Sunday, June 06, 2010

New station and new times: a day of change on Melbourne's rails

Today was significant for Melbourne's rail network for two reasons.

The first was the opening of Coolaroo Station, the first new station since Roxburgh Park in 2007. Coolaroo serves three established residential areas; the 1950s housing commission suburb of Dallas to the south-east, the 1970-80s suburb of Coolaroo to the east and the 1980-90s suburb of Meadow Heights to the west.

View Large Map

Possibly due to a long-mooted rail electrification extension (opened in 2007), the station's construction is not the railway's first involvement in providing transport to the area. Victorian Railways scheduled a bus that continued where the train left off at Broadmeadows. As shown in this 1975 timetable (VR WTT), Route 903 provided a daytime feeder service between Broadmeadows and Coolaroo. Consistent with retail hours at the time, the bus ran 5 1/2 days per week.

Like the other Victorian Railways bus routes (901, 902) the service was either abandoned or renumbered and incorporated into (typically longer) conventional suburban bus routes.

The other major change today was the start of new suburban timetables. The real test will be tomorrow which will see additional services and revised stopping patterns, most notably on the busy Caulfield group.

In summary the changes are:

* Craigieburn line: More peak services to start and finish at Craigieburn (instead of Broadmeadows). Trains stopping at the new Coolaroo station.

* Hurstbridge line: Additional weekday evening services. Trains to Eltham will operate approximately every 20 minutes until after 9pm. This is the second line to have received enhanced early evening services; Ringwood was first a year or so back.

* Cranbourne and Pakenham lines: Simplification of peak stopping patterns and additional peak services. Off-peak weekday services change to operate express between Malvern and South Yarra, swapping with Frankston trains, which will serve these stations.

* Frankston line: Simplification of peak stopping patterns and additional peak services. Express trains to operate direct to/from Flinders Street. The increased use of direct running is a continuation of a trend started with the Werribee line, which had both peak and some off-peak services removed from the City Loop (introduced simultaneously with a doubling of off-peak weekday service frequencies). Off-peak trains will stop all stations, swapping with Crabourne/Pakenham on weekdays and doubling weekend service frequency to stations between Malvern and South Yarra to ten minutes. Also added are some extra counter-peak train services.

A campaign of direct mail, newspaper advertisements, notices at stations, brochures, website advice and staff handing out timetables has been run to promote the changes, particularly on the Caulfield group where the changes are greatest. Because the changes represent a simplification of stopping patterns, it was possible to depict them in a simple graphical form.

As with all changes, there will be winners and losers, particularly on the Frankston line due to the loop changes. Most stations will receive the same or more services, but some will receive fewer - a price of consistency. Users of Frankston express trains who use Flinders Street will have a much quicker ride, while users of Loop stations will use their one-train ride if they want to get an express. Instead they will need to transfer at Flinders Street (recommended in the morning) or Richmond (evening).

Especially in the afternoon, it will be interesting to see the proportion of passengers for stations beyond Cheltenham (where the express service would normally be chosen) who opt for a slower stopping all stations train to avoid a transfer. If this occurs, stopping trains may well be fuller than would be expected from station usage statistics between Highett and the city, and express trains a little less full.

The choice that passengers prefer is likely to depend on boarding location. While passengers at Southern Cross can board trains that go to Flinders Street and transfer to an express service from there, passengers at Flagstaff, Melbourne Central and Parliament do not have this choice. Instead they will need to choose between boarding a stopping all stations service (which may have spare seats at Southern Cross and possibly Flagstaff, but not Melbourne Central or Parliament) and staying on to their destination, or board any train on Platform 2 and changing to an express at Richmond or Caulfield.

Several themes, some continued from the previous timetable changes are discernible from this latest timetable change. These include:

* Recognition that the City Loop (at least with current signalling) cannot handle all peak services that need to run. Hence extra services (made possible by the purchase of additional trains) have been made to run direct. In the short term this might reduce legibility (as all trains no longer run via the loop), but this can be restored by ensuring that after a transition period (such as we may now be experiencing) all trains from certain lines run direct, not just half of them.

* More consistent stopping patterns and increased frequencies on each one. This is making the network more legible and reducing distortions in patronage caused by people aiming to catch particular trains due to their super-express stopping pattern (for example). An example of an improvement on the Frankston line is that until this latest timetable the last two pm express trains were 30 minutes apart.

* Spreading the peak. On the Frankston line this timetable introduces additional early morning 'early bird' services. On the Hurstbridge line this timetable introduces additional evening services. Nevertheless this remains a critical area on the Caulfield group; for example unlike the Burnley group, where peak frequencies and express trains continue for around 3 hours in the morning and evening, the Frankston line's peak service span remains about one third this in both the morning and evening.

* Removing 'holes' in timetables. It was not long ago that services from Frankston dropped to a 30 minute frequency shortly after 6pm on weekdays. Ex-city morning counter-peak services were sometimes less frequent than off-peak services. A previous timetable change introduced additional services that filled some of these gaps. This latest timetable continues this work, with early evenings from Frankston gaining additional services.

* The importance of frequency. This and simpler stopping patterns is supported by the current train operator. We have already seen more frequent off-peak services introduced by the previous operator on the Werribee line, along with evening improvements on the Ringwood, Pakenham and Cranbourne lines. Today's timetable changes stopping patterns to provide a ten minute weekend service to all stations between South Yarra and Caulfield. In addition there are frequency improvements at some other times, as discussed above.

The pace of train timetable change has quickened in the past couple of years, after years of relative stagnation. This is appropriate since timetables are key to a service's usefulness to passengers. They also play a large part in the efficient utilisation of track capacity and the service's reliability. Change driven by how to most efficiently serve booming patronage, allows a constructive reappraisal of our use of infrastructure (including the City Loop) for maximum capacity, reliability and legibility. Although reliability is currently below standard on parts of the network (most notably the Caulfield and Northern group), it is the increasing discussion about how the network is planned and run that I think offers cause for optimism in the future.

1 comment:

Riccardo said...

Good post PP

I like the point that this timetable is beginning to acknowledge the limitations of the City Loop as delivered.

Remember the policy of all trains into the loop has not always been with us. And having certain stopping patterns going direct is better than the pre 1990s situation where not all trains went through the loop, but no discernable pattern existed.

Hoping the next timetable both removes Frankston from the loop completely, but also leaves Burnley and Caulfield going Parliament first all day.

Ultimately there should be a desire to get Flagstaff passengers to use a frequent and reliable service out of FSS (this is currently provided by Clifton Hill though reliability is ordinary) but also have the same service available in the evening.

This whole phenomenon shows how gutless they were in the 70s.

If a dedicated four track bypass line had been built (and I suspect that is too much, two would have done) but the frequency was very, very high like say 2 minutes in peak hour, using standing room only stock, and better interchanges at Richmond and North Melb from the start, we wouldn't have had this problem.

And if we had saved a bit of money (say 25%) by building only a two track line, that might have been banked towards a second project, say a Vic Park-Fitzroy-Carlton-Museum only line which could then be looked at for extension now.