Tuesday, June 29, 2010

More information at Richmond

New passenger information screens were commissioned at Richmond Station today. The displays include 'minutes to' real-time information and details of trains on other platforms. There is also extra shelter, which will be useful for wheelchair passengers transferring between platforms in the am peak.

As existing screens are at other ends of the platforms, the new displays fill a gap. They should also encourage more a even distribution of passengers along the train and higher use of the up end subway.

The extra screens have arrived about three weeks after the commencement of a new timetable that provided more direct Flinders Street trains and so increased the number of passengers who needed to change. While passengers alighting are encouraged to change at Flinders Street for less busy loop trains, the new timetable appears to have eased crowding and a change at Richmond is faster, especially for those travelling to Parliament.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Flinders Street: Melbourne’s rail hub

Flinders Street is the core of the Mebourne suburban train network. All trains, whether direct or via the City Loop go there, except for some suburban off-peak shuttles. Driver shift changeovers also occur at Flinders Street, which is why you often see many drivers there awaiting the next shift.

Trains towards Flinders Street are termed ‘up’ while all those from it are termed ‘down’. Train identifiers, or TD numbers, used for internal purposes, change to form the next service at Flinders Street.

This next service could be either (i) the train returning to its origin group of lines via the City Loop, (ii) the train returning to its origin group of lines having previously operated via the City Loop, (iii) the train continuing as a through service to the other side of the city via Southern Cross and North Melbourne, or (iv) the use of Flinders Street as a stub terminus, where drivers change ends and trains return to the origin line.

Of these the first two are most common. Through-running is less widespread and less publicised, frequently being subject to change. Compared to through-running, stub operation is less economical of track and platform space so is confined to the less intensively served lines (eg Sandringham, with a 9 minute peak frequency).

It is also at Flinders Street where decisions are made to alter train patterns, so that up trains form a different down train to that specified in the working timetable. These short-notice alterations, or transposals, assist recovery from late running and are extremely common. Less commonly, late trains may be altered to operate direct rather than via the loop, providing Flinders Street with a somewhat more reliable service than loop stations.

However changing drivers and transposing trains at at Flinders Street can cause difficulties for staff and passenger information. There is often uncertainty as to what service an incoming train will form until the last minute. And display screens do not have real-time information, unlike the ‘minutes to’ indicators at other stations.

Information in walkways

Platform information displays at Flinders St

The above images indicate the absence of real-time information at Flinders Street, despite its importance for efficient mobility on a complex system prone to delays. Without information passengers cannot make the best choice of which platform to change to. Passengers for stations served by trains on multiple platforms might go ‘platform shopping’, unnecessarily clutter walkways and slow those alighting. Conflicting uneccessary pedestrian movements (eg to/from platforms 4 & 5 on the diagram below) can reduce people throughput and the station's efficiency.

In contrast passengers armed with real-time information when they alight can proceed directly to the required platform (sometimes but not always indicated by announcements), without unnecessary deviations. This improves walkway throughput and platform efficiency. These are both important considerations given increased pedestrian flows (from a busier network) and revised timetables (that promise more through services or rely more heavily on passengers changing trains). For similar reasons the larger information displays need to be plainly visible from (but not directly in the line of) busy walkways (where lookers block those who know where they’re going), and a ‘keep left’ rule, encouraged by unidirectional ticket barriers, could be encouraged.

It was mentioned earlier that trains are frequently transposed. Some transposals do not affect passengers. But where city-bound trains are listed in the timetable as through services but are cut short transposals matter. On other occasions trains that have served loop stations before arriving at Flinders Street may have their destinations changed from that timetabled. Whose job is it to inform the passenger of these changes?

If the driver was continuing straight through, it would be reasonable to expect them to provide an announcement. However as mentioned above, Flinders Street is the major point where drivers change over. The driver alighting at Flinders Street is only concerned about his next service and may not know the fate of the train he has just left. Conversely his replacement is only concerned with where the train is going, not from whence it came or where the timetable states the train should go.

