Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Timetable Tuesday #114: 70 years of tram timetables - how have they changed?


Summary: You can wait up to twice as long for 
a tram at night than your grandparents had to.  

Trams are Melbourne's slowest changing (and some would argue slowest moving) public transport mode. We're getting new trams and upgraded stops but the pace of progress towards accessibility was described as slow by the state auditor-general. Also rarely are lines extended despite many stopping about 1km short of stations due to a history of competition rather than connection between modes. 

The inner suburbs the trams serve have changed much faster than their transport. They are now less industrial and more gentrified. Urban consolidation within them is seen as an alternative to (or at least a moderator of) fringe sprawl. Trams are talked about as being keys to our city's livability which in turn assists international investment but in action are merely taken for granted. 

In particular, trams' ability to handle the increased transport effort growth and density require is hampered by (a) slowness and unreliability due to their extensive on-street running with car-caused delays and (b) service levels that have hardly changed in decades or have even been cut. 


The most recent service change on some routes appears to have been a reduction. This is due to a recent wheel shortage putting some older trams off the road. Apparently due to long supply chains and 'just in time' philosophy we don't stock sufficient spares locally.  

Anyway that's hopefully temporary. What about long-term trends in tram service levels? Back in the early days, going back to the cable trams, the motto was "Always a tram in sight". In other words a turn-up-and-go service. This compares with railways that was more a freight mover and transit for those outside the contiguous urban area. Their users caught specific trains and relied on timetables (ie a regimented industrial type mentality as opposed to post-industrial temporal fluidity). 

Transport Vlogger Reece Martin did a comparison of Toronto vs Melbourne trams. Our system's big advantage is its geographical extent. But on frequency Toronto was way better with consistent 10 minute or better service day and night. Wheres our trams can have gaps of 20 or even 30 minutes. Watch it here: 



As it turned out Melbourne once had Toronto-style tram frequencies. Then, mainly between 1954 and 1969, we cut them. On every route. Fifteen years ago I bought a book that listed these cuts and wrote a blog post summarising them. That post was just a chronology and didn't graphically show these and subsequent service changes. Hence it didn't present the 'big picture' particularly well. 

I've finally got around to presenting them in time-line form. I'm not going say that it's 100% correct; there may have been some changes that I've missed. And some tram routes are more frequent than others. But Krustylink's old tram timetables has been of great assistance to gauge service levels in the '80s and 90s. Along with personal memories of service upgrades in the early years of franchising. Where there are variations, I'll take Route 67 as a representative route for no better reason than it being one that I once lived near. 

On the diagrams below years are left to right. The first year is 1951 with the last being 2021. Service levels are bottom to up. They are 1 to 6 trams per hour, though the legend shows this as frequency (every 60, 30, 20, 15, 12 and 10 minutes). Hence the taller the green the more frequent the service. Click on the image for a better view. 

Weekday interpeak

Service cut from every 10 to every 12 min early on where it remained for decades. There was a further cut to every 15 min on some routes (notably those that serve St Kilda Rd) in the early 1990s. However these were some improvements in the early years of franchising with approximately half our routes operating every 10 minutes or better interpeak. However Route 82 between Footscray and Moonee Ponds remains a laggard with a better service on weekends than on weekdays. Its weekday midday frequency remains less than it was in 1989 despite dense development since.  


Weeknight

Did you know that Melbourne trams once ran every 10 minutes in the evenings? Amazing but true. It starts off with a similar story to weekdays but the cuts kept on coming. By the end of the 1960s waits for trams were double what they were in the early 1950s. 

This was the same era in which television came, local cinemas shut and the main people out at night were youth in their hotted up cars. Then, and this is the biggest story of this post, service stagnated for the next 50 plus years except for some shoulder peak and early evening improvements. Tram timetables have remain largely cast in stone despite all the wider social changes eg flexible working  hours, night time economy and the 24/7 society. The erosion in frequency means that, especially at night, you can often drive to a destination in less time than it takes for the tram to show up at your stop. 



