Timetable tweaks may not be enough to run extra services with the same buses, but they can at least help cut unnecessary delays – particularly for bus passengers not boarding or alighting at those timing points.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that fewer people use paper train timetables than used to.
The proliferation of departure information via the official web sites, Google Maps and the official Journey Planner, as well as the official app (with its real time information) and many other apps, means people can get that information far more readily than they used to.
Some stations also have frequent services all day, so why would you even bother checking?
Here’s my totally unscientific Twitter poll the other day:
How do you check #MetroTrains train times? 🚇 Or are your usual trains frequent enough that you don't bother?
But flicking through the paper timetables, I found a number of issues. Here’s a few scans from the Craigieburn and Upfield line timetable booklet.
Actually apparently they’re not a timetable anymore, they’re “Train guides”. But no matter.
Here’s the abstract map in the front of the booklet. I suppose these are trying to give you a context for where in Melbourne each line runs. But they over-simplify the line’s direction (the Upfield line runs almost due north), they only list a station or two, and the kilometre distances (a bit hard to see in the scan) are inaccurate in some of the other line booklets.
Why are these two lines in the same booklet anyway? Despite the description, they are not part of the same line. They share no stations outside the central area (if you include North Melbourne). Online, neither PTV nor Metro treat them as one.
Do local train users treat them as one line? Judging from the number of peak services (Craigieburn has three times as many as Upfield), it seems the demand in peak is totally different, so I’d guess not.
Listing Craigieburn and Upfield together makes the timetables harder to read. I seem to recall these lines have been lumped together since at least The Met days. It appears to be for operator convenience, not for the benefit of passengers.
And why only mention interchange to the Sunbury line? What about Werribee and Williamstown?
The text describing the operating hours appears to be correct, but overly-complicated. I wonder if a better way of presenting this could have been found:
Let’s leave aside the tiny coloured train interchange dots, which I doubt are very useful to people.
The problem is the map itself. In reality, travelling citybound, if you turn left from North Melbourne, you’ll head into Flagstaff, not Southern Cross.
If you’re going outbound and turn left from North Melbourne, you’ll be headed towards Craigieburn, not Upfield.
The whole thing is backwards. If you flipped it horizontally, it’d be accurate!
It turns out that many of the booklets have things muddled up. Here’s Cranbourne/Pakenham. The City Loop is right, but the outer branches are the wrong way around:
All the booklets for lines through North Melbourne have the City Loop oriented the wrong way around. And the Werribee/Williamstown booklet has shuffled its branches around too:
Train maps are often abstract, and not to scale. But they should at least present the stations in the correct order, and reflecting actual geographic directions, not getting them backwards or back-to-front.
The Werribee/Williamstown issue has at least been acknowledged, but how do these things get into print?
The map certainly does have those lines the wrong way around. We're passing the feedback on.
Moving on… This description of the City Loop tells you how the trains on this line run when Citybound, but not Outbound. Until the Loop runs in a consistent manner, this will be confusing. Would a diagram with arrows have been better?
I know that Night Train services (introduced 2016) are technically different to the Midnight to 1am services (introduced 2006), but they operate on exactly the same nights, so to reduce passenger confusion, it’d make sense to brand them the same, and show them the same way in the timetables. For now however, only the services introduced in 2016 are shaded blue.
They do get marks for indicating that Night Train services continue over the page.
I’ll just mention again that putting Craigieburn and Upfield train times in one booklet makes it harder to read.
In my skimming, I haven’t found errors in the train times themselves, but they usually do a good job on this bit.
Many may be getting their train timetable information elsewhere, but print train timetables will be with us for a while yet.
And no matter what the medium, authorities need to clearly and accurately convey service information. The colours and fonts chosen mean the booklets look nice. But there are so many little issues — they really need to do better.
There will be no more Altona Loop shuttles. Weekday Altona Loop services will run through to Flinders St.
This also means Werribee trains will run express Newport-Footscray-North Melbourne, so both Altona and Werribee people win from this.
Of course the mostly single track through Altona means bypasses are set to continue. At least we now know the Kororoit Creek Road grade separation will include some duplication. Hopefully that makes a difference.
There hasn’t been a wholesale re-write of the timetable, so peak Williamstown and Altona services remain at every 22 minutes, while off-peak is 20!
More Geelong trains
The Geelong line will go to every 40 minutes on weekends. With constant overcrowding on the current hourly trains, this was only a matter of time, though heaven knows why they didn’t push the upgrades a little further to half-hourly, which would have meant more trains, a clockface timetable (40’s alternating hours has always been problematic) and preserving the bus connections, many of which are every 30-60 minutes.