Platform staff have little information beyond printed timetables and even if they did this may not help those already on the train. Hence information is often limited and the full benefit of though services is not always realised due to the high chance that they are terminated short (and other services – typically late running but earlier scheduled trains - are extended instead).

Could altered driver rostering change this? Changed procedures so that more drivers stayed with the same train as it entered, stopped and left Flinders Street Station would provide a continuity often currently missing. If backed by announcements as to what the train will form before it stops at Flinders Street this could provide improved information for passengers.

However moving driver changovers from Flinders Street to suburban stations, although desirable for short dwell times and information continuity, poses other challenges. Transposals will still be required, and these are likely to be easier to arrange if drivers were pooled in the same location that decisions are made (rather than dispersed across several suburban stations).

A possible solution is to schedule trains so that through-services constitute the regular operating pattern. Even if trains continued to be transposed (as they will be) transpositions would affect fewer passengers. Eg if a late-running Frankston train formed a later Laverton (or Williamstown) service rather than its scheduled Werribee train, the bulk of passengers making cross-city trips (eg South Yarra to Footscray or Caulfield to North Melbourne) would be unaffected. This is because few passengers on the Frankston line would be travelling further than Newport, but a fair number would want Southern Cross, North Melbourne or Footscray.

This arrangement may come about if Victorian Transport Plan proposals to link the Frankston and Werribee lines via Flinders Street and Southern Cross come about. While potentially controversial, this operating pattern would need to apply at all times, not just peak periods.

In the interim, greater attention to information and announcements could make passenger throughput more efficient, improve legibility and speed end-to-end travel. When patronage was static or falling these sorts of matters tended to be pushed into the background as unimportant. However with different operating patterns, more trains, higher patronage and crowded walkways, the ‘scientific management’ of pedestrian flow, based on appropriate information given at the point of need, is going to have to be rediscovered to maximise passenger throughput and speed travel.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

The June 2010 Caulfield group train timetable - service trends

One significance of the latest train timetables is that it is the first to have commenced after the arrival of new trains. This has allowed additional peak services to be scheduled, in this case largely on the Caulfield group.

To assess the significance of this change as against others I went through my old timetables and counted the number of trains that passed Caulfield in the morning and afternoon peak periods. Suburban trains that arrived at Flinders Street between 7:00 and 8:59am or departed between 4:00 and 6:59pm were counted. The results are below:

Timetable date: No trains (am) / No trains (pm)

20 Jan 1975 (VR): 42 / 47

15 Apr 1985 (Met): 31 / 39

29 Aug 1988 (Met): 35 / 43

21 Oct 1991 (Met): 34 / 42

6 Dec 1998 (Bayside): 28 / 38

19 Nov 2000 (Bayside): 29 / 40

27 Jan 2002 (M>Train): 30 / 40

Oct 2004 (Connex): 30 / 40

15 Oct 2006 (Connex): 32 / 42

30 Sep 2007 (Connex): 33 / 43

27 Apr 2008 (Connex): 34 / 45

Nov 2008 (Connex): 35 / 46

20 Jul 2009 (Connex): 37 / 46

June 2010 (Metro) : 42 / 55

There will have been other timetables not featured above. A weakness of this simple count method is that it neglects cases where services have been extended from middle-suburban locations such as Mordialloc and Oakleigh to outer suburban termini such as Frankston and Cranbourne. So although train throughput may have fallen, service kilometres may have held up due to average longer runs.

However some broad trends are discernible, such as the following:

* A decline in peak service around 1980 (this was the point that train patronage reached historic lows), a partial recovery later that decade until another drop in the early 1990s.

* The 2000s saw a weak recovery, adding a train or so per year, though it wasn't until 2008 that train numbers had been restored to 1988 levels.

* 1975 peak service levels were only met or exceeded in the June 2010 timetable. Off-peak service levels were boosted in the 1990s, followed by Sunday service a few years later. At most stations evening services remain less today than in 1975 (every 30 instead of 20 minutes) due to service cuts in 1978.

* The effect of new infrastructure such as the third track to Moorabbin. The timetable released just after that (1988) included extensive express running that was pruned in subsequent timetables until being increased again in 2010.

