Friday, April 26, 2019

Building Melbourne's 'Useful Network' - Part 1: Caroline Springs

Two weeks ago I unveiled the Melbourne public transport frequent network map. It showed where in metropolitan Melbourne there was all-day public transport service frequent enough to be useful for travel across the day.  

That had several uses. For example you could find where you could go to or connect without waiting long. Or it could help in deciding where to buy or rent a home. For those it’s better than the  PTV local area maps that do not distinguish between the useful frequent routes and less useful occasional services.  

Frequency maps can also be handy if you are a developer, urban planner or transport advocate.  

By showing where the frequent service is these maps help you see where the best locations to build (or approve) denser developments are.  Places near several frequent routes would be attractive to those who value good transport access. Developments in such areas may need less provision for parking than those remote from the frequent network.  Whereas  you would avoid high densities in less accessible places.  The 10 and possibly 15 minute Sunday map would be most useful as, if a service is frequent on Sunday it will be frequent on all other days.    

Transport advocates, particularly in densifying or historically unserved areas, may also find these maps useful.  If their suburbs have grown rapidly, experienced overcrowded buses and/or has demograpics suited to high public transport usage a strong case may exist to increase frequency.  

This exercise, which will run each Friday for several months, is to identify Melbourne's 'Useful Network' deserts. I will also identify where and how the Useful Network can be expanded.

Defining the Useful Network

The first job is to set a threshold service level for the 'Useful Network'. A strict frequency threshold (like 10 minutes for a 'Frequent Network') neither tells us much nor is cheap to fix since so few routes comply.  Whereas a lax threshold (eg hourly) is not useful for many trips. Although it may be suitable when advocating a basic service where there is nothing.

Thus the threshold needs to be somewhere in between.

I've adopted a 20 minute weekday peak and interpeak threshold frequency for the 'Useful Network'. All trams meet it. As do most train lines. Most bus routes do not. But there's many bus routes just outside the threshold that could be upgraded to Useful Network frequencies relatively cheaply. Thus extending Useful Network coverage to (say) a million more people would be comparatively affordable.  How? That's for later.

As important as frequency is span of hours. For this I'll use the existing minimum standards for buses. That is service until 9pm seven days per week.  

These requirements are not perfect. For example I'm vague on weekend frequencies. And buses would be more useful if they started one or two hours earlier (especially on weekends) and finished a little later. But for simplicity I'll stay with the existing minimum standards. You can see the existing 'Useful Network' as coloured lines when the 20 minute layers for train, tram and bus are selected from the map below (use top left icon to select or top right to view map in new tab). 

Where to from here? 

Each Friday I'll feature one area typically comprising three or four suburbs. I'll briefly discuss what's there now. Then I'll suggest ways to expand the Useful Network.  Unserved areas, sparsely populated areas or isolated pockets between Useful Network route will not be covered. Such areas may justify a less frequent local coverage service. These can be added once a network's core routes, that is its Frequent Network and Useful Network services, have been established.

Useful Network 1: Caroline Springs

The Caroline Springs area comprises 1990s - 2000s suburbs about 25km west of Melbourne. Housing is mostly detached. Although blocks are not particularly large and there is some higher density near the Caroline Springs Town Centre. Rail access is mostly by bus to the Sunbury Line. The new Caroline Springs station to the south outside the suburb is served by country trains and has no significant walkable catchment.  

The area currently has two Useful Network corridors. Both are relatively recent additions. The first is Route 420 between Sunshine, Deer Park and Watergardens (shown above in blue). It was added in 2014 as part of the Brimbank network review. Route 420 is one of the few services to operate every 20 minutes seven days per week.  It's timed to meet trains at Sunshine Station.

Also quite new is the red line from Sunshine to Burnside. This is a two route corridor comprising routes 426 and 456. Both start at Sunshine and overlap to Burnside. 426 then goes north to the Caroline Springs Town Centre while 456 goes west to Melton. Both routes normally operate every 40 minutes. Even offsetting provides a 7 day 20 minute combined service, timed to meet Sunbury line trains at Albion or Sunshine. This corridor features wide operating hours with services to Caroline Springs Town Centre finishing at midnight. 

Potential Caroline Springs Useful Network extensions 

1. Route 460 rescheduling: Most striking on the map is the long white corridor from the station up Caroline Springs Bvd and along Gourlay Rd. That's Caroline Springs' main spine, with the town centre, shops and numerous schools along it. The northern end is not far from the busy Watergardens station and town centre. The absence of the Useful Network in the area is not for the lack of a route; Route 460 from Caroline Springs Station to Watergardens serves it all. The only problem is its current timetable (a previous timetable used to be better). While the 460 normally has three buses per hour, their uneven spacing (sometimes with gaps approaching an hour) excludes it from the Useful Network.  

