Sunday, March 22, 2009

Water, heat and short-term tickets

A byproduct of non-reloadable tickets such as Metcards or Myki paper tickets is littering. While it's true that the old paper tickets can be dropped, they seemed less noticeable on the ground than their substitutes.

The silver lining of this was the easy availability of used tickets to do further inspection and testing.

Water

Dropping the card into a bowl of hot water revealed its layer sandwich construction. The first layer to come off was the paper back of the card. This made the card thin enough to see the insides when held up to the sun.

A further dunk allowed the blue front to be peeled off. This left only the middle two layers of the sandwich. In between these layers is the electronics. This comprises a multi-turn antenna around the edge of the card and the square RF ID chip (4mm x 4mm) in the centre of the card. Also readable is the card's brand (Confidex - a Finnish company) and a serial or batch number starting with 'HA'.

It is not known if the card has survived the dunking or not. However even if it did the ticket would not be valid.

Heat

Next it was time for a heat test. An iron made the back go black very quickly. This is not unlike a Metcard, which also discolours with heat.

An hour on a car's parcel shelf in direct sunlight failed to discolour the ticket. However it was not a very hot day and it would be worthwhile to repeat the test when the car's inside is 40-50 degrees.

Again it is not known whether this would have damaged the ticket or not.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Myki in action

Some pictures from a trip to test Myki in Geelong.

Below is a cardboard short term ticket that bus passengers who buy a ticket from the driver will get. It is available in two hour or daily formats. To sell a ticket drivers accept the passenger's money, place a ticket on the driver's console 'platform', enter the type of ticket required via a touch screen and give the passenger their ticket and change.

Like a Metcard bought on board a tram it is pre-validated and passengers do not need to tag off. If they do, the reader displays a cryptic 'Forced tag-off' message. In the literature it is not described as a myki, even though it's based on the same RF-ID based technology. The intention here is to confine the myki brand to the preferred product (ie a pre-purchased card, preferably registered).

Both paper tickets and Metcards have their zone of travel, expiry date and passenger status (full/concession) stamped on it. This means that except where validators fail to print these tickets can be visually checked for validity. Printing also provides reassurance for the passenger, allows them to check their validity off the system and helps them keep their purse or wallet tidy by knowing which tickets should be discarded. Short-term myki ticket have no distinguishing printing at all. Hence passengers must discard used tickets immediately as valid and invalid tickets are indistinguishable from one another once away from a bus, tram or station.

The majority of passenger observed were using this form of ticket.

Below is the full Myki. Users can store one or both types of credit simultaneously; Myki pass (like the existing monthlies but with more flexibility as to period) and Myki money, which is more suitable for those with less regular travel patterns.

The ticket can be topped up online, by linking to a bank account, over the phone or, in the future, at a railway station. You can also top up when boarding the bus, but this only applies to the Myki money portion of the balance.

Bus boarding can be different with Myki. With regular tickets passengers boarded at the front of the bus, passing the driver. Depending on circumstances they alight at either the front and/or rear door.

Geelong buses on Saturday are well-used, with some routes carrying fully seated loads. Late running can occur due to boarding and alighting times. This can be sped if passengers form two lines, with those who just need to scan on to the right and those who need to see the driver (either buy a short-term ticket or add value) to the left. This does not always occur (some passengers on the left may block the right) but more will get used to this as the system matures. Also some drivers will open the rear door and permit passengers to board through both doors, as shown below.

The key thing Myki users need to remember is the requirement to touch on at the start of your journey and touch off at the end of your trip. It is this requirement that allows Myki to handle multiple zones and automatically calculate the 'best fare'.

Validating by quickly passing the card across the reader will not work. Instead the card needs to be held steady near it for a short time. Success in touching on and off can almost be guaranteed by obeying what I will call the 1x1 rule. The 1x1 rule is that you must hold the card no further than one centimetre away from the reader for one second. Further and shorter may work but might not. Tagging on and off will display the fare deducted and the card balance remaining.

Can you keep your card in your wallet and scan, as commonly done in Perth? It didn't work with me, but I saw another passenger do it. So the answer is maybe but it is not recommended.

As noted before, the non-printing Myki system eliminates visual inspection of tickets; something that had been so important with paper and Metcard tickets. The substitute given is users logging in and checking their transaction details over the internet.

They do this by setting up their card for web access. The set up process requires answering a few questions such as your name and date of birth (provided it's after 1910). Assuming you're not a centenarian, you get a username and password to log in.

Logging in gives access to your Myki's transaction activity, though unlike Perth's SmartRider, not its route and travel history. An example is below. You can see that the card started with $5.00. Just because I could an extra $2.50 was loaded while on the bus.

Tagging on deducted $1.80, which is the minimum two hour fare for a local trip. This is in 'Myki money'. The entry for $1.40 initially seems odd as there is no fare for this amount. However it makes sense when it is realised that this is the difference between a daily fare ($3.20) and a two-hour fare ($1.80). Later trips reach the fare cap, which is the daily fare. Hence they change to 'Myki pass' and no further amounts are deducted.

There are several quirks about the information provided about the user's travels online. The first is that the 'scan on zone' and 'scan off zone' columns were empty. The second is that, unlike Transperth's SmartRider, the route of the service travelled on is not recorded. Thirdly the information recorded changes a day after you check it.

This is shown by comparing the transaction record below (inspected 22 March 2009) with the one above (inspected 21 March, 2009). The difference is that the activity after the fare cap came into effect is deleted from the later record. The reason for this is unknown.

