capacity is provided, much higher than the quoted 42%, putting off the need for extra tracks for many years.

How long will this last? Well, that depends on the future growth along the corridor, obviously. Capacity can grow even further with high-capacity in-cab signalling, provided it’s okay to have all trains (including V/Line) run at a consistent speed. That should allow enough trains to provide a line out to Rowville.

Hopefully I haven’t messed up these figures. And this is not to say that planning shouldn’t happen now for future track expansion.

But if basically you’re more than doubling peak capacity by 2026 when the metro tunnel opens, that’ll take a while to fill up again.

  • Submissions to the Dandenong Skyrail project close TODAY at 5pm. If you have any thoughts, even just a few words, good or bad, put them in.

The new Dandenong line plan

Last year the Coalition announced they were going ahead with an unsolicited proposal: to upgrade the Dandenong line. In summary, it included: grade separation of 4 level crossings, 3 stations associated with those rebuilt, planning and early works on 5 more grade separations, high capacity signalling, 25 new trains, a maintenance depot at Pakenham, and power upgrades.

On Tuesday the Labor government announced that they’d scrapped the Coalition’s plan, and were going ahead with a bigger version: grade separation of 9 level crossings, 5 new stations rebuilt, 37 new trains, a maintenance depot at Pakenham, power upgrades, and a high capacity signalling trial on the Sandringham line instead, ahead of a rollout across the rest of the network.

Dandenong line, Monday evening

The need

By most measures, the Dandenong line is the most crowded on the network, and is likely to get worse as it serves a growth corridor. Unlike the western suburbs lines, which are about to get a boost via Regional Rail Link, to date there’s been no substantial work undertaken to relieve it.

Timetable changes a couple of years ago provided some relief, but the May 2014 load surveys showed that in both AM and PM peak, crowding has got worse in the past year, with 35% to 44% of passengers travelling on trains above the “benchmark” crowding figure.

Dandenong load surveys - May 2014

What’s in the revised project?

Level crossing grade separations: Coalition 4; Labor 9: the revised plan will see removal of all the level crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong, making the entire line from the City Loop to Dandenong crossing-free. Note that all the crossings were on Labor’s list of 50 that they took to the election.

One thing evident from last year’s plan (and from the completed rebuild at Springvale) was that it was to include some planning for future track expansion. I’m told this is continuing. They are working out where extra tracks could go in the future, and not necessarily demolishing buildings right now (pointless if the land may not be needed for decades), but certainly not allowing new ones up that would get in the way. You might see carparking or other uses for the land, but no new buildings — similar to VicRoads and their overlays in places like Punt Road.

Station rebuilds: Coalition 3, Labor 4. No surprises here; it’s the stations that are adjacent to level crossings being removed. More crossings removed = more stations need to be rebuilt.

Existing stations will also get minor modifications: short platform extensions to handle the slightly longer trains.

New trains: Coalition 25; Labor 37. These will be a new design, a so-called “high capacity” model, carrying 20% more passengers than the current models. They’ll be a bit longer than the current 6-car trains, probably fitting more snugly into the platforms in the City Loop. I’d expect they’d have more doors, more efficient seating layouts, and no centre driver cabs (largely unused these days).

The key change is the number — 37 will be enough to run the entire Dandenong/Cranbourne/Pakenham line with one train type, meaning more consistent running times and loading times. As I said at the time, 25 wasn’t enough; it would have been messy running a mix.

The government is also promising at least 50% local content. Expressions of Interest will be sought in May, so they want to move pretty quickly. Presumably the frontrunners would be the two companies with train manufacturing facilities in Victoria: Alstom at Ballarat, and Bombardier in Dandenong. (The recent small X’Trapolis order was said to be enough to help keep Alstom going at least until this new procurement process is underway, so there are at least two viable bidders.)

Maintenance depot at Pakenham: It makes sense to have a depot out at the end of one of the lines, so the new trains don’t have to travel long distances out-of-service for maintenance. It also helps support local jobs, which would be welcome for the area.

Signalling: We’re back to the PTV plan for the Sandringham line to get the first trial with High Capacity Signalling (also known as, depending on precisely what you’re talking about, moving block, or Communications-based train control — CBTC for short). That line is almost completely isolated from the rest of the network, particularly V/Line and freight trains, so it will be easier to test the technology with a lower risk of a huge SNAFU taking out a whole rail line.

It will mean whatever trains will run on the Sandringham line will need HCS equipment, though it’s unclear if that would include a dedicated fleet. Perhaps more likely it’ll be modifications to existing trains, with enough flexibility that they’re not tied to that line.

The wish to trial HCS first might be related to the delay in the emergence of a definitive standard for this type of technology, and rumoured disagreements between the various players about precisely which technology from which company should be adopted. It’s a complicated area.