A characteristic of Caroline Springs is that its bus routes are quite wide apart. There is also limited road permeability to the east as there are few crossing points across creeks and a former urban growth boundary. In addition a sizable proportion of the population work in the CBD so would benefit from better access to trains.  These provide patronage opportunities for the routes that are there.

2. Route 418 upgrade: The next priority for a Useful Network upgrade is likely to be Route 418 along Taylors Rd. This is the most direct means to reach Metro trains from the Caroline Springs Town Centre. Thanks to the 2014 Brimbank network review it has a good direct alignment. In addition its catchment to the east includes a high low income population who tend to be heavy users of buses throughout the day. Because Route 418 peak buses already operate approximately every 20 minutes, upgrading interpeak buses to also operate every 20 minutes should be relatively cheap.   

3. Train frequency upgrade: Weekday midday train frequencies at Caroline Springs Station are currently 2 trains per hour, spaced slightly unevenly. This drops to every 60 to 80 minutes on weekday afternoons and weekends. This is why the line does not feature on the Useful Network. An upgrade to every 20 minutes (to Melton) would greatly improve the station's usefulness and boost patronage on the southern portion of bus Route 460.   

4. Other Useful Network extensions: Other extensions to the Useful Network around Caroline Springs are possible. However they are harder due to interdependencies with rail projects or other bus routes. 

For example upgrading Route 426 to a 20 minute off-peak frequency would make it part of the Useful Network in its own right and better connect Sunshine with the Caroline Springs Town Centre. However this would leave an inefficient duplication with Route 456 to Sunshine unless it was shortened to terminate at a local station such as Caroline Springs or Deer Park. As this would remove a fast direct connection between Melton Town and Sunshine this might only be done after the Melton line is electrified or at least greatly upgraded in frequency.  

Similarly something along Hume Dr from Watergardens could fill in some Useful Network gaps. That currently has Route 461 running along it. However Route 461 heads south, going through some smaller streets to Caroline Springs Town Centre. Later, as development spreads west and routes are reformed then Hume Dr might deserve its own more frequent Useful Network route.  

Service priorities for expanding Caroline Springs Useful Network

1. Reschedule Route 460 to provide a more consistent 20 minute weekday service while connecting with trains at both ends. By itself this would massively expand the Useful Network for very low cost.
2. Upgrade Route 418 to operate every 20 minutes during the day between the peaks.
3. Upgrade train frequencies at Caroline Springs Station to provide a consistent 20 minute or better service on weekdays and weekends (as a precursor to electrification).
4. Investigate other routes or corridors such as Route 426 and Hume Drive for future Useful Network upgrades as train services improve and the area develops. 

That's it for Caroline Springs. Please leave your thoughts on the Useful Network concept below. I'll review another area's network in a future Friday.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Timetable Tuesday #20: Weeknights on the trains - how your line compares

Instead of discussing one (sometimes obscure) bus route, this week's Timetable Tuesday is different. I examine the whole Metro train network, showing your line against the rest. Then I compare 2019 services with 1975. Finally I  guess how long improvement might take based on recent gains.  

Last week I issued two series of network maps. The first series showed frequent services operating during the day.  The second series showed which routes operated at 10pm. That's important because most bus routes finish around 9pm and it's not immediately obvious which run later.

Today I'll look at weeknight service on the suburban train network in more detail. Rather than sample frequencies at a particular time, I'll show how frequencies fall over the evening on the various lines. 

How your line compares

Weeknight frequencies for all Metro train lines (and Geelong) are below (click to enlarge). Times are from the CBD.  Most of the longer lines operate an intense peak service with express running.  Generally that steps down to a 15 or 20 minute all stations service after about 6:30 or 7pm. Frequency later drops to 30 minutes on all but one line. Shorter lines like Williamstown, Upfield and Alamein are similar except for a lower pm peak frequency. Frequencies are to the end of the line except for a couple beyond contiguous urban development (like Sunbury and Hurstbridge) where I've used an intermediate station.  

Most striking is the disparity in service frequencies across the network. Lines can be divided into three main groups.

* 30 minute evening service all night: Applies on the Sunbury, Craigieburn, Upfield, Mernda, Lilydale, Belgrave, Alamein and Glen Waverley lines. Normally have a brief period of 20 minute service until the 30 minute frequency kicks in from approximately 7:30 - 8pm. The Hurstbridge line to Eltham almost falls in this group but has some ~20 min gaps later.  

