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.

Mernda rail extension opens this Sunday

On Sunday I went out to see the Mernda rail extension.

The Level Crossing Removal Authority, who built it (well, it does involve new stations and grade separation of an existing disused rail corridor, so it kinda makes sense) ran a community open day, with free shuttle trains between South Morang and Mernda.

After catching a regular train to South Morang, I found a big crowd waiting for a shuttle train.

South Morang station

Mernda

Mernda was packed with people, so it’s just as well they built this new terminus to generous dimensions, with a good wide platform.

Mernda station open day 19/8/2018

I met up with Darren Peters, who headed up the community campaign that got the politicians to commit to the rail extensions (both to South Morang, then Mernda). Locals kept stopping to congratulate him – deservedly so!

Mernda station has a wraparound roof structure similar to the Dandenong line skyrail stations, but glass panels block the wind coming through. The design is less rounded futuristic, more boxy, and I’m told is meant to reflect the farm heritage of the area – still seen on a few farm buildings in the vicinity.

Mernda station open day 19/8/2018

A huge amount of space is available underneath the station platform. There’s a large car park and a bus interchange on the eastern side, where buses will converge from nearby suburbs, mostly with frequencies of 20 minutes in peak, 40 off-peak.

To the west is… an empty paddock. This will be the place for the Mernda town centre.

Mernda station open day 19/8/2018

North of the station is more parking (with a second station exit), and a stabling yard to store trains between the peaks and overnight.

Mernda station viewed from the north

Mernda stabling yard 19/8/2018

New traffic lights seemed to be giving an inordinate amount of green time to nonexistent traffic coming out of the station, without actually providing much green man for pedestrians. This was resulting in traffic jams along Bridge Inn Road. Perhaps trying to get locals used to the traffic lights being there?

It’s unlikely that the line will be further extended to Whittlesea any time soon. This is the northern edge of Melbourne, and the Urban Growth Boundary shows no signs of shifting.

While there aren’t many houses in the immediate station environs, there are a few in the street north of the station, some of which look like they’re already being re-developed to medium density. And a little further away are vast numbers of homes, so it’s no wonder Plenty Road, pretty much the only road to the south, gets packed with cars at rush hour.

Hawkstowe

Heading back south, I looked at Hawkstowe station, a similar island platform design to Mernda. Already there’s a playground underneath the tracks, which reminded me of Singapore, and may be an indicator of what’s coming underneath the Caulfield to Dandenong skyrail.

Hawkstowe station open day 19/8/2018

Hawkstowe station open day 19/8/2018

Middle Gorge

And then there’s the third station…

A post shared by Daniel Bowen (@danielfbowen) on

There’s been some controversy over the name, but let’s look at the actual design.

Side platforms have been used, which is fine, and a nice wide subway connects them, reminiscent of Tarneit station.

But for some reason the building structures have very high-up roofs, which look impressive at first, but I expect will provide almost zero weather/rain protection.

Middle Gorge station open day 19/8/2018

There’s a plaza on the outbound side which is quite nice, but it also means the bus stops are a good couple of hundred metres away from the station, ensuring anybody who tries to interchange when it’s raining will get drenched. The bus stop has no shelter that I could see (maybe that will be installed before opening day this Sunday?)

Okay, so not as many buses will connect here compared to the other two new stations – it’s only route 383, which also goes to South Morang, but it’ll be about eight minutes faster to change to the train at Middle Gorge.

And the shared (bike) path coming from both directions is on the opposite side of the tracks to the bike cage, and particularly indirect from the north. Is this really the best they could do?

Middle Gorge station precinct

These concerns aside, it was great to see the community come out and see their new stations – despite the weather having been horrible earlier in the day.

Enough about the infrastructure – what about the services?

There’s little doubt the trains will be popular for those headed to destinations further down the line including into the City.

Some extra services have been added for peak hour, making for trains up to about every 6 minutes in peak.

