Why the Frankston line should come out of the Loop until 2025

I’m sorry to go all Neville Shunt on you and drone on about railway timetables again, but I’m going to do it anyway.

In an ideal metro system, that is a rail network designed to maximise capacity and frequency, one of the key things is to separate the busiest lines so they don’t share tracks.

Melbourne has been making that transition, but it’s time for the next step.

With that in mind, let me tell you why the Frankston line should be removed from the City Loop.

Carrum train arriving at Flagstaff

How the Frankston line runs now

Like many of Melbourne’s rail services, the Frankston line is a bit of a mess.

It’s often delayed and overcrowded, and that’s partly due to the timetable.

Here’s how it runs at the moment:

  • Weekday AM peak: about half the trains run express Cheltenham-Caulfield, Malvern-South Yarra, then direct to Flinders Street. The other half run all stations then into the Loop anti-clockwise to Flinders Street.
  • Weekday PM peak: reverse of the above. Except that expresses don’t stop at Malvern.
  • Weekday off-peak: all trains stop all stations, direct to/from Flinders Street. Almost all services are through-routed to Newport, so also run via Southern Cross and North Melbourne.
  • Weekend: trains stop all stations, into the Loop anti-clockwise to Flinders Street.
  • Saturday/Sunday early morning (all night service): trains stop all stations direct to/from Flinders Street

Confused yet? That’s five variations, excluding stopping patterns.

Apart from confusion, a huge problem is that during peak hours, when the rail network is at its busiest, half the Frankston line trains share the Loop tunnel with the Dandenong line. Two of the busiest lines on the network are squeezed onto the same track.

In 2025, the Dandenong line will move out of the City Loop into the new metro tunnel. The Frankston line will then use the City Loop for all its services.

But until then, the Frankston line should come out of the Loop.

Here’s why.

PTV train map August 2018

1. Fix the confusion

Train lines with different stopping patterns at different times of the day/week are confusing. The change of Loop direction doesn’t help, of course.

It’s particularly confounding for users who either only occasionally use the network, or who don’t always travel at the same time of day.

Just ask anybody making a cross-town trip (say Bentleigh to Spotswood) where they should change trains for the quickest journey:

  • Morning peak: travelling east to west change at Southern Cross; west to east change at Flinders Street (but you might not need to change)
  • Evening peak: travelling east to west change at Flinders Street; west to east change at Southern Cross
  • Weekday off-peak, including evenings: no change, the train will probably go straight through
  • Weekend: travelling east to west change at Southern Cross; west to east change at Flinders Street

Another example from me personally: Flagstaff is my usual stop, closest to work, so I use that if the train goes there. But if the trains aren’t running through the Loop, Flinders Street is almost as close (an extra five minutes walk). This means that if I’m heading home outside peak hour, I have to look at the timetable to check when the Loop trains run, which then determines which station I walk. It shouldn’t be this hard.

Consistency is one of the keys to making public transport easier to use. They don’t for instance run half of tram route 58 via William Street and half via Swanston Street. They shouldn’t do this with the trains either.

The peak express trains make sense to speed up long journeys and make use of the Caulfield-Moorabbin third track, but the Loop variations should be removed.

Dandenong line, Monday evening

2. Run more Dandenong trains

Each City Loop tunnel can take a train about every 2-3 minutes. To make the Frankston line trains fit into the Loop, the Dandenong line timetable has gaps.

The Dandenong line serves a huge growth area. It’s really busy and getting busier. The gaps create an irregular frequency which means some trains are more crowded than others.

Currently a third of Caulfield Loop paths are given to the Frankston line (on roughly a 9 minute cycle). Giving the Loop tunnel over to the Dandenong trains exclusively would allow a more consistent frequency, allowing all the paths to be used, with a train every 3 minutes between the City and Dandenong, better catering for patronage demand.

Some gaps would still needed to fit the V/Line trains, but this is only 2 paths per hour, not the 6-7 per hour the Frankston line currently takes.

X'trapolis trains at Flinders Street

3. Run more Frankston trains too

Untangled from the Dandenong line, they could also run more Frankston line trains. Currently in peak these are tied to the same 9 minute cycle (2 trains every 9 minutes).

Freed from this, they could increase to fully use the capacity of the line, relieving crowding at the height of the peak.

How many extra services are possible depends on the operating pattern, but theoretically you could be looking at a train about every 3 minutes – again, a 50% boost – if the express trains had a couple of additional stops – perhaps a skip/stop pattern between Caulfield and South Yarra – or just stop all those trains at the MATH stations and give the inner city a high frequency service to relieve the crowding.