Saturday afternoon

The reason I say Saturday afternoons is that it seemed that Saturday mornings had a more intensive service reflecting past shopping patterns (Many Melbourne bus routes still have that pattern in 2021 despite the need having gone). The drop off here was less sharp than on weeknights. At least some routes (like the St Kilda Rd group) had early 1990s cuts that have not been reversed. 


Saturday night

A similar pattern to weeknights with a halving of service from 10 to 20 minutes. Service upgrades since have been to expand span of hours rather than frequency. 



Sunday morning

The question marks relate to uncertainty over early 1950s frequency - it could have been 10, 12 or 15 minutes. The cuts to the current frequency were made about 60 years ago. Another type of cut was the replacement of quieter tram routes with buses on Sundays (and sometimes Saturday afternoons). This practice largely ended in the late 1990s, making trams more consistent and simpler to use as almost all routes ran 7 days. There was however still an oddity with the 55/68 but that was fixed in 2005. A few tram routes now run a 20 minute service (instead of 30 minutes) and some other routes have had the midday frequency made to start a bit earlier however the half-hourly frequency remains widespread in the important 7 to 9am slot.  


Sunday afternoon

What I've loosely defined as Sunday afternoon (or really 10am to 7pm) is where there has been the biggest turnaround in frequency across all times reviewed. Possibly a sweetener for privatisation, this Kennett government initiative boosted Sunday service levels to those which operated on Saturday on all metropolitan tram and train routes. These are the sort of big service upgrades we need but have rarely been implemented by subsequent governments, particularly on trams. Anyway the effect of this was to restore frequencies to 1960s levels after a 30 year trough. 


Sunday night

Nothing much here. 1960s cuts and no serious restoration of service. With few exceptions, this leaves our 30 minute service frequency at just one-third that of comparable tram routes in Toronto. 



Conclusion

One might quibble about details, but the big picture is this. Big cuts from the early 1950s to the late 1960s as the Tramways board sought to balance the books in the face of rising wages and falling patronage. Higher deficits were accepted in the '70s and '80s but service remained static and patronage rose for some years in the '80s. 

That was until the industrial activism and further service cuts in the early 1990s. Some restoration of service happened from the mid-1990s with conductors removed from 1998. The improvements then tailed off with little happening frequency-wise on most routes in the last 20 years. Instead emphasis has been on extending weekend span including Night Network. Thus our densifying inner area is hardly closer to having an all-day turn-up-and-go tram service than it was a generation ago and has a much inferior frequency to that enjoyed by their grandparents.  



Friday, April 16, 2021

UITP Interview: Megan Bourke O'Neil from the Department of Transport


A few days ago UITPANZ interviewed Megan Bourke-O'Neil. Ms Bourke-O'Neil is the Deputy Secretary of Policy and Innovation at the Department of Transport. The occupant of that position would have influence or at least be worth taking notice of when getting an idea of the Department's projects and priorities. That's why I think the whole 40 minutes is worth listening to. 

Hear it for yourself or, if you're busy, skim though my precis below. I've added comments at the end.  

Personal background

Studied social work at Victoria University. Employed in not for profit sector. Worked in child protection area which gave an understanding of disadvantage. 

Considers access important for participation in jobs and life and understands transport angle. Came in to transport in 2009 with an understanding that it is all about improving quality of life for people. 

Was CEO of Victorian Taxi Commission 2010 - 2012 and presided over ride share reform. This involved the de-regulation of the taxi market and regulating/admitting Uber so that taxi licenses were no longer expensive tradeable commodities. Considered that a good thing though there were strong protests from taxi owners who saw their asset value plunge.

More in her Linkedin profile 


Precis of interview 
 
The current 'Policy and Innovation' title is deceptive. Role also involves a long term transport strategy.  

Overall focus is on "improving and transforming services". The aim is to take a "long term outlook" but also be about "changing things now". 

There is a heavy involvement in "developing, testing and trialling new service models".  

Commercial strategy is important as we have new infrastructure coming on stream and Melbourne has one of the most privatised systems in the world. 

Network integration tasks were said to be important. 

Strategy, innovation and data insights is another priority. As was encouraging external engagement and innovation.  

Transforming the network and its services to make the most of new infrastructure was a major focus. 