* 30 minute evening service after about 10pm: Applies on the Werribee, Williamstown, Ringwood, Pakenham, Cranbourne, Dandenong and Frankston lines. Mostly have 20 minute service until approximately 10pm, with a drop to 30 minutes afterwards.  A recent upgrade extended Dandenong's 10 minute service to after 9:30pm.

* 20 minute evening service until last train: Provided on the Sandringham line only. But at one time it was widespread. Keep reading.

Weeknight timetables have had some service upgrades in the last 20 or so years. Until about the early 2000s, the Belgrave/Lilydale lines were the busiest on the network. Around then early evening frequencies got upgraded. Hence the 15 minute service to Ringwood.

Not much happened for a decade or so after that. Then new greenfields timetables were introduced to Werribee, Williamstown, Pakenham, Cranbourne and Frankston. That upgraded early evening service from 30 to 20 minutes.  20 minute service continued on these lines for about two hours after the others had dropped down to half-hourly.  Somewhere around that time the Hurstbridge line got some small evening upgrades as far as Greensborough or Eltham. Another upgrade happened a bit after electrification when Sunbury got all evening trains to finish there rather than about half.

There isn't much of a patronage relationship between which lines received evening upgrades and which haven't. For example the Dandenong line is long and busy with Williamstown short and quiet. However it and Werribee are part of a weekday through-route linked to Frankston. That got a mid-evening 20 minute upgrade. So Williamstown and Werribee had to as well. 

Sunbury (as far as Watergardens), Craigieburn and Mernda are all busy lines. All have had electrification extensions. All penetrate growth areas. But the cores of these lines retain the same decades-old 30 minute weeknight frequencies. By not introducing more frequent greenfields train timetables, the state government has foregone the full benefits of its transport infrastructure investments. This is something that the Auditor-General warned about with the Regional Rail Link

Comparison with 1975

So much for 2019. What about some historical perspective? The working timetable book above, found at a secondhand shop in the back streets of Spotswood, is one of my favourite transport purchases. It has all metropolitan rail timetables for January 1975.

The regional network was larger, with trains to Werribee, Healesville, Mornington and others. The electrified suburban network was smaller ending at places like St Albans, Broadmeadows and Epping.  However metropolitan trains to Pakenham were just starting.   

Below is a repeat of the above evening frequency exercise using the 1975 timetable. Timetables for Geelong, Werribee or Cranbourne weren't available or on the metropolitan network. But other lines, though sometimes shorter, were. The suburbs spread out less. And not all trains ran to the end of the line. So on some lines I thought it fair to judge frequencies at closer in stations such as Gowrie, Thomastown or Montmorency.   

The 1975 timetable is notable for two reasons:

* Particularly in the north and west, evening peak frequencies are lower. And they fall away earlier.  People were more likely to finish work on the dot at 5pm back then. And rarely did they linger later in the city. Services were down to an off-peak frequency at or shortly after 6pm. 

* Notwithstanding the earlier post-peak drop-off, evening frequencies stayed higher for longer. On most lines trains ran every 20 minutes to 11pm and often until the last train. Lines with comprehensive 20 minute evening service include Williamstown, St Albans, Broadmeadows, Upfield (Gowrie), Epping, Ringwood, Glen Waverley, Dandenong, Frankston and Sandringham. To put this in context, interpeak and Saturday daytime services also ran every 20 minutes on most lines then. So  back then night and interpeak frequencies were mostly similar. 

To summarise, weeknight trains were more consistently frequent in 1975 than they are in 2019. Then, with one exception, you could randomly arrive at Flinders Street and board a train on any major line within 20 minutes. Even around 11pm.

That's no longer possible in 2019. Typical frequencies have dropped to 30 minutes for all or some of the night. Even on lines with high day and night patronage such as to Dandenong and Watergardens.

2019 vs 1975 weeknight service comparison summary

Day and night train service to outer areas like Belgrave, Lilydale and Pakenham is better now. Ditto for areas that weren't electrified in 1975, such as Werribee, Sunbury, Craigieburn and Mernda. Sandringham and Alamein have also gained. 

But, otherwise, if you live near a suburban station that had a full service in 1975, you probably have an inferior evening service frequency today. Especially after about 10pm. Dramatically lower in the case of St Albans, Broadmeadows, Thomastown and Glen Waverley. Somewhat lower for Ringwood, Williamstown and Frankston. Dandenong is better early in the evening but worse later. Montmorency remains uneven but is on balance worse off. 