Delayed Frankston line train diverted out of the Loop

4. Reduce delays

The current interaction of the Frankston and Dandenong lines means that if one is delayed, both are delayed.

In fact the delays can easily flow across more than half the rail network.

There are currently timetabled interactions between numerous lines: in peak hour, Dandenong interacts with Frankston, which interacts with Werribee/Altona Loop/Williamstown, which interacts with Sunbury, which interacts with Upfield and Craigieburn.

The Sunbury, Werribee, Frankston and Dandenong lines also mix it with V/Line services from Bendigo and Gippsland.

As Metro’s network planner Huw Millichip noted in this ABC article last week, this means that the single track in Altona affects half the network.

“For example, a train out of Altona is one of the first trains we timetable because that one’s very constrained because of the way it needs to work through the Altona loop because it’s a single-line section. When that train gets to North Melbourne, it then effectively dictates the position of all the other trains that come through North Melbourne.”

Add the Cranbourne single track as well, and no wonder there are constantly delays in peak hour!

Some of those intertwinings are not easily severed until the metro tunnel opens in 2025, but Frankston and Dandenong can be separated now, reducing the effect of late running.

Metro alert 18/2/2019: Frankston trains bypassing the City Loop

5. No more surprise Loop bypasses

Frankston trains are regularly altered to bypasses the City Loop. Metro does this to reduce Newport/Frankston delays cascading onto the busy Dandenong line.

Statistics from PTV show that in the past 12 months, 587 Frankston trains were altered to bypass the Loop, or about 10 per week.

The Pakenham and Lilydale lines had more bypasses. But most Frankston trains aren’t scheduled to run via the Loop anyway – I calculate the bypasses to around 3.7% of scheduled Frankston Loop services – more than double the number of any other line.

Spontaneous changes like this play havoc with passengers, and add to pressures at interchange stations like Richmond.

In the PM peak, Loop bypasses often mean people miss their trains home, delaying them even more, and causing crowding on other services.

If Frankston trains never ran via the Loop, some people would have to change trains, but others would adapt their travel patterns to avoid the Loop in the first place.

In fact, so many Frankston trains are bypassing the Loop that people are getting used to it.

When my morning train is altered to bypass the Loop (for instance, yesterday), I see fellow regulars who usually go to Flagstaff who are (as I am) staying on to Flinders Street and walking from there. That to me says for many people it’s already a regular thing.

Train diverted out of Loop - still plenty of people wanting Flinders Street

7. Patronage won’t suffer

The same thing happened on the Sandringham line (removed from the Loop in 1996) and the Werribee line (removed 2008). People adapted their travel patterns. Those lines are now busier than ever.

Watch the Sandringham line at Richmond – many people change to the Loop, but more people stay on it to Flinders Street.

Of course nobody likes losing their one seat ride, but history has shown that in the long term, these types of changes allow a lot more trains to run, fewer delays – and that helps get more passengers on board.

This is precisely how most big city metros work. Think of London Underground: interchanges galore enabled by frequent services.

Flinders Street Station, February 2019

Caveats

There are some essential measures that need to accompany making all Frankston trains run direct:

  • They must run through to/from Southern Cross, every service, without fail. This ensures people headed to the west end of the City (and North Melbourne and beyond) have the confidence that they don’t need to change service.
  • Trains passing through Flinders Street need to move through without any delays for layovers or timekeeping or driver changes.
  • Dandenong line services have to be boosted to fill the void – this means both paths in the Loop, and capacity for those people who do need to change trains
  • Interchange facilities at Caulfield and Richmond need to be improved. At Richmond they’ve improved the shelter and the Passenger Information Displays in the past few years – the same is required at Caulfield. And in the longer term, Richmond needs a widening of the central subway; Caulfield probably needs an additional concourse – which will also be needed once the Metro tunnel opens.
  • To make full use of the Dandenong line capacity, the Cranbourne line needs full duplication

In a dream world, there’d also be cross-platform interchange between Loop and direct trains, but that’s a huge complicated undertaking.

More immediately achievable is that all day frequency also needs to improve. These lines do quite well at most times of day, but evenings and early morning need attention, and running more lines at 10 minute (or better) frequencies all day would help people get around all of the network.

Metro tunnel construction in the City Square

The time to do it is now

This can’t wait until 2025 when the metro tunnel opens.

