The rediscovery of frequency
Varied improvements have ocurred to the suburban train network in the last eight years or so. Off the top of my head we have seen:
* Electrications to Sydenham and Craigieburn
* New trains
* Rebuilt Southern Cross and North Melbourne stations
* Frequent rebrandings but the restoration of stablility with Metlink signage
* Some grade seperations and duplication of track at Clifton Hill
* More premium stations and the introduction of host stations staffed during the morning peak
* More use of six-car train sets during off-peak periods
* SMS and website alerts for cancelled trains
* Fare reforms including abolition of Zone 3, more flexible 10x2 hour tickets and cheap weekend tickets
* Later finishing on Friday and Saturday
* Industrial peace; apart from a period about 4-6 months ago, service disruptions are now invariably due to other reasons
All have been worthwhile. There is however one matter that's been off the agenda; that of an improved basic service frequency. More peak trains run now compared to 2001, and these have been needed due to crowding. However you'd have to go back almost 10 years (when patronage was just over half of today's) to find a case where basic off-peak frequencies increased on any line.
That occasion was in July 1999 when after 10am Sunday train and tram daytime frequencies were increased to match Saturday's. Instead of people having to wait 30 or 40 minutes for a train the improved timetable cut this to 20 minutes. The following year M>Train boosted Sunday evening service on its half of the network from 40 to 30 minutes, again simlar to the Saturday times.
From then metropolitan train frequency improvements fell out of fashion and none ocurred for eight years. Instead policy emphasis shifted to regional rail (the main benefit of which ended up being improved frequency), the new Southern Cross Station, refranchising and a replacement for the Metcard ticketing system.
Desirable though these projects were, they did not greatly benefit the lot of the average metropolitan passenger who rode a system groaning from planned, ocurring but unbudgeted for patronage increases. This and some high-profile service disruptions revived interest in infrastructure, maintenance, scheduling and service levels. Frequency's central role in the usefulness and attractiveness of the train network is also being rediscovered.
The first advance was in the November 9, 2008 train timetables where three lines got basic frequency upgrades. Evening trains beyond Dandenong to Pakenham and Cranbourne were boosted from every 60 minutes to every 30 minutes. Now only semi-rural Hurstbridge has the 60 minute frequency on Monday to Saturday evenings. The next lowest train frequency is 40 minutes, in force on about half the network on Sunday mornings and evenings, and effective most times beyond Eltham. The other change was between the City and Ringwood, where the weekday train frequency were improved to 15 minutes until 10pm.
The next general service improvement, planned to start on July 20, 2009 was announced yesterday. The most important is a weekday frequency improvement for the Werribee line. Interpeak service levels will increase from three trains per hour to six trains per hour, making it the most frequently running suburban line. Every second train will use the express tracks via Paisley and run direct to and from Flinders Street.
With a relatively low population along the line and the lack of any mid-line trip generators, the Werribee line has lower interpeak patronage potential compared to busier lines like Sydenham, Craigieburn, Belgrave/Lilydale and Pakenham/Cranbourne. The first two get have only a 20 minute off-peak weekday frequency. Increasing these to 10 or 15 minutes would have been welcomed and may have won greater use than boosting Werribee.
Nevertheless improving Werribee's service still has large benefits, even though for the time being their weekday passengers will get a baffling mix of direct and loop running. Also there are at least three reasons why it's a good idea. The first is Werribee's population growth, which should guarantee higher than average patronage increase. The second is that the additional services cut journey times to the city as they run express (not via Altona) and operate direct to Flinders Street. 39 minutes travel time to the city is faster than that enjoyed by any other suburb 30 kilometres from the CBD. Third, and most exciting, is the future prospect of the Werribee service being through-routed to another line, eg Frankston. A 10 minute through service on such a combined line could give us a useful metro-style Footscray - Caulfield link years before the proposed tunnel is built. It should also relieve pressure on the City Loop and aid east-west suburban travel.
Another sign of the importance of frequency has come from the operator itself. In today's Age Connex advocates trains every 10 minutes during working hours to provide a 'turn up and go' service. This is unlikely to happen without government support. But it's surely a good sign that the operator knows frequency's importance and will get the opportunity to test it in less than two months' time.
Labels: history, service levels, trains