Monday, July 27, 2009
Sunday, July 26, 2009
South Gippsland's timed transfers
A major part of last week's timetable revisions has been a new coach network for South Gippsland and the Bass Coast. The changes include extra services, express running and a timed transfer network with hubs at Dandenong, Koo Wee Rup and Anderson. The upgraded coach services substitute for a government promise to investigate the return of passenger trains to Leongatha (which was widely interpreted as a commitment to restore service, as had been done for Bairnsdale and Ararat).
Broadly speaking the network has two key corridors, each receiving a coach every two hours (approximately) on weekdays. The first is City - Koo Wee Rup - Leongatha. It has express running between the city and Koo Wee Rup and some services extending to Yarram. The second corridor is Dandenong - Cranbourne - Koo Wee Rup and Anderson. From Anderson destinations alternate between Cowes and Inverloch, with some Inverloch services operating via Cape Paterson.
The new coach network has some clever features that only become apparent after a close study of times and connections. To assist this work a graphical timetable/map was compiled from the pictured timetables (shown below).
The first feature is an express coach service between Southern Cross Station and Leongatha via Koo Wee Rup. Eight weekday services at approximately two-hourly intervals (hourly in peak direction) operate each way. Four coaches each way run on weekends, with a common Saturday and Sunday timetable. All services run express between Koo Wee Rup and the City, with the Koo Wee Rup times scheduled to connect with other services. This is clearly offered as compensation for not restoring the train service and provides an unusually fast and frequent service for a centre of Leongatha's size.
A two-hourly weekday service also operates between Dandenong, Cranbourne, Koo Wee Rup and Anderson. This connects with trains to/from the city at Dandenong and provides a local service for communities such as Tooradin, Five Ways and Koo Wee Rup. From Koo Wee Rup the service continues to Anderson and then splits, with trips alternating between Cowes and Inverloch. These towns each receive four coaches on weekdays and two on weekends.
(click to enlarge)
Koo Wee Rup is the major hub of the area's timed transfer network, as can be seen by the near simultaneous arrivals and departures. All passengers heading towards Melbourne get a choice as to how they complete their trip.
They can either take an express coach to the city (Leongatha passengers remain on coach, passenger from Cowes or Inverloch must board the coach ex-Leongatha) or, if they want to make a local trip to Cranbourne or Dandenong, they can board either the Cowes or Inverloch coach that has come from Anderson.
A city connection from this second service is provided by changing to a train at Dandenong. However this is 30 to 60 minutes slower than the express coach, so will mostly be used by more local passengers travelling from areas such as Tooradin and Five Ways.
The arrangements at Koo Wee Rup are a good example of a timed transfer network. Coaches arrive simultaneously, exchage passengers in a five minute window, then depart simultaneously. This repeats every two hours in each direction (towards or away from city). Connections for cross-country trips (eg Anderson to Leongatha) average about 1 hour, but are fairly constant between the peaks due to the near-clockface harmonised headways used. Timed transfer networks such as this example provide many passenger benefits, including a flexibility of destinations, the option of boarding an express service and minimal waiting times due to careful scheduling.
The connection chart also reveals some interesting interchange possibilities at Anderson, although in a different manner to Koo Wee Rup. Study of the times indicate that during most of the day coaches from Cowes towards Dandenong arrive simultaneously in Anderson as coaches from Dandenong to Inverloch. While seperate arrival and departure times at Anderson are not given (unlike Koo Wee Rup) it would appear that cross-country trips like Cowes to Inverloch and Inverloch to Cowes are possible during the day with minimal waiting at Anderson.
While the number of passenges wishing to make these trips may not be high, the ability to efficiently make them adds greatly to the utility of the network for local area trips. Unfortunately the 0 minute transfer shown appears risky to the passenger and the few who notice this travel option are unlikely to chance it given the 2-hour waiting time until the next service. Providing seperate arrival and departure times and including a note advising this connection at Anderson would both be desirable improvements.
It has been a pleasure to study these services and note the care taken in their scheduling. The combination of express trips and simultaneous timed transfers operating at all times should meet both fast CBD and local travel needs. On weekdays the existence of what are close to 'memory timetables' at Anderson, Leongatha and Koo Wee Rup further aid usability.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Why does Sunbury want to be like Melton?
Twelve months ago the Great Sunbury Rail debate was in full swing, with locals prefering their infrequent country trains over a suburban rail extension.