The trips taken were very simple. They all took place on one day in one fare zone. The fare cap worked as intended. However there were no 'odd' trips across zone boundaries. These would be interesting to test, particularly where zones travelled do not follow on (due to getting a car lift across a zone boundary). An example might be Geelong - Queenscliff, (car lift) Queenscliff - Marshall, Marshall - Geelong, 3 hour gap, Geelong - Corio etc. The correct fare would effectively be a Zone 4 daily plus whatever extension amount is necessary for the single trip to Queenscliff (Zone 5).

Further information can be obtained from the Myki shop at 129 Ryrie Street. This can be a slightly hard to spot since signage from the shop's legacy as a payday lender is still visible. This also explains the austere counter and the high security screens, but the staff do come out from behind it to coach customers on proper Myki use. While not ideal this should not be held against Myki; Geelong's main street has so many lenders that it would be hard to find a small shop that hasn't been occupied by one at some stage.

Brochures available included:

* Myki is now part of your local bus network (the main brochure)
* Myki is here (general where to buy)
* Students and Myki (for students)
* With Myki your concession comes too (must still carry you concession card to be eligible - just like Metcard)
* Myki registration form
* Myki refund and reimbursement form
* Application for replacement myki

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mail order Myki

It came in a plain DL-sized envelope without name nor logo. The old-style lickable flap was sparingly taped rather than moistened shut. It wasn't a bill, but a Myki Starter Pack, which came quickly after the order was placed.

The pictures show the contents of the package. For $5 you get:

* A welcome letter (with 'fine-print' terms of use on the back)
* A receipt for the credit card sale
* A strip of paper with terms of use (same as on the letter)
* "A pocket full of myki" - card-sized 16-page manual
* The card itself, loaded with $5.00 of 'myki money'

The card is much like a credit card. The main physical differences are as follows:

* There is no magnetic strip - proximity-based RF ID technology is used instead
* Your name does not appear on the card
* Information giving a web address, contact number and issue conditions
* A card number shown but as painted rather than raised type.

The instruction book covers topics such as topping up, scanning on and off, and registration. Like with a Metcard you'll need to carry a concession card if claiming concession fares. The book ends with frequently asked questions dealing with loss or theft, personal information and contact details.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Expresses versus frequency

Those who have ever sat on an evening or weekend train stopping all stations to Pakenham or Frankston have no doubt wondered whether the trip should be sped by running express services to these areas.

In Melbourne, with few exceptions, off-peak suburban trains stop at all stations. With stations almost every kilometre and a City Loop that reduces directness, this slows in-train travel speeds. In Melbourne a 40 km trip takes about an hour compared to about half that on Perth's Joondalup line (with widely spaced stations and no City Loop).

Running off-peak trains express, as is done widely in Sydney, can speed in-train travel and is worth considering here. Compared to adding peak services it's easy to do; there are few rolling stock, signalling or infrastructure constraints. All that is needed is money for more drivers, maintenance staff and services if even the skipped stations are to retain existing service frequencies.

As the diagram below shows, stopping patterns can be a choice of 1. all trains stopping all stations, 2. Local/Express - a 'local' train terminating half way along the line to service areas nearer the city and an express going the whole way but skipping the closer-in stations, or 3. a pattern where all trains go the full distance but run express on differing portions of the trip.

Apart for a few inner-suburban stations skipped on lines such as Frankston and Hurstbridge, Melbourne off-peak services generally stop all stations. The main virtue of this is that all but outer stations receive the full line frequency - ie three or four trains per hour. This compares to express-rich Sydney whose smaller stations have only two trains per hour (but larger stations get 4 or more per hour).

The two express options have their strengths and weaknesses. For us the local/express pattern seems to provide the best possible frequency with economical use of trains (as the locals can be sent back into the city to commence their next run sooner). The third pattern is only desirable where the terminus needs every single train due to its large capture area and the stations nearest to it are fairly quiet. To some extent this applies on the Frankston line, but off-peak patronage is insufficient to make it a better option than local/express running.

This brings us to the main point - the trade-off between frequency and express services. Sydney and Melbourne have handled this differently; Melbourne has gone for more stoppers and better frequency while Sydney has favoured express running but poorer frequency at less favoured stations. From a resourcing perspective it's a juggle between the two; both would be best but are unlikely to be delivered.

Which approach is best?

This is best evaluated in terms of passenger waiting time and travel time, which will be discussed in turn.

Waiting time

In considering waiting time, it's best to assume the highest standard of service, which is 'I want it now', and assumes 'turn up and go' or 'random arrival' behaviour. While there is nothing to stop someone turning up on spec to an houly train service, the other part of this is predictable travel times, which depend on frequency and reliability. In-vehicle travel time is largely dependent on express running and does not convey the full picture. End to End travel time includes in-vehicle travel time but adds access, transfer, and waiting time. This makes it a better measure more useful to service planners.

The service frequency that choice passengers start rocking up to a stop or station without a timetable will vary depending on trip length, purpose, time requirements and quality of alternative modes. A lunchtime tram in the city obviously has a different threshold to a rail service serving a commuter-belt satellite town 50 to 100 kilometres out. Somewhere in between would be suburbs in the 8 - 40km belt, which is the mainstay of the suburban rail system.

For the latter (which is the concern of this article) most in-train trip lengths would vary between about 10 and 60 minutes, with many off-peak trips in the bottom half of this range (ie up to 30 minutes). To lessen travel time variability (another concept of 'reliability' different from the usual discussion about cancellations/delays) maximum waiting times need to be a fraction of total travel times in a high-service 'turn up and go' system. I will not seek to quantify the minimum service frquency needed, suffice to say that it will likely be much nearer to 10-15 minutes than 30 minutes.