* The growth of outer areas on the Dandenong line such as Pakenham and Cranbourne. Until this latest timetable this meant that nearly all timetable additions on the Caulfield group went to those areas rather than Frankston.

Comparison with patronage

How do the trends in service level compare with patronage? Patronage underwent a long decline from the late 1940s to 1980, with the drop in the 1970s the steepest (reaching a trough of 93 million trips). This fall partially reversed in the 1980s, with strong rises for several years. However the state's recession, high cancellations (due to industrial disputation) and service cuts in the early 1990s caused the decline to resume.

Later passenger numbers levelled off and started to grow slightly. For example, Department of Transport evidence provided to the Legislative Council Select Committee on Train Services indicate little patronage growth between 2000 and 2004. At best passenger numbers rose in line with population, making no progress towards achieving either the franchise contracts ambitious patronage targets or the modal share aim of the Melbourne 2030 plan.

Comparing this account of patronage with train numbers up to this time indicate a correlation - higher service levels were associated with higher patronage and lower service levels were associated with lower patronage.

2004 marked a turning point where patronage diverged from service level offered. Overcrowding increased as more passengers started riding substantially the same number of trains. At the time the government was grappling with new train contracts after the walkout of National Express. New trains arrived but these merely replaced the scrapped Hitachis rather than expand the fleet. National Express suspended driver training, causing cancellations to rise due to driver shortages. And when Connex took over the whole system their priority was to reintegrate the system by, for example, training drivers who had only been taught 'their' half.

By 2009 annual patronage had exceeded 200 million - more than double that of 1980 and about 50% up on just five years before. Extra trains were slotted in here and there, but with passenger growth exceeding service growth, overcrowding and delays intensified.

Public transport as a political issue rose in profile and the government ordered more trains. This order was later increased. The new trains started arriving this year.

The June 2010 timetable was the first to take advantage of these extra trains. This allowed a peak service increase unseen for many years. Meanwhile patronage is still growing but slower than the steep rises of the 2000s. Hence we are in a period where peak service is growing faster than patronage, marking a catch-up on the 2004 - 2009 period when patronage rose faster.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

The June 2010 Caulfield group train timetable - Week 1

A week has passed since the new train timetable commenced. This timetable introduced major changes on the Pakenham, Cranbourne and Frankston lines, such as more consistent train spacing, more regular stopping patterns and the removal of most Frankston express trains from the City Loop.

Following are several observations from peak travel during the first week:

Service levels

The introduction of more direct Flinders Street trains has allowed a higher overall service. Trains are more regular with each stopping pattern operating approximately every 10 minutes (see extract from Metro Frankston timetable below).

The 20 July 2009 Caulfield group timetable had 37 trains arriving at Flinders Street between 7:00 and 8:59am weekdays. The June 2010 timetable has 42 arrivals, an increase of 13.5 per cent. In the afternoon the number of scheduled departures from Flinders Street between 4:00 and 6:59pm was 46 in 2009. The June 2010 timetable increased this to 55 services, or a rise of 19.5 per cent.

Some additional counter-peak services were added. Off-peak service levels remained unchanged. However Hawksburn, Toorak and Armadale gained a doubled weekend service due to the conversion of Frankston express trains to stoppers.

Over the last five or six years years train patronage had risen much faster than the number of services added. This has led to overcrowding. This month's changes respresent the largest peak period service 'catch-up' in this period.

June 2010 Metro timetable showing more regular peak service patterns

Loop operating patterns

The new timetable saves some passengers from an unwanted trip around the loop while others who previously had a direct service will need to change (and have a longer trip). Hence there are winners and losers from the new timetable, even though it is overall in the network's interest.

Why? An inefficiency with the Caulfield group timetable was that up to now everything, except for a couple of direct services, ran via a single platform on each of the three City Loop stations. At this point the trains were pretty much full and there is limited capacity to add more trains to the loop.