A year later the local paper demonstrates that the NIMBYs, from the mayor down are still at it.
This time they want to rip the city's transit heart out of town and shove it behind the council works depot. The reason cited by the doomsayers is that keeping the station where it is would cause gridlock in town (so electrication will prove popular after all?).
It's worth noting that shops also attract people (and their cars) but no one seems to object much to that. Besides the genuine issues about parking could be addressed through better buses, which work best if they can serve the major town centre and railway station at the one interchange.
Sunbury today has a compact walkable town centre and station precinct with a wide range of shops and services. The local bus operator is well-regarded, and, like Werribee, its timetables connect with the trains. Access is excellent through a centrally-located station and convenient bus interchange. The passenger who liked the convenience of going to the shops after getting off the train understood this practical angle that local politicians sometime miss.
Local councils spend ages lobbying for money from state and federal governments. Sunbury is the only one I know that shuns worthwhile funding, despite the success of similar electrication projects such as Sydenham and Craigieburn. Other suburbs like Berwick and Werribee, although they share a 'main street' rural heritage similar to Sunbury seem more progressive and welcoming of services such as improved schools, hospitals, trains and buses.
The mayor and councillors may wish to take a transport study trip to Melton, including waiting for and riding on (shock horror) public transport, preferably on a winter's day. Here they will see an 'out of town' station similar to what is called for at Sunbury. More careful observation will reveal (i) a station distant from the main town centre, (ii) a shopping mall on the same axis but slightly removed from the 'main street' shopping area, and (iii) local bus routes that are indirect because of the need to connect all suburbs with the station, main street and shopping centre.
It is hoped that on returning to Sunbury everyone will appreciate the many things that it has done right, and that strong public transport in town centres contributes rather than subtracts from their liveability and amenity.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Legislative Council Select Committee on Train Services
After a period where public submissions were sought, the Legislative Council Select Committee on Train Services held its first hearing today.
Those called before the hearing were from the Department of Transport in the morning and Connex /Mainco/United in the afternoon. They gave short opening addresses followed by answers to questions from committee members. Media and about 20 members of the public witnessed the proceedings.
The Department of Transport emphasised the massive patronage growth on the state's passenger railways. Our 50% increase (metropolitan) and 70% increase (country) in the last 4 years outstripped all other states. On some measures at least Melbourne has overtaken Sydney's CityRail network, with us now having more peak trains in the busiest hour than Sydney.
This growth lengthened station dwell times and resulted in reduced punctuality (dropping from 97% obtained in 2002-3 to over 90% most months/most lines today). One way of looking at is is that trains are 2 or 3 times more likely to be late now than in 2002. However 90% is still regarded as an achievement in the context of unprecedented patronage growth and was described as the 'real story about Melbourne trains'. Platform dwell times (rising from 30 seconds 5 years ago to up to 75 seconds now) were a major contributor to late running.
Main drivers of patronage growth (which ocurred after decades of decline, stagnation or slow growth) included high metropolitan population growth, a strong economy with rising CBD employment and high petrol prices. More people were using the railway by choice, there was no sign of slowing demand and the '20% by 2030' mode share target was likely to be met. Once people changed to rail they remained with rail, which was a vote of confidence in the service.
The system of governance, based on government funding and ownership of infrastructure but private operation through a franchise agreement was defended. It was pointed out that Yarra Trams operated under similar arrangements.
The implication was that the tram system (though significantly delayed by car traffic) has generally operated smoothly without political or media attention (compared to metro trains). Also the train system had high reliability in 2002-3, two or three years after franchising started.
Hence, the department stated, the 2008 summer failures could not be seen as being caused by governance arrangements, contrary to the claims of un-named but well-known 'transport academics'. Nevertheless it was acknowledged that train reliability during this period was below legitimate passenger expectations and that the government was ultimately responsible for the performance of the system.
Operators had put in 'agressive' bids in 1999 (in order to win business). This model, based on diminishing public subsidy and (as it turned out premature) projections of patronage growth, proved unsustainable, even after a cash injection in 2002. When National Express asked for no the government refused and it quit, giving a week's notice. Refranchising in 2004 led to the reunification of both the train and tram networks, the creation of Metlink and a more secure financial footing for the operators. The savings (compared to government operation) proved to be 'illusory' but the Auditor Generals Office reported that the new franchises delivered fair value for money. Services ran through the NX receivership period without disruption to passengers, while driver training resumed (this had stopped and caused a subsequent shortage).
