Handling big events – the real problem is a lack of services

The Herald Sun had an interesting article describing the trip home from the football on Friday night, and the delays suffered by those in the crowd.

Apart from the football at the MCG, there was also a concert in the tennis centre, and soccer at Etihad Stadium. Edit: plus rugby at AAMI stadium.

In fact an earlier Age story had explicitly warned that the city would be busy.

Richmond station, NYE after early fireworks

The Herald Sun article notes a variety of issues: delays at the Richmond station gates, crowded platforms (and queues on the ramps), screens with wrong information, and trains too full to board.

Here’s the annoying thing: getting a hundred thousand people home should be easily handled by the public transport network, the trains in particular, if it’s planned right. The system deals with over double that every evening peak hour, and also on New Year’s Eve (though fare collection is waived then).

Obviously there are a few problems here…

Richmond station doesn’t handle crowds well. The current station is 55 years old; in 1960 it replaced a smaller station built in 1885.

Although the subway (at the MCG end) connecting the platforms is pretty wide, the ramps and platforms aren’t, and crowding tends to occur at the western end (particularly on platforms 9+10) when large numbers of people arrive at once. This is difficult to solve without expensive upgrades, which are needed, but probably aren’t going to happen any time soon. Encouraging people to move along to the far end of the platform will obviously help.

Yes, the gates slow people down, but this is probably not a bad thing if there’s crowding inside the station anyway — regulating the flow of people (and stopping them if necessary — a scenario common in places like London) helps stop it getting worse. So I suspect the populist calls to “throw open the gates” are a little simplistic.

Revenue collection is important — and large numbers of people using the service helps pull in the kinds of Real Money needed to keep it running and to upgrade it. On weekends in particular, just leaving the gates open would lead to a large amount of fare revenue lost.

One solution would be to include fares in the costs of event tickets — this is common in other cities around Australia, and might also make it possible to permanently close Yarra Park to car parking. Obviously this would mean even more provision being made for crowds using PT — and it probably needs to be shown first that this is a viable option.

It’s worth noting that free public transport (and a venue parking ban) was included with Commonwealth Games tickets in 2006. This didn’t prevent long queues getting back into the station after big events, as shown below.

Richmond station, Commonwealth Games 19/3/2006

For the Commonwealth Games, they had someone with a PA making frequent announcements, making sure the crowd was kept informed. If they’re not doing that now, it would also help.

I’m told there’s also signage around the MCG entrance pointing “parents with children” to the wide gates. What they really mean is “prams and wheelchairs”. The current wording creates unnecessary cross-flows, and should be re-written or removed.

Richmond station, Swan Street entrance, before an MCG game

PTV/Metro are encouraging people to go the long way around to the Swan Street entrance, and this is a good thing — though maybe they need to try harder, and remind people that apart from it only being an extra 2 minutes’ walk, it’s also likely to be quicker overall, as there is less queuing.

But the real problem here is the lack of extra trains.

You can get away with few extra trains if the base level of service is frequent, but at 10-11pm at night, it’s simply not — it’s a 30 minute service. (Notice how the reports of problems have been primarily at night, not after day games when the base timetable is every 10-20 minutes?)

Here’s how the timetable looked on Friday night: this is the Frankston line timetable being shown, but it also shows Dandenong line trains as far as Caulfield. The yellow shows the extra services.

Frankston/Dandenong line timetable showing extra services, 8/5/2015

On Friday night, PTV and Metro put on just a single extra train on the SE/E/NE lines after the Etihad soccer (crowd: 50,871), and another 1-2 extras on each of the SE/E/NE and Sunbury lines after the MCG AFL game (crowd: 52,152).

But the Herald Sun cited soccer crowds still heading home when the AFL finished almost an hour later, so it’s self-evident that it wasn’t sufficient. And this specific AFL game was a big win for Geelong — how many Collingwood fans left early, reducing the crowd size after the game?