Yet we were still sending many passengers (destined for Flinders Street and Southern Cross) via the loop. And they were occupying space on trains (normally seats in the pm peak) to the exclusion of loop passengers (particularly those boarding at Parliament in the pm peak). This was fine ten years ago when patronage was less, but had become inefficient more recently.

The new timetable lessens the load on the loop by ensuring that a greater proportion of passengers travelling through it are users of loop stations rather than travelling to/from Flinders Street. Passengers travelling to/from Flinders Street are given more opportunities to bypass the loop, with the incentive to do so overwhelming for Frankston line passengers south from Cheltenham.

The seperation of loop and Flinders Street passengers is advantageous to both groups. Flinders Street passengers get a quicker and more direct ride while loop passengers have more room as there will be fewer Flinders Street passengers on board.

Southern Cross passengers can choose to change at Flinders Street or board a loop train. Currently the two are roughly similar. The loop option operates via two more stations and is geometrically less direct. However the loop option is probably 'safer' (even for passengers travelling beyond Cheltenham) as it doesn't have the transfer penalty or dwell times of Flinders Street.

If it is found that loop trains are more heavily loaded than direct trains, Southern Cross could be a useful fulcrum for a future rebalancing. Providing Southern Cross with a reliable no-change option to/from the Caulfield group via Flinders Street would take nearly all of the beyond Cheltenham traffic out of the loop, as well as some Caulfield passengers. Such arrangements could operate within a larger cross-town pattern operating between (say) Werribee and Frankston, such as generally ran before the City Loop opened and shown in Victorian Transport Plan diagrams.

Crowding

The added capacity has clearly reduced crowding. More trains are merely comfortably full rather than crush-loaded. Boarding at pinch points such as Parliament in the pm peak is easier.

Passengers from Flagstaff, Melbourne Central and Parliament wanting a Frankston express train need to change at Richmond. The express trains were not unduly full and for Parliament passengers boarding would have been easier than under the old timetable at Parliament.

On-time running

On the first day I stood at Parliament between 5:00 and 5:30pm to observe loadings and on-time running during the 'peak of the peak'.

It was almost a textbook service. Trains got up to about 2 minutes late but had been brought back to 0 or 1 minute by the time I left. Lower train loadings made for faster boardings and the platform was unusually uncluttered. While part of this would be expected due to the university semester break, much of the improvement can still be attributed to the new timetable.

Ill passengers and infrastructure faults caused delays on other occasions. However less crowding should speed up boarding times. The first opportunity to judge the new timetable's effect on punctuality will be when the June Track Record comes out in early July.

Information and interchange

With altered stopping patterns and (especially) more direct running, passenger information was critical. Stations received posters advising of the revised schedules, newspaper advertisements were run and staff handed out timetables at normally unattended stations. There were also more than usual announcements from stations.

Morning passengers on direct trains were advised to change at Flinders Street (Platform 1) for loop services. The thinking behind this appears to be to even out loading - whereas trains at Richmond are full, those leaving Flinders Street Platform 1 have spare capacity as they have already disgorged their Flinders Street loads. However, especially for Parliament passengers, changing at Richmond is quicker and this is likely to be the option people use, despite the fuller trains (that boarding passenges are only occupying for a few minutes). Also Southern Cross passengers may be able to save walking by boarding trains on nearer platforms such as 4/5 instead of 1.

Flinders Street direct trains were programmed with extended 'change at Flinders Street' announcements for Southern Cross and loop passengers. These announcements (including Southern Cross) were applied to all express trains, even those that in the public timetable are shown as continuing to Southern Cross, such as the 6:59am from Frankston (see timetable above).

On at least one train the automated train announcements were right more often than the printed timetable. On Wednesday and Friday the 6:59am service continued to Williamstown or North Melbourne, and hence ran the full scheduled service via Southern Cross. However on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday it terminated early at Flinders Street, changed ends and formed an empty, Sandringham or Cheltenham service.

A strong 'greater good' argument exists in favour of such transposals to allow faster recovery from earlier delays. However it is also desirable that timetables do not over-promise and only show through services that can be reliably run.

