Saturday, May 30, 2009

The rediscovery of frequency

Varied improvements have ocurred to the suburban train network in the last eight years or so. Off the top of my head we have seen:

* Electrications to Sydenham and Craigieburn
* New trains
* Rebuilt Southern Cross and North Melbourne stations
* Frequent rebrandings but the restoration of stablility with Metlink signage
* Some grade seperations and duplication of track at Clifton Hill
* More premium stations and the introduction of host stations staffed during the morning peak
* More use of six-car train sets during off-peak periods
* SMS and website alerts for cancelled trains
* Fare reforms including abolition of Zone 3, more flexible 10x2 hour tickets and cheap weekend tickets
* Later finishing on Friday and Saturday
* Industrial peace; apart from a period about 4-6 months ago, service disruptions are now invariably due to other reasons

All have been worthwhile. There is however one matter that's been off the agenda; that of an improved basic service frequency. More peak trains run now compared to 2001, and these have been needed due to crowding. However you'd have to go back almost 10 years (when patronage was just over half of today's) to find a case where basic off-peak frequencies increased on any line.

That occasion was in July 1999 when after 10am Sunday train and tram daytime frequencies were increased to match Saturday's. Instead of people having to wait 30 or 40 minutes for a train the improved timetable cut this to 20 minutes. The following year M>Train boosted Sunday evening service on its half of the network from 40 to 30 minutes, again simlar to the Saturday times.

From then metropolitan train frequency improvements fell out of fashion and none ocurred for eight years. Instead policy emphasis shifted to regional rail (the main benefit of which ended up being improved frequency), the new Southern Cross Station, refranchising and a replacement for the Metcard ticketing system.

Desirable though these projects were, they did not greatly benefit the lot of the average metropolitan passenger who rode a system groaning from planned, ocurring but unbudgeted for patronage increases. This and some high-profile service disruptions revived interest in infrastructure, maintenance, scheduling and service levels. Frequency's central role in the usefulness and attractiveness of the train network is also being rediscovered.

The first advance was in the November 9, 2008 train timetables where three lines got basic frequency upgrades. Evening trains beyond Dandenong to Pakenham and Cranbourne were boosted from every 60 minutes to every 30 minutes. Now only semi-rural Hurstbridge has the 60 minute frequency on Monday to Saturday evenings. The next lowest train frequency is 40 minutes, in force on about half the network on Sunday mornings and evenings, and effective most times beyond Eltham. The other change was between the City and Ringwood, where the weekday train frequency were improved to 15 minutes until 10pm.

The next general service improvement, planned to start on July 20, 2009 was announced yesterday. The most important is a weekday frequency improvement for the Werribee line. Interpeak service levels will increase from three trains per hour to six trains per hour, making it the most frequently running suburban line. Every second train will use the express tracks via Paisley and run direct to and from Flinders Street.

With a relatively low population along the line and the lack of any mid-line trip generators, the Werribee line has lower interpeak patronage potential compared to busier lines like Sydenham, Craigieburn, Belgrave/Lilydale and Pakenham/Cranbourne. The first two get have only a 20 minute off-peak weekday frequency. Increasing these to 10 or 15 minutes would have been welcomed and may have won greater use than boosting Werribee.

Nevertheless improving Werribee's service still has large benefits, even though for the time being their weekday passengers will get a baffling mix of direct and loop running. Also there are at least three reasons why it's a good idea. The first is Werribee's population growth, which should guarantee higher than average patronage increase. The second is that the additional services cut journey times to the city as they run express (not via Altona) and operate direct to Flinders Street. 39 minutes travel time to the city is faster than that enjoyed by any other suburb 30 kilometres from the CBD. Third, and most exciting, is the future prospect of the Werribee service being through-routed to another line, eg Frankston. A 10 minute through service on such a combined line could give us a useful metro-style Footscray - Caulfield link years before the proposed tunnel is built. It should also relieve pressure on the City Loop and aid east-west suburban travel.

Another sign of the importance of frequency has come from the operator itself. In today's Age Connex advocates trains every 10 minutes during working hours to provide a 'turn up and go' service. This is unlikely to happen without government support. But it's surely a good sign that the operator knows frequency's importance and will get the opportunity to test it in less than two months' time.


Unknown said...

Unfortunately, due to infrastructure constraints, it is not possible to provide a 10 minute service to the Westona Loop stations (Seaholme, Altona and Westona).

Keep watching this space over the next few years for other network improvements.

Vic Rail (Riccardo) said...

The median wait time for 10 minute headway isn't too bad. Those who know the timetable will get the same standard of service they expect say 2 minutes, everyone else 5 minutes. So should be somewhere between 2-5 minutes.

Vic Rail (Riccardo) said...

Damo - you won't see me weeping too many tears that Altona line stations have missed out. We are talking about providing a decent service to the whole Werribee urban area, a role that should never have been subordinated to the Altona branch.