An innovation program has already lead to new initiatives on the network. More on that later. 

Awareness of new travel patterns particularly post COVID.

Interface with other policy areas. Eg "environmental friendly sustainable transport". Accessible transport. Personal safety. Fares and pricing. 

The Policy and Innovation Secretaryship role also includes operational oversight over ports and freight. This includes leading Freight Victoria. 

Much of the above can be summarised in the aim of "Simple Safe and Connected Journeys". 

Working innovatively meant harnessing outside expertise and agile working. There was also to be no pre-conceived notions about solutions. 

Major examples of innovation include real time information for transport users. For example Ride Space which communicated to passengers how much room there was on services so people could travel with confidence. This included a data feed to Google Maps (used by 62% of passengers). This was allied with off-peak fares to try to spread usage over the day. 

Real time information could also assist with road traffic flow, especially when associated with faster response to blockages and clearways. 

Service models were a matter of interest including for on-demand buses.   

Two big challenges for the future included reliable freight movement in the suburbs and first and last mile connections. 

"The DoT is still young". It's been fully integrated for less than 2 years.  

Sees future for more niche commercial passenger products, eg cites Sheba (women/children taxi service) or green options where people pay more for less pollution. Also a cross-over with on-demand services. 

Thinks that Department is getting better with customer understanding. Sees opportunity for many people in departmental roles. Planning described as a "fantastic part of transport to be in". 

In a job that makes her heart sing. So she can work hard and be happy but can carry it lightly. 

Sees herself as a role model for other women. Representation important. Good that leadership reflects users. 

My comments

I did not hear much of a transport network vision articulated, especially for the type of high occupancy mass transit that when properly planned and run makes our cities and lives work better. Though to be fair the interviewer did not ask a question like 'How do you see transport in ten years' that would have  given a chance. I expect leaders to be able to inspire the best from people. I'm afraid that this interview did not quite hit the spot for me (if I was working for DoT or was a contracted operator).  

OK, that might have come across as harsh. When you're heavily involved in making hammers it is tempting to think that every problem can be fixed with one. And there is a risk of being unfairly dismissive of what is possible with other tools like screwdrivers (and even the people who make them). Even though both tools have a legitimate role and no carpenter would be without either. 

I have and declare a bias towards what the Americans call 'mass transit' that carried 12.4% of Victorians to work in 2016. Along with active transport, with its 4.4% share. 
Whereas much of Ms Bourke-O'Neil's experience is in low productivity niche transit like taxis, the sort that in 2016 carried just 0.2% of Victorians to work. The latter is still significant (noting that the census misses non-work trips) but its importance in a growing city depends on whether it is practical, economical or desirable to scale up. Sometimes you need to step back and think about what sort of city you want and the transport mix that best supports this. 

Below are some comments on topics raised, mostly comparing what was said with known departmental activities and achievements.   

Long term transport strategy:
 There's apparently work behind the scenes on this but no public signs have appeared with nothing recent here. Though to be fair, if there was a strategy would anything really be different? Big infrastructure decisions are often heavily political and are hived off to a stand-alone authority to build. DoT may not necessarily be as important under this government as it has been under others. Apart from the project bodies, there is also Infrastructure Victoria which is well advanced with its own 30 year plan encompassing transport. The nearest to a strategy I've seen from the department is their strategic plan from 2019 which I then said lacked detail.

"Improving and transforming service":
The pace of 
reform to the easiest and quickest public transport mode to improve, ie buses, is much slower than 6 - 7 years ago. There is no  publicly known tactical plan for services or annual network reform work program that could sit below any long term transport strategy.

OK this is a different portfolio in a different tier of government, but the Australian Communications & Media Authority shows how a government body can have a five year outlook and annual work program with public engagement to help shape it. And within transport we enviously look at Sydney for the thousands of  recent and upcoming service additions that seem routine business there. Yes, NSW has an active pro-service state government while ours is almost entirely 'big infrastructure' minded. However DoT leadership must accept some responsibility for its inability to successfully internally advocate the case for improved service to political leaders.    