It’s not just a Richmond problem either. Here’s Jolimont a couple of weeks ago (picture from Shane Shingles on Facebook)

Crowds at Jolimont after the football. (Pic: Shane Shingles)

I don’t get to the football a lot, but I’ve been to other big events which should be served well by public transport, and it’s often disappointing how long the crowd waits on the platform for a train home.

I know a bunch of planning goes into big events, but it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that more trains are needed, and they may need a few trains (and drivers) on standby to run if crowds are larger than expected, or the event finishes early or late. This in turn requires the operational flexibility to deploy resources independent of a set-in-stone timetable.

If they were really smart, just after the events start, they could crunch the Myki system data and work out how many people had arrived, and where they were likely to be travelling home to afterwards (their originating station that day), and check that against the services running on each line. At the very least, they should be analysing it for following weeks (though obviously it varies according to who is playing).

Clearly if the PT system is to maintain and grow its market share to big events, it’s going to have to provide a better service, or people will start to switch back to their cars.

A single train can move 1000+ people, and each track can run a train every 3 minutes or so. There’s no better way of moving tens of thousands of people out of the sporting/events precinct — if the system is planned and operated well.

Metro rail tunnel: The time is right

The metro rail tunnel concept is about ten years old, having first publicly emerged in late-2005.

In some quarters, it’s been seen as an unnecessary white elephant — an expensive way of providing for extra passenger capacity in the CBD, when other cheaper ways were available to cope with increased patronage.

But time has passed, and many of those cheaper measures have either been implemented, or are on the way.

Flagstaff station, morning peak

For instance, a 2007 PTUA paper, written as the patronage boom really took off and crowding became a serious issue, noted these suggestions:

More shoulder-peak services to help spread the peak load. This has happened on most lines. As an example, the 2006 Frankston line timetable had 5 trains departing Flinders Street between 6pm and 7pm, then they fell back to half-hourly — and almost no expresses after 6pm. The current timetable has 9 trains in that hour, including expresses, then trains at 10 minute intervals until about 7:35, then every 20 minutes until 10pm, before they fall back to half-hourly.

Return to service Hitachi trains that can be brought back cost-effectively. This happened, until the next point took effect in a big way…

Order extra trains — scores have been delivered since then, substantially increasing the size of the train fleet.

Run all trains as 6-cars until 10pm, 7 days-a-week — this happened (with some, understandable, exceptions such as suburban shuttle services), in fact they stay as 6-cars until the last service each night.

Simplify stopping patterns to maximise track capacity and make the timetables more legible — this has happened on most lines that had express trains. For example the Ringwood group had about a dozen stopping patterns in the AM peak — this has been reduced markedly, though the PM peak is still a mess.

More off-peak services — the longest (and thus busiest) lines now run every 10-15 minutes all day, every day. Plans are in place to spread this to more of the network… when the politicians provide funding.

More tram/bus services to feed into the rail network. Some progress where Smartbus services have been provided, and some minor tram improvements, but you’d have to say most connecting bus routes are still lacking.

The paper also criticises City Loop operation, taking aim at the midday Loop reversal (since removed on the Clifton Hill group, and rumoured to be on the way out for the Northern Loop soon), and suggests running more trains direct to Flinders Street to take advantage of track capacity — which now happens, with changes over the past few years meaning CBD track capacity is getting much closer to full.

Flagstaff station

Some (but not all) of the points raised by others in the debate (such as in the late Paul Mees’ excellent 2008 paper on the topic) are also under way, or at least being planned, including:

Improving wheelchair loading/unloading with more staff. In fact what’s happening is raised “humps” at CBD stations (and some others) allow wheelchair users to board and alight the train themselves.

High capacity signalling — now flagged to be trialled on the Sandringham line, before rollout to the rest of the network.

More efficient train designs to carry more people and speed up loading/unloading — modifications to X’trapolis trains have already occurred, and changes to Siemens and Comeng trains are under way. The next train design (initially for the Dandenong line) is likely to be a more space-efficient design from the beginning.

Moving driver changeovers out of Flinders Street — not yet, though there have been moves towards this, with driver facilities being built at the outer ends of suburban lines.

