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 services and evening 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.

New Dandenong/Frankston timetables

The new timetables started yesterday, but this morning is the first big test of the peak hour changes.

As I’ve already noted, while most lines get a tweak, the Caulfield lines get a big shake-up, especially Frankston.

As the number of trains running has increased, more have had to bypass the four CBD loop tunnels. Alamein and Blackburn have done so for decades. Sandringham trains switched in 1996. Werribee in 2008. Now it’s the turn of the Frankston express trains, and of course it’s been my line for most of the past fifteen years, and I’m taking a lot of interest.

I was looking a bit more at how and why the new Caulfield group timetable works like it does. While I know some don’t like it, it’s interesting to see how it all fits together.

It’s easiest to see by looking at the trains in the PM peak, leaving Richmond (eg after they’ve gone through the loop, or run direct from Flinders Street).

5:13pm — Pakenham express from loop (1)
5:16pm — Cranbourne stopper from loop (2)
5:16pm — Frankston express direct from Flinders St (3)
5:20pm — Frankston stopper from loop (4)
5:22pm — Pakenham express from loop (1)
5:25pm — Cranbourne stopper from loop (2)
5:25pm — Frankston express direct from Flinders St (3)
5:29pm — Frankston stopper from loop (4)

…and repeat.

(1) Stopping South Yarra, Caulfield, Oakleigh, Clayton, Springvale-Noble Park, Dandenong-Pakenham
(2) Stopping South Yarra, Caulfield-Cranbourne
(3) Stopping South Yarra, Caulfield, Cheltenham-Frankston
(4) Stopping all to Carrum or Frankston

What’s going on? Well instead of the complete dog’s breakfast of the old timetables, they’re making better use of the track capacity they have. And they’ve standardised the stopping patterns so that particular trains serve particular stations.

  • You can fit a train through the loop about every 3 minutes.
  • They’ve set up a repeating pattern every 9 minutes.
  • The Pakenham express leaves just before the Cranbourne stopper, because they share the same track all the way to Dandenong, so the express skips more stops, and almost (but not quite) catches up to the previous stopper at Dandenong.
  • The Frankston express leaves just before the Frankston stopper, because they share the same track to Caulfield. After that they have a separate track to Moorabbin, so the express can overtake the previous stopper.
  • The Cranbourne/Pakenham lines are mucho overcrowded, so now there’s never more than a 6 minute gap between them. The old timetable had the Frankston trains run together through the loop, resulting in gaps for Cran/Pak of up to 9 minutes, which meant a lot of crowding on some trains.

So the theory is the loads are more even (they claim to have researched this and believe it to be true), so the loading at busy city stations is quicker, and the trains are more punctual. And the better use of track capacity has let them add more train services overall, reducing crowding.

Those who have lost express services and/or now have to change trains are not happy, of course. Someone (not me) put this poster up at Bentleigh a couple of weeks ago:

Bentleigh timetable rebellion

Now, I loved the 8:06 and 8:17 express trains. But they were anomalies. Extra stops added to existing express trains a few years ago to relieve crowding at Ormond and Glenhuntly. Counter-intuitive because they left two minutes after other trains. I’m sorry, but such oddities are not the basis for a well-designed train timetable.

Those that have more right to complain are those from the end of the Frankston line and are losing their Express Loop services. It’s worth nothing that others who use Flinders Street (and probably more people will after the change) will get a quicker trip in on those expresses. So it’s not as if everybody loses out. But those who have to change trains will find it takes some getting used to.

If you will now have to change trains and/or your trip takes longer, then of course you’re not going to be happy about it.

The question will be whether these changes bring reduced delays that mean a more predictable, reliable, less crowded trip into work, even if it takes a few minutes extra than the timetabled theoretical travel time under the old regime.

Metro and the government will be hoping this change results in that payoff. If not, people like Rob Hudson (state member for Bentleigh, a marginal seat) are going to be on shaky ground when the election comes in November.

For those on the affected lines, how are you finding it today?
And more significantly, once the dust settles in the next week or two, how is it?