"Developing testing and trialling new service models": The emphasis here is on flexible route services. On a hierarchy of public transport productivity, with Metro mass transit at the top, these sit at the bottom, below even local fixed scheduled bus routes (based on industry accepted metrics like boardings per service kilometre or hour). Given the pressing need for local bus network reform, which would benefit a lot more people, I'm not sure that concentrating on our least productive service styles because someone likes the word 'flexible' is necessarily the best use of executive time or portfolio resources. 

Commercial strategy:
 Our next rail refranchising is not for a while. The UK used COVID to ditch rail franchising (which was already struggling pre pandemic). Their fares are higher and more commercial than ours. Hence the COVID patronage slump made them more vulnerable than our private operators. Our train and tram franchising has withstood this (with a bit of government help). And to our credit we almost entirely maintained service delivery through the pandemic (unlike other cities which cut service).  

On our buses, after a not-so-glowing period with Transdev, we are reforming our bus franchising to be nearer to a conventional fee for service arrangement with government clearly taking back planning. V/Line is the only major non-private part of the network but that's had its own dramas with the last two CEOs departing under dark clouds. IBAC's Operation Esperance investigations are continuing. 

Network integration: It's hard knowing precisely what this means. Buses have certainly been recoordinated when train timetables change. However such efforts have ignored reform to the the large number of bus timetables whose frequencies remain unharmonised with and thus cannot reliably connect with trains. Hence with few exceptions the recoordination exercises have been about maintaining the status quo rather than extending integration between modes.

Another angle one can look at is active transport. To their credit there have been improvements (eg new cycling paths) under projects like the level crossing removals (managed by the LXRP). In this sense the level crossing removals have been integrated projects. However such integration has not extended to matters entirely under DoT's purview such as local bus network reviews timed to take advantage of grade separations or rebuilt stations/interchanges. This is significant as past decisions, like confining bus routes to one side of a railway, can endure after the rationale (eg delays due to level crossings) has disappeared.  

Innovation, data insights and external engagement: There's a few things to discuss here.

While innovation is sometimes understood as doing different things, its less glamorous but no less vital side might involve doing routine things right. Equally important is that we need to be doing the right things.

For example a contracted bus operator might be highly efficient with spotless buses always on time. For that the contract designer and manager should give themselves a pat on the back. But if the routes are indirect, have timetables that miss trains or wastefully overlap other services then the overall result may neither be good nor efficient (in a broader sense). In this case the operation is fine but the planning has been bad. In this case we should keep the operator, keep the contract manager but fix the planning. Then you'll get a truly effective service. 

Especially in a big city where you want to chase the benefits of the network effect, there is the matter of scale. It's no good doing one or two demonstration projects that would be horrendously uneconomical if extended beyond their pilot suburb. As an example, if you think (like Infrastructure Victoria does) that bus routes need 20 passenger boardings per hour to be considered efficient, then you would get more efficiency gains if you reform networks with routes currently attracting 15 boardings/hour instead of experimenting with 'innovations' that are lucky to attract (say) only 5 boardings per hour. Individual anecdotes of a service's benefit warm the heart but should only sway decisions if we can show that they are economically replicable in the thousands across numerous suburbs.  

Innovations should thus be chosen wisely, with a great many proposals rejected. And doing the right thing even if somewhat inefficiently is more effective than doing the wrong thing more efficiently. 


As for data insights a key issue (which would also assist external engagement) is sharing it. Progress has been made with real time data feeds (eg for train crowding) with user benefits. But the system produces a lot of other data (eg patronage) that should also go out as a matter of course. This would assist the research and analysis aspect of external engagement. As an example Track Record publishes performance statistics for trains and trams but not buses, which have long been the neglected mode. And this page should have direct links to a lot more data than is provided.  

Transforming the network and its services to make the most of new infrastructure was a major focus: It's a good idea but for most benefit we should consider all infrastructure, not just new infrastructure. Failure to do so is is a major weakness holding the network and services back. 

