Sunday, July 27, 2008

What is a 'wasteland station'?

Today's Age had a story slamming some stations as unsafe wastelands.

The problem was seen as this:

...the unstaffed stations where people don't want to park their cars because they might get nicked.

Their solution?

transform the stations into community-friendly hubs

While the article focussed on staffing, I believe the article missed other important factors that affect a station's perceived amenity and 'friendliness'. The most important are design of the station, the surrounding facilities and access to them from the station.

Let's compare a few stations; large and small, staffed and unstaffed and group them by amenity. I will define 'amenity' as being 'would you want to wait 20 minutes there at night'.

Comparison factors will include (i) staffing, (ii) platform configuration (island or edge/facing),(iii) nearby active shops/facilities, (iv) direct at-level access to these facilities and (iv) grade seperation of platforms.

High amenity perception stations

* Clayton: Staffed. Edge platform. Nearby shops. Direct access. Platforms at-grade.
* Mentone: Staffed, Edge platforms. Nearby shops. Direct access. Platforms at-grade.
* Montmorency: Unstaffed. Single platform. Nearby shops. Direct access. Platforms at-grade.
* Oakleigh: Staffed. Island platform. Nearby shops. Access via subway. Platforms at-grade.

Low amenity perception stations

* Boronia: Staffed. Island platform. Nearby shops. Access via steps/bridge. Platforms sunken.
* Huntingdale: Unstaffed. Island platform. Few nearby shops. Access via subway. Platforms at-grade.
* Kananook: Unstaffed. Island platform. No nearby shops. Access via bridge. Platforms at-grade.
* Moorabbin: Staffed. Island platform. Nearby shops. Access via steps. Platforms sunken.
* Patterson: Unstaffed. Island platform. Few nearby shops. Access via steps. Platforms raised.
* Richmond: Staffed (remotely). Island platforms. Some distance from nearby shops. Access under rail bridge. Platforms raised.

No one factor is critical (there are high amenity unstaffed stations for example), though several go together to influence a station's amenity.

For example, to characterise the highest amenity stations, they tend to be staffed and are surrounded by open and active shops overlooking and visible from the platforms. If it's 20 minutes until the next train, walking to them is a quick at-grade duck around the corner. Platforms are at ground level and walks are not lengthened by under or overpass ramps. Access to bus stops and surrounding residential streets is direct and passengers do not need to walk across empty car parks to reach them.

The lowest amenity stations are pretty much the opposite. They are either not near shops (Kananook), or access to them is dark and uninviting (Richmond). Especially if the station has an island platform there is a feeling of being 'trapped' as there is only one way in/out and that is via a subway (Huntindale) or bridge (Kananook). The same effect applies where platforms are lowered (Boronia) raised (Patterson). While there are video monitors, staff cannot directly see the platforms (Boronia, Moorabbin) or are so remote from them they might as well not be there (Richmond). And what made the comment about parking ironical is that surrounding it by acres of parking is a great way to turn a high amenity station into a low amenity station.

Sometimes giving people what they say they want can reduce a station's amenity or 'friendliness'. As an example, there are often more calls for more parking at stations and Boronia-style grade seperations for better (car) traffic flow. However such projects could actually reduce passenger amenity and wellbeing as they isolate a stations's platform from its local community. Conversely single-platform stations (eg Montmorency or Altona) tend to be well integrated with the surrounding area, providing a 'village' feel.

I should mention that the concept of amenity described above, though important, is a somewhat narrow view and operational compromises sometimes have to be made.

For example, while island platforms cut a station off from its community more than edge plaforms they are operationally better. This is because they permit more accessible customer service (staffed stations) and cross-platform passenger transfers (eg Caulfield on the weekends). In this case, you'd stick with island platform at major staffed stations (especially junctions) but acknowledge that for unstaffed stations facing platforms are better (eg Huntingdale or Hughesdale vs Murrumbeena).

Similarly ticketing system designers love island platforms and single entry points. This is because fewer ticketing hardware is required and enforcement is easier. However platforms accessible from a single end reduce a station's pedshed (and thus patronage) by around 20%. Plus island platforms are more claustraphobic than edge platforms and require use of under/over-passes or wide at-level crossings (Bentleigh).

Then there are the nearby shopping strips that provide the facilities wanted in the report and make a station the hub of the community, rather than its edge. Southland's dominance at the expense of Moorabbin, Forest Hill Chase at the expense of Blackburn, Altona Meadows instead of Laverton, Patterson Lakes instead of Carrum and the demise of other strips (eg Edithvale) can't have helped passenger amenity or provided 'safety in numbers'. Melbourne 2030-type policies, along with the removal of minimum parking regulations for new homes and businesses near stations, could be helpful in this regard.

To summarise, there are several factors that determine the amenity of a station and its environment. Staffing is one factor, but a station's design and the surrounding facilities are at least as important.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Outer suburban communities and rail electrification

There is little doubt that electrification to Sunbury, if it happened, would be a patronage success, just as the previous Werribee, Cranbourne, Sydenham, and Craigieburn electrifications have been.

While travel times and comfort might be somewhat inferior on the electrified service, their longer operating hours and tripled frequency have more than compensated. The increased patronage means that public transport is successfully meeting more people's travel needs. This is a good thing, especially if it takes trips away from its main competitor, the private car.

There are however certain local factors and personalities in Sunbury that have given rise to some opposition to an improvment that would be uncritically welcomed elsewhere (eg South Morang). This could come from a 'coalition' of the following:

1. Existing peak hour train commuters worried they would lose their comfortable inter-urban seats and have to stand on a crowded electrified suburban service. In contrast all the residents of South Morang would lose is a (slower) bus.

2. Local activists who see improved rail as being bad for their community. Objections raised include crime, vandalism, noise, litter and sprawl.

This is possibly less a debate about transport than the sort of place Sunbury should be. Unlike accretions to the suburban sprawl like South Morang or Rowville, Sunbury sees itself as a large country town seperate from Melbourne. Sunbury has many local community groups, affordable housing and locals recognise others in the main street.

Like 'green change' areas such as Eltham, it may be that local residents jealously protect their lifestyles from outsiders, sprawl and development to the point of paranoia verging on xenophobia.

Suburban standard rail service is seen as 'the thin edge of the wedge' and a step towards Sunbury losing its seperateness and becoming an anonymous suburb. Long time residents might express apprehension of 'ferals' moving in and the area becoming more like less favoured suburbs such as Dallas, Doveton or Melton.

Of course freeways can have similar effects to rail extensions in encouraging outer suburban development. So-called 'ferals' can drive (and steal) cars as much as riding trains, but this does not seem to be accepted as an argument against roads that bring Sunbury closer to Melbourne (eg the Calder and Tullamarine freeways). Such roads seem to be widely lauded in these parts with any opposition being on broader environmental rather local community or business 'protection' grounds. Instead local business people see the shorter travel time to Melbourne as an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

The flip side of neighbourliness in rural communities is protectionism, and this can lead to resistance against change, urbanisation or outsiders. A vocal local can be well-known by many and be perceived to carry a degree of influence. Or equally importantly, they may be regarded as representative of community wishes by outsiders.

One such local activist is Steve 'Jack' Medcraft, who is fiercely against rail electrification. A google search will reveal a most colourful character, whether it be in his council activities, activities as a real estate agent, convenor of 'People Against Lenient Sentencing', sporting activity and more. You can be sure his voice is heard in many places around the community.

Get 20 such people together and you can assure the outside world that locals don't want electrification; though more may support it they may be less vocal or not have any fear campaigns to run.