It’s important to note the Dandenong line will still get a signalling upgrade. It won’t be HCS/CBTC, but it will be modern conventional signalling. The view recently (such as on Regional Rail Link) has been that when a line is rebuilt (as parts of the Sunbury line were), the ageing electrical and signalling equipment is ripped out and replaced with new stuff, which is more reliable once installed, and has better provision for future upgrades. I’d assume we will see the whole line from the City to Dandenong allowing a train every 2 minutes (currently 3 minutes). Usually the practical maximum is 80% of the theoretical capacity, so that would allowing about 24 trains per hour — currently the line has about 15 + 2 V/Lines in the busiest hour.

Of course a rail line runs most smoothly if no messy junctions are used on the most frequent part of the network. The logical consequence of this is that the remaining Frankston Loop trains will be altered to run direct into Flinders Street, but this hasn’t been specifically stated yet. I wonder if consideration has be given to a flying junction (that’s gunzel talk for grade-separated) where the Cranbourne and Pakenham lines meet?

I’m told V/Line trains will continue to run all the way into the City. No current plans to terminate them at Pakenham.

The upgrade is independent of the Metro Rail Tunnel project. I’m not sure exactly how they calculated it, but the government say the changes will boost total capacity by 42%, even without the tunnel. Indeed, the tunnel really only increases usable track capacity from the west, though given the Dandenong line would use it, it would allow the Frankston line back into the Loop.

The government claims delivery of the various upgrades would be in the period 2016-2018, which sounds quite ambitious to me. No doubt they want things well underway or preferably finished by the 2018 election.

Dandenong line, AM peak at South Yarra

Still missing?

Much the same as last time. Duplication of the Cranbourne line, which still has about 10km of single track. It hasn’t been included in the project scope, but must be done if cascading delays are to be avoided. It’ll be a ridiculous situation if billions is spent, but a single little delay near Cranbourne can still easily jeopardise services on the whole line.

Also missing is any word of a revamp of connecting bus services, with more Smartbus-like services feeding into the stations. The key to having a rail line live up to its potential is ensuring people can easily get to the stations.

The emerging pattern now is for PTV to embark on this type of upgrade when new stations open. But given the various upgrades in this project will be introduced in stages, there’s no real reason such a revamp has to wait. Indeed, given some stations will lose parking during rebuilds, it might help ease the pain of disruptions during the project.

As the Urban Melbourne web site points out, the other thing missing is something specific on land use planning around stations. There’s an opportunity for more development, particularly on big slabs of land currently taken by car parks (where it wouldn’t take space needed later for track expansion).

The way forward

Labor’s made some interesting claims as part of justifying the change of plans. Firstly they allege the Coalition secretly removed HCS from the project scope in October (eg before the election), due to cost blowouts, and they claim to have a letter proving it.

Secondly, they’re citing concerns with the unsolicited proposal process, including the prospect of Metro (MTM to be precise) being franchised to run the Dandenong line well after their contract for the rest of the network might have expired and another operator possibly appointed for the rest of the network. That could have been messy — the old days of Connex and M&Train led to issues. And there were concerns about the cost to taxpayers of the ongoing payments to MTM over the life of the contract, relative to the project cost.

On the face of it, the outcomes for train passengers and road users from the revamped version are better, but the devil will be in the detail. And let’s hope the government works hard to make sure the outcome for taxpayers is good as well.

The Dandenong line upgrade: What’s included, what’s missing?

To the surprise of many, the state government yesterday announced a major $2 billion upgrade of the Dandenong/Pakenham/Cranbourne lines — they’re saying it’ll be enough to boost capacity by about 30%.

The government’s press release is here, or you can watch a video:

What’s included?

25 new high-capacity “next-generation” trains. They’ve been talking about this for years. The newest trains on the Melbourne network are basically a 10 year-old design with some tweaks. If the talk has been correct, this new batch will have more doors (to cut dwell times at stations), fewer seats, walk-through passenger areas, no middle cabs (pointless as almost all services now run as full 6-car sets) and lots of handholds. Probably a tad longer (perhaps even a 7th carriage) — overall carrying about 20% more passengers per train.

In other words, they’ll be similar to the sorts of high-capacity trains you see in other big cities around the world. Of course squeezing more people in needs to be balanced out with enough seats so that people travelling long distances don’t have to stand all the way. (See also: How many seats do we want on our trains?)

Grade separation of four crossings. They’ll hit the worst of the remaining ones: Clayton Road (where the level crossing often causes long delays to buses and ambulances), Centre Road (so close to Clayton Road you’d pretty much have to do it at the same time), Murrumbeena Road (infamous for long delays to road users) and Koornang Road. In the process there’ll be new stations at Carnegie, Murrumbeena and Clayton.

