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.

Flinders Street Station goes Technicolour

(I’m hoping to blog about the Myki Mobile trial in the next few days, so hold those thoughts)

Some time in the last few days, a subtle addition appeared on the platform screens at Flinders Street Station: a countdown to departure. This has been on other displays around the network for decades, but some clever maths was needed to get this working here, as suburban services originate here.

So to provide an accurate time for an outbound service, they have to know whether the inbound service that forms it is on time.

Then on Tuesday night, a far more obvious makeover: colour!

On the concourse and in the connecting subways, the sequence of the lines is now more logical – by group rather than platform – with the colours from the network map used to help find your line.

New concourse displays at Flinders Street Station, January 2019

The sequencing is by group, then by departure time. I do wonder if this may cause issues when some infrequent lines may not display because the allotted space is all taken by more frequent services. Also note Alamein is missing below – the general advice outside peak hours is to take Belgrave/Lilydale to Camberwell and change there. (This is not very clear on the network map – it’s in a footnote only.)

New subway displays at Flinders Street Station, January 2019

At the escalators from the concourse to the platforms, these screens show the next departure on each platform

New displays at Flinders Street Station, January 2019

On the platforms they have the landscape version. Note the inconsistency in how skipped stations are shown. That seems odd.

New platform displays at Flinders Street Station, January 2019

One thorny issue: if all Sunbury/Watergardens skip South Kensington, then is South Kensington really even on that line? And should those trains be summarised as a Limited Express? (Some trains on the line are actual expresses, skipping stations between Sunshine and Footscray, so this is important to passengers.)

New platform displays at Flinders Street Station, January 2019

Also on the platforms are displays showing which platform to use for the next train to the other inner-city stations. This includes an animation of the City Loop, whose operations regularly confuse just about everyone.

New platform displays at Flinders Street Station, January 2019

Curiously this screen declared the next arrival (presumably V/Line) was 102 minutes away… despite a V/Line train already being present.

New platform displays at Flinders Street Station, January 2019

You might expect some teething issues. There have been some reports that the new software doesn’t cope well with cancelled services.

But overall these changes seem like a big improvement, and no doubt they’ll keep tweaking the design and fixing issues.

I should note that my photos from the small camera I had with me at the time may not do the new colours justice; go see them for yourself before judging the readability. Apparently they did do quite a bit of usability testing beforehand.

Hopefully we’ll see more of this – in particular more use of the line colours – and indeed more screens – spread across the network from here.

What will also help legibility around the train network is more consistent stopping patterns and Loop operation, in line with the train network map.

How long is a railway station platform?

Last Monday’s meltdown soured the return of trains after upgrades on the Dandenong and Frankston lines – which included works for the Metro tunnel, and also power upgrades extensions to some platforms.

So, how long is a railway station platform?

Generally, as long as the trains that serve it, plus a bit for spare.

There are exceptions, especially in regional areas of some countries, though this is rare in Victoria.

In Melbourne, suburban trains are currently standardised to 6 cars*:

  • Comeng 6 x 24 metres = 144 metres
  • Siemens 4 x 24.1 metres + 2 x 23.8 metres = 144 metres
  • X’Trapolis 4 x 24.46 metres + 2 x 22.76 metres = 143.36 metres

What about older trains?

Tait train (Steamrail Open Day 2014)

As early as 1908, and probably taking into account existing platform lengths, planning work for electrification determined that trains would be up to 6 carriages x 17.4 metres — the Tait (red) trains were built to this about length too.

Some then-existing shorter swing-door carriages were extended to that length, with trains being steam-hauled until each line was electrified. Information I’ve found is a little vague, but I believe with buffers/couplings the total carriage length was 18.81 metres, making a 6-car (electric) train 112.86 metres long.

Prior to that, trains had been various lengths, and the standardisation of lengths led to some lines getting more powerful steam locos, to cope with the additional weight, particularly on the hillier lines such as Ringwood and Hurstbridge.

In the 1920s, after electrification was completed, crowding resulted in extra carriages being added, making 7-car trains = 131.67 metres, requiring some platform extensions.

In the 1950s, Harris (blue trains) were introduced as 7-cars, with carriage lengths varying from 19.2 to 22.86 metres each. (Some of these still exist as V/Line’s aging “H” sets)

From 1967, some of the busiest lines ran as 8-cars during peak, to relieve crowding. I’m unclear of the precise carriages used in 8-car formations, but it would have meant trains at least around 154 metres long. This necessitated some platform extensions.

Platform measurements, Glenhuntly

From the 1970s, Hitachi trains were introduced, with longer carriages 23.41 metres long, of up to 6 cars = 140.46 metres, just slightly shorter than the current fleet.

The 1980s saw the 4D (double-deck) train trial. This was 4 x 20.32 metres = 81.28 metres, but if they’d ever got expanded to 8 cars, that would have been 162.56 metres. But in actual fact only 4 cars were ever built, and in peak they were connected to a 3-car Comeng set = 153.28 metres. It was decided they were unsuitable for Melbourne, and the cars were scrapped.