Fortunately, the planets have aligned. 2019 is the perfect time to get the Frankston trains out of the Loop, because:

  • all the level crossings out to Dandenong are gone, so the line can now be filled with trains to make the most of capacity. Before now, it would have locked up the local road network, and prevented people at places like Hughesdale and Clayton even getting to the stations
  • extra trains are coming into service in the next few months as the first HCMTs come online, so the fleet is set to grow in size
  • Frankston is a politically sensitive line, but we just had a state election, so the government can have some confidence that any change now will give grumpy people a chance to get used to it, and reap the benefits from reduced delays and increased capacity, before the next election
Crowded train, Frankston line

It has to happen

Ultimately, moving Frankston trains out of the Loop will cause some inconvenience and consternation – even if only for the 6 years until the metro tunnel opens.

But Melbourne is growing fast, and we’ve moved a long way from the days when every rail line on the network could squeeze through the four tracks in the Loop.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below – but remember, the public transport system is run for the benefit of everyone, not just you personally.

A change like this about making the overall rail service more reliable, cutting delays and unplanned bypasses, and better using the capacity to its fullest, to cut waiting times and overcrowding.

Trains: has there been progress in ten years?

Sometimes it’s easy to be cynical. Progress in public transport can be slow.

But there is some progress.

I found this from May 2007 — it was an email from me to a local politician who had asked about public transport issues in the southern suburbs of Melbourne.

I’ll intersperse my original points with some comments about progress in the past ten years. This focuses mostly on the Frankston line, but much is applicable to others.

Crowded platform at Flinders Street, March 2007

Peak hour

Frankston line – while the Dandenong line has been earmarked for extra services, the Frankston line is also very crowded during peak hours, to the extent that passengers regularly can’t board trains. This is in part because some stations only get trains every 15 minutes (eg Glenhuntly, Ormond, McKinnon) even in peak hours.

Progress! There was a shake-up of the peak-hour timetable in 2014. Frankston line trains are mostly every 8-10 minutes now in peak, with a two-tier service so the load is spread between stopping and express trains.

In 2007, there were 16 trains into Richmond from the Frankston line between 7:01am and 9am. Now I count 21.

Other lines still need upgrades. The Ringwood line had an AM peak revamp, but PM peak is still a mess of different stopping patterns, which is confusing, and limits capacity.

Network-wide load standard breaches in 2009 numbered 54 (“above benchmark”) in the AM peak, and 48 in the PM peak.

By 2017, these had reduced to 17 and 7 respectively, helped by additional services, as well as modifications to carriages to provide more standing room (aka fewer seats) which led to the benchmark changing from 798 per train to 900. Cheating? Perhaps, but reflects a shift: it’s more important to just fit onto the train than for a few more people to get a seat.

Thanks to patronage growth, particularly residential growth around stations, there is still crowding at peak times, to the point where (to my eye) it is causing load breaches. And of course reliability is an issue — a cancellation causes widespread chaos.

Southern Cross Station, June 2007

Peak shoulder and inter-peak

Additionally, trains fall back to half-hourly after 7pm, which increases pressure on peak hour services, as people don’t want to wait half an hour for a train. Running frequent services (including expresses) for longer would allow more people to travel outside peak hours, and would not require any extra trains or infrastructure.

Progress! The last Frankston express train used to be at 6pm; they now run until about 6:40pm.

Where there used to be just two trains per hour after 7pm (departures from Flinders Street: 7:15, 7:45, then every half-hour), the Frankston line now has 5 departures out of the city between 7pm-8pm, then every 20 minutes until 10pm.

Some other lines have also improved, though the busy Sunbury and Craigieburn lines drop back to every 20 minutes at 6:30pm, then back to half-hourly at 8pm.

Between the peaks (during the day) things have improved on some lines. Trains between the peaks have run every 10 minutes all day on the Frankston line since 2011, with the Dandenong line following in 2014.

Other lines still need upgrades. Many are still only every 20 minutes during the day.

Thursday night train to Frankston, 8:30pm

Evenings and weekends

Upgrades to evening and weekend services would also encourage more people to travel by train. At the very least, long trains should be used (overcrowding regularly occurs in evenings and weekends on the Frankston line and others), but more frequent services should also be provided.

Back then, most evening and weekend trains (when no football/cricket was on) ran as 3-cars.

Nowadays almost all services on all lines (except suburban shuttles) now run as 6-car trains, so the ridiculous situation of lots of people squeezing onto a short train rarely happens.

Evening frequencies: Many lines now run every 15-20 minutes until about 10pm, though on some it’s been implemented in a very hamfisted way. For instance Ringwood has the half-hourly service with 6-car trains, doing their old confusing Belgrave/Lilydale alternate through-train/shuttle arrangement, interspersed with extra 3-car trains to Ringwood. The timetable needs a complete re-write.