Overall

The first week of the new Caulfield group timetable can be considered a success, with more frequent, consistent and regular trains lessening crowding. However the greater number of direct services increases the number of transferring passengers at near-CBD stations. This imposes more stringent passenger information and interchange requirements than in the past. More will be said about these in a future post on Flinders Street Station.

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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Bedtime reading: Parliamentary Committee on Train Services

The Legislative Council's Select Committee on Train Services has just issued its first interim report. The paper includes the report itself, voting results on its more controversial findings and minority reports from some committee members.

The media soon jumped on to the report’s findings. It was sometimes treated it as if it came from an authoritative source, compiled after a careful evaluation of evidence of witnesses called before it.

Despite the quality of presentations from witnesses (who were all leaders in their fields) a parliamentary committee report does not have the same rigour as (say) an independent inquiry or royal commission (although some processes eg the use of expert witnesses and the invitation of submissions appear similar).

Instead ‘findings’ of parliamentary committees are more likely to be ‘opinions’ supported by the majority of its members. Notwithstanding the effort that witnesses and others made when writing submissions, the broad content of parliamentary committee reports are largely determined by the party affiliations of its members.

This particular committee had a majority of non-government members. Tension between them was sometimes apparent to witnesses who heard some of the asides. These differences intensified through the pages of the interim report (and in particular voting on the wording of findings) that reveal a committee sharply divided on party lines.

Parliamentary committees reporting on controversial matters tend to follow a common script. The government MPs seek to present the government in the best light. The opposition MPs seek to discredit the government, while seeking to remove criticism of their own period in office. And minor party members may use the process to boost their own profile.

The committee’s greatest impact may well have been during the hearings (that generated significant publicity). The previous rail operator opposed an upgrading of the under-rated Comeng train air conditioners and had neither obligation nor funding to do so. However the upgrades, funded by government, were announced as part of the new train contracts signed in late 2009. Also coinciding with the new contracts (which brought in a new operator) was a doubling of track, signal and overhead maintenance expenditure.

As for the future, parliamentary committees tend to have a life of their own. This committee’s scope has extended to ticketing, meaning that public transport will be under parliamentary scrutiny for some time yet.

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

New station and new times: a day of change on Melbourne's rails

Today was significant for Melbourne's rail network for two reasons.

The first was the opening of Coolaroo Station, the first new station since Roxburgh Park in 2007. Coolaroo serves three established residential areas; the 1950s housing commission suburb of Dallas to the south-east, the 1970-80s suburb of Coolaroo to the east and the 1980-90s suburb of Meadow Heights to the west.


View Large Map

Possibly due to a long-mooted rail electrification extension (opened in 2007), the station's construction is not the railway's first involvement in providing transport to the area. Victorian Railways scheduled a bus that continued where the train left off at Broadmeadows. As shown in this 1975 timetable (VR WTT), Route 903 provided a daytime feeder service between Broadmeadows and Coolaroo. Consistent with retail hours at the time, the bus ran 5 1/2 days per week.

Like the other Victorian Railways bus routes (901, 902) the service was either abandoned or renumbered and incorporated into (typically longer) conventional suburban bus routes.

The other major change today was the start of new suburban timetables. The real test will be tomorrow which will see additional services and revised stopping patterns, most notably on the busy Caulfield group.

In summary the changes are:

* Craigieburn line: More peak services to start and finish at Craigieburn (instead of Broadmeadows). Trains stopping at the new Coolaroo station.

* Hurstbridge line: Additional weekday evening services. Trains to Eltham will operate approximately every 20 minutes until after 9pm. This is the second line to have received enhanced early evening services; Ringwood was first a year or so back.

* Cranbourne and Pakenham lines: Simplification of peak stopping patterns and additional peak services. Off-peak weekday services change to operate express between Malvern and South Yarra, swapping with Frankston trains, which will serve these stations.

* Frankston line: Simplification of peak stopping patterns and additional peak services. Express trains to operate direct to/from Flinders Street. The increased use of direct running is a continuation of a trend started with the Werribee line, which had both peak and some off-peak services removed from the City Loop (introduced simultaneously with a doubling of off-peak weekday service frequencies). Off-peak trains will stop all stations, swapping with Crabourne/Pakenham on weekdays and doubling weekend service frequency to stations between Malvern and South Yarra to ten minutes. Also added are some extra counter-peak train services.