As it is, bus connections will break. The premier Geelong bus service, route 1 from North Shore to Deakin, is every 30 minutes on weekends, and will remain so. It doesn’t take a genius to see that buses every 30 minutes don’t interface well with trains every 40 minutes.
V/Line have said in response to queries that it’s because the Sunbury line is every 20-40 minutes on weekends, and the Bendigo line is tied in with that, because they share some tracks… and the Bendigo line in turn interfaces with the Ballarat and Geelong lines. V/Line claims this prevents the Geelong line going to every 30 minutes.
But then, this is the organisation that has three out of four hourly services currently meeting at Deer Park Junction within a few minutes of each other, so I don’t think it’s unfair to say that their timetabling leaves something to be desired.
So has that been fixed? Well, yes and no:
Ballarat line at Deer Park, inbound: 15 past the hour. Outbound: 34
Geelong line at Deer Park, inbound: 12 and 52, or 32. Outbound: 07 and 47, or 27
So if the inbound Geelong train is 3 minutes late, every second hour it’ll delay an inbound Ballarat train. If it’s even later, it’ll delay an outbound Ballarat train as well, thanks to the flat junction.
You’d think they could have figured out better spacing between the Geelong and Ballarat trains. Aside from junction conflicts, Deer Park passengers will have 2-3 trains per hour: either at 12, 15, 52 past the hour, or at 15 and 32. Hmmmmm.
It remains to be seen whether V/Line continues to run their daily game of Mystery Platforms at Southern Cross.
The August 27th timetable for the Frankston line already includes Southland times:
For those wondering about stopping patterns, the full timetable shows peak expresses will still run to/from Cheltenham, not stopping at Southland.
On Sunday afternoon I went and had a quick look at the station. It’s looking good. These views from the top of the shopping centre carpark.
The platforms are looking close to complete. Even some signage is now up.
View looking towards the City. I’m guessing the structure closest the camera is the PSO pod and/or toilets. There seems to be plenty of coverage on the citybound platform; less so on the outbound platform.
View looking towards Frankston. The southern ends of the platforms (as well as the entire citybound platform) are adjacent to houses, but it appears you won’t be able to see much from the platform. A few better view from the top of the Southland carpark :-/
It’s good to see the pedestrian route through the carpark has been modified recently; it now heads more-or-less directly to the station entrance.
I’m not sure you’d say the station looks beautiful. I guess we’ll see what it looks like when it opens.
The station may look close to completion, but that is not to say that it is opening imminently. While the structure looks more and more functional every week, I’m hearing November is the likely opening date, with electrical and signalling works still underway.
I suppose until the station actually opens, the extra minute or two allowed in the timetables will be one less excuse Metro has for train delays.
It’ll be good to finally have it open – hopefully in time for the Christmas shopping rush.
Other changes on August 27th include additional trains on a number of lines: Werribee, Craigieburn (with all peak trains now via the Loop), Sunbury (some peak trains direct via Southern Cross), and some trains extended to Eltham.
There are also more V/Line services to Shepparton, Traralgon (approaching hourly on weekends, but not quite there yet), Bendigo, and Ballarat/Ararat. A number of local buses, both in metropolitan Melbourne and around Victoria, also have timetable changes.
Among the quotes in the story from locals is this one from me:
“Bentleigh has less frequent buses than it did 25 years ago.”
I’ve been (quite reasonably) asked if this is actually true.
Yep, it is (though not universally). Let me present some examples — some within the Bentleigh electorate, some just beyond.
The quote deliberately says 25 years, not 20. This is because in late-1991 (towards the end of the Kirner state government, before Kennett arrived on the scene in October 1992) there were sweeping bus service cuts to middle and outer-suburban routes right across Melbourne. Some routes were changed, combined, and renumbered, but the overall move was towards reduced frequencies.
Just in case you think I’m relying on my shaky memory, I’ve linked to scans of some of the old timetables that I’ve somehow managed to keep in my collection. (It’s not a huge collection. I’m not a timetable collector per se.)
It’s worth remembering that in those days, most shops, including at centres such as Southland, closed at 1pm on Saturdays and weren’t open on Sundays.
Bus 822 — Chadstone to Southland and Sandringham, and in 1992 some trips also extended to North Brighton to through-route to the 823.
In 1992, this ran every 20 minutes in morning and afternoon peak hours, which helped commuters making train connections at Murrumbeena and Sandringham, particularly in evening peak when it’s harder to accurately guess what time you’ll need the bus. Today this is every 30 minutes in peak hours.