On weekends, trains out to Frankston, Ringwood and Dandenong have run every 10 minutes since 2012, doubling the previous daytime frequency. Most other lines still only get trains every 20 minutes.

After 8pm on weekends is pretty similar to how it was before; mostly half-hourly until midnight.

Southland station

Southland Station – this reached pre-feasibility stage in late 2004, and there has been no word on it progressing since then. Southland is a major activity centre, and serving it by rail should be a no-brainer.

Finally built and opened late last year! And from what I’ve seen, getting plenty of patronage.

Buses

Many bus routes need upgrading, to provide better feeder services into stations (thus relieving overcrowded station carparks) as well as being more time-competitive for other trips. For instance, route 623 serves major destinations such as St Kilda Beach and Chadstone, but does not run on Sundays, is only hourly on Saturdays, and finishes by 6pm on weekdays.

Some small progress. In the late part of last decade, as part of the MOTC plan, many routes got Sunday and evening services added.

But frequencies haven’t improved. Most routes are still just half-hourly on weekdays, hourly on weekends and evenings. Not going to cut it for most people.

Centre Road, Bentleigh, September 2007

Level crossings

While upgrades to level crossings have helped safety, the government should be looking at elimination of crossings, such as the one removed at Middleborough Road, Laburnham earlier this year. Removing crossings can help train reliability, aid pedestrian amenity and safety, and help buses and trams by reducing traffic congestion. A prime candidate would be Glenhuntly Station, where both trains and trams have to cross very slowly, causing delays.

Definitely progress! After only a few grade separations in the past few decades, it’s happening in a major way now, with dozens to be done in the next few years.

Connex train approaching Bentleigh, February 2007

There is progress

So there is progress, on some lines more than others.

Patronage has grown in this time: across Melbourne there were 162 million train journeys for 2005-06; this rose to 233 million in 2015-16 – an increase of 43%.

The upgrades are actually working, getting more people onto public transport. This is a good thing.

The question is: are these upgrades enough? Is the transport system keeping up? And is the rest of Melbourne getting what it needs?

Probably not. Many points of the rail network, and the greater public transport network, are under stress from crowding, and it’s not all at peak hour. The fast-growing western suburbs need particular attention.

On Wednesday, Julie Szego wrote in The Age that Melbourne is now a big city, with big city problems.

So while there’s been welcome progress on the trains in the last ten years, in the next ten we as a city need to see a lot more.

Big cities demand big city solutions. It’s not more motorways, it’s more mass transit, starting with frequent trains all day every day on every line.

Station codes: yes, FKN is the code for Frankston

From time to time I’ll refer to the Frankston line on Twitter with the abbreviation FKN.

I’m not just trying to get a cheap laugh. Well okay, perhaps I am, but what people might not realise is that’s actually the official station code for Frankston.

Every station (and a good many other places, such as passing loops and sidings) in the state has a three letter code, used in railway circles. Occasionally you’ll see them creep into the public arena:

"Fkn" - the official abbreviation for Frankston

Here’s a complete list of Melbourne codes:
Read More …

Using Myki to calculate how late my trains are

I have a Zone 1 Yearly Commuter Club Myki, so I don’t normally need to touch-off, but I have been doing so, in order to gather data on train punctuality.

Each trip is recorded, with its start and end station, and the time down to the exact second, and can be viewed via the Myki web site. Over the past month or so (43 trips) I’ve fed this information into a spreadsheet, and compared it to the scheduled train times.

I’ve only included trips on the Frankston line (or to be precise, on the Caulfield lines), and also recorded the type of train, to see if the well-known Siemens braking problem (and subsequent speed restrictions when approaching stations with a level crossing beyond them) is affecting punctuality.

I subtracted a minute when calculating the difference between the scheduled time and the Myki touch-off time, because trains should not necessarily be expected to arrive right on the minute (and zero seconds), and because it takes a little while to alight from the train and get to the station exit. (There was only a single touch-off time that was less than a minute after scheduled train time.)

The times were further split into peak (which I decided meant into the city 7am-9:30am, out between 3pm and 7pm) and off-peak (all other times, including weekends) — the morning hours are slightly different from official definitions, but my view is the system is still quite busy between 9am and 9:30am.

Here’s the median figures (apart from the first figure which is the overall average):

Punctuality

Some conclusions:

The overall average figure of 5 minutes 20 seconds late underscores that the Frankston line continues to be the official worst for punctuality. The 12 month average of 69.6% arrivals within five minutes, compared to the network average of 86.0%.