Travel time

As well as the benefit of frequency in cutting waiting time, there is a benefit of express running in cutting travel time. A suburban express train typically saves about one minute per station skipped. A 'super-express' pattern may involve removing 10 stations from a suburban train trip. In Melbourne this may be about the maximum possible without removing service from the City Loop, junction and major suburban stations while and maintaining safe train seperation.

Doing this will make the trip about 10 minutes quicker, or a 17% saving on an hour journey, which is not insignificant. However this 10 minutes is the maximum saving applying only for passengers travelling the length of the line or nearly so. Many local off-peak trips will involve no expressing and no reductions in travel time. Hence the average time saving per passenger is probably nearer to 5 minutes and could be even less.

The trade-off

The travel time savings possible by running services express can conflict with the increased waiting times of a reduced frequency service if the new expresses are merely existing services that now skip some stations. The service planner will need to compare the two in case express running ends up being counter-productive.

Average waiting time is half the service frequency. For example, for 30 minutes it's 15 minutes, 20 minutes gives 10 minutes, 15 minutes makes 7.5 minutes, 10 minutes is 5 minutes et cetera.

If an off-peak express proposal saved passengers 5 minutes (average) but resulted in a frequency drop from 15 to 30 minutes at some stations, then the value of this five minutes saved must be compared against the 7.5 minutes extra average waiting time. For those subject to that extra waiting time it does not look a good bargain.

While the 7.5 minutes extra does not apply at all stations, so should probably also be averaged down, it should be remembered that waiting minutes are perceived longer than 'in-vehicle' time, so the former could just as easily be weighted up! Plus the risk of waiting 29 minutes instead of 14 minutes if a train has just been missed is a major disadvantage of the express pattern. It is not a bad principle to design transport systems for the risk-averse who crave end-to-end reliabilty, and for them a few minutes extra moving is preferable to infrequent timetables that force longer waits, particularly in the heat, wet or cold.

The above difference is less if it's a trade-off between 15 and 20 minute headways. In this case the maximum wait is 5 minutes longer, or 2.5 minutes average. This compares with the 10 minutes saved by the express running for the maximum length trip. Those making this specific trip are probably better off with the less frequent express, though they must accept the risk of longer waits (and hence poorer reliability) if services are cancelled.

Conclusions

I could give many examples to compare the merits of frequency versus express running for a 'basket' of randomly timed off-peak trips of varying lengths, some with bus connections. Results will no doubt vary, but I'm confident enough to give some rules of thumb for a Melbourne-sized suburban system.

My first conclusion is that where basic off-peak suburban frequencies are inferior to 10 - 15 minutes the overall end-to-end travel time and reliability benefits of adding express running is inferior to boosting frequency. Should this be considered too harsh, the supporters of express services are reminded that the travel time savings of expresses are relatively small (even for those who go the whole way), many passengers would be disadvantaged if a trade-off involved reduced frequency and waiting time is perceived longer than in-train time.

My second conclusion is that once frequency reaches 10-15 minutes, the time savings of express running become competitive with falls in average waiting times that an even more frequent service would provide. It is at this point, particuarly for long lines where there is significant off-peak CBD-oriented travel from outer suburbs, that express running can be be recommended.

Differences between the lines

The above conclusions are not one-size-fits-all since there are some important differences between the major lines. Some have high weekend patronage but low off-peak weekday usage. Lengths vary along with the need for express services. Other have high patronage demand but lower than justified service levels, so need off-peak frequency increases before any express running.

On lines like the Frankston line, where there is low off-peak weekday patronage, but high weekend patronage, a two-tier weekend express pattern of local and express services, each running every 15 minutes, is probably ideal.

The other high patronage lines on the network have different needs. Dandenong and Ringwood are both long lines with consistently high patronage - weekday off-peak, weekend and evening. For these lines a two-tier pattern of off-peak expresses and locals such as mentioned above (but running 7 days per week) appears desirable.

Sydenham and Craigieburn are shorter so off-peak expresses offer less time savings. Both these lines' catchment areas (especially the Sydneham line, which has a huge low-income belt from Footscray to St Albans) include high off-peak train users. many of whom would be making local trips to Sunshine or Footscray. For this patronage pattern off-peak frequency is more important than express running and an improvement from 20 minutes to 15 minutes would be highly valued.

Werribee line is only included here as it is proposed for an off-peak frequency upgrade to 10 minutes later this year. While such an upgrade is commendable, there is a risk of it being squandered on a line with low off-peak patronage, a low catchment population and no significant intermediate trip generators. Such resources may be better used upgrading other lines in the west, such as Craigieburn and Sydenham, to 15 minute running.

Nevertheless being a growth area, Werribee needs some service improvement and some off-peak express running wouldn't go astray. A Sydney-style pattern of four non-loop trains per hour, with two operating direct and two via Altona may give the best 'bang for the buck', albeit with the risk of reduced services to six quiet stations (in Altona and possibly Williamstown). Although controversial, a greater-good argument for the network could readily be mounted given the high benefits elsewhere.

The remaining lines have lower off-peak patronages than those discussed above. However for other reasons, such as optimal use of capital, spreading the peaks, harmonised headways and service standards, upgrading where necessary to a Perth-style 15 minutes 'minimum standard' (with a few exceptions on 30 minutes) would aid service legibility and network utility.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sydney versus Melbourne

A trip to Sydney last weekend allowed me to compare public transport and land use between it and Melbourne. Sydney does better than us in some things and worse than us in others. Below are the top fourteen differences found between the two cities' transport.

Seven things Sydney does well

1. Co-locating major shopping centres near railway stations

Major examples visited include Blacktown, Chatswood, Hornsby, Macarthur, Macquarie Centre and Parramatta. These centres are either incorporated in the station complex (Blacktown, Parramatta) or accessible via a short, wide mall (Chatswood, Hornsby).