Early works on more. Planning and early works funding for the grade separation of Grange Road (Carnegie), Poath Road (Hughesdale), Corrigan Road, Heatherton Road and Chandler Road (Noble Park). When these are eventually done, and given the Springvale grade separation is currently underway, the entire stretch from Caulfield to Dandenong will have no level crossings, making it possible to run a lot more trains, without causing a ruckus by blocking up road traffic — as in fact happened yesterday when following a disruption, some motorists waited up to an hour.

Springvale grade separation under construction

High-capacity signalling. As I explained a few weeks ago, “moving block” signalling makes it possible to run a lot more trains along a line. Presumably this will include at least the busiest section, from the City Loop to Dandenong, but it may also include the full lines, out to Pakenham and Cranbourne. It will also need all trains running on the line to be fitted with in-cab equipment, including V/Line trains.

Maintenance depot at East Pakenham. At a guess, this is where the new trains will be serviced, and I’d hope some extra track for this facility will also allow Pakenham suburban trains to shunt out of the way of V/Line trains.

Power upgrades to make sure there’s enough juice for all these new trains.

It appears the package is fully funded, not an election promise. It’s not clear where the money came from, but according to the government it is actually funded: The $2.5 billion for the Cranbourne-Pakenham project will be included in the Budget and is “all new money”, Dr Napthine said.

The project is scheduled to start in 2015, with completion in 2019.

Dandenong line, 6pm

What’s not included

Duplication of the Cranbourne line. I’m very surprised not to see this listed, though the rumour is that works will address at least some of it. I hope so, because the cost of it would be tiny in comparison to the rest of the package, and having a single section of track will hamper efforts to get the most capacity out of the project.

Third or fourth track to Dandenong. With little CBD stabling capacity, you wouldn’t go to the expense of a third track unless you are also building a fourth. This package doesn’t appear to include this, though it’s said to be in the longer term plan for the line, particularly if the Port of Hastings is eventually developed. Hopefully the grade separations and new stations are being built with this in mind.

Metro rail tunnel. This is commonly seen as a solution to rail capacity at the CBD end, but actually it doesn’t matter that much yet. Two tracks from Dandenong into the City Loop means that, provided no other trains share that loop tunnel, capacity shouldn’t be an issue. This could, of course, mean bye-bye to Frankston loop services.

Enough new trains for the whole line. If you have peak services every, say, 3-4 minutes, and a round trip of about 140 minutes, you’d need about 40 trains, plus a small number of spares. Obviously there’s scope to expand the order later, but for consistent loads and running times to maximise line capacity, ideally you’d want every train to be the higher capacity model.

In practice they might decide they’ll target them at the “peak of the peak” hour, or on the busiest of the two lines, until they eventually have enough bigger trains.

Connecting buses. No doubt they’ll benefit from the removal of level crossings, but there’s no word on service upgrades. Getting the trunk route to the south-east working well is great, but its potential is so much greater if there is a network of frequent connecting services for the benefit of people travelling to or from locations beyond walking distance of stations — at present many connecting buses are hopelessly infrequent. Smartbus routes are a good model here, and can be provided on more routes and services boosted, particularly on weekends.

It’s also unclear if quirks in the train timetables will be fixed: late Sunday starts, infrequent services early on weekends, 30 minute waits after 7pm on weekends (and after 10pm on weekdays). Hopefully these will be included in the service upgrades to accompany the infrastructure and fleet improvements.

Train passing signal

The verdict

Overall it’s a great upgrade. It will bring the Dandenong line into the 21st century, with modern trains and signalling, providing a big boost to capacity… it will bring the operation of the line much closer to world’s best practice.

There’s one glaring exception: the remaining single track on the Cranbourne line. Surely if you’re throwing a couple of billion dollars into the line, you’d have to fix this. Hopefully that is the case.

V/Line passengers may be unhappy that they’ll still sit behind suburban trains for the metropolitan portion of their trip. That’s an annoyance, but they alone aren’t reason enough for extra tracks… V/Line’s figures indicate for the entire morning peak, the 5 trains arriving in Melbourne between 6:59am and 9:28am carry 856 passengers — about one suburban train load. Certainly something needs to be done to improve travel times for regional passengers (and attract more of them off the road), but the immediate concern is suburban capacity. And the new signalling and measures to reduce suburban train dwell time delays will help.

It does make sense to target one line with a package of upgrades to ensure its performance will be humming as demand continues to grow. But it begs the question of when other lines and other public transport users around Melbourne will benefit from this kind of modernisation.

See also:

Note: The Coalition’s plan for the Dandenong line has been superseded by the Labor government’s plan, released in late March 2015