While punctuality had declined from the 97% obtained in 2002/3, it still normally exceeded 90%. This was considered a creditable result given the high patronage growth. Patronage is both an expression of success but also a challenge for service reliability due to the previously mentioned difficulties of crowding and longer dwell times.
What was being done to accommodate growth? Some extra services have been added and maintenance has been increased, but this was 'sweating' the infrastructure (ie being worked harder). More recently governments have announced significant upgrade programs (including South Morang and Sunbury extensions, which also include upgrades elsewhere along those lines) with a lead time applying. Upgrades also aim to simplify the variety of sinalling equipment to improve response time and there is a program to replace timber sleepers with concrete.
In hindsight more could have been done to address overcrowding. However at that time governments had other priorities and it was considered that the case for major rail improvements on the strength of a year's high patronage growth was less strong then than now. The high investment now, while it has some lag time, is regarded as appropriate and one 'can't complain'.
Many questions were asked about Comeng train air conditioning since their failure reduces summer train reliability. The problem here is that these often cut out when temperatures exceed 34.5 degrees C. When specified in the 1970s the debate then was whether to air condition the new trains or not, rather than what type of air conditioning.
Summer 2008/9 was regarded as exceptional, due to the number of days over 40 degrees C, which is more now than when they were specified. This is one reason why the problems this year were more significant than previous summers. It was acknowledged that beyond basic maintenance, the operator had no contractural obligation to make them more suitable for our temperatures. Trials were being run (involving at least 2 trains) and the result of these will influence whether any decision is made to retrofit. With regard to this the Department specified a number of reasons why this might not be a sensible use of funds, including (i) hot days are rare, (ii) the trains are old with limited future life, (iii) there are service consequences of trains being out, and (iv) it's not cheap.
Air conditioning wasn't the only cause of service failures. Widespread carelessness around our 180 suburban level crossings cause incidents that can disrupt trains for an entire peak period (or longer). 10-15% of delays are due to infrastructure, and of this 70 to 90% is due to signalling faults. Point failures can also interrupt services.
Another persistent line of questioning was the extent to which the Department takes an interest in all incidents that cause service failure. Parliamentarians wanted the Department to receive regular detailed reports, and possibly prepare prevention plans to prevent reoccurrence.
In reply the department said it received briefings and system performance information in agregate form. However the operator and department do not go through the reasons for all 14000 delays each month. This appeared not to satisfy some parliamentary members given the follow-up questions about specific incidents.
I suspect that this because of aspects of the franchise agreements and the operator/department relationship did not get fully fleshed out. In the absence of direct questions, on this, I suspect that the department holds the operator to account on broad figures derived from monitoring of operational performance (ie cancellations/late running). This includes penalties for cancellations or lateness.
The outsourcing aspect of franchising means that how good performance is achieved is up to the operator. If they can find a cost-effective way to reduce cancellations (for example) then the statistics the department receives improves and the penalties are less. The operator is rewarded for their innovation. Besides it's presumed that the operator knows more about the system than the department, so are in a better position to specify which improvements deliver most bang for the buck (eg the revised fleet maintenance plan later cited by the operator).
On the department's part, the mechanics of how the operator does it seems to be less important to the department than whether a specified performance is achieved or not. This appears to be a design feature of franchising, with the potential advantages described above (provided incentives/penalties are set to make improved performance worthwhile). It also prevents the department trying to 'micromanage' train operations, and proposing fixes that might be less effective than an alternative proposed by the operator (who has a financial incentive to achieve the results).
This could make some non-government politicians impatient with the Department, who might not be able to instantly answer questions about specific incidents (eg how can delays at 5am be due to 'passenger loading').
Some politicians seemed to want the department to 'supervise more' and 'do more' at the operational level (eg upgrading Comeng air conditioners and platform staff were suggested) rather than leave to to the franchisee (who is taking other steps to improve performance, eg its revised Fleet Maintenance Plan and employment agreements).
Direct Department intervention in operational areas (while it has occurred in some cases eg additional late night services being funded or driver training) would go against franchising's philosophy at its purest, where the franchisee controls resource allocation, subject only to meeting performance and safety standards. The current 'franchising model' may have a lesser role for the department compared to alternatives such as a 'fee for service' contract, or direct government running.