No doubt DoT leaders go on site visits where they see the shining stations of flagship projects like the level crossing removals. Then there's the unloved dumps that are Albion, Hoppers Crossing, Jacana and even Dandenong (1990s but poorly kept). We build fancy but don't maintain fancy, let alone upgrade what's there to a decent modern standard. If you boarded at Ormond and alighted at Patterson you would hardly think you were on the same system. Too often we have initiatives that were rolled out on a section of the network (eg the 'rainbow boards' on the Frankston line) but not carried through elsewhere. This affects the passenger experience as available facilities vary between stations (without necessarily much relationship between patronage and amenities provided). 

It's the same with service levels. Weekend parking pressures exist at regional shopping centres while half our buses sit idle in depots instead of being in productive revenue service. And even within the envelope of current service kilometres per year some network reforms are possible as sometimes discussed here.  

Yes, making the most of new infrastructure is important. But making the most of existing infrastructure and vehicles is even more important as there's more of it. A leader with a mass transit mindset would have that as a priority. But because the interview guest has more a niche transit background, I'm not sure patronage and productivity figures quite as prominently in her thinking. 

Interface with other policy areas. Eg "environmental friendly sustainable transport". Accessible transport. Personal safety. Fares and pricing: Regarding sustainability, low emissions vehicles are  on everyone's lips but another key determinant is high occupancy to reduce emissions per capita.

Fortunately this has a happy meeting with efficiency and good economics. High occupancy requires mass not micro transit, even if the 'mass transit' is sometimes a conventional route bus. Another great thing about high occupancy is the improved farebox recovery ratio that (should) set off a virtuous circle including more service, enhanced priority and even dedicated lanes (which further enhances service relative to driving). Unlike a real commercial business, which would be very interested in sales volumes, the Department of Transport is more like a lumbering bureaucracy without a patronage growth mindset or strong targets for same.   

Progress has been made on fares, for instance the recently reduced off-peak fares for some trips as part of our COVID response. It is important though to avoid some of the garden paths that the likes of Infrastructure Victoria seem intent on laying for the Department. Also, as an integrated transport agency the Department should retain its carriage over fares (IV want a Sydney style IPART body, which has been an obstacle to fare integration there).   

Much can be summarised in the aim of "Simple Safe and Connected Journeys": This remains as distant a dream as ever with not a finger being lifted to sort out convoluted but fixable bus routes like 513556, 558566624 or 736. And active transport advocates would have similar tales about suddenly stopping paths or horror roundabouts in their area.   

Service models were a matter of interest including for on-demand buses: Mentioned before. If there's limited resources and staff I'm not sure why the least productive and least used mode is given so much attention. Doing something that works and replictating it 100 times (like can be done with bus network reform) delivers greater community benefits than supposedly innovating with something less scaleable that has a poor record of success where tried. If the emphasis given is anything to go by, there seems to be an overestimation of the merits of low productivity 'flexible transport solutions' despite these likely to only ever be small niches. 

"The Department of Transport is still young. It's been fully integrated for less than 2 years.": People in the Department should (and do) have expertise going back much longer than that. Including a knowledge of what's worked and what hasn't. Excuses based on it being only a short time since the last restructure are wearing thin and should not be made. The basic principles of connected public transport are timeless. It's better to provide the environment for good people (which exist in the Department) to achieve good things than to obsess over precise structures. Having said that, if results are anything to go by, the current structure has been less conducive to service reform ('innovation' if you like!) than that which existed in the early years of PTV. 

Sees herself as a role model for other women. Representation important. Good that leadership reflects users. The Department of Transport has stressed female participation and at one point achieved 100% representation in its highest ranks. However its representativeness amongst other groups including those of non-English speaking heritage, the undegreed and the outer suburban continues to lag. Impressions are that DoT's workforce has a whiter and more inner-urban skew compared to those driving our buses, securing our stations or even planning at Vicroads. 

Under-representation may be exacerbated by organisational structures. For example contracting out, external credentialing and outsourcing has killed off vertically integrated organisations and lessened opportunities for floor to technical specialist career mobility within them (although it might have benefited outsiders from the international 'managerial class'). I discussed the classism of current public transport service offerings here and the failure to deliver job ready networks useful for low income earners here. It is possible that departmental staff backgrounds may cause or at least reinforce some of these biases (eg over-dependence on smartphones for information, scrapping cash fares or not running early buses when blue collar people need transport). 