Whatever twit back in 198x who had the crazy idea to ruin the Werribee rail service to save a little branch - sounds like ALP thinking to me!

Daniel said...

Using a little guesswork, it looks like the actual headways will be 8-12 minutes in most cases, though coming out of FSS, more like 5-15 -- not ideal, but it'll still be interesting to see how it affects patronage.

Jarrett said...

Great post. Some important theoretical notes:

a. My impression as an American is that the old Aussie rail systems have too many stopping patterns off-peak. In some cases, the frequency is already there but the stopping patterns make it useless. Remembering that the highest ridership will come from the denser areas close-in, it may be that too many trains are bypassing these stations in the midday

b. Some best-practice systems publish a frequent network map that shows just the routes or route segments -- regardless of mode -- that run better than every 15 min all day. I'll do a post on this soon. This is something that Metlink should be exploring as a way of giving both frequent rail and SmartBus an appropriate level of visibility. It also shifts discussion from "adding more frequency," which doesn't sound sexy, to "expanding the frequent network," which does.

Peter Parker said...

Jarrett, some good points:

a. Not sure if I agree as there's not that much variation off-peak (eg except at night Frankston trains are always express, Dandenong trains SAS). The main variations are around shoulders and peak, but during off-peak the main differences are City loop patterns.

b. Strongly agree. Unlike Adelaide (which is really good at this sort of thing for its buses), Melbourne's main challenge is that hours and frequencies on major routes are so inconsistent, (especially for buses) that we either have a very sparse map or many footnotes and exceptions.

If we set the cut-off to 15 minutes (daytime weekdays), we have most tram lines, some buses but exclude half the train network, which does not seem right.

Even a 30 minute cut-off applying at all times would exclude some SmartBuses and about half the train network on Sunday evenings. And 30 minutes is where you'd really be needing a timetable as well as a map.

At the other end of the scale, there are several non-SmartBus routes that have better than SmartBus service frequencies, including Sunday evening running. However even these might sometimes drop to a lower frequency or might have reduced public holiday and/or summer timetables (there has been significant progress but these aren't yet standardised network-wide).

Your maps would be a great way explain the network, but probably most important is to first make the network able to be explained!

Brent Palmer said...

Peter Parker: "Your maps would be a great way explain the network, but probably most important is to first make the network able to be explained!"
Definitely. Brisbane fails in this regard as well. There are a handful of premium routes (BUZ - Bus Upgrade Zone) with 10-15 minute headways 18/7, but they only serve a select few areas. In fact, you have BUZ routes to such far-flung destinations as Moggill and Parkinson, whilst inner area which used to be well-served by trams and trolleybuses (e.g. Spring Hill, Hamilton) suffer woeful service levels!

Jarrett at said...

Actually it works more the other way. You need to create the term meaning 15-minute all day service, and this will motivate both planners and advocates to make the minor adjustments that will get more segments into that network. I've done this project for several cities, and the right cutoff is around 15 min. I'm tough about it, too: It can't be just 4 trips per hour, it has to be a maximum headway of 15 min, period. Connex has lots of cases where trains aren't evenly spaced around the clock.

Peter Parker said...

Jarrett: I agree we certainly need a term, and this is one of the reasons Adelaide has both the right idea and a decent label with its 'Go Zones' (one might quibble about their 30 minute evening and weekend frequencies, but this is adequately promoted so people know what they're getting though it's obviously not ideal).

Perth proposed 'System 21' routes but this never got beyond a transport plan. Their 900 series started to be implemented but only got as far as 2 routes (920 & 940) with other frequent services (eg 106 & 400) retaining their old route numbers. So apart from the Circle Route (which we have now matched) they're only a bit ahead of us when it comes to marketing their better bus services.

In Melbourne SmartBus doesn't cut it since it simultaneously undersells and oversells the service available.

Eg some SmartBus services only have the wide service span over only a portion of the route and 40-60 minute frequencies occur on some. All SmartBus means is 100% DDA compliance and a 15 minute weekday daytime frequency; its lower quality routes (703 and 888/9) preclude it from meaning anything more.

Conversely we have a whole heap of routes offering above-SmartBus service levels (eg 200/201/203/207, 216/219, 220, 223, 246, 250/251/253, 600/922/923) but which are given no more prominence than local routes.

Personally I would broaden the SmartBus concept to include at least the above routes and target service upgrades at these routes to iron out minor inconsistencies re frequencies, spans and public holidays.

All of a sudden you have effectively doubled the size of the SmartBus network (as regards service levels) with very little effort and got something that can be explained and marketed.

We do not need two brandings for premium service buses, so we either redefine the SmartBus concept to mean consistent service standards or we ditch it altogether and come up with our equivalent name to 'Go Zone' or 'BUZ'.

Anonymous said...

Details of '12 minute metro' maps done for LA and some unofficial maps for Washington DC