It seems to me that franchising for the Department could be described as it being a contract manager who sets specifications, but leaves the solving of day to day problems with the operator. However time was too short to be articulated in any answers to the questions. Nevertheless such an explanation could have benefited some parliamentarians, who, I suspect may be unfamiliar with our operational arrangements and the extent to which this would shape the Department's responses on questions such as detailed performance information, Comeng air conditioners and the desirability of platform staff to reduce dwell time (currently being trialed at Parliament Station).
A question was asked about travel origins and destinations. The Department was doing work on this through the VISTA study. Many trips were local or to the next municipality and for these buses and trams met these needs. As to the effect of bus improvements on rail patronage, it was stated that the two may well be related. However modal interchange was not currently high and most trips would be seperate bus or train, rather than bus+train. However the current bus reviews were cited as a means of improving service co-ordination and ensuring buses met trains at stations. As to the future, the Victorian Transport Plan was prepared in parallel with 'Melbourne @ 5 million', with the emphasis on early provision of transport services.
A number of rail infrastructure questions were asked. These included the $650m costings for South Morang (amount is a 'best professional estimate' and includes a package of 3 grade seperations, stabling at Eltham and other improvement for the Clifton Hill group), the desirability of standard gauge (not a high priority for passenger, and seperating freight and passenger traffic was more important), and expansion gaps in rail (continuous welded was world-best), Regional Fast Rail costs (higher costs went to renew infrastructure found to be in poor condition), most stressed section (Sunshine - Footscray, with Regional Rail Link and Sunbury electrification assisting).
Connex appreciated the opportunity to appear at the committee so that it could hear the views of those professionally concerned with running the system. It also sought to articulate the view of rail workers and dispel myths from 'transport academics'.
Our system was described as unlike a dedicated metro. This is due to it sharing track with freight and country trains and the large number of level crossings. There has also been less recent investment to the network. It is however large by world standards, with about double the track km of the Paris Metro.
Financial performance and efficiency was described as good - with sources for this being the Auditor General's report on train franchising and comparisons with the Sydney and Brisbane networks. Our costs per passenger were less than both of these while patronage growth was higher, reaching 214 million trips pa and up by 80% since 1999, on a train fleet only 9% bigger, increasing the number of load breaches. An extra 1500 services per week have been added in this time.
Other major achievements Connex cited include reunifying the network after the exit of National Express and the growth of two incompatible networks. Train services were maintained during the refranchising, but a driver shortage due to the previous operator's lack of recruitment prevented service increases during this time.
Customer service initiatives included 'Meet the Managers' and 'We Hear You', but this was not a major part of the presentation.
Generally Connex enjoyed industrial peace (unlike the Met in the 1980s/early 1990s). A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2008. However disagreements over this led to industrial problems which exacerbated heat-related cancellations during the summer of 2008/9 as many were considered preventable. The matter went before the Industrial Relations Commission and both sides have accepted its finding.
Much discussion time was spent on the improvements that will ensue due to the acceptance of the revised Fleet Management Plan in conjunction with more maintenance staff. The former would allow trains with certain minor faults to continue until the end of the day's peak period (rather than be taken out of service immediately). The falling rate of cancellations during 2009 has been attributed to the application of this plan. As an example, just 0.4% of trains were cancelled in June 2009, which is comparable to the good results obtained in the 2000-2003 period. The FMP is included in the industrial agreement, so will continue when MTM takes over.
Also agreed was the ability to run trains where one air conditioning unit had failed. Such trains are often still usable with no safety implicatons. These could be run for the remainder of that peak period instead of being cancelled.
There was agreement with the Department that replacement was probably not cost-effective, but the operator was confident that the above measures would result in a more reliable service this summer than last.
Improved maintenance practices have increased the availabilty of more trains, with 94% (or 149) being scheduled to run in the am peak in the current timetable. This represents high utilisation and pressure on the fleet. However relief will come when the new trains start arriving next year.
Apart from air conditioner faults during the heat, other sources of failures include tracks buckling, signal failures (which due to electrical equipment double in hot weather), infrastructure faults, vandalism and loss of power. Like everyone else, trains are susceptible to 'load shedding', ie power cuts where consumption exceeds generating capacity. Connex is negotiating to get priority treatment with the power authorities so that trains can retain power. These discussions are continuing.
