Train Pain

If you were following me on Twitter on Monday morning, you’d know that I made a decision I came to regret: I travelled to work on the train to Caulfield and the express rail replacement bus into the City.

In short: the buses were hopelessly swamped by people. It was a long wait (43 minutes) in the bus queue; then a bus trip from Caulfield to the City that took more than an hour.

The trip that normally takes about half an hour from Bentleigh to the City instead took two hours.Read this Twitter thread for the grisly details.

In the cold light of day, here are some thoughts on this.

Flyer for April 2019 rail works

The good stuff.

The information has been pretty good. Lots of signage. Lots of staff making announcements on the train, on the station before the works started. It was pretty clear where to go.

There’s also been no shortage of advance warning: signs at local and CBD stations (the latter perhaps a little overwhelming), flyers handed out at stations, announcements on stations and trains, TV and radio advertising, press calls, web site updates.

There have been some errors along the way, and some of the media messaging was overly alarmist – leaving for instance some people assuming the Sandringham line is closed every day. It’s not – it’s only closed on some weekends. A simple calendar might have helped.

On the ground at Caulfield, they seem to have tweaked the verbal messaging from announcers to say “to the City”, which is much clearer (and more correct) than the previous “to Flinders“.

The massive tents at Caulfield are a smart idea. Ideally you don’t want long queues. But if you do have them, you especially don’t want people in long queues in the rain.

It reminded me a bit of the queues for rides at an amusement park. But not as fun.

I found passengers were remarkably calm while queuing. Maybe they were all posting furious messages on social media, but nobody got visibly shouty or upset, nobody jumped the queue, and (gods be praised) nobody lit up a cigarette inside the tent.

Metro was taking the operation seriously. I know this because I saw Metro CEO Raymond O’Flaherty walking around checking things out, with a suitably serious look on his face.

It’s school holidays and university mid-semester break (at least for some). This helps reduces travel demand, especially in the morning peak. The trains were quieter than usual. If these disruptions have to occur, now is the right time.

Running a stopping-all-stations every 7 minutes service from Frankston to Caulfield made sense to keep things simple and minimise passenger waits for trains. It’s similar on the Pakenham line, though Cranbourne passengers have to change at Dandenong, which adds to their travel time.

Happily for outbound passengers, trains on the Dandenong line run at least every 10 minutes until almost 10pm; until about 8pm on the Frankston line. High frequency makes outbound connections off the buses fairly easy.

On the bus there were delays due to traffic, but it seemed minimal delays due to just traffic lights themselves – apparently Vicroads was making some effort to cut delays to buses at lights, which was good… except…

Buses still faced long delays getting across Princes Highway because someone decided that cars on the highway are more important than scores of buses packed with people.

Edit: As far as I can make out, the express buses were split between Federation Square (via the M1) and Arts Centre (via Dandenong Road/St Kilda Road).

Caulfield station: a crowd exits the train to change to rail replacement buses

The problems

Train delays approaching Caulfield. Ours stopped for about six minutes, but this was nothing compared to some of the delays on the Dandenong line, with some trains stuck for an hour or more.

A big factor in this was crowding on the platforms. Caulfield station is not a modern design. Especially on platforms 2 & 3, the gates and ramps cause a bottleneck. (With the metro tunnel likely to increase Caulfield’s interchange role, an additional concourse would be a welcome upgrade.)

The track layout is also problematic – sometime in the past few years, the layout has been altered so that trains from Dandenong can only terminate on platform 3. The less busy Frankston trains could use platforms 1 & 2.

The sheer number of people meant crowding in the subway. The crowding in the subway backed up onto the ramp, and then up onto the platform, preventing empty trains from departing.

But the biggest problem was bus throughput. Standing in the queue for that 43 minute wait, there would be times when no buses at all would arrive for 5-10 minutes. Then a few would appear and fill up.

The crowds could have been handled much better if the stream of buses was constant.

Bus delays

Some express buses earlier in the morning had departed with spare capacity aboard, despite people still queuing. (This was actually shown in the timelapse in Channel 7’s news story.)

This needs fixing urgently – apart from making some in the queue needlessly wait, it wasted bus capacity that could have been used later in the morning to keep more people moving. Express buses shouldn’t leave unless full if people are waiting. Only stopper buses need to leave with space for more passengers.

Ch7 9/4/2019 - Still from timelapse of trip from Caulfield to City

Bus throughput was also affected by severe traffic delays – buses despatched to the City had a slow trip in, limiting the number of trips they could run.

  • Unbelievably, Normanby Road in Caulfield was still available to general traffic in both directions, with buses having to negotiate a sea of bollards. Did they seriously not think to just close it off?
  • There were also delays on Sir John Monash Drive for buses trying to enter and leave the precinct. Given the numbers of passengers, it would easily be justified to close down that section of the road (from Queens Avenue to Dandenong Road) to other traffic – or allocate an extra bus lane that can be used to get onto Burke Road.
  • At the very least, more time should have been given for buses getting across Princes Highway.
  • Each morning peak the M1 has been clogged. On my trip was a crawl from joining the freeway at Burke Road, up until about Toorak Road. (Can the automated signage on the “managed motorways” be programmed to show bus lanes? If not, maybe this should be factored into designs for future rollouts.)
  • After leaving the freeway there was another crawl along Batman Avenue, mostly caused by the sheer number of buses.

