Thursday, April 08, 2010

Clear the platforms!

Record population growth is taxing city infrastructure, bringing demands on it to do more. Metro CEO Andrew Lezala has forecast doubled patronage and extra services. More trains, more drivers, a less fragile network and changed practices will be needed to deliver the promised metro-style service.

Both the first rail franchise contracts and the Melbourne 2030 plan set ambitious patronage targets unbacked by substantial network improvements. The patronage gains happened but at the cost of deteriorating reliability. Anticipated further growth and the rise of trains as a political issue led the government to announce major new expenditure on rail infrastructure.

I often imagine how the current railway would cope with doubled or tripled patronage. Existing small delays, whether to trains or people flow, would become major if the current network is asked to handle higher loads without modification.

A rethink of the rail network to maximise passenger throughput will be required. Attention will need to be paid to every pinch point in the system. Everything from pedestrian access to ticket validation to platform space to train boarding to timetabling that maximises service frequencies could be up for review.

The following, now accepted as normal, may vanish if we are to double or triple the railway’s carrying capacity:

* Traffic lights near stations that require pedestrian to wait 90 seconds to cross (eg Spencer Street). This causes crowding on street corners opposite stations in peak periods. The expensive solution requires more subways, such as exist at Flinders Street or Parliament. Cheaper ways to disperse passengers quickly could include a pedestrianised plaza or street in front of the station (eg Flinders Street between Swanston and Elizabeth) or shorter traffic light cycles.

* Ticket barriers that do not respond instantly. Current barriers take a second or so to respond to Myki (or Metcard). If the test barriers inside the Myki discovery centre are any guide the new barriers will be almost instantaneous.

* Trains remaining at platforms for too long. Platform space will become scarcer at major city stations as schedulers try to squeeze in more services. Functions that require trains to be at the platform for more than a minute or so (eg driver changes) may need to be done at outstations where space is less tight. Additional platform staff (or even first aid officers) may need to be stationed at busy points to speed the deployment of wheelchair ramps or assist ill passengers. Such scheduling and staffing changes will be cheaper than adding platforms to city stations, especially if substantial underground works are required.

* Passengers waiting on platforms. Waiting costs the passenger time and the railway valuable platform space. Platform occupancy is a function of passenger numbers x average wating time. Maximising commuter throughput requires more frequent trains to sweep platforms of waiting passengers. Fewer distinctive stopping patterns would also mean the train currently at the platform is boarded by a higher proportion of those on the platform, clearing more space for the next train’s passengers streaming down the stairs.

* Fewer stopping patterns and higher frequencies will create a different mentality amongst passengers, much like already exists if catching a peak period service to say Caulfield, North Melbourne or Camberwell. Passengers will be encouraged to think in terms of ‘turn up and go’ instead of catching a particular train, at least during peak times and increasingly peak shoulders as well. Real-time information will stress ‘minutes to’ over scheduled arrival time. Such ‘turn up and go’ service levels represents the greatest good for the greatest number and help connectivity with buses and trams. However some trade-offs may need to be accepted, for instance passengers for stations such as Glenhuntly, Surrey Hills or Glen Waverley may lose their expresses, while fringe areas such as Cranbourne or Hurstbridge may have shuttles instead of direct services.

* System performance will be measured more in terms of maintaining train throughput than exact timetable adherence. In other words a peak period where all train are delayed by a few minutes but intervals remain fairly short will hardly be noticed by passengers. Whereas a 20 minute halt caused by a faulty train, ill passenger or points failure would represent a major disruption. Infrastructure maintenance could stress ‘improving reliability’ and ‘preventing breakdown recurrence’ over merely keeping the system going and it is noted that significantly higher maintenance funding is part of the new train contracts.

* ‘Access engineering’ for station facilities, platform utilisation and people flow will also become important. Currently we see this during major events, such as New Years Eve, where one way pedestrian flows are enforced. Other ways to increase efficiency include appropriate and well-placed passenger information (badly placed PIDs can cause their readers to block direct paths and confused wanderers can slow the flow of others), designing infrastructure and services to provide for cross-platform transfers (instead of negotiating ramps and platforms), discouraging loitering near entrances and clearing ‘junk’ from platforms.