Melbourne's best example of a station integrated shopping centre is Box Hill. Greensborough, Frankston, Ringwood (Eastland) and Sydenham (Watergardens) are adjacent to but are less integrated with the station. More common though are our larger centres, such as Chadstone, Craigieburn Town Centre (proposed), Cranbourne, Forest Hill Chase, Northland, Southland and Werribee Plaza which are all away from stations.

2. Density of residential and commercial development around some suburban stations

Much higher suburban densities apply in Sydney than Melbourne, with multi-storey buildings seen at stations 20km or more from the CBD. Parramatta is a key example, having evolved as a second CBD, being handier to the western suburbs than Sydney CBD.

The pictures show development around Chatswood and Milsons Point respectively.

It is worth mentioning though that some centres are highly unbalanced and contain high density retail but not shopping or offices of a commensurate standard. An example is Epping, which should have better shops for its housing density. In this case the development of the car-based Macquarie Centre (now linked by rail) might have affected Epping's viability.

3. Wide operating spans

A plus for Sydney, with the difference most apparent on Sunday mornings for trains. This is because Sydney operates a passenger-friendly uniform weekend timetable, with no variations between Saturday and Sunday timetables. The effect of this is that first trains have arrived in the Sydney CBD by 6am versus after 8am for Melbourne.

The other main examples of good spans are (i) All-night NightRide buses that operates all nights of the week, mirroring the suburban train network, (ii) 24 hour service on some busy State Transit routes and (iii) 24 hour service on the Light Rail.

Countering this are spans for some outer suburban bus routes, which can be more restrictive than Melbourne since we introduced 7 days/9pm service to many of ours.

4. Wayfinding signage, maps and bus route directories at stations

This is done effectively, as shown in the examples below (Blacktown and Macquarie University Stations).

5. Maps in printed timetables

These are of high quality, at least in STA printed timetables. Metrolink bus stops have similar maps.

6. Physical interchange between train and bus

Often you don't even need to cross roads, and, as this example from Lindfield shows, there is sometimes even direct access from the platform.

7. A more versatile and legible City Loop

Trains operate in both directions and there is no midday reversal or different weekend operating patterns. This makes it better for within-CBD trips than ours; a major advantage for them given their lack of our tram grid network.

Seven things Sydney does less well

1. Fares and ticketing

A lack of integrated fares and confusing ticket types was the most important failing observed during the trip. While it maintains a bureaucracy to write 200-page reports about the most trivial of fare rises, the NSW Government lacks the will and ability to fix a problem that other cities like Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne solved more than 25 years ago. Apart from inconveniencing passengers, the absence of a proper city-wide fare system has also led to the abandonment of the partially-installed 'T-card' smart card project (Card reader at Lindfield Station below).

If you transfer between train and bus you will likely need to pay another fare. If you need to break your journey you'll also pay as tickets are good for a single ride and not a time period, as in Melbourne. Certain railway stations, being privately built, attract special surcharges that range from the merely annoying to the rather steep.

Sydney does not have a fare system as such. Rather there are multiple systems for train, airport train, State Transit bus, private bus, T-way, light rail, ferry, monorail etc. There are many different ticket types but each one doesn't do very much. It probably doesn't matter if you make the same trip each way and do not change modes or break your journey, but otherwise travel can be very expensive indeed. Tourists get even more confused, and have to work out the best deal from the pile of fares brochures pictured below.

In contrast, because of its integrated fare system, Melbourne provides all its fare information in a single simple brochure and the best choice for tourists (Daily ticket, usually Zone 1 only) is (a) clear, (b) versatile, (c) widely obtainable, and (d) good value for money.

2. Base frequency of trains

Off-peak Cityrail services commonly operate every 30 minutes (though exceptions exist). Because most major stations get trains on two or more lines, this generally means they receive four trains per hour. However many of the smaller stations on one line or bypassed by expresses only get two trains per hour.

This service level is similar to Adelaide or Brisbane (weekday off-peaks), somewhat inferior to most of Melbourne 3 or 4 trains per hour, and greatly inferior to Perth (4 trains per hour). The capital (and labour) intensive Cityrail network cannot be automatically be associated with a 'turn up and go' frequent service (like a European subway, or even Perth trains during the day) and passengers are more reliant on timetables and journey planning than they should be.

While the flip side of infrequency can be faster service at major stations due to off-peak express running, my own view is that this is only justified once service frequencies are already high (eg 10 - 15 minutes). If this cannot be achieved then my preference is for the Melbourne pattern, ie few off-peak expresses but giving all stations a somewhat higher base frequency.

3. Frequency and spans of some bus services (particularly private)

To be fair limited frequency and span is not unique to Sydney and can be found in suburbs of any Australian city. Also noted was a marked difference between the service on the Parramatta - Liverpool T-Way (wide span and reasonable frequencies) to the lesser offerings available on the T-Way to Rouse Hill. The example below is better than many, but still includes some non-clockface running that may not consistently connect with trains.

4. Information at many bus stops, especially a lack of maps

Even some heavily patronised State Transit stops (eg Sydney Airport) have extremely rudimentary information. Sometimes the only information provided is route number, final destination and times, with details of intermediate stops and maps missing. This contrasts with the maps contained in printed timetables which were praised above.

5. Lack of differentiation of premium and regular bus routes

Again not unique to Sydney, with Adelaide (Go-Zones) and Brisbane (BUZ) showing the way forward. And to be fair it should be pointed out that more Sydney Bus routes offer high service than usual in other cities, so the State Transit name might already be associated with good hours and frequency (much like trams are in Melbourne).