At this point on my trip I was looking on Google Maps at the traffic further along and onto Flinders Street and thinking/hoping they’d route some buses over to the Arts Centre to avoid it – as has been the case during previous rail closures.

Unbelievably, they didn’t. Instead our bus and all the others headed straight into a kilometre-long queue of buses and other traffic.

You know how some people claim that unlike rail transport, buses can easily adapt to changing travel demand and traffic patterns. Yeah. Not unless someone tells the drivers.

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Eventually bus drivers started letting passengers out to walk the rest of the way. As I walked, I found a long queue of buses all the way to Federation Square.

Authorities implied it was because of the vegan protestors occupying the intersection at Swanston and Flinders Street. I don’t buy that.

  • Any westbound traffic delayed by the protest was separate from the bus route, because the section of Flinders Street used by the buses (from Exhibition to Russell Streets) was closed to other vehicles
  • Exactly the same problem happened again on Tuesday morning – with no protestors. And again on Wednesday morning.

To me it looked like the bus jam was due to a slow turnaround at Federation Square. They should have been getting buses unloaded and out again as quickly as possible so they could get back to Caulfield and pick up more passengers. Again the despatch procedures seem to need reviewing.

The lack of a dedicated bus lane on Batman Avenue didn’t help either, though it wasn’t as big a problem as on the M1.

For a bus and it’s driver, the round trip would have been at least 60 minutes inbound plus 30 minutes outbound. No wonder there were queues at Caulfield.

Buses queued at Caulfield during rail shutdown

Is the strategy right?

The government says 600 buses and coaches are being used this week for rail replacements, and presumably most of them are on the Caulfield to City run. But are they being used in the best way?

Getting everyone to Caulfield by train and then using lots of buses to the City worked during quiet times on the weekend when passenger numbers were lower. It struggled a bit with football crowds, but it really struggles with peak hour commuters.

It’s a firm reminder that buses can’t replace trains. It re-created the mess that occurs every weekday on the Doncaster corridor, where buses try to do that job.

The Doncaster buses are incredibly messy, but at least they have bus lanes on the freeway inbound, and along Hoddle Street and Victoria Parade. This was specifically ruled out by authorities – who chose instead to rely on traffic light priority (but then didn’t provide it crossing Princes Highway).

If they’re not going to give hundreds of packed buses the priority they deserve, would a better strategy be to shift more people onto the neighbouring rail lines, and run extra train services?

  • A bus connection from Moorabbin to Brighton Beach on the Sandringham line (as used in the past) for people from stations further south
  • Another from Westall to one of the Glen Waverley line stations for the Dandenong line passengers

With reduced holiday demand, and extra services, would they cope? (The Sandringham line is running extra services anyway – the usual 8 trains per hour in peak is 10 per hour during the works. These have been pretty crowded.)

There would be some level crossing impacts from more trains of course, but the shorter route for buses would mean fewer delays for them, and if enough extra trains could be provided, they would cope with passenger numbers so much better. (A packed train would be about 20 bus loads of people.)

For passengers closer in, the mix of stopping and express buses from Caulfield to the City would get a better run thanks to reduced passenger numbers and congestion – in the station at Caulfield and on the roads into Federation Square.

This sort of operation might use fewer resources, making the overall rail closure cheaper.

Boosting regular routes

A more radical change would be to run the above Westall and Moorabbin shuttle bus connections, but also deploy some of the hundreds of buses being used to boost local cross-suburban routes that connect the train lines, more widely distributing passengers across more stations.

Some passengers are seeking out these local tram and bus routes anyway, including some prompted by advice from Metro staff who knew about the chaos unfolding at Caulfield.

There have been reports of crowding on the 630 bus (North Road) and 67 tram (Glen Huntly Road) thanks to no extra services and (some) use of small trams. Presumably this is also an issue on the inner-suburban tram routes in the southeast.

For me, I used this method to get home on Monday. It was 58 minutes from Flinders Street to Bentleigh (via Middle Brighton and the 703), and that included a 17 minute wait for a late bus. Far better than the two hour trip in the morning.

2019-04-09_02-57-12

Boosting those local bus routes and encouraging their use would be making the best use of buses – which are not really suited for long haul high capacity routes. It would also help educate passengers on their alternate routes during future unplanned shutdowns.

Obviously it’s a fine balancing act to try and make sure the swarms of passengers displaced by the rail shutdowns don’t swamp other services and replacement buses.

A good balance has not been reached this week.

Queue at Caulfield for replacement buses, Monday morning

The first weekday is always the worst. The queues at Caulfield have moved better on subsequent days. But that’s not an excuse.

It’s like when they say the first week of the university year is worst. Waiting for people to give up and try something else (such as driving) is not a good outcome. (Fair enough, for universities, sometimes travel patterns genuinely change after the first week or two.)

As of day three, the bus delays haven’t gone away – on the M1 and Batman Avenue, and around Caulfield, they have continued each peak hour.

The strategy used for this works period needs to be reviewed.

With continuing (and very welcome) works on level crossings, the metro tunnel, and upgrades for the new trains, these major rail closures will keep happening. While they do, the city and its transport network need to continue to function.