Even further back has a 1939 suburban timetable. The pattern we saw when going from 2009 to 1975 continued back to 1939. That is the intensively served network was smaller but evening frequencies were better on it. More specifically there were approximately 15 minute evening frequencies to what are now innerish middle suburbs like Williamstown, Essendon, Coburg, Reservoir, Heidelberg, Box Hill and Brighton Beach. Some others like East Malvern, Oakleigh and Moorabbin had 20 minute frequencies. Hence the likes of Essendon, Coburg and Reservoir have seen a halving of evening train frequencies in the last 80 years.

Conclusion and prospects

Evening train frequency cuts made in the late 1970s, at a time when patronage was falling (and people stayed home watching their new colour TVs) have proved exceptionally enduring. It has taken years to achieve even partial service restorations on some lines.  

In more exact numbers, timetable upgrades in the last decade have restored weeknight 20 minute frequencies on about half the lines for about half the evening. Assuming we maintain this pace we will have a consistent 20 minute weeknight frequency on all lines in thirty years - ie 2049.

This will tie in well with the government's proposed Suburban Rail Loop (SRL) due in 2050. Given the current high enthusiasm for infrastructure and low enthusiasm for service, the SRL may even be complete before we see all evening 20 minute train service to (say) Craigieburn.

While the above might be slightly tongue in cheek, it does match the evidence. After decades of building less rail infrastructure than Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, Melbourne is picking up the pace. We have become the new experts at building things.

But we're less good at using what we build fully, eg by adding service. Whereas, in one major timetable upgrade in 2017 Sydney increased the proportion of stations with a 15 minute service from 29% to 70% (with 93% of passengers).  We could do worse than follow their example so our new infrastructure gets better than half-hourly trains at night. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Southern Cross Station: How it works (or doesn't)

Many know about the operating franchise contracts for Metro Trains and Yarra Trams. They go for 7 years.  Monthly penalties apply if too many services are late or cancelled. And they may not be renewed if overall performance is judged poor (such as what happened to Connex and the former operator of Yarra Trams last time). There also exist contracts for buses run by Transdev and others but they are less well known.  

Even more obscure are the arrangements that govern Southern Cross Station. People assume that stations and interchanges are maintained by the companies that serve them. Or government transport authorities like PTV. Usually that's right. But not for Southern Cross because of how it was funded and built. 

The old Spencer Street Station lost its passenger underpasses but gained a new name, wavy roof, concourse and escalators through a 34 year Private-Public Partnership (PPP) deal. That started in 2002. Alone among stations, Southern Cross is run by a private consortium, unconnected with Metro Trains.

Long-term PPPs were a big thing in public administration about 15 or 20 years ago. Like a Harvey Norman interest free deal you could have your shiny new tollway or station without having to pay much up front. You still made payments (like a renter to a landlord) but it seemed more respectable than old-fashioned Keynesian public borrowing.

A certain generation of politicians loved PPPs. They let them do the political version of walk and chew gum; that is build stuff while being 'financially responsible' by keeping debt off the government books. Instead capital could come from private sources who would rub their hands to get safe returns from long-term government contracts. Especially ones that, like for Southern Cross, transferred risks to government. Not that the opposite was always better, as we found with rail franchising.

Notable about the Southern Cross PPP is its longevity. Over 30 years. Unlike poor old Connex, whose contract was shorter, it doesn't look like the station operator can be turfed out after a few years. They'd have to do something really evil. And even if they did the state would be up against the country's best contract lawyers.

We don't necessarily think of stations as transport providers. But they are. Station lifts and escalators are as much a transport service as the trains on the platform. Especially for Southern Cross due to its  high patronage, position on the network and escalator-dependent design.

Even though escalator failures inconvenience thousands and disrupt trains, Southern Cross appears to lack the means or will to fix things quickly and get people moving. Neither is there public transparency; PTV publishes performance figures for Metro and Yarra but not for station escalators.  Unlike New York's MTA or London's TFL who do take escalators seriously.  

Southern Cross Station escalator problems have been big news lately. Recent failures have lengthened platform clearance times and delayed trains. Repairs have been tardy. Our biggest station is hindering rather than helping travel for thousands.

Initial station design is part of the problem. Short wide people-powered ramps (or steps) going under platforms (like the old Spencer St) are always going to be more robust and reliable than narrow electric escalators going a long way up (like the new Southern Cross).  The lack of mid-platform access (such as at Flinders St via the Degraves subway) has meant no redundancy when things do fail.

Too late to fix? There is always the option of making the best of what's there by managing better.

Last week's problems weren't the first. The lead time for escalator repairs can be long. While a  back-up replacement escalator can't simply be switched in like 1954's telephone talking clock, the better attitudes to maintenance and continuity of service back then are instructive, given that both the station and talking clock are (or were) state-critical services.