Still, the City Loop had been built to cater for a possible future roll-out of double-deck trains – both tunnel sizes, and platform lengths of about 160 metres. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was based on the standard Sydney double-deck train lengths of the 1960s, when the Loop was being designed.

Platform lengths grew with the train lengths, and at some stations it’s not hard to see how they’ve been extended over the years.

Today, new platforms are built as 160 metres, with the older existing platforms measuring around 150-160 metres, while most current trains are about 144 metres long.

In some spots, you can see where they’ve been measuring platforms to verify the length.

Glemhuntly platform 3 - measurements

The future?

And what about the future “High Capacity Metro Trains” (known as HCMTs for short – I think perhaps they need a snappier name). These are expected in service in 2019?

In their initial 7-car formation, these will be about 160 metres long.

With that length, they will just fit into the City Loop platforms, possibly with the rear cab out in the tunnel.

Part of the upgrade works underway to accommodate the new trains is improved power supply, facilitating not just the longer trains, but also more of them, with good reliability and enough juice that they can accelerate quickly. It was part of this that failed so spectacularly last Monday afternoon.

Extensions to some platforms have been needed.

  • South Yarra platform 6 and Caulfield platform 4 occurred last year.
  • During the early January works, South Yarra 5 and Caulfield 3 were also extended, though these don’t appear to be complete yet – at Caulfield there are still poles and signals in the way.
  • I haven’t gone looking recently, but presumably extensions are also underway at other older stations that need them between Caulfield and Cranbourne/Pakenham.
Caulfield platform 4 extension

10-car trains

In the future, the plan is to later go to 10-car HCMTs – about 230m long – on the Cranbourne/Pakenham to Sunbury line, via the new metro tunnel post-2025. Because underground platforms are very difficult to alter later, the tunnel stations are being designed with this in mind.

The newest skyrail stations have been built to 160m, but the LXRA tells me they have provision for 230m later, with straight sections beyond the current platforms, signal placements chosen carefully, and piers and foundations built so the new sections of platform can be slotted in with minimal disruption.

Older stations will no doubt be a lot trickier.

Hughesdale station looking east from the skyrail platform
Hughesdale station looking outbound

7-cars with the existing fleet?

I saw an idea proposed on Twitter: could they re-marshall the existing Comeng, X’Trapolis or Siemens fleet into 7-car trains?

It’s an interesting idea. But even assuming they’d have enough power (6-car Comeng trains for instance have four motor cars), they’d be at least 168 metres – too long for the City Loop platforms, which would be near-impossible to extend.

It would also cause problems in stabling yards, which would need re-design or alteration to cope with longer trains. This is why the HCMTs are getting a new maintenance and stabling facility near Pakenham.

What about other lines?

Lots of lines have crowding, and it appears all new station construction (such as the Mernda extension and other level crossing projects) has sensibly planned for 160 metres. So perhaps we can expect 7-car HCMTs eventually across the network. But it involves some big changes, so don’t hold your breath.

And longer trains aren’t the only answer. More trains is the other obvious solution to crowding, which includes:

  • more separation of lines to maximise track capacity and reduce flow-on effects of delays
  • smarter timetabling (consistent stopping patterns)
  • level crossing removals (to cut the impact on the road network as train services increase)
  • better signalling (such as in-cab high capacity signalling)
  • higher frequencies in shoulder-peak and off-peak, to help spread travel demand

Melbourne’s got busier, and is continuing to grow. We need all of this. Bring it on.

*Note that lengths for some models of train have varied, and the information I’ve found can be a little unclear as to whether measurements are rounded, and whether they include buffers/couplings and so on which would contribute to the total length of a train. So treat the above figures as a rough guide. Any corrections? Please let me know!

On the buses

I’ve been on a break at home, having a rest and trying to get stuff done around the house.

Alas, this is now at an end, and while I guess I’ve had a rest, I certainly haven’t got all the stuff I planned done. And people telling me “nobody ever does” isn’t helping.

My break was timed to miss most of the big south-east rail shutdown.

  • Moorabbin (Frankston line) and Westall (Dandenong line) to the City have been replaced by buses between 2nd and 13th of January.
  • The Sandringham line was also bustituted between Elsternwick and the City between 2nd and 5th of January.

This is all due to works for the metro tunnel near South Yarra station, in preparation for building the tunnel portal there. There are also works preparing the Dandenong line for the High Capacity Metro Trains.

Here are a few snaps of the view around South Yarra station, comparing October with last week. (Sorry they don’t all match up exactly; I wasn’t that organised.)

October, looking southwest:

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works October 2018, looking SW

…and a similar-ish view a few days ago:

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works January 2019, looking SW

More striking is this: October looking southeast:

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works January 2019, looking SE

…and a few days ago – the hill and all the trees are gone!