The new Route 10 'Metrobus' service between Kingsford Smith and Leichardt (via the CBD) was particularly puzzling. It is marketed as a frequent premium service for which a timetable is not required (and is not provided at stops or in leaflet form). Service frequency is 10 minutes peak, 15 minutes off-peak and 20 minutes weekend. Buses are air-conditioned and low-floor and all stops have route maps.

This could almost qualify as a premium service except for two things. Firstly the 9pm finishing time is earlier than all the 'regular' routes around Leichardt, which combine to provide a very high quality service until midnight or later. Secondly the 20 minute weekend service frequency does not really qualify as 'turn up and go' and unless services are very frequent a full timetable should have been provided. As it is the combined timetables at stops include all routes except 10. There is also a consistency issue; other regular State Transit routes offer more frequent service but these (correctly) still have printed timetables.

6. Legibilty of bus network in the CBD

Admittedly this suffers when compared to Melbourne trams, which together with their frequent service and the grid street layout, provide the 'gold standard' unlikely to be equalled elsewhere.

Central Sydney is less planned and has a larger number of distinct bus routes versus Melbourne's fewer, and apparently straighter trams. There dominant feature appears to be a 'spine' up George Street with a number of interchanges around the city (eg Railway Square & Circular Quay). Some overall 'network' information at stops would be nice, although to relieve crowding it might be thought better if people making short CBD trips walked instead.

7. Vandalised trains

No pictures will be published, but there was more evidence of external tagging (and even murals) than in Melbourne. Train insides were also dirtier and likely to be graffitied. The ability to see out of train windows is limited, though scratching is less than in Perth. Limited visibility within double-decks, with their split-level design and poor communication between carriages (compared to our Siemens) might increase vandalism opportunities and lower perceived safety. On the credit side though, Melbourne is the nation's capital for lineside graffiti, and Sydney was cleaner in this regard.

Other observations

Noticed in Sydney was much higher (over?)staffing on the rail system. For example most stations were staffed and there were more in each station. Trains still have guards. Transit officers were sometimes seen at stations but never on trains travelled on. Neither were tickets checked.

DDA access in Sydney has yet to catch up to Melbourne, where all but one stations are accessible. However where access was provided this was commonly through lifts (which has staffing implications). Also, unlike Melbourne, many suburban stations have been rebuilt and modernised. This indicates that like Perth, Sydney prefers to knock things down, whereas Melbourne will mostly retain. Similar observations apply to the CBD, where Melbourne retained more of its built heritage than Sydney, and espedially Perth, where any building over 40 years old is a rarity.

The other consequence of this cultural difference is whereas Melbourne will leave a rail based shopping strip alone to lose status and gracefully decline (as shoppers flock to the greenfields car-based mall two kilometres away), Sydney is more inclined to demolish an existing rail-based strip and build a Westfield right there. The Melbourne approach works where there is a robust strip shopping tradition and to preserve heritage, but risks building 'two cities' and entrenching car-dependence as the mismatch between the location of major nodes and the rail system widens. In contrast, Sydney's 'knock down and co-locate' recipe, though it lacks the 'character' of our successful strips like Chapel Street, Puckle Street or Glenferrie Road, represents better transport/land use planning and is preferred in outer areas where existing shopping strips are weak, in decline and can't be saved.

While the same buckled signal cable housings seen in Melbourne was also seen in Sydney, the track in Sydney was of better quality, due to their higher use of concrete sleepers. The times when track work is done is no mystery either, with many line occupations on weekends. My first train trip in Melbourne after returning felt like flying with mild turbulence. Thanks to their long-standing program to eliminate them, level crossings are rare in Sydney but remain widespread in Melbourne.

The trip was a success and many things were seen that are not described above. Thanks to Scott & Damo for their ideas and guidance before and during it.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Direct running on the Frankston line - it's worth a go

A Herald Sun article reports a 'secret' plan to make Frankston trains run direct to Flinders Street instead of via the City Loop. The Opposition has slammed the idea on the grounds of the forced transfers that will occur at Richmond.

Before rushing to condemn, is it not better to step back and first ask whether the current timetable is the optimum for Frankston line commuters. Or could things be done better, with direct running one of the tools to add extra needed capacity (and frequency)?


Victorian Transport Plan, Page 53

The first thing to remember is that the Frankston line is part of the Caulfield group and shares City Loop access with lines from Pakenham and Cranbourne. The Pakenham and Cranbourne lines are now Melbourne's busiest, serving major outer growth areas. Their patronage now beats Belgrave/Lilydale, both of which have better infrastructure and superior weekday frequencies.

Frankston Station itself has a huge catchment population though the Mordialloc - Seaford portion does not (water to the west, vacant land to the east and limited buses). Patronage growth is somewhat slower than the Cranbourne/Pakenham lines due to fewer new housing estates and the lack of strong mid-line trip generators (eg a university or a major shopping centre). It's still highly patronised, but comes off second best against faster growing lines which get first pickings of any new services added. Also notable is that all three lines form the Caulfield Group, which typically has about twice as much late running than the other groups. Line-by-Line performance comparisons are here.

Then there's service levels. Peak frequency isn't particularly high. Scheduled intervals between peak direction trains on some parts of the line can range up to 17 minutes, ie inferior to the standard 15 minute off-peak service. The actual number of peak trains is little different from 30 years ago, with the major recent improvements being off-peak and Sunday frequencies.

Can passengers benefit from avoiding peak times? They can on other lines, but not on the Frankston line as peak service is only delivered during a narrow period (about 1 hour, both morning and evening). This provides no incentive to alter travel as frequency falls away or express services cease during shoulder periods.

