Thursday, May 09, 2019

Throwback Thursday: 2011's May Metro train timetable

Today marks eight years since the most radical change to Melbourne train timetables in years. 

Monday May 9, 2011 was the first day of consistent 10 minute weekday interpeak frequencies on two lines (Frankston line and Werribee line as far as Newport). An upgrade from previous lower or uneven frequencies, the change reduced the need to check the timetable before travelling. While the Frankston line actually got a 10 minute service the previous year, the alternating between loop and direct operation (each every 20 minutes) made its usabilty poor.

The consistent 10 minute service was all part of a new cross-city group between Frankston and Newport. No longer did one have to waste time navigating the indirect and illegible City Loop to make a short trip from Richmond to Footscray. Instead one could stay on the same train.  Having fewer of the fifteen suburban lines converge into four City Loop portals freed up capacity to run more trains on the lines that remained in the loop. The main downside was that those travelling to or from City Loop stations needed to change trains. 

There were other changes too.

Werribee off-peak trains were run via the formerly little-used direct line to deliver rapid travel to a fast-growing area.   

Later pm express trains were added to give more travel choices and lessen crowding at 'peak of peak' times.  And some irregular train stopping patterns were tidied.

Weekends gained 6 car sets to relieve crowding. New X'trapolis trains were commencing service.

This timetable change was the first stage of setting the rail system up to serve a growing city. Metro established a special website for it. Called Destination Better you can view archived versions here.

Other accounts of the changes appear at and

 I judged their first weekday significant enough to get up early and do a video (below).

How did the new timetable go? Nothing so bold had been attempted in Melbourne for years. It was not without risk; Sydney had an experience in 1975 where its radical new train timetable had to be rescinded.

The best judgement can be seen in the reliability numbers. Train reliability fell for nearly a decade from 2003 to 2011. But then there was a turnaround. Delays lessened. Especially on the troubled Frankston line. By 2014 performance had returned to nearly early 2000s highs. The new timetables weren't all the reason for it but they were a major part, with simpler operations and fewer conflicting moves.

The increased capacity delivered on lines like Werribee was also needed. It got taken up quickly as catchment populations continued to surge. People got used to more trains running direct to Flinders Street, with higher frequency compensating for the increased need to change. Werribee's gain however came at Altona's cost, with