23 out of 43 arrivals were 5 minutes or less late, making 53% meeting the loose government definition of “on-time”. It’s less than the 69.6% 12 month average figure, but most of my trips are in peak hour.

Peak (5:41 late) is clearly more problematic than off-peak (2:57), no doubt due to more passengers loading and unloading, and more congestion due to higher-frequency train services.

During peak, the Siemens vs non-Siemens issue does come into play to a certain extent, but perhaps not as much as one might think, at least not directly. This might be because there are a lot of trains running on the network, so even Comeng trains may be delayed due to Siemens trains.

The Siemens vs non-Siemens delays in off-peak (eg when passenger loading and network congestion is less likely to be an issue) does appear to be a notable problem, though the sample size (8 trips) is somewhat smaller, and may not be reliable.

The new timetable

The May timetable change includes putting Siemens trains on most Frankston line services, and adjusting the timetables to more accurately reflect their running times.

I assume that means some trips are going to get a bit longer, but the punctuality will improve.

After the change, I’ll have another go at tracking it to see how it’s gone.

Did these trains lose Labor the election?

Among the 12 (or more) seats lost by Labor in Saturday’s election were four in Melbourne’s south: Frankston, Carrum, Mordialloc, and Bentleigh.

What do these have in common? The Frankston line.

The Frankston line is the poorest performing in Melbourne. While overcrowding has eased since the June timetable change, punctuality is the worst in the city. In the past 12 months, just 71.2% of trains arriving within five minutes of the schedule. (Network-wide average 85.1%)

Siemens train leaving Southern Cross

One of the causes of this is the extensive use of Siemens trains on the line. These trains have only two doors per side per carriage, and few handholds along the aisles, which causes passengers to congregate around the doors, slowing loading, particularly at peak times.

More critically, an intermittent brake problem means the trains have a 30 km/h limit when approaching a station stop with a level crossing on the far side. By my count, this affects 6 stations from Frankston going towards the city, and 10 going back towards Frankston.

Siemens speed limitSiemens train brake problems were first reported in 2003, but gained prominence in summer 2006-2007 when a large number of trains were taken out of service because of it. A full solution still hasn’t been found.

The Siemens train problems, combined with the premature scrapping of Hitachi trains as they were introduced, has led to overcrowding and delays.

The Coalition’s David Davis cited the Frankston line as a factor in the swings of bayside seats against the ALP, and one new MP agrees with him:

Ms Wreford says voters in her electorate and the nearby seats of Frankston and Carrum – which also look likely to fall to the Liberals – have had enough of the Frankston railway line which runs through the three bayside electorates. — AAP

And the Herald Sun this morning notes Swinburne University’s Professor Brian Costar:

“It shows that voters see state governments as service providers.”

The failures in public transport were symbolic of a government that had become ineffectual.

“Any Labor member along the Frankston-Pakenham line was in trouble. That was extraordinary. It was the south-eastern suburbs that did Labor in.”

So we have multiple failures with a specific model of train — and indeed a poor choice of model in the first place. They were chosen by National Express, but would have been approved by the Department of Infrastructure (now Transport). Subsequently there’s the placement of many of those trains on the Frankston line, no solution to the brake problems despite seven years having passed, and continuing disquiet over overcrowding and late-running. (And to be fair on Labor, they had started to turn the latter two problems around.)

Add to that a not-necessarily representative, but very alarming recent security incident (and a general concern over security — see: Stateline 19/11), poor decisions and cost blowouts with the new Myki ticket system, frustration from many over station carparks (caused by infrequent buses that aren’t coordinated with the trains), and it’s no wonder that the Coalition’s message, that they would fix the reliability and security problems, and form a Public Transport Development Authority to better plan, manage and coordinate the system, resonated with voters.

What difference would a PTDA make? If it’s done right, it would be staffed by experts who wouldn’t let an operator buy a bung brand of train, nor let a brake problem go unresolved for years on end, nor scrap old but perfectly functional trains when patronage growth had been predicted. It would have powers to ensure bus/train/tram timetables are coordinated. It would do proactive planning and lobbying for funds, at arms-length from government (eg not subject to excessive interference from the politicians, such as Metro recently found when its etiquette campaign, which if successful would have improved punctuality, was deferred by the Minister’s Office due to the election — see Thursday’s Herald Sun print edition: “Stopping all stations, except for manners”). And it would have proper public involvement and transparency, unlike the secret decisions that currently get made behind closed doors.

I’m sure public transport wasn’t the only factor in Labor losing the election, but the message must be that governments have to get basic services right, or face the consequences.

Let’s hope the Coalition get it right.