Consistency is another feature passenges value. Since the November 9, 2008 timetable consistency has reduced for Frankston passengers as two key peak services were taken out of the loop and given to Dandenong line passengers. This has caused schedule gaps of up to 24 minutes for loop services serving stations such as Glenhuntly or McKinnon. Hence consistency has reduced and these gaps do not constitute a legible 'turn up and go' service. This is exacerbated where services either side do not run or, as can happen in the afternoon, late-running services avoid the loop and run direct from Flinders Street.

The above demonstrates that while the existing Frankston timetable may have sufficed with lower passenger numbers in the past, it is heavily strained in 2009. Any affordable ideas for improvement, no matter their source, should therefore be considered sympathetically, rather than dismissed as 'too hard' or 'controversial'.

What are the possible improvements that could come from direct running?

The first benefit is for the large proportion of passengers do not use loop stations at all, and get off at Flinders Street or Southern Cross. These passengers will all receive faster service, with the time saving similar to that of making a service run express in the suburbs (but without the problems, such as reduced track capacity and achieveable frequency). Those already using express services would see further travel time reductions.

While the percentage of direct passengers might be about half the total peak loading, it's likely to increase over time. This is because the city's two main growth areas (Southbank and Docklands) are nearest the non-loop stations. The areas nearest the loop stations grew most in the 1980s, but in the 2000s growth is swinging elsewhere.

Secondly, and most importantly, is the possibility of improved service frequency by making train operation more economical by removing 'time spent in loop' and thus increase the number of trips a train can make in a peak period. Better frequency means improved capacity and legibility as timetables become simpler and more consistent. Even customer complaints about delays and cancellations would fall as customers treat the service as 'turn up and go' rather than worrying about precise train arrival times or having to run for a train (due to the fear there won't be another for 20+ minutes).

With some increase in the number of available trains it might be possible to develop a clear two tier service pattern of local and express services operating over a longer span. Currently express services on the Frankston line have gaps that vary between approximately 12 and almost 30 minutes, with about an hour between first and last express. Stoppers in the pm peak are roughly every 12 minutes, with all now running to Frankston.

The train saving by not running via the loop has already been touched on, though not quantified in terms of achieveable frequency increases. However every little bit helps, even if it's (say) two extra trains per peak and improved shoulder peaks.

In the afternoons it may be possible to obtain further economies by running local services terminating at Cheltenham and Mordialloc, as is done in the morning and used to be done in the afternoon. While this may reduce frequency south of Mordialloc it boosts train efficiency by getting it into the city sooner to do another peak trip. Those south of Mordialloc should be content with an express train every 10 minutes (or ideally 8) over a much wider 'window' than at present. Meanwhile, those north of Cheltenham should be glad if their current 8 to 17 minute morning service (12 minute average) was boosted to a flat 10 minutes, and over the moon if 8 minutes (as was provided in the 1970s) could be achieved.

Also gaining will be those who make inner-city trips such as Caulfield to Footscray; they will no longer need to change trains or cope with unharmonised headways as the same train will run through to Laverton/Werribee. Fast cross-suburban travel will help to reduce the perception that trains are only good for CBD or 'same-line' travel. Admittedly this is a much smaller proportion of passenger numbers than CBD passengers, but the vastly improved service direct running would provide should generate extra patronage.

The Frankston line cannot be treated independently of the Cranbourne/Pakenham lines but direct running of the former should free loop 'slots' for additional Cranbourne/Pakenham trains and hence ensure any extra services can be run via the loop (aiding consistency). It is this line that presents the greatest challenges to schedulers due to its high patronage, population growth, limited infrastructure and need to share with country trains, so the additional 'wiggle room' should be welcome.

What about existing users of loop stations, which direct running would make transfer? In the morning this should not be a problem since there will remain frequent services through the loop from Richmond and Flinders Street. Some trips will take longer but improved frequency and more consistent patterns in the suburbs is a major sweetener.

The evening though is a little harder. This is because transferring from a less frequent local service to a frequent loop service imposes less transfer penalty (and milder consequences of a missed connection) than the reverse. Nevertheless if efficiency gains permit frequency increases so unique stopping patterns are consistently 8-10 minutes apart (or better) then even these problems should be mitigated as all parts are 'turn up and go'.

The above is not intended to be a thorough analysis of train scheduling, and there may be difficulties in implementing the service patterns and frquencies suggested. However it is intended to lend support to plans, 'secret' or otherwise, that could improve service on a line that needs it.

If the Frankston line is to be made to run direct, it would be desirable that this apply to all trains (including off-peak and weekend), not just an added few. An 'all or none' policy would assist network legibility, maximises frequency and provides new cross-suburban travel opportunities that current service configurations tend to hinder. The experience with the Werribee line has shown that despite some doomsayers passengers will accept a change provided other benefits such as better service frequencies are provided.

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Buying a myki

With ticketing such a hot topic here (a Melbourne favourite, despite bigger shortcomings elsewhere, such as Sydney's non-integration and Perth's lack of proper periodicals) it was time to grab a myki for Geelong trips now and travel elsewhere later.

Also the current offer, which waives the $10/$7 card fee, was too good to pass up.

From experience with Transperth's SmartRider, I knew there was a choice between 'anonymous' and 'registered' cards (with your personal details). I initially wanted the latter, to give an opportunity to test the registration process later if needed (I don't know if there's a process to 'deregister', 'anonymise' or 'transfer' a registered myki).

You can order by phone if it's more convenient and you're not near the myki Shop in Ryrie Street. Once through the menu you get to talk to a real person to take your order.

It was here I learned something. If ordering by phone note that registered mykis only are available. For an anonymous myki (eg you might be buying for a friend, or just don't want to register) you need to visit 129 Ryrie Street, or maybe a 'myki mate' on the bus.

Pictures and a description of the info pack will be included here when it arrives.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Melbourne 2030 - is it working?