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works October 2018, looking SE

And here’s a view from a few days ago from near Chapel Street, looking northwest:

South Yarra - Metro tunnel works October 2018, looking NW from near Chapel Street

At Caulfield there also seemed to be a fair bit going on:

Caulfield station: works January 2019

Also observed: at South Yarra the extensions to platforms 5 and 6 are nearing completion.

Upgrades and new infrastructure are important, and if you’re going to close rail lines, early January is the time to do it.

The question is: how good is the information provided to people, and how smooth are the replacement buses?

I would say: not too bad. Buses always struggle replacing trains, but I think they’re getting better at this.

Some observations about the bus replacements

Here, if you feel so inclined, is a brain-dump of observations:

The earlier they can advise people, the more likely some affected passengers can avoid it, such as booking leave. I was lucky enough to be able to do this. The more notice the better. (In this case, details were published on 11th December, about 3 weeks out. I think they can do better.)

Some people will always miss the notices, and just rock up to the station. So prominent signage on approach and at station entrances is helpful.

Some of the notices need review. I have my doubts about the detailed bus timetables posted at stations – their usefulness and their scope for incorrect interpretation.

The signage pointing the way to the temporary stops seems pretty good. Big and bold.

Signs at replacement bus stops could improve. They generally don’t have any detail, such as bus stopping patterns, or days of operation. There were sightings of people waiting at the stops a day early – the signage was up, but the trains were still running.

Likewise, last year some of the signage came down a few hours early, leading to confusion on the final night.

Location of the stops seems okay – from what I’ve seen, it’s consistent with past occupations, mostly along main roads to ensure a relatively quick ride.

An exception is citybound at McKinnon, where they can’t make up their mind if it’s outside the pub again (where staff tend to be located, and there’s a temporary shelter), or 50 metres up the road (where the bus stop sign has been installed).

Supply and despatch of buses seems to have mostly been good, though there have been some long queues in the City in PM peak.

Less confusion around Myki touch-on (the buses are free). But there seems to be no consistency around whether all-door boarding is used or not.

Information needs to be consistent. Signage tends to say “to City”, which is very clear. But many announcements I’ve heard at stops have said “to Flinders”. This is less clear. On one bus I was on, when it was announced that “this bus is express to Flinders”, 80% of the passengers got off the bus, then most of them got back on. I think “City” would be better.

Also: “to Flinders“? I know that’s how some refer to it, and I know I’m being a pedant, but it’s really “Flinders Street”. Flinders is a completely different place.

The replacement bus routes have split different passenger groups to different services, and seem to have worked well. Lighter than usual traffic at this time of year certainly helps.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielbowen/39721361813/

Travel time from my limited samples: Bentleigh to City (Arts Centre) is around 40-46 minutes, depending on time of day. Routes varied – some buses take Dandenong Road/St Kilda Road, others take Burke Road and Citylink. I haven’t sampled other routes – how’s it been?

They still haven’t fixed the Patterson bus zone, which remains 7am-7pm Monday to Saturday, despite rail buses running until around 1am (and all night on weekends), and even regular buses serving the stop every day until around 10pm. Should I just go park my car there every Sunday until they fix it?

The rail shut down has meant there has been extra pressure on nearby routes: trams and buses that run towards the City or connect with other rail lines that are still running. Little or no effort seems to have been put into additional services – apart from the Sandringham line, which is part of the Frankston replacement route for some passengers this week.

Sandringham line at Flinders Street during Frankston/Dandenong line shutdown, PM peak, January 2019

Only some of the replacement bus routes are in the PTV database, typically the all stations services, so planning a trip may result in travel times that are longer than reality. This may be related to the terrible timetable display web pages, but a resolution really ought to be found. (The Beta PTV web site shows promise.)

There have been some BIG issues with the PTV timetable data recently. South Gippsland coach routes still have non-existent (during works) Metro train connections from Dandenong to the City, which gives incorrect results in the Journey Planner for some trips. And lots of other data is showing up with errors, such as Peninsula bus route 788 missing most of its trips.

What else have people (who have perhaps been commuting more than I have!) seen during the shutdown?

Apartments for trainspotters (part 2)

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that back in 2010 an apartment block was being advertised at Caulfield, smack bang between where the Frankston and Dandenong lines diverge.

It was never built. Google Street View shows by 2014 the site was still empty, and the advertising sign was covered in graffiti.

Around 2016 the site was taken over by the Level Crossing Removal Authority for use during the Caulfield To Dandenong “skyrail” project.

But most of the land is now clear again, and in the past month or two, an advertising sign (only visible to passing train passengers) has gone up.

East Apartments, Caulfield - site

It looks to me like part of the land has been used for the skyrail tracks, which were placed slightly to the south of the old ground level tracks, leaving the development site smaller than before.

A sales office is on the site, and their web site is eastapartments.net.au.

East Apartments, Caulfield - artists impression

In nine years, the price seems to have gone up by about $100,000.

This development wouldn’t be the first homes on the site. Street View shows much older houses there in early 2010.

As I said in 2010, hopefully the new buildings’ soundproofing is good.