A question was asked about platform staff, particuarly to assist wheelchair passengers and otherwise speed boarding. No commitments were made regarding this. However the member was referred to the DDA Action plan and said that the operator was on track to achieve this. In addition a modified 'demonstration train' provided more space for wheelchairs with the decision to modify more trains resting with the Department.
Related to previous comments about the franchise and what it can drive operators to do, was a question about whether it was better to cop a fine or pay for a fix. While paying fines for poor performance was a problem, this was a part of the contract and was accepted as such. In addition because the operators receive a portion of the farebox revenue the growing patronage increased this part of their revenue, hence offsetting the fine (it was not mentioned whether this was a partial or full offset). In addition the operator receives income from joint ventures with United in infrastructure projects such as North Melbourne Station, Cranbourne stabling and Laverton upgrade.
The sleeper replacement program involves replacing 1 in 4 sleepers. In practice this involves 1 in 1 around curves and 1 in 5 on the straights. Ideally all would be replaced but there are constraints on funding and on the capacity of the factory to produce (100 000 pa available to Connex).
Connex was also asked whether the patronage growth was projected and if preparation was adequate. In hindsight the answer was no. At the time everyone concerned was involved in picking up the pieces from the NX walkout, refranchising, the driver shortage and reunifying the network. The driver shortage remained throughout 2005, while the first double digit patronage rise was in 2006.
Progress however has acelerated in the last few years, bearing in mind that some improvements (eg timetables) might have a 2 year lead time and major infrastructure longer. Connex drew up a plan, with its first major example being the November 2008 timetable. This started to 'untangle the loop' by taking peak period Werribee trains out of the loop and modified the Clifton Hill group pattern. Later improvements involve a more metro-style operation, seperating lines and reducing the crossing of paths. After this the extra trains should allow more services to be run.
Other questions were asked on such topics such as drivers calling in sick (2 hour notice requested), driver numbers (now very close to establishment levels) and who ensures train is operable before start (driver during preparation).
The questions members asked pretty much stuck rigidly to topic. Related matters such as the handling of disruptions and customer service (eg adequacy of passenger information/advice of disruptions/website crashes, possible extra staff training to better handle disruptions and better 'alternative transport' information at stations) were not raised in either the introductory addresses or subsequent questions from committee members. Disruptions can't be prevented, but communication may have helped mitigated their effects.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Friday, July 10, 2009
Sunday, July 05, 2009
Our Top 50 Bus Routes - Part 3
The third and final part of this series is to show a frequency guide for major Melbourne bus routes and route corridors. Similar to the information in Part 2, it removes the graphs for a more concise format in route number order.
If the guide is too small to read, click for a larger version.
When accompanied by a multimode network map, information presented in this format can more easily communicate the areas easily reached by public transport. For combined routes it successfully condenses information that would otherwise require recourse to a number of timetables or a website journey planner. Hence the absence of combined service information can severely undersell the level of service actually provided.
Until very recently, what bus service planning there has been in Melbourne has been route or operator based (as opposed to suburb or network based). Where a single operator has been in charge of a corridor or area the distinction is not great. Examples where routes have been co-scheduled to provide an even headway include some 200-series National and MBL routes and some 700 and 800-series Grenda routes.
However where different operators run parallel routes (eg 216 and 456) we see wasteful service duplication, poor connectivity and low overall service (two buses arrive in a few minutes and then a long gap until the next bus). Frequency guides and maps like the above can identify these service deficits (and operational inefficiencies) and be a useful tool to optimise service.
Frequency comparison charts can also allow one to examine the allocation of resources between routes. In some cases these may be rational and meet demand or connectivity requirements. However in others they may identify an unmet need. As an example, one 15-minute weekday route runs every 120 minutes on Sundays while others run every 20 or 30 minutes. Are users of the lower service route really 4 or 6 times less likely to travel on a Sunday, or do the differences relate to historical accident and have no good reason today?
Then there are the routes that offer consistenty high service, sometimes exceeding SmartBus (particuarly on weekends and Sunday evenings). These are mainly ex-Met routes, though they include some newer train and tram link services as well. From a marketing and passenger information standpoint, should they be treated the same as a standard 'hourly to 9pm' local service, or do they deserve to have their superior service levels emphasised and promoted through maps and the like?