Any plan to put more people onto public transport has two complementary prongs to bring the two closer together. These are as follows:

* Bring good transport to more people. This may require line or route extensions, longer-running and more frequent services, and bus route reform with key corridors served by Adelaide-style Go-zones. The general aim here is a convenient network of frequent services extensive enough to be within walking distance of most homes and jobs. These matters are within the province of the various transport plans, such as 'Meeting our Transport Challenges' and the 'Victorian Transport Plan'.

* Bring more people to good transport. Amongst other things this requires clustering denser housing, jobs and shops around railway stations, discouraging large-scale developments remote from transit and requiring that all neighbourhoods have walkable, crossable and bus-friendly local streets. These topics, but particularly the activity centres and an urban growth boundary are part of the 'Melbourne 2030' plan.

The two are not independent; achieving the former is easier and cheaper if the latter is done as less route mileage is required to achieve equivalent coverage and resources can be put to better span and frequency instead.

It is important for the long-term relevance of public transport for a plan something like 'Melbourne 2030' to exist and be implemented. Those who think otherwise take Melbourne's rail-based mid-sized suburban centres too much for granted and haven't lived in Perth where the newer stations, mostly located mid-freeway, scarcely have even a milk bar nearby. Hence public transport there is effective for CBD trips to work, but more complex trips (eg shopping after work) will probably requires extra bus trips instead of a simple dash across the road, so are less attractive.

So this brings us to the question - is Melbourne 2030 working?

Bob Birrell's mob at Monash Uni doesn't think so.

His team found that new housing simply wasn't being built around activity centres. Instead it was all happening away from railway lines and transport hubs, contrary to the Melbourne 2030 aims.

To be fair, I should mention that Birrell has always been a critic of denser living, urban growth boundaries and transit-oriented development. Hence the report is a polite 'I told you so'. In this they are like Wendell Cox/Demographia. But unlike developer-funded Wendell, Monash do have academic standing, independence and rigour so they are worth taking notice of.

Even better though is to make one's own observations, and these are documented below.

Exhibit A is Carnegie. This is a Melbourne 2030 major activity centre between two major university campuses, not far from Chadstone Shopping Centre and only a few stations along from affluent suburbs like Toorak and Malvern.

This 5-part video shot last year, shows the suburb's retail and residential building boom. The shopping centre pictured as being under construction is now open. A major new library opened in 2007. Transit improvements that year included extended hours for local bus routes 623 and 627 and the new Route 900 SmartBus along Dandenong Road. There's both development and transit, so count this as a success for Melbourne 2030.

Exhibit B is Frankston, a principal activity centre. Under major redevelopment, this centre is still in transition with many empty shops. Unlike Carnegie it has lost major stores and its retail diversity has declined. For example, Dimmeys, vacated its large premises and is now a small shop in an arcade. And Spotlight has abandoned Frankston CBD altogether, joining a major new auto-based shopping area near Bunnings on Moorooduc Highway. Buses though have gained, with the new 901 SmartBus and longer hours on most local routes.

If 2030 works, Frankston might be a better place to watch a movie or grab a coffee, but as a diverse retail centre it has lost ground. We are not seeking much new residential above CBD shops, and the station's pedshed is poor as there is no exit onto Beach Road from the northern end of the platform.

If we apply Monash's test of whether there is more development further from the station than nearer to it, the shift of activity to the bulky-goods, auto and hardware precinct on the highway do not demonstrate success.

Exhibit C is the Hoppers Crossing area, particularly the shopping area around Hoppers Crossing Station and the Point Cook Town Centre.

The Hoppers Crossing station and retail precinct is pedestrian-hostile and has not thrived. Though designated as a Melbourne 2030 centre, there have been no attempts at denser development, despite its potential, given the station, shops, hospital and nearby university campus. Buses though have benefited; two Hoppers Crossing routes were upgraded to 'minimum standards' (ie 9pm finish time 7 days a week) in 2007.

Point Cook and its shops have grown rapidly in the last couple of years as a heavily car-based development. Its gridlike street patterns are relatively pedestrian and bus friendly. Bus services though limited; after upgrades elsewhere Point Cook is probably the largest remaining area in Melbourne without Sunday buses.

Just like Central Plaza (Altona Meadows) took over from the shops around Laverton Station (now largely abandoned), there is a risk that Point Cook and an ever-expanding Werribee Plaza could take over from the shops around Hoppers Crossing Station. The risk is particularly high due to Hopper's poor walkability and lack of surrounding housing within a 10 minute walk. Much more than Frankston, the Hoppers Crossing station area can be considered to be a missed opportunity at best and a failure at worst.

These examples demonstrate a great deal of truth in the Monash study; despite its intentions, Melbourne 2030 has not materially changed the basic direction of suburban development of new centres. Transit centres that have successfully developed appear to be in high-value inner areas in which housing demand is (by definition) already highest.

Otherwise the economics of higher housing densities (as advocated in 2030) are poor, both from a homebuyer and developer point of view. The further out you go the worse it gets, which explains why the Mitcham Towers development did not proceeed.

From a buyer point of view, one can buy a basic 3 bedroom house on a full sized block in Werribee for as little as $200 000; even less if you look around. This is below replacement cost so represents good buying, especially if you find somewhere so cheap it's only slightly dearer than the land alone. The cheapest established unit in the area (which may or may not be near the station) would sell for (say) $180 000. Hence houses are much better value than units.

To build a new new version of same, the land would cost around $100 000 and construction cost of around $150 000 per unit. A development comprising two units on the block would cost $200 000 per unit. The economics get better when you're building three or more units per block, but even so it will still not be possible to sell a new unit for less than the cost of an established house on a full block, so purchaser value will still be poor. And for the private investor, buying two established $200k houses is likely to return more with less hassle than buying only one house, demolishing then building two units.