Summary

All people are shaped by their experiences. Ms Bourke-O'Neil's background is personalised, high fare, bespoke, niche transport like taxis and ride share. These modes have their place but are used by most people for special trips only. For example they might take a taxi to the airport (partly due to other options being expensive or unsatisfactory) but never for a daily work commute (census says 0.2%). 

Niche modes provide premium (ie door to door) service but have a low number of passenger kilometres per driver hour. They are not scaleable to more than a fraction of our total travel, at least not without major consequences for our cities, our environment and social opportunities. Plus the economics are poor. To work at scale they need some combination of high user charges with a market willing to pay, high public subsidies or low (Manila-style) driver wages.

None of the three are especially attractive. High fares makes Uber/taxis impractical for work type commutes (especially for people working minimum wage jobs). High public subsidies force taxpayers to pick up the tab for unproductive transport that would be cheaper, more direct and better used if we asked people to walk to a generally acceptable fixed route nearby. And lower driver pay would exacerbate social inequalities, delivering the sort of low wage society and economy most of us do not want. 

Active and mass public transit lack these limitations. They scale up well and indeed thrive with high usage. One train line can move as many people as a multi-lane freeway. Trams can bring many more customers to inner suburban shopping strips than would be possible if they all drove. And buses can relieve parking pressures near stations, shopping centres and universities while expanding access to suburban jobs. Plus, because all are high productivity modes, they benefit more people, require fewer staff per passenger trip and can  recover a fair chunk of fares charged. 

Productive mass transport means that for a given budget you can improve access for 100 000 voters rather than 10 000. 20 buses an hour carrying 50 people each may justify investment in priority lanes and passenger facilities that you'd never build for a swarm of rideshares going different ways. If transit corridors become enough of a fixture this encourages transit-oriented land use, housing, business and jobs. That further increases usage and justifies further service improvements. Also, for transit's workforce, higher productivity means more job security and better pay.  

Notwithstanding these benefits, I remain unsure whether Ms Bourke-O'Neil 'gets' efficient mass, as opposed to niche, transit. For example there was no mention of any network-wide service standard aims (like announced in 2006 for buses but only partly completed) or patronage targets (like mentioned quietly here). That's big picture stuff you'd expect an executive to cover if it was serious policy. Though maybe a longer interview would have provided more time for these matters to be teased out? 

In any event, a strong understanding of mass transit is important as trains, trams and buses amount for the lion's share of the portfolio's spending on public transport and there is substantial yet relatively untapped scope for increased patronage through network and service reform.  

Yes the minister should listen to her and her department. But I'd also encourage Mr Carroll to consult  broadly and draw insights from his own reading on transport (which I'm encouraged he does do). 

If you heard the interview and have an opinion then please leave it in the comments below. 

Building Melbourne's Useful Network items are here

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Timetable Tuesday #113: Time to end Sunshine's V/Line boarding ban (and double Sunday am service for free)


People love stuff for free. Free food. Free beer. Free almost anything else. 
There's even scope for free and low cost improvements in transport services. 
However despite claiming to drive innovation, our Department of Transport 
can be weak at pressing opportunities for zero and low cost public transport
network service improvements. Presented below is an example where their
keeping of an archaic rule is denying better service to thousands of passengers.

With service every 40 minutes, many of Melbourne's major rail lines, including Sunbury, Craigieburn, Mernda and Sandringham have the lowest Sunday morning suburban train frequency in the country. Similar lines in Adelaide and Brisbane run every 30 minutes while Sydney and Perth lines often enjoy a 15 minute frequency. To our credit we can boast Night Network but this doesn't alter the fact that more are up and travelling at 8-9 am Sunday than 3-4 am.  

The ultimate solution is to boost frequencies like was done for Frankston, Werribee and Williamstown on January 31, 2021. This would need more train drivers to be recruited. But since most railway operating costs are fixed the overall benefits of a more frequent service are greater than the relatively small increment in extra running costs. 

But what if there was a way of doubling Sunday morning service at the busiest station on the Sunbury line without spending a cent or even changing a timetable? 

