Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Snippets from the new train contract

Yesterday's media initially concentrated on 'soft' stories such as the transition to the new rail operators, statements from politicians and train rebranding. However today's service disruptions on some lines reminded us that the basics of running a railway are (and should never be) very far away.

How Melbourne's railways are to be run is prescribed in the Franchise Agreement, Projects Agreement and an Infrastructure Lease Agreement.

While their contents is often too specialised for the mainstream media, long-term these documents will prove more important than the name changes and media conferences in yesterday's news.

What are some of the notable points in the train franchise agreement?


The first 48 pages are definitions, conditions and warranties. While there are some odd definitions like the meaning of weekdays (Labour Day on a Monday isn't) it's still worth a skim since tantalising terms like planned delayed services, Platform Assistant Withholding Amount and Maintenance Cost Saving Amount are all defined.

The most discussed definition would be 'on-time running'. This is now defined as within 4:59 minutes instead of 5:59 minutes under Connex. However the Metro website has dual standards; 92% within 5:59 minutes (same as the old Connex standard) and 88% within 4:59 minutes, which depending on the number of trains between 4 and 5 minutes late is pretty close to being the same thing.

'Must Dos'

Page 50 lists performance requirements against what are called 'Year 5 benchmarks'. The two fixed ones are for 'reliability' and 'customer experience'. Further details of reliability standards, their quarterly review and various levels of non-compliance appear from page 76. Information on the 'customer experience' benchmark appear in an appendix but their general aim is to capture some of the 'customer service' facets not in previous franchise agreements.

Page 53 requires the formation of a Network Development Partnership to discuss issues, monitor performance and agree on a Strategic Operations Plan. Both directors of public transport (ie the Department) and franchisees can propose changes to the Master Timetable (more detail starting page 70).

Page 59 discusses load breaches (ie overcrowding). The train operator may receive load breach notices from the department but 6.1(b) states that the department is not obliged to issue them. Generally the department needs to approve reductions in carriage seating capacity. This is topical due to the trial of a reduced seating Comeng train and announcements that new trains will have fewer seats to carry more passengers and improve flow (hopefully reducing station dwell times).

Major events

The use of short (3 car) trains on some lines, especially on weekends with special events, has proved insufficient for passenger numbers. Connex responded by increasing 6-car running on the longer busier lines. Page 63 requires the franchisee to use full consists (if reasonably practicable) on all but quiet shuttles on the ends of some lines.

New Years Eve trains will be provided and will be free, as in previous years (page 66). Shutting down the ticketing system that evening may be required to allow updates (fares normally rise on January 1). As happened in some previous years but not others, the agreement entrenches free trains on Christmas Day (page 67).

Trains and major events almost go together in Melbourne. Melbourne's ability to run big events without hitch is a major part of the city's self-image, at least amongst state and city leaders. Train network failures during major events is regarded very seriously (more so than disruptions to regular commuter travel). Hence significant space is devoted to transport for major events, with notification and planning starting 18 months prior (Page 67).


Who determines what's in the timetable? Part 7 (Page 70) discusses this. The Director of Public Transport (ie the Department) can specify requirements in the form of numbers of added or deleted services by time band and even their approximate times. However timetablers are franchisee employees and it is these who shedule the service (noting the need to find train paths, trains and drivers and possibly juggling other services to form and accommodate them). The train operator can also initiate Master Timetable changes but must put proposals through the Network Partnership process and secure the Director's approval.

Provision is made for a Daily Timetable that is different to the Master Timetable to sometimes operate. These may be for planned occupations (required due to track maintenance), for safety reasons, special events or disruptions.

Planned and unplanned disruptions

Service disruptions have risen to prominence as patronage gains made the network more fragile. These are either planned or unplanned, with, as would be expected, tougher requirements for 'planned disruptions' eg buses replacing trains due to trackwork. Page 78 specifies requirements for replacement transport, with the standard being 'reasonable endeavours' and passengers being transported to the end of their 'intended journeys'.

What happens if running is persistently not to the timetable? Page 76 refers to three escalating thresholds: 'call in', 'breach' and 'termination' with judgement made every quarter. The standards have been set that the 'breach' or 'termination' levels require extremely poor performance to be triggered. As has been the case since 2004, these sorts of figures are averaged network-wide, so lines can suffer periods of severe underperformance (eg Stony Point) but this in itself is insufficient to trigger these sanctions if other lines are performing to standard.

Disruptions are sometimes not entirely within the operator's control. Page 79 lists circumstances that if the Director (DoT) agrees then the operator need not be called in, given a breach or terminated. Examples include disruptions due to 'force majeure', 'excluded rolling stock repair' (I'm thinking Comeng air conditioners here) or major projects.

Shuttles and connectivity

Some interesting comments on page 82, which deal with other operators' connecting services and shuttles. This explicitly mentions the Stony Point train and the ferry service to Cowes and French Island. Here there is duty ('reasonable endeavour') to consistently achieve connections.

That same page also requires consultation and co-operation with bus operators regarding facilities and information. However this section is both brief and scrappy; there is no similar requirement to co-ordinate with tram services and specific measures that would assist passengers, such as requiring the display and stocking of bus timetables at stations are omitted.

Clause 7.18 discusses shuttles, such as those that operate between Williamstown and Newport, or Alamein and Camberwell. I couldn't understand this paragraph. The first part requires both timetabled and actual co-ordination. However to my mind this is contradicted by the second part which does not even require the shuttle to be delayed.


Timetables used to be hosted on both the Connex and Metlink websites, with different formats in use. Metro now links to its timetables on the Metlink site. However as real time information is only provided on the Metro site, Metlink cannot yet be regarded as a single source for service information (although it can be for timetables).