Other relatively minor changes have flown under the radar a bit, for instance after widely publicised problems with gate queues at Flagstaff, the booking office was moved to allow more gates, a bypass gate was installed for surges, and faster gates have recently been installed.

Not every suggestion has been taken up — duplication of single track on numerous lines is a problem which continues to result in delays quickly snowballing.

And some still believe double-decker trains are the answer — that’s a debate that will rage for decades to come, but the official position seems to be that longer dwell times make them less efficient than well-designed single-deck trains.

But many of the cheaper/quicker initiatives have happened. And meanwhile, the CBD (and inner suburbs) keep growing. To keep the City’s economy growing and thriving, the transport system needs to be able to keep feeding it with people — and heavy rail is the most efficient way of doing that.

I can’t speak for everyone, but the fact constructing the tunnel will take a decade, and that many of these (relatively) cheap and easy upgrades are coming into place provides the confidence that now is the right time to push ahead with the rail tunnel.

MMRP tunnel depth infographic

Tunnel benefits

On top of the other changes happening, the tunnel will bring another huge boost in rail capacity, particularly for the growth corridors to the north and west: the lines set to benefit the most are the Sunbury, Craigieburn and Upfield lines (remembering that the Werribee line is getting a boost from the opening of Regional Rail Link this year).

Also benefiting will be the Dandenong line, with — it’s expected — the new stations being designed for longer trains than the City Loop can cope with. Swanston Street/St Kilda Road trams will also see relief from crowding, thanks to serving stations at Domain and Parkville.

So there will be a lot of benefits.

But the plan isn’t absolutely perfect, and it’s inevitable with any project of this type that some trains will be re-routed, requiring people to change their travel patterns.

The government will need to tread carefully as they plan and build this project, and communicate what the design decisions are, and why they are happening.

As opposition public transport spokesman David Hodgett said in The Age yesterday, “Melbourne is growing at almost 100,000 people per year and this is an incredibly important project that we have to get right.”

How many trains in peak compared to the past? And how full are the tracks?

This video is inspired partly by a shot in the House Of Cards titles, and partly by something my dad used to tell me — that you could stand at Richmond station in the evening peak and see trains on every track coming out of the city.

He may have been exaggerating a tad, but it’s often been said that in decades past the rail system had more trains running on it than at present.

That’s true to an extent. The inner part of the network was probably more intensively used in the past, though the outer sections of the network are busier than before.

For instance in 1939 in peak, trains out to Oakleigh were every 5-10 minutes, but out to Dandenong only about every 15-20 minutes — today they’re about every 5 minutes all the way.

And there’s been substantial growth in train numbers in the past ten years.

1939 vs 2006 vs 2015

How does the network compare overall?

I compared the 1939 timetables with 2006 (just as patronage, service growth and fleet expansion began to take hold) and also with the current 2015 timetables (last revised in 2014). I used departure times at the cordon stations (Richmond/North Melbourne) in the hour 5-6pm. (Note I’ve moved the range slightly where excluding a train a minute or two outside it would have given an artificially low or inconsistent figure.)

The verdict? More trains ran in 1939 than now, but not if you discount the Port Melbourne and St Kilda lines, which were converted to tram lines in the 1980s.

  • In 1939 it was 116 trains in that hour, but 15 of those were on the St Kilda and Port Melbourne lines (and another 7 were on the Inner Circle and Kew lines which no longer exist; but those trains also serve some stations that do still exist). So a reasonable figure to use is 101.
  • In 2006, the number had dropped to 87.
  • But by 2015, it had risen again to 109, about 8% higher than in 1939.

But the balance of trains has changed.