As it happens, through a stroke of serendipity, there is. It's almost as if the people who specified or wrote the timetable intended it to eventually be. However rail planners don't necessarily control a certain restrictive rule that is holding back the full benefits of their scheduling adeptness.  

Look at the two train timetables below (click for better view if required). The top one is the Metro Sunday inbound timetable for Sunbury with Sunshine highlighted. The lower one is the inbound V/Line timetable for the Geelong line. Both have times for Sunshine but, under current rules, only Metro services can be boarded by passengers there.  



The lucky thing is that not only does both Metro and V/Line run every 40 minutes but their times are almost perfectly offset by 20 minutes. This means that city-bound trains pass Sunshine every 20 minutes from 7:21 am. 

What's stopping people at Sunshine from taking advantage of this more frequent combined service? 

It's archaic boarding restrictions. Despite integrated fares, V/Line rules ban suburban passengers from their trains. That is denoted by the D footnote about Sunshine being a drop-off only station. It affects about half the inbound services that stop at Sunshine in the popular 7 to 10am Sunday time slot. 

This V/Line restriction applies at all times. This is even (a) on inbound trips where every longer distance passenger who wishes to board has had the opportunity to do so and (b) when no substitute Metro service departs Sunshine at a similar time, such as is the case on Sunday mornings due to the latter's low frequency. 

The result then is that between about 7 and 10 am on Sundays the very busy Sunshine Station (and NEIC hub) gets stuck with its 40 minute Sunday morning frequency. That's only half the service enjoyed by quieter stations like Aircraft, Seaholme, Patterson and McKinnon. Whereas if V/Line's boarding restriction was scrapped Sunshine would immediately get a service doubled to every 20 minutes with no timetable change required. The current low frequency means that if you've just missed a train you can drive to most destinations (including the CBD) in less time than the wait for the next train. 

Precedents

Are there local precedents for allowing suburban passengers on country trains like they do in Sydney? 

Yes. At least three. The most liberal policy applied in 2007 when Metcard passengers could board any V/Line train except for those in the peak direction during the peaks. There was however a safeguard whereby conductors could deny Metcard passengers entry if it resulted in overcrowding.  


Then there was the policy that existed for decades at Pakenham Station, which long had an inferior Metro frequency, with Dandenong's (then) ordinary frequency being further split between there and Cranbourne. Except for Sunday mornings (where Pakenham trains remain hourly) service has since substantially improved. 

When it electrified in 2012 Sunbury was similar. It got half the standard Metro train frequency as half the line's off-peak services finished at Watergardens. That lesser service provided a fair reason for V/Line trains to still serve Sunbury passengers. So like at electrified Pakenham, Sunbury passengers could continue to board V/Line trains despite also now having Metro. 

The option to keep using V/Line was a strong stated preference of Sunbury passengers. Unlike other outer suburbanites, who will embrace any transport infrastructure upgrade that comes their way, the Sunbury community was lukewarm about Metro Trains coming to town. And, if it must happen, it was imperative that the choice of being able to board more comfortable but less frequent express V/Line trains was preserved. Which ended up being the case in the first couple of years. 

Then in 2015 something happened. In June PTV announced that Pakenham and Sunbury passengers would lose their right to use V/Line services to and from the CBD. The claim was that forcing these passengers onto Metro services would improve consistency and reliability. Much to the chagrin of  crowding-weary metropolitan passengers who saw half-empty V/Lines whizz by. A Sunbury Leader article reported Sunbury passengers as being 'outraged' by the decision. 

 

If you wanted to summarise these sentiments, it is this: People want trains all for themselves. A seat for oneself is OK but two or four would be even better. V/Line commuters from regional areas don't want their trains filling with suburbanites, even in cases, such as on inbound trips, where they had first choice of seats. These 'suburbanites' include travellers from places like Pakenham and Sunbury who have access to Metro Trains. The view amongst some regional V/Line passengers (given legitimacy by PTV in 2015) was that only they should be able to ride country trains (despite these being subsidised by taxpayers statewide). 