There are no doubt other changes that would be required to accommodate metro-style railway operation and higher patronage. However some would be surprisingly cheap to implement. An example of this is the clutter on some major station platforms that is currently hindering access, reducing waiting space and reducing possible passenger throughput.

The following pictures provide examples of platform clutter at some major stations. This might not have hindered a railway carrying 100 million trips per year, and the facilities may have provided some convenience. However once patronage exceeded 200 million trips with the aim to double again, the clutter may become more of a hindrance.

Richmond: A long line of unbroken wind barriers reduces permeability for those wishing to make cross-platform changes. Richmond can be widswept place to wait on a cold day, so removal is not recommended. However seperation of wind breaks would make the platform more open.

Richmond: clutter near entrance/exits. Ideally this would be further along the platform to spread people along it and discourage gathering near entrances.

Richmond: large billboard on platform. Again reduces permeability and visibility (a potential safety issue at night). While removing the billboard would cost advertising revenue, the amenity gains for passengers would likely outweigh this. And, provided that changing the signage could be done without disrupting train services, there may be scope for the track pit to be used for billboards.

Southern Cross: luckily not permanent, this barrier was erected due to roof damage caused by hail about two weeks ago.

Flinders Street: a billboard right near the stairs slows exit (and thus keeps the platform more cluttered than it should be). People looking at timetables may also block others. A more appropriate position for advertising may be in the more spacious station concourse.

Flinders Street: A kiosk selling some of the greasiest food known to man! The rent helps pay the bills, but its footprint takes up scarce room that a metro system may require for its passengers.

Flinders Street: A cluttered exit on a suburban platform.

Flinders Street: In contrast to the above, Platform 10 is open with no clutter near entrances/exits. Making all platforms like this might increase a station's throughput capacity, or at least improve comfort for passengers. There will need to be some seating, though a frequent metro service will make this less necessary than now where off-peak intervals between services are typically 15 to 40 minutes.


K said...

Amen Peter! I look forward all these things you mention being implemented but lets concentrate on the bulk of what you have written about.

I hate those advertising boards on the platform at Flinders St with a passion. Right at the bottom of the stairs, they are a complete barrier to movement. Losing them will mean a loss of revenue but think of what is to gain. More passengers and better amenity.

This may sound contentious, but I think suburban station design should also change. Given that checking tickets at station gates has all but disappeared at many stations in favour of roaming on-board patrols, maybe we could take down the fencing at stations. A couple of Myki readers placed at intervals along the platform would drastically reduce the distance one has to walk when leaving the train. There are plenty of instances where gate placement might mean having to walk the entire length of a train just to get a point not far from the door you exited.

Peter Parker said...

K, I tend to agree with you there as well, especially for the quieter, unstaffed stations.

Stations like Altona or Montmorency (1 platform) or Seaford (2 edge platforms) could be physically integrated with the surrounding community by having their fences removed. In other words made more like a light rail or tram superstop.

The main benefit here is not so much passenger throughput but perceived amenity and access.

The larger pedsheds obtained should generate similar patronage increases as building (say) 5 new stations but without the problems of new stations (eg equipment/maintenance/vandalism costs, slower trips for through passengers etc).

Safety is a mixed bag and the main reason for your 'abolish station fences' movement to fail. Whereas an unfenced station would be seen as no less safe than the surrounding area, but the trade-off is that a fence might save some from being hit by trains (no fences make areas more permeable on foot but encourage rail crossings at other than designated locations).

Anonymous said...

Spencer Street had a subway, it's still there and lord knows why it's not in use rather than make commuters climb 20 metres of escalator just to enter the station and just to climb them back down again.

There is no _real_ subway access at Parliament, but with subways, people are used to being forced to occasionally have to work some distance once they have gone below the pavement.

I think much of the changes you suggest at flinders street can have a positive, negative or negligible effect. some sort of barrier running along the length of the platform can actually help keep people moving as much as hinder it. The 5 inch wide strip of floorspace these things take up isnt an answer to the overcrowding issue.

Jullietta said...

Wow!~ This article addresses all the frustrations I have had with Australian rail stations. You even identified the the traffic signal timing issue that causes over crowding.