A campaign of direct mail, newspaper advertisements, notices at stations, brochures, website advice and staff handing out timetables has been run to promote the changes, particularly on the Caulfield group where the changes are greatest. Because the changes represent a simplification of stopping patterns, it was possible to depict them in a simple graphical form.

As with all changes, there will be winners and losers, particularly on the Frankston line due to the loop changes. Most stations will receive the same or more services, but some will receive fewer - a price of consistency. Users of Frankston express trains who use Flinders Street will have a much quicker ride, while users of Loop stations will use their one-train ride if they want to get an express. Instead they will need to transfer at Flinders Street (recommended in the morning) or Richmond (evening).

Especially in the afternoon, it will be interesting to see the proportion of passengers for stations beyond Cheltenham (where the express service would normally be chosen) who opt for a slower stopping all stations train to avoid a transfer. If this occurs, stopping trains may well be fuller than would be expected from station usage statistics between Highett and the city, and express trains a little less full.

The choice that passengers prefer is likely to depend on boarding location. While passengers at Southern Cross can board trains that go to Flinders Street and transfer to an express service from there, passengers at Flagstaff, Melbourne Central and Parliament do not have this choice. Instead they will need to choose between boarding a stopping all stations service (which may have spare seats at Southern Cross and possibly Flagstaff, but not Melbourne Central or Parliament) and staying on to their destination, or board any train on Platform 2 and changing to an express at Richmond or Caulfield.

Several themes, some continued from the previous timetable changes are discernible from this latest timetable change. These include:

* Recognition that the City Loop (at least with current signalling) cannot handle all peak services that need to run. Hence extra services (made possible by the purchase of additional trains) have been made to run direct. In the short term this might reduce legibility (as all trains no longer run via the loop), but this can be restored by ensuring that after a transition period (such as we may now be experiencing) all trains from certain lines run direct, not just half of them.

* More consistent stopping patterns and increased frequencies on each one. This is making the network more legible and reducing distortions in patronage caused by people aiming to catch particular trains due to their super-express stopping pattern (for example). An example of an improvement on the Frankston line is that until this latest timetable the last two pm express trains were 30 minutes apart.

* Spreading the peak. On the Frankston line this timetable introduces additional early morning 'early bird' services. On the Hurstbridge line this timetable introduces additional evening services. Nevertheless this remains a critical area on the Caulfield group; for example unlike the Burnley group, where peak frequencies and express trains continue for around 3 hours in the morning and evening, the Frankston line's peak service span remains about one third this in both the morning and evening.

* Removing 'holes' in timetables. It was not long ago that services from Frankston dropped to a 30 minute frequency shortly after 6pm on weekdays. Ex-city morning counter-peak services were sometimes less frequent than off-peak services. A previous timetable change introduced additional services that filled some of these gaps. This latest timetable continues this work, with early evenings from Frankston gaining additional services.

* The importance of frequency. This and simpler stopping patterns is supported by the current train operator. We have already seen more frequent off-peak services introduced by the previous operator on the Werribee line, along with evening improvements on the Ringwood, Pakenham and Cranbourne lines. Today's timetable changes stopping patterns to provide a ten minute weekend service to all stations between South Yarra and Caulfield. In addition there are frequency improvements at some other times, as discussed above.

The pace of train timetable change has quickened in the past couple of years, after years of relative stagnation. This is appropriate since timetables are key to a service's usefulness to passengers. They also play a large part in the efficient utilisation of track capacity and the service's reliability. Change driven by how to most efficiently serve booming patronage, allows a constructive reappraisal of our use of infrastructure (including the City Loop) for maximum capacity, reliability and legibility. Although reliability is currently below standard on parts of the network (most notably the Caulfield and Northern group), it is the increasing discussion about how the network is planned and run that I think offers cause for optimism in the future.

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