Sunday, April 21, 2019

Southern Cross Station: How it works (or doesn't)

Many know about the operating franchise contracts for Metro Trains and Yarra Trams. They go for 7 years.  Monthly penalties apply if too many services are late or cancelled. And they may not be renewed if overall performance is judged poor (such as what happened to Connex and the former operator of Yarra Trams last time). There also exist contracts for buses run by Transdev and others but they are less well known.  

Even more obscure are the arrangements that govern Southern Cross Station. People assume that stations and interchanges are maintained by the companies that serve them. Or government transport authorities like PTV. Usually that's right. But not for Southern Cross because of how it was funded and built. 

The old Spencer Street Station lost its passenger underpasses but gained a new name, wavy roof, concourse and escalators through a 34 year Private-Public Partnership (PPP) deal. That started in 2002. Alone among stations, Southern Cross is run by a private consortium, unconnected with Metro Trains.

Long-term PPPs were a big thing in public administration about 15 or 20 years ago. Like a Harvey Norman interest free deal you could have your shiny new tollway or station without having to pay much up front. You still made payments (like a renter to a landlord) but it seemed more respectable than old-fashioned Keynesian public borrowing.

A certain generation of politicians loved PPPs. They let them do the political version of walk and chew gum; that is build stuff while being 'financially responsible' by keeping debt off the government books. Instead capital could come from private sources who would rub their hands to get safe returns from long-term government contracts. Especially ones that, like for Southern Cross, transferred risks to government. Not that the opposite was always better, as we found with rail franchising.

Notable about the Southern Cross PPP is its longevity. Over 30 years. Unlike poor old Connex, whose contract was shorter, it doesn't look like the station operator can be turfed out after a few years. They'd have to do something really evil. And even if they did the state would be up against the country's best contract lawyers.

We don't necessarily think of stations as transport providers. But they are. Station lifts and escalators are as much a transport service as the trains on the platform. Especially for Southern Cross due to its  high patronage, position on the network and escalator-dependent design.

Even though escalator failures inconvenience thousands and disrupt trains, Southern Cross appears to lack the means or will to fix things quickly and get people moving. Neither is there public transparency; PTV publishes performance figures for Metro and Yarra but not for station escalators.  Unlike New York's MTA or London's TFL who do take escalators seriously.  

Southern Cross Station escalator problems have been big news lately. Recent failures have lengthened platform clearance times and delayed trains. Repairs have been tardy. Our biggest station is hindering rather than helping travel for thousands.

Initial station design is part of the problem. Short wide people-powered ramps (or steps) going under platforms (like the old Spencer St) are always going to be more robust and reliable than narrow electric escalators going a long way up (like the new Southern Cross).  The lack of mid-platform access (such as at Flinders St via the Degraves subway) has meant no redundancy when things do fail.

Too late to fix? There is always the option of making the best of what's there by managing better.

Last week's problems weren't the first. The lead time for escalator repairs can be long. While a  back-up replacement escalator can't simply be switched in like 1954's telephone talking clock, the better attitudes to maintenance and continuity of service back then are instructive, given that both the station and talking clock are (or were) state-critical services.

Regulating Southern Cross's operation is the aforementioned PPP contract (known as the Services and Development Agreement or SDA).  It's here. Its two parties are Civic Nexus (service provider) and the state government through the former Southern Cross Station Authority (service purchaser).  The latter was previously the Spencer Street Station Authority. SCSA's functions were later transferred to the transport department secretary and then to Public Transport Victoria.

PTV's 2017-2018 annual report mentions Southern Cross Station quite a few times. This includes mention who bears the risk and the costs incurred (big roofs don't come cheap). Reporting is all financial - there's nothing on the station's operational performance (eg escalator reliability).

What about the SDA itself? There's two main documents.

1. Annexure 1 (the project brief ) has history worth reading.  Airport rail, a high speed train and City Loop expansion were mentioned as things to make provision for. Even though we don't yet have any of these things, the project brief's assumed 30 000 peak passenger flow by 2050 (6.2.2) might have already been reached.  6.3 has more on platform access requirements.

2. The main SDA comprises about 300 pages.  That's what I'll concentrate on.

Schedule 1 (after p198) lists service standards.

Most of interest is that exit capacity needs to be enough to quickly empty trains and clear metropolitan platforms within 90 seconds. Regional platforms need to be cleared within 120 seconds. There are exceptions for special events near the station.

Failure to quickly clear platforms lessens the ability to run trains at close headways, and thus line capacity. If egress is poor, passengers can't disembark quickly. And train drivers can't see past large crowds on the platform. Both increase dwell times and lateness.  These effects are compounded on a fragile network like Melbourne's plagued with single line sections and complex stopping patterns on some lines.