Page 83 of the agreement deals with this. While the operator can provide real-time information direct to passengers, it must also provide it to Metlink, apparently with the intention that Metlink will also carry live information.

A very unusual service improvement

Page 84 contains an obscure service improvement that as far as I know has gone unpublicised. On Good Friday and Christmas Day trains have always run a Sunday timetable, with a Saturday schedule applying on other public holidays. Since Sunday train services were upgraded about 10 years ago, their main difference compared to Saturday schedules was that first services were 2-3 hours later.

7.21a of the agreement says that Christmas Day and Good Friday services must run to the master timetable for Sunday except that services must be provided as per the weekday timetable until the Sunday timetable kicks in. If this is correct, we have the anomaly of early morning services as frequently as 10-20 minutes, then every 30-40 minutes around 8am and then back to 20 minutes after about 11am. Similar changes also apply if Australia Day and ANZAC Day fall on a Sunday, though at least in the latter case there may well be higher patronage, depending on the timing for early services.

Extra money will need to be found for drivers to run frequent trains in the early hours of Good Friday and Christmas Day that few passengers will use. I am not convinced that this necessarily represents the wisest use of resources given that other service improvements (eg daytime frequencies extended to 8-9pm, consistent Sunday evening train frequencies and/or earlier trains on Sunday mornings) would all deliver better patronage gains.

Passengers and staffing

Passengers get their own section (p85). This relates to the publication of a Customer Service Charter in specified languages and formats, a compensation code, refund policy, complaints process, DDA compliance, an ill passenger protocol and lost property.

Crowd Management is a major new area. The Franchisee must have a Crowd Management Plan and employ more platform assistants at inner-city stations. Also new are surveys and quarterly monitoring of customer satisfaction (note that quarterly is consistent with Track Record reports). Big drops must be explained.

Increased staffing has been promised. These include 22 staffed stations (these will be host). The Franchise agreement also specifies that there will be a minimum of 350 Authorised Officers (page 95).

Fares and ticketing

Fares are set by the Department (and approved by the State Government). Contrary to what some claim in the letters pages the operator does not set fares. Hence the fares and ticketing section of the contract is brief and requires working within the fares structure, current and new ticketing systems and an obligation to counter fare evasion.


Section 11 deals with interoperator relationships. It is hard going. But there are some items of interest, such as safety, branding obligations, track access for heritage rail groups, operator accreditation and more. 12 to 14 are financial and administrative aspects.

Electricity procurement is the topic of Section 15. This came up in the Parliamentary Inquiry into train services. An important issue is security of supply, especially on hot days when loads are high.

Rulling stock and availability

This post is more than long enough and few will have read this far. But the contract gets no less important. Part III deals with rolling stock. Very topical since last summer's disruptions were exacerbated by inadequate air conditioning on Comeng trains. 'Faulty trains' are at least a partially preventable cause of service cancellations. Topics covered in this portion include repair, renewal and peak availability. Peak availability requires improved performance over time - 92% at contract commencement and 94% in 24 months (page 174). Low availability constitutes a 'call-in' event. The current Master Timetable requires 145 trains, with possible variations when new timetables are introduced.


What happens if the operator doesn't perform? Read Part IV for this. The first level is a 'call-in', ie a 'please explain' for which a remedial plan may be required. Next is a 'franchisee breach'. For this a 'cure plan' must be presented and the Director may impose a penalty. Finally there is termination. The department may use 'step in' powers for terminations or severe breaches. These appear to be 'reserve powers', only to be used sparingly and in exceptional circumstances.

Annexures including loading and frequency standards

The second part of the franchise document contains the annexures. These contain the more detailed standards, formulas and methods. Still it's worth a look for the passenger weightings (can compare relative patronage of lines) and frequency standards (termed 'maximum delay minutes' - Schedule 7). These are low 'minimum standards' that in some cases are both non-clockface (eg 25 or 40 minutes) and represent less service than currently runs.

Against this should be compared Victorian Transport Plan and other statements about moving to a 'metro-style service'. If the agreement fully reflected this it could have defined a core network across which a high minimum service frequency (say every 10 minutes) would apply after a program of upgraded services over several years. If we take the authorities at their word, we can only assume that any plans for service improvement will be contained in other (more easily revised?) documents and the low minimum standards have been inserted in the franchise agreement to give the franchisee and the Department significant 'wriggle room'.


Overall these contracts are a difficult but rewarding read that will inform the reader of the broader operating context for Melbourne's trains. Highly recommended.


Monarch said...

Thanks Peter - of particular interest were your findings on 'A very unusual service improvement' and Crowd Management.

Thanks for taking the time to distil it.

Peter Parker said...

Thanks Monarch.

Personally I think the 'unsual service improvements' were an error; consider how reluctant they were to specify improved frequency standards elsewhere in the contract.

That paragraph re Christmas etc looks to have been copied over from the trams contract, and it might well have got garbled there as well.

Eg last year Christmas trams ran a Sunday timetable but with the first service as per the weekday timetable and trams every 30 minutes until the Sunday timetable cuts in. http://www.yarratrams.com.au/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-107/101_read-1660

Whereas according to the contract we'll have frequent weekday-type service in the small hours before 7am, then a drop to 30-40 minutes for a few hours, 15-20 min in the afternoon then back to 30-40 min at night (with an early finish on the Burnley/Clifton Hill groups). Very odd!

For Christmas and Good Friday a straight Saturday timetable (without the late night services), as used on other public holidays would have been more than adequate, although even this would break the standard holiday arrangements between buses and trains that has now been more than half completed through through the MOTC bus upgrades.

Unknown said...

A standard Sunday timetable will be provided on Christmas Day 2009 due to inadequate notice.

Monarch said...

"Inadequate notice"? What a cop-out. I'd make a complaint to Metro Trains about this, so will see what they say in response.