To profit from developing you need either high sale prices or low costs/cheap land. Cheap can mean nasty so often new units will be in inconvenient and inaccessible areas such as Tarneit (instead of central Werribee or Hoppers Crossing). While some buyers are willing to sacrifice backyard space for closeness to facilities, in somewhere like Tarneit they get the worst of both worlds. Nevertheless enough people like the sniff of new carpet and paint so these denser places on cheap land still get built, making a net negative contribution to Melbourne 2030 aims.

The classic retiree downsizer will find that selling their $300 000 house and moving into a $250 000 unit will not boost their nest egg after sale costs and stamp duty are deducted. Besides the house would be better for grandchildren to stay and likely appreciate faster in value. So provided they can still look after the house they're better off staying put.

For first homebuyers, outer area houses are hardly dearer than units, so there is no financial imperative to buy the latter. Also from the developers point of view, the low prices on established houses puts a ceiling on what can be charged for new units (it can be a bit more but not $100 000 more). This imposes a tight lid on costs so development is only profitable if land costs are low and big sites are available.

Hence for both buyers and developers the economics of denser housing in outer areas is quite poor, and it's only likely to work in unserved, cheap land areas away from transport. The problem then is that people pay in other ways, through increased car dependence and the atrophy of shopping centres near railway stations. Plus of course the high cost of providing extra kilometres of infrequent, indirect and poorly patronised bus routes.

That is not to say that the principles of Melbourne 2030 activity centres are not worthy, even in outer areas. Hoppers Crossing Station is surrounded by poorly used land that could become improved housing and retail, though probably at the cost of significant land resumption. Bus stop and station pedsheds could be extended through better pedestrian facilities and resuming land to open up culs-de-sacs for better bus routes. And Melbourne 2030 needs to say something about designing bulky goods and industrial areas to be suitable for efficient public transport.

Unfortunately 2030 overlooks these major retail and employment landuses, so betrays its bias towards the cafe-sitting inner-suburban unmanual white collar type (who may guiltily drive to the Nordic IKEA more often than the out-of-mind Bunnings or Spotlight).

The situation is much brighter in the high amenity inner suburbs. A basic 1-bedroom unit might sell for $200 000 to 250 000, while houses might be $500 000 to $800 000 or more. People on average incomes can't generally afford the latter but the area is super-handy so they'll put up with a unit. And it doesn't hurt that many residents are students or professionals who don't care for gardening much either.

Building costs for units are pretty much the same everywhere, innner or outer suburbs. Anything with more than one level (eg 2-storey townhouses with garaging underneath) will cost more. But a new unit or townhouse for $500 000 doesn't look so bad in value to buyers if the house next to it is worth $700 000 (as it could be) rather than $300 000, as in an outer suburb.

And, though the land value is higher, the resale value for the developer is higher still, permitting a better profit to be made. Plus new townhouses will often have garaging, open-plan and two bathrooms that the Edwardian next door won't. Whereas in the outer suburbs most new houses are the now-standard 4 x 2, despite shrinking household sizes. This again means that new units and townhouses in outer suburbs are less advantageous in term of features or better value relative to full-sized houses.

But the situation is more favourable in inner suburbs, and this is why these are redeveloping as someone has identified sufficient buyer appeal to make a profit and hence worth doing.

To summarise, the relative prices of homes and the economics of developing are not helpful to Melbourne 2030 succeeding around outer suburban nodes, which in many cases are only a few kilometres from cheap greenfields land accessible by freeway. In such areas individuals are no better off buying a unit as they're hardly cheaper than houses and are probably not even near the train.

Turning this around may require an unfashionable level of housing-commission style government intervention to resume and develop sites near stations. A problem here is that developers can sometimes be wary of bureaucracy or getting involved in such projects. Plus governments can change or projects can be shelved, so relying too much on them presents a risk bad for business.

Melbourne 2030 also failed because it was not associated with a major capital works program of walking and cycling projects in established suburbs. The only thing it is associated in the public mind is increased density at little direct benefit to existing residents.

Some apparently simple and cheap transport projects like opening culs-de-sacs can cause huge controversy, yet may be essential for efficient buses. Nevertheless this should not be a reason for inaction; bottom-up community consultation clearly supports better urban design and better transit access, and there are many allies in seniors, disability, school and local government that could implement pedestrian amenity projects and assure community support.

Disability access is particularly useful for pedestrians since two birds can be killed with one stone. It will be increasingly realised that although the bus buying program is ensuring that all new buses will be low floor, stops will remain inaccessible. This is because increasing road traffic and a fetish for roundabouts is causing more roads to be uncrossable on foot, let alone wheelchair.

Then there are market-based pricing or tax mechanisms based in incentives rather than direct interventions. I regard vacant land and buildings, particularly near stations, as an opportunity use, crying out for a higher and better use. Sitting on it is not in the public interest; there could even be an argument for vacant land near stations to be taxed more highly than developed land. This could encourage owners to 'develop or sell' rather than hold for speculative purposes.

Density and distribution of jobs is another factor, with a worry being offices in light industrial or bulky goods areas. Offices don't even need the sort of heavy truck access that industrial areas need, and low-density 'business parks' are unnecessary. The high costs of 'free parking', and the opportunity cost this presents (from public transport access to being able to walk somewhere for lunch) needs to be realised.

Clustering around transport nodes is desirable; from a public transport perspective it's easier to move people from many suburbs to one centre than to move from many to many. And with the daily commute the largest distance travel most people often make, it makes sense to aim to increase efficiencies here by worrying as much if not more about 'job densities' than 'housing densities'.

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