Regulating Southern Cross's operation is the aforementioned PPP contract (known as the Services and Development Agreement or SDA).  It's here. Its two parties are Civic Nexus (service provider) and the state government through the former Southern Cross Station Authority (service purchaser).  The latter was previously the Spencer Street Station Authority. SCSA's functions were later transferred to the transport department secretary and then to Public Transport Victoria.

PTV's 2017-2018 annual report mentions Southern Cross Station quite a few times. This includes mention who bears the risk and the costs incurred (big roofs don't come cheap). Reporting is all financial - there's nothing on the station's operational performance (eg escalator reliability).

What about the SDA itself? There's two main documents.

1. Annexure 1 (the project brief ) has history worth reading.  Airport rail, a high speed train and City Loop expansion were mentioned as things to make provision for. Even though we don't yet have any of these things, the project brief's assumed 30 000 peak passenger flow by 2050 (6.2.2) might have already been reached.  6.3 has more on platform access requirements.

2. The main SDA comprises about 300 pages.  That's what I'll concentrate on.

Schedule 1 (after p198) lists service standards.

Most of interest is that exit capacity needs to be enough to quickly empty trains and clear metropolitan platforms within 90 seconds. Regional platforms need to be cleared within 120 seconds. There are exceptions for special events near the station.

Failure to quickly clear platforms lessens the ability to run trains at close headways, and thus line capacity. If egress is poor, passengers can't disembark quickly. And train drivers can't see past large crowds on the platform. Both increase dwell times and lateness.  These effects are compounded on a fragile network like Melbourne's plagued with single line sections and complex stopping patterns on some lines.

Some key performance indicators (KPIs) are self-assessed by the station operator. Exit capacity is  (rightly) important enough to be marked as 'SCSA review'. Given organisational changes, that means monitoring by PTV. This is not publicly reported in the manner that train and tram operational performance is. However there is internal reporting. Here the concessionaire (ie Civic Nexus) must provide quarterly performance reports as per 2.3. In addition SCSA is given wide discretion to monitor performance in 33.1.

Safety is a priority at Southern Cross. Especially if you don't inhale the fumes. No, seriously. Pretty much anything that fails must be 'made safe' within 15 to 60 minutes. That usually involves some sort of tape, cordon and often staff to warn and direct. 

Less defined seem to be requirements to go beyond 'make safe' and 'make working'. That means promptly fixing things like escalators that fail. If the priority was on keeping escalators going, I would expect measures like keeping multiple spare parts on or near site, time limits for repairs and a per hour penalty regime for when escalators are out of service. I couldn't find them.

Instead their KPIs are outcome based like clearing the platform within 90 seconds. That's different in that it places priority on peak times and busy platforms. For example, if an escalator fails at 9pm Sunday does it have a significant customer service consequence? Probably not. That's assuming there's another in the same direction next to it. Nearby steps might also be OK. Provided the escalator was fixed by early next morning (when it is needed for peak crowds) you wouldn't fine the station operator.  After all, if you're too demanding you'll probably have to pay somehow, possibly for limited benefit.

On the other hand, increasing station patronage places a requirement that all escalators must be working at all peaks and increasing amounts of the off-peak for the 90 second requirement to be met. So maybe the distinction between the two approaches is not so important despite different ways of thinking.  Especially with higher patronage.

On this last point, at the time the Southern Cross contract was signed in 2002, transport masters had varying beliefs as to what rail patronage would do. Sometimes they thought it would rise quickly. For instance when they accepted the high patronage projections of private rail franchisees. Similar growth was assumed in the Melbourne 2030 mode share targets.

Other times they assumed low growth, such as when (not) funding additional rail services, scrapping the Hitachi fleet, and, as it turned out, designing Southern Cross. Although wrong in hindsight (especially for Southern Cross, being located at the fast growing end of town) low estimates in 2002 might have been plausible given the slow recent growth. Had planning been done in 2006 or 2007 numbers might have been different.
I've only discussed a few things and can't do the SDA complete justice. Other key points are at 4. (availability of service), 5. (repairs and maintenance), 8. (passenger information and signage including the possible use of monitors for advertising), 13. (back up power), 14. (bin emptying), 27.1 (passenger flow monitoring), 34.3 (advertising),  Annexure K (maintenance and refurbishment plan) and Annexure V (air quality standards).

What is the Southern Cross experience to you? Do you get a sense of uplift when you enter Southern Cross to take a V/Locity? Do you love the shopping available? Do the diesel fumes get to you? Or are you in a long queue for the only escalator working? If nothing else I hope the above has provided some clarity about how Southern Cross Station works (or sometimes doesn't).