It's more nuanced than a simple two-way regional versus metropolitan divide. Some Sunbury passengers would also prefer not to share trains with people further in. Hence their stated preference (which can be different to revealed preference) for the option of being able to use V/Line trains for CBD travel.

Personal security was another expressed concern. Unlike V/Line trains, Metro trains lacked conductors. And they served areas, like St Albans, Sunshine and Footscray, with reputations for crime. Metro trains were then graffitied and dirty. Cleaning standards only improved about three or four years ago after a deterioration earlier in their franchise period.  

Sunbury had other differences that some of its residents, notably those allied with the Sunbury Residents Association talked up. Rather than being another sprawling Metro-served suburb of Melbourne, Sunbury saw itself as a regional town (served by V/Line) with a proud history in our nation's culture (Eg The Ashes). The SRA was not only wary about rail electrification but also wanted demographically distinct Sunbury to secede from the younger, more diverse and generally poorer City of Hume. Hence the heated debates over rail services got conflated with other local issues including community identity. 


With Sunbury people revealing their preferences and proving rail electrification successful this could hardly be reversed. But there was still a yearning to return the V/Line access that PTV withdrew in June 2015. The Sunbury Train Association and others campaigned vigorously for this with at least one well-attended (and at times rowdy) community forum being held (with the local MP Josh Bull and the minister present).  

In November 2015 then transport minister Jacinta Allan directed PTV to abandon its ban for all but a few peak direction V/Line trips . Minister Allan also extended more Watergardens Metro services to Diggers Rest and Sunbury, with boosted shoulder peak and evening service. This proved fortuitous as the early 2016 V/Line wheel slip crisis took its trains off the tracks. 




The sky didn't fall when the restriction was lifted. Today Sunbury and Pakenham remain with their increased choice of trains. Their communities are getting more value from V/Line. And public transport is most viable when it is well used so boarding restrictions should be applied sparingly if at all. 

Parallels with Sunshine 

The Sunday morning situation for Sunshine is similar to that for Sunbury most times. That is a 40 minute Metro frequency applies. Why not also drop V/Line's restriction for Sunshine at least for the services starting at Waurn Ponds? 

Do that and you've just got a big service upgrade at a busy station for zero cost. Sunshine's existing 40 minute maximum waits would be halved to 20 minutes after 7 am. Those connecting to Southern Cross for SkyBus or regional connections would be key beneficiaries.  

All that's needed is a memo from the Department of Transport to V/Line and some passenger information to make it happen. If they were serious about their 'simpler connected journey mantra' it could be done in days.  

Is this seen as important in the Department? Will they do it? Or will it, like the Sunbury issue did, require intervention from the Minister? 

Not just Sunday mornings

I've concentrated on Sunday mornings but it's worth looking at what Sunshine gets relative to its importance as a transport hub. By any measure it is short-changed. There are stations that have one-tenth the patronage but get double Sunshine's service at most times. Also Sunday's Age reported on the possible diminution of plans to upgrade Sunshine station to a 'super hub'

Sunshine's neglect on the service side is also prominent when compared to other busy suburban stations. Sunshine ranks as seventh busiest. Yet it gets substantially less Metro frequency at most times than any other station in the top twelve (click for clearer view). 


Longer term the Geelong and Sunbury lines (at least from Wyndham Vale and Watergardens in, respectively) both need doubled interpeak, evening and weekend service frequency. But for now a freeing up of V/Line stopping restrictions at stations like Sunshine (at least for off-peak trips) could be a useful stop gap measure.

Sunshine passengers are taxpayers too. They contribute to the running of V/Line which likely has a higher per passenger taxpayer subsidy than metropolitan services. It is reasonable that they be allowed to use it for suburban trips provided that longer distance passengers, where V/Line is the only service, are not disadvantaged.

The latter is more likely for inbound trips, which, in conjunction with the low Metro frequencies operating then, make Sunday mornings a good time to start when relaxing restrictions. Also upgraded DoT information services such as real-time crowding reporting could help passengers decide where they have a choice between Metro and V/Line.  

We know reform is possible. Sunbury on the same line proved it in 2015. The question then is whether any ministerial or Departmental will can prevail over V/Line's likely "won't".