Going further back to 1987, the route was known as the 655, and extra buses ran between Murrumbeena station and East Bentleigh, meaning a bus about every 15 minutes in peak — double today’s frequency.
Bus 617 — Brighton to Moorabbin and Southland. This has become part of route 811/812 from Brighton all the way to Dandenong (it was also re-routed through the industrial end of Moorabbin, making for a much slower trip from Brighton to Southland):
Back in 1991, this ran every 20 minutes on weekdays. It’s now every 30.
In peak it was about every 15 minutes. It’s now every 30.
On Saturday mornings it was every 30 minutes; in the afternoons about every 50 minutes. It’s now hourly.
(Note also the mention of buses to/from the football at Moorabbin. This sheet also shows the timetable for route 616 from Brighton to South Caulfield, which was scrapped and hasn’t been replaced.)
Bus 618 — from Brighton to Southland, now route 823.
Back in 1991, this ran every 40 minutes on weekdays. It’s now every 60.
It also ran about every 45 minutes on Saturday mornings. Now there is no weekend service.
Bus 641 — from Hampton to Highett, with most buses also going to Southland. This route became part of route 828 (Hampton to Berwick):
The timetable from circa 1990 shows it running about every 12 minutes in afternoon peak between Hampton and Highett stations, with most buses extending to Southland — this is now every 20 minutes.
For Friday night shopping buses were every 20 minutes to/from Southland. These are now every 30-40 minutes.
On Saturdays, buses were every 20 minutes in the morning, every 40 in the afternoon. They are now about every 30 minutes in the morning, and every 60 in the afternoon.
Bus 623 — from St Kilda to Chadstone and Glen Waverley:
Back in 1990, this ran every 30 minutes on Saturday mornings. It’s now hourly.
So as you can see, many buses are less frequent now than they were 25 years ago. In particular, peak hour frequencies dropped markedly — pretty much killing a lot of these routes as effective peak hour feeders to/from the rail system. You can time your walk to the bus stop in the morning, hopefully knowing the train might be frequent enough to avoid a long connection time. But in the evening, with train punctuality not being terribly reliable, it’s risking a long wait if you try and time your connection to a half-hourly bus.
As I said, this is not unique to this area. Cutbacks occurred right across Melbourne, and in most middle and outer suburbs, to this day, bus frequencies are poor.
Not all bad news
It’s not universally true that all buses are less frequent. The Centre Road bus 703 was upgraded from 20 minutes to 15 minutes between the peaks on weekdays as part of the Smartbus program, originated by the Kennett government and largely implemented last decade by Labor.
The 703 also ran only every 40 minutes on Saturdays; it’s now every 30 minutes. It was only hourly on Sundays, compared to about every 45 minutes now. (Hourly is of course easier to memorise). But locals may be intrigued to know that back in 1991, Sunday services did run between Brighton and Bentleigh (but not north of Monash), with some buses extending to Brighton Beach — nowadays there are no buses between Brighton and Bentleigh on Sundays.
Mostly better operating hours: Sundays and evenings
Also: On most routes, operating hours are now longer than they were in the 90s, thanks to funding from the 2006 MOTC (“Meeting Our Transport Challenges”) transport plan under Labor. This introduced (or re-introduced) Sunday services on a lot of bus routes, as well extending hours in many cases to 9pm (though mostly with only hourly services).
MOTC also resulted in some additional Smartbus upgrades, including the Doncaster area “DART” routes.
The 80s and 90s were a time of cost-cutting and mostly declining patronage in public transport. Of course cost cutting and declining patronage feed on each other.
It’s only in the last ten years or so that patronage began to climb again, helped along by factors such as in-fill development (and population growth) in established suburbs.
In this time, a lot of attention has been paid to trains, with those running through some parts of middle and outer Melbourne now every 10 minutes, seven days-a-week. This huge (but largely unadvertised) boost could scarcely have been dreamt about 25 years ago, when Sunday trains were only every 40 minutes, and generally with short trains. Since then, improvements have been delivered by both sides of politics.
But most people are beyond walking distance to trains (and the other frequent mode, trams), and many major destinations (such as Monash Clayton, Chadstone, and including, for now, Southland) are also. Apart from the few Smartbus routes, they remain mostly unusably infrequent.
Better buses — more direct, and more frequent — are vital for helping people make those trips via public transport, as well as providing connections to the train network without people having to drive to over-crowded station car parks.