Melbourne PM peak hour trains, 1939 vs 2006 vs 2015

In separating them out into the graph, I’ve used the old line groupings, because it more clearly shows the changes:

  • Northern (eg lines through North Melbourne, including western suburbs) is up, though individual lines have changed in different ways. In 1939 the Williamstown and Upfield lines had a lot more trains than at present. This is countered by huge growth in the Werribee and St Albans/Sunbury lines — a fourfold increase in both, reflecting that they now serve growth corridors.
  • Clifton Hill is now about the same as in 1939 (if you exclude the Inner Circle), showing growth since 2006 primarily on the Thomastown/Epping/South Morang line, which almost doubled in peak services between 2006 and 2015, though that line is still slightly short of the 1939 number.
  • Burnley lines are up, 25 to 29 — Kew trains have been replaced by other services. There’s been basically no change since 2006, which reflects that patronage has grown more slowly. Almost all the other lines on the network serve growth corridors.
  • Caulfield is slightly up, though Frankston and Sandringham line numbers are about the same now as they were in 1939. The real growth is on the Dandenong line, which even just since 2006 has grown by 40%.

Update: This July 2008 paper from Paul Mees notes that in 1929, 113 trains ran in the busiest hour (including the Port Melbourne and St Kilda lines) — slightly fewer than in 1939. It was 108 in 1964 (also including those lines), and a 1969 prediction forecast 181 trains in 1985 (including the Doncaster line).

How full are the tracks?

The bottleneck in the CBD is basically the number of tracks emerging from the City Loop and direct from Southern Cross and Flinders Street.

How full are those tracks in that hour?

“Full” is hard to measure. A rail line signalled for 2-minute headways (which the City area is) could be considered full at 80% of that, eg 24 trains per hour. But loading times at stations, junctions along the way (especially flat ones), level crossing gate closures, and signal/track capacity further out all reduces that. And if we’re measuring outbound trains, then how many inbound trains can we feed in from the suburbs (given little stabling in the City area)?

  • Northern direct tracks to Newport (Werribee, Williamstown lines): 11 trains, but these tracks are used by 5 Geelong trains in that hour as well. Regional Rail Link will help free them up for more suburban services. Then the problem will become the single track through Altona (often the cause of delays and bypasses), flat junctions (principally at Newport), and level crossings (at locations such as Yarraville, the gates have been known to close for almost 20 minutes at a time).
  • Northern Loop (Sunbury, Craigieburn, Upfield lines): 21 trains (plus 2 more trains to Seymour mix in at North Melbourne). This shows the value of having moved the Werribee line out of the Loop back in 2007 — allowing more trains to run in peak on all these lines. But the tunnel is close to capacity — one proposal sees Upfield line trains run direct from Southern Cross instead, and longer-term, if the metro rail tunnel is built, Sunbury line trains would use that. Of course, the single track on the northern section of the Upfield line may pose problems until duplicated, though ten minute services were provided as far as Coburg during the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
  • Clifton Hill Loop (South Morang, Hurstbridge lines): 15 trains. Some trains run express Jolimont to Clifton Hill, which reduces capacity somewhat, though the flat junction at Clifton Hill also makes it difficult to run trains through it at a consistently high frequency (outbound Hurstbridge trains may have to wait for inbound South Morang trains, and vice versa). Ditto single track on the Hurstbridge line.
  • Burnley Loop (Lilydale, Belgrave, Glen Waverley lines): 20 trains. Mostly expresses to Glenferrie, Camberwell, Box Hill and then out beyond Ringwood, but also 6 Glen Waverley trains. This Loop is also therefore close to capacity. Single track on the outer ends of the Belgrave and Lilydale lines can lead to delays.
  • Burnley direct (Alamein line, Blackburn and Ringwood stopping trains): 9 trains. It’s not hard to see why in the long term, the plan seems to be to move Glen Waverley trains out of the Burnley Loop, and allowing more trains to run both to there (direct from Flinders Street) and also to Lilydale and Belgrave.
  • Caulfield Loop (Dandenong line, Frankston stopping trains): 20 trains. Approaching capacity. 2 V/Line trains mix in with the Dandenong line trains at Richmond. The Dandenong line upgrade should help resolve level crossing issues, though duplication of the Cranbourne line is not currently in scope.
  • Frankston direct (Frankston express trains): 5 trains. Clearly scope to move more Frankston trains to run direct, replacing them with Dandenong line trains, but it would be a fine balancing act to ensure large numbers of Frankston line passengers wanting the Loop were handled well.
  • Sandringham direct: 8 trains. It’s not a growth corridor, but peak patronage does continue to grow, probably reflective of demographics (lots of CBD-based white-collar jobs). So there is scope there for an increase in services, though at some point the single platform at Sandringham becomes an issue. The old solution of terminating some trains at Brighton Beach might be the solution, unless Sandringham is upgraded with a second platform.