Some key performance indicators (KPIs) are self-assessed by the station operator. Exit capacity is  (rightly) important enough to be marked as 'SCSA review'. Given organisational changes, that means monitoring by PTV. This is not publicly reported in the manner that train and tram operational performance is. However there is internal reporting. Here the concessionaire (ie Civic Nexus) must provide quarterly performance reports as per 2.3. In addition SCSA is given wide discretion to monitor performance in 33.1.

Safety is a priority at Southern Cross. Especially if you don't inhale the fumes. No, seriously. Pretty much anything that fails must be 'made safe' within 15 to 60 minutes. That usually involves some sort of tape, cordon and often staff to warn and direct. 

Less defined seem to be requirements to go beyond 'make safe' and 'make working'. That means promptly fixing things like escalators that fail. If the priority was on keeping escalators going, I would expect measures like keeping multiple spare parts on or near site, time limits for repairs and a per hour penalty regime for when escalators are out of service. I couldn't find them.

Instead their KPIs are outcome based like clearing the platform within 90 seconds. That's different in that it places priority on peak times and busy platforms. For example, if an escalator fails at 9pm Sunday does it have a significant customer service consequence? Probably not. That's assuming there's another in the same direction next to it. Nearby steps might also be OK. Provided the escalator was fixed by early next morning (when it is needed for peak crowds) you wouldn't fine the station operator.  After all, if you're too demanding you'll probably have to pay somehow, possibly for limited benefit.

On the other hand, increasing station patronage places a requirement that all escalators must be working at all peaks and increasing amounts of the off-peak for the 90 second requirement to be met. So maybe the distinction between the two approaches is not so important despite different ways of thinking.  Especially with higher patronage.

On this last point, at the time the Southern Cross contract was signed in 2002, transport masters had varying beliefs as to what rail patronage would do. Sometimes they thought it would rise quickly. For instance when they accepted the high patronage projections of private rail franchisees. Similar growth was assumed in the Melbourne 2030 mode share targets.

Other times they assumed low growth, such as when (not) funding additional rail services, scrapping the Hitachi fleet, and, as it turned out, designing Southern Cross. Although wrong in hindsight (especially for Southern Cross, being located at the fast growing end of town) low estimates in 2002 might have been plausible given the slow recent growth. Had planning been done in 2006 or 2007 numbers might have been different.
I've only discussed a few things and can't do the SDA complete justice. Other key points are at 4. (availability of service), 5. (repairs and maintenance), 8. (passenger information and signage including the possible use of monitors for advertising), 13. (back up power), 14. (bin emptying), 27.1 (passenger flow monitoring), 34.3 (advertising),  Annexure K (maintenance and refurbishment plan) and Annexure V (air quality standards).

What is the Southern Cross experience to you? Do you get a sense of uplift when you enter Southern Cross to take a V/Locity? Do you love the shopping available? Do the diesel fumes get to you? Or are you in a long queue for the only escalator working? If nothing else I hope the above has provided some clarity about how Southern Cross Station works (or sometimes doesn't). 


Andrew said...

I read your post in detail. I am a casual user of So Cross and I find it ok, but I don't have to do the work commuter experience. The Woolworths there is useful, but otherwise I don't care for or like shops at a train station. What I will say is that there is always a lot of walking involved in catching a train at So Cross. Up, down, across. That the station has been bypassed by trains because of non working escalators is a disgrace. That the escalators took so long to be be repaired is the real disgrace. Yes, safety first and bypass the station, for one morning only, surely.

Anonymous said...

At the very least it serves as a constant reminder that PPP's are a bit shit; hopefully with the oncoming westerly electrifications and airport train, there may be an opportunity for the platform subways to be reopened to the public if the station is to undergo a reconfiguration, especially since the city of Melbourne has given up on reopening the street subways.

Bandwidth Bandito said...

It is a major interchange and has been designed to be an "iconic" location to, in theory, be both aesthetically pleasing and functional. However it fails on almost all levels. Mainly, in my opinion, due to poor maintenance. I recently took a photo of from the main concourse overlooking the tracks and had to literally Photoshop the crap out of the image to make it look "iconic". Rubbish is strewn across many of the tracks and the platforms and overall the look of the place can only be described as tired. The public conveniences look like they are never cleaned and yes the whole diesal fumes thing is a joke. The contractor seems to be just ticking the boxes (which is a risk for any contract I realise, why do more than you have to?) But it lets down the public who should delight in these major spaces and enjoy their movement through them. A higher standard is needed and maybe some retrofitting of the current systems to improve functionality. The commercial sections of the station are by far the best areas to visit, the shop keepers at least try to maintain their areas and create a welcoming atmosphere more in line with what you'd expect at a majoy station.