There are no express services to speak of – the peak frequency is so intensive that there’s really no spare capacity for them. An express train would catch up quickly with the train in front. And remember, express trains save less time than you’d think – typically a minute per station skipped, while penalising people at those stations with fewer services, and leading to uneven train loads.

There are some counterpeak expresses – in the AM peak a train arriving at Flinders Street will go around the Loop, then back out in service. Some of these stop at only a handful of stations (including Reservoir for the 301 shuttle bus to Latrobe Uni), then up to Epping or South Morang to terminate and go back into stabling.

Outside peak hour, the current frequencies will remain: mostly every 20 minutes, but every 30 after 9pm, 40 on Sunday mornings (WHY?!) and hourly Night Train services overnight on Friday and Saturday nights.

In the long term, the Metro 2 tunnel will be needed to cope with continued growth on both this line and the Hurstbridge line.

Meanwhile, obviously authorities will need to watch patronage carefully and keep adding more services where they can, though there’s a limit to peak capacity between the city and Clifton Hill. The usual point applies: better off-peak services can help spread the load across the day.

But one thing’s for sure: the three new stations add richly to the transport options for people in the outer northern suburbs.

Clever placement of #MetroTrains #DumbWaysToDie characters in stations

A lot of the unfortunate jellybean characters are depicted around CBD railway stations at the moment as part of Metro’s Dumb Ways To Die campaign. I was amused at the placement of this one:

Clever placement of this #metrotrains #DumbWaysToDie sticker at Flagstaff

…but this one is even better. (Only a short video — don’t bother with the sound; it adds nothing.)

Perhaps I’m easily amused, but that did make me laugh. Very clever.

Metro people

Lily Dale
Dan Denong
Flin der Street
Lyn Brook
Ben T’Leigh
Pat Terson
Mal Vern
Frank Ston
Cam Berwell
William Stown
Glen Ferrie
Victoria Park and Clifton Hill (of course!)
Thomas Town
Wes Tall

Mural, Patterson station

Syd Enham
Mel Bournecentral
Al Tona
and his brother Wes Tona
Glen Roy
Craig Ieburn
Edith Vale
Ken Sington
Merlyn Ston
Clay Ton
Dennis and Chelsea!

Any others?

How punctual are our trains compared to German suburban trains?

Many European countries put serious resources into their public transport systems and have networks that are the envy of the world, but don’t necessarily assume they are better than us in every single respect.

For instance, one might assume that German trains are never late — or at least that their punctuality is light years ahead of ours.

I discovered the other day that it is not so.

Berlin S-Bahn (from Wikipedia)
(Pic: Wikipedia)

In the year under review, we significantly improved the punctuality of our trains. For punctuality up to five minutes, the average rate increased from 91.0 % in 2010 to 92.9 % in 2011. Both local and long-distance transport services posted higher annual rates in this category: long-distance transport achieved a rate of 80.0 % (previous year: 72.4 %) and the figure for local transport came in at 93.2 % (previous year: 91.5 %).

Deutsche Bahn annual report

The long-distance figure isn’t directly comparable to V/Line, because V/Line uses a 5:59 or 10:59 threshold for “late” depending on the distance involved.

But the local figure (for instance S-Bahn suburban services) is comparable to Metro, as both DB and Metro use five minutes.

So, DB’s punctuality figures were 91.5% in 2010, and 93.2% in 2011.

Metro’s punctuality figure for 2010 was 86.6%; for 2011 it was 87.0%; for 2012 it was 91.1%, so (at least recently, with the help of strategies such as skipping stations, which if done counter-peak has overall positive outcomes for passengers) Metro is in the ballpark with DB.

Bonus trivia: When I was a kid, I recall Lego trains such as 7740 came with various stickers for different operators, including Deutsche Bahn and Victorian Railways. I always used the Deutsche Bahn stickers, of course — their DB logo was perfect for me.