Belgrave train arriving Southern Cross

Other things to bear in mind

Trains in 1939 didn’t have the same capacity as those running now. 6-car trains now are slightly longer than the old 7-car Tait trains (which necessitated minor platform extensions as newer trains were introduced) and have more standing space, so the overall capacity of each train would be higher now.

Old-timers sometimes say that automation and modern technology has reduced capacity: for instance, they say that Tait trains with 9 (small) doors per side could load and unload quicker than modern trains with automatic locking doors, and blokes throwing switches for signals and points could respond more quickly as trains went past than the computers now controlling the infrastructure.

Required capacity on each line is reflective not only of population growth, but also of the number of people employed or attending education or other activities in the inner city and CBD, and needing to travel during peak hour.

As noted above, capacity of individual tracks has many factors, including signalling, dwell times at stations (which worsens as crowding gets bad), stopping patterns (consistent = good), train acceleration/deceleration, level crossings, junctions (preferably grade-separated, and the fewer the better), and even less visible factors such as capacity of the power supply.

In some ways the City Loop didn’t add greatly to CBD rail capacity. It helped distribute passengers around to more stations, and reduced the need to reverse trains. And associated upgrades (such as the “new” viaduct from Flinders Street to Southern Cross) did expand capacity. But ultimately the number of tracks out of the city stations to North Melbourne, Jolimont and Richmond is what determines track capacity in the City area — which is part of why Regional Rail Link went ahead, and why the metro rail tunnel is being pushed.

Average trip lengths are now longer than they were in the past. This means more demand for express trains (which burns up capacity if provided), as well as a bigger fleet and more staff needed to run the same frequency of service. More longer trips may also emerge via the fare cuts that took effect in January.

Where to from here?

With expansion of the CBD and Docklands, and a strong and growing economy (particularly the “knowledge economy“), demand for train travel into the congested core of the network is likely to continue to grow into the future.

PTV’s Network Development Plan’s proposals show the way forward, in terms of expansion of signal upgrades to High Capacity Signalling, high capacity trains, and re-organisation of lines through the city area to form dedicated high-frequency lines (including capacity expansion such as the metro rail tunnel).

All of which is expensive, but it’s got to be done — more than ever the rail network underpins Melbourne’s economic growth.

And remember that expanding evening, weekend and inter-peak into a 10 minute all-day service can be done far more easily, by making use of track and fleet capacity already available. This can help spread peak loads, by providing a much more usable service outside peak times, and helps to grow patronage when there is more spare capacity on the network.

(What have I missed? Leave a comment!)

Followup post: Line-by-line detail.

Track conditions causing carriages to bump together like this can’t be good

One of the advantages of rail over road transport is the ride quality.

Well, that’s in theory. If enough care and funding goes in, trains can be extremely smooth. In practice on a rail network like Melbourne’s, with aging infrastructure, it can be a bumpy ride.

Now, I don’t have a major problem with a less than totally smooth ride, particularly around the many junctions on the system. A bit of a lurch to the left as we come out of the Loop and join the main line? I can deal with that.

I’m less keen on huge bumps and jolts on otherwise completely straight sections of track. Sure, one might not expect no lateral movement at all, but surely it can’t be a good thing if the carriages bounce around so much you can hear bits of them banging together.

This video is the Frankston line tracks, inbound, just north of the Yarra River approaching Richmond (adjacent that well-known landmark the railways Cremorne substation). It’s one of the busier sections of the network: most of the week it gets 6 trains per hour, but during morning peak about double that, plus a freight train or two each day.

