Saturday, December 02, 2006

Rethinking the Loop

When the Melbourne Underground Railway Loop was designed, its major intended purpose was to serve a distributor function for CBD commuters. Before the Loop, commuters to the north and east of the CBD had to transfer to (possibly) an overcrowded and gridlocked tram from either Flinders or Spencer Street Station.

For such commuters it did not matter very much which direction loop services went, or indeed whether they reversed in the middle of the day.

However demographics and travel patterns have changed since the loop opened in the 1980s and it is appropriate to review its current function, potential, service patterns and passenger information. Such a review may find that while the loop benefits some trips, it poorly serves others. Furthermore, it is possible that demand for trips it serves poorly is growing faster than those it serves well.

The following have changed since the Loop fully opened in 1985:

* The rise of city living. The resident population has virtually doubled in the last 10 years and there has been an associated retail boom. The CBD is no longer just a place to commute to from the suburbs. The CBD population is growing by between 3000 and 5000 people per year, or at a rate twice the state average. Transport systems increasingly must serve within-CBD movement as well as suburb - CBD trips.

* The enlargement of the Melbourne CBD. The City Loop is no longer the natural boundary of the CBD, with growth bursting over the river to Southbank and westwards into the Docklands precinct. Within-CBD trips are becoming longer and trains will become faster than trams for more of them. Significantly, the closest railway stations to the new developments (Flinders Street and Southern Cross/Spencer Street) are also the oldest and those sometimes disadvantaged by the Loop.

* The revitalisation of regional rail and expected increased patronage. Services to fast-growing commuter-belt areas are based around Southern Cross Station, which currently lacks direct loop services at certain times of the day.

* The growth of air travel and specialist airport bus services. Current services (particularly to Melbourne Airport) are of high quality, but are let down by the limited accessibility of Southern Cross Station from some CBD locations at certain times.

* More diverse travel patterns, including more weekend and evening travel. Whether due to de-regulated shopping hours, labour market changes, CBD living, tourism or the influx of international students, this has increased the amount of movement, especially around the inner-city. Much of this demand could be met by a revised City Loop in conjunction with surface tram and bus systems.

The above points require a new way of thinking about the City Loop's function.

Its original rationale, that of a high-capacity distributor for CBD/M-F/9-5 workers commuting in from the suburbs, though still important, is declining in relative terms. In contrast, the Loop's current usefulness is limited for all five travel growth markets identified above.

To make the Loop relevant again, it needs to be seen and used as an inner-city metro system, offering faster CBD-area travel than is possible by tram. Of course the Loop still retains its traditional distributor and collector role for suburb-CBD trips, but the new emphasis could appeal to whole markets that are currently poorly served.

What would a modernised metro-style City Loop look like?

Generally, very similar to today. The tracks and stations are already there, and the services already run.

Just two things would be different; one substantive and the other cosmetic.

The substantive difference would be service patterns. The following three points are most important:

* Scrapping the 12:45pm weekday reversal so that loop services would run in the same direction all day long. Tourists and lunch-time travellers will no longer need to shun the loop as they do today.
* Standard loop directions seven days per week.
* A loop operating pattern that provides for direct no-transfer services between all CBD stations.

The cosmetic change is passenger information. As well as traditional line-based information (again only really suitable for beyond-CBD passengers), extra passenger information for CBD-area passengers would be established. Examples are shown below:

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Note that the above platform numbers assume a weekend loop service pattern, with services stopping at Flagstaff.


Years of planning exclusively based on suburb to CBD commuter travel needs has left the City Loop poorly equipped to serve emerging passenger growth markets in and around the Melboune CBD. The midday reversal and differing service patterns have made full use of the City Loop impractical for many casual travellers.

A new-look Loop, based around existing services but easier to use and responsive to modern travel needs, has been proposed. It is hoped that train service revisions planned for next year will represent a step towards this aim.


Ari Sharp said...

Really clever, I like your thinking.

What do you think about the suggestion that the loop is already at capacity during peak hour, and the only solutions are to (a) have more lines run direct to Flinders Street or (b) build and fifth and sixth loop?

I'm favouring (a) in the short term and (b) in the long term.

Peter Parker said...

A, I'd agree with a, but with a proviso that people disadvantaged can easily transfer without too much time penalty.

As for b. its merit would need to be evaluated against other projects (eg suburban duplications) and cheaper alternatives like upgrading signalling and control systems. Gut feeling: Not a high priority.

Getting back to a. a major advantage I didn't mention is that my metro-style loop would (i) make things easier for people using non-loop services and (ii) provide more flexibility during service disruptions (whether train or tram).

If passengers know that they can reliably transfer to a loop service then opposition to running more services direct (which has other benefits such as allowing improved service frequencies) then opposition to doing this should diminish.

Ben said...

What are your thoughts on bringing back the city circle train services at regular intervals throughout all operating hours?

Peter Parker said...

Ben, I would argue that service headways between loop stations are already frequent enough, and a lack of information rather than a lack of frequency is what's holding patronage back.

Providing more Loop-only services would cost heaps more and wouldn't help that many passengers (previous loop-only services were poorly patronised). A larger number of different service patterns (while service frequency remains unchanged) would only increase confusion compared to an alternative of better passenger info and scope for improved frequency.

An example of the latter could be a Perth-style 15 minute basic service on all lines 7 days a week.

Sure it's dearer than your proposed loop-only service, but the benefits would be much more widely spread (and would include loop passengers).