Night Network: opportunities to make it better

Night Network has been running as a trial since the start of 2016, and solved some key problems:

  • The old NightRider buses were insufficient: often crowded, and had a route structure completely different from daytime, so (despite the crowding) most people didn’t know how it worked
  • Nightrider also provided no service in many areas that have excellent daytime services, so some of the people most likely to use public transport didn’t have late services.
  • Sunday trains started too late.

Night Network kind of solved these issues, and with 35,000 extra trips every weekend, is getting people on board. But it isn’t perfect, and the cost has been huge, at around $80 million per year.

The PTUA put out this material highlighting some problems and things that could be done to improve it:

PTUA calls for Night Network to stay – but must be made more efficient

This got some coverage in the Herald Sun: Trains lying idle during Melbourneโ€™s 24-hour public transport scheme (Pay wall)

The study into the timetables came about when it was pointed out to me that on some lines, the trains spend a lot of time sitting at the terminus. I wanted to find out how long.

The Working Timetable, if you can get hold of it (it’s not currently online), shows which service the train goes to after reaching the end of the line.

This made it fairly easy — except that the Belgrave and Lilydale lines do a complicated dance, with trains running from the city alternately to each, with shuttles filling in the gaps. It results in uneven frequencies (non-clockface times) in the evenings and on the Night Services. It could be fixed by running one of the branches from Ringwood as a shuttle, as happens on the Cranbourne, Alamein and Williamstown lines.

Train at night

Anyway, the results showed that yes, on some lines the trains spend an enormous amount of time sitting idle. Perhaps inevitable for the shuttles, but Sandringham trains spend as much time stopped as they do running; some Belgrave trains wait for an amazing 62 minutes before heading off again, and you’ll find trains sitting waiting at Craigieburn, Upfield and Hurstbridge for more than 40 minutes each hour.

A big part of the problem is that the policy during the trial is for hourly trains. The idle time is far higher during hourly operation than before midnight with half-hourly services.

Perhaps secondary is that the timetable may have been written in a hurry to get it implemented by the start of 2016.

The Night Bus services still have the problem of a route structure that is completely different from day time — unlike the trains and trams (the half-dozen routes that run all night) which provide 24-hour service on weekends, which is much easier to understand.

So as the PTUA material indicates, it makes a lot of sense to refine the whole Night Network when the trial ends in mid-2017, to make it more efficient and economically sustainable, make it more useful for passengers, and make it permanent:

The aim should be a Night Network which provides:

  • train services on the busiest lines on Friday and Saturday nights, running at least every half-hour;
  • coordinated connecting rail buses or parallel trams on sections where patronage does not warrant all-night train services; and
  • 24-hour tram and bus routes filling in network gaps where no trains run.

  • The PTUA is also calling for rail bus services to run along train routes on weekday mornings, meaning 24/7 service along Melbourneโ€™s rail corridors, a service that has run in Sydney since the 1980s.

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FOI shows early planning under way for all-night weekend trains in Melbourne

News from London is that they are planning 24-hour Tube services on five lines from 2015 at weekends.

It’s tied to a grand plan which will also see staff taken out of ticket offices (in favour of helping customers more directly, for instance with ticket machines), more Wifi on stations, and contactless bank card (eg Paypass) payments.

All interesting, but let’s focus on the all-night trains.

Frankston line, 11:50pm Friday night

Running all-night services on weekends only is an interesting balance between meeting big city passenger demand, helping late-night economic growth, and still allowing time for maintenance — which can still happen on weeknights.

Could we do it in Melbourne? Would we do it in Melbourne? Nightrider buses might well be adequate for demand on weeknights (but don’t even run at present), but on weekends (Friday and Saturday nights) are frequently swamped with users. Particularly on the busiest lines, and particularly over summer, trains would cope better with the loads.

Here’s the interesting thing: early planning for all-night weekend trains appears to be already be under way.

For such a thing to happen, there’s any number of factors that would need to be carefully planned — maintenance regimes, rosters for drivers, signalling and support staff, stations, PSOs…

One obvious step is ensuring that any future development on the rail network doesn’t get in the way of it.

The planning for Southland station includes such a clause. In a document obtained via FOI by The Age, the requirements clearly state that the infrastructure should allow for a future timetable with trains running 4:30am to 1am on weekdays, and “Friday 0530 through to Monday 0200” — in other words, continuous services from Friday morning through to late Sunday night.

Southland station FOI: Early planning for 24-hour trains at weekends

It doesn’t mean 24-hour weekend trains will be starting any time soon, nor that they would necessarily run on every line — a more likely initial outcome is the busiest lines only, where Nightriders don’t cope.

But it does appear that the early planning for it is happening now within PTV — ensuring that no new initiatives get in the way of doing it in the future. Great to see it’s on their radar.

Want to see it happen? Then get busy making your voice heard in the media and with your local MP.