I’ve probably been a teensy bit OTT in getting so many shots of it, but it’s on my usual commute, and I think it’s getting worse over time.

From the outside, the bounce is noticeable, but to the untrained eye it doesn’t look too bad.

But inside the train it’s a different story. As you can see, in a Siemens train the bump causes the end-of-carriage sections to make a lot of noise. It’s generally less noisy on Comeng trains, particularly near the front of the train, but I’ve found every so often there’ll be the sound of bits of carriage bouncing against each other.

The adjacent tracks don’t seem to have the same problem. Unfortunately it’s in a position where you can’t really get a good look at the tracks as trains go past.

It’s probably not the worst on the network. Here’s an example from a few years ago near Montmorency, filmed by Rod Williams — and apparently fixed after Channel 7 took a look:

There are many locations like this (though not usually as bad) around the network, raising recent concerns about the level of maintenance, though the regulator doesn’t consider there to be a safety problem.

Even assuming it’s safe and nothing’s about to come off the rails, it bumps the passengers around (which can cause standees to wobble and fall if not holding on tight), and in the long term, this type of lurching around can’t be doing the carriages any good at all.

The area of Metro’s maintenance (and other) arrangements is subject to a lot of speculation at the moment. Lots of email screeds full of unsubstantiated claims are flying around (cough: Sunstone), but one thing’s for sure — upkeep of the track and fleet shouldn’t be something to skimp on.

A lot of work has been done in recent years to install concrete sleepers, and generally upgrade the tracks. The question must be: has it been adequate?

On a section where the tracks are straight, on one of the busiest parts of the network, there should be no excuse for the trains bouncing and lurching around like this.

Update 11/8/2015: After months more of bouncing around, it appears the specific section of track I highlighted above (between South Yarra and Richmond) has now been fixed.

New Siemens train layout

Metro has been trying modified carriage layouts on the trains. Some Comeng trains have had seats removed near the doorways, and now a Siemens train has shown up with a similar treatment.

My immediate reaction (from a quick ride a few minutes ago)…

The pros: the larger doorway area should help speed up loading and unloading, and provide space for more people in crowded conditions. Based on how people have reacted to the Comeng layout, this seems to work.

The cons: still very few hand holds away from the doorways, especially in the middle of the carriages.

Fewer seats overall of course; about 16 removed per carriage, including many (all?) of the “priority” seats.

Siemens train: new layout February 2015

Siemens train new layout February 2015

Note below the special needs seats all seem to be now located near the driver’s cab. This would obviously be an issue for someone with limited mobility, even assuming they know those seats are there. If it were me, I’d encourage people with a need for a seat to always speak up and ask someone else to give up theirs, even in the absence of such designated seats.

Siemens train: new layout February 2015

What do you think?

For the trainspotters, it’s carriage 832M and friends.

Update: Here’s a couple of snaps from December of the similar Comeng train layout.

New Comeng train layout, December 2014

New Comeng train layout, December 2014

Update 17/3/2015: There’s been coverage of this story by Channel 9 and the Herald Sun overnight.

The change will be rolled out to the entire Siemens and Comeng fleets, and it’s hoped this will help the train system better cope with growth until the next order for high capacity trains is rolled out, presumably sometime later this decade.

The seat reduction is said to be around 15% — about half the comparable changes on the B-class trams recently. I think this is a reasonable balance — the first problem is just fitting people onto the train; hopefully once they’re on board, most people travelling a long distance can get a seat at least part of the way.

Currently some modified trains have no allocated Priority Seats for those who specifically need them. Obviously it’d be nice if someone who needs a seat was always offered one (no matter if it’s a special Priority Seat or not)… but in any case, the Priority Seats will be re-allocated — apparently they ran out of stickers!

And by the way, the feedback I’ve heard from passengers has been very positive, especially those who board having to stand. “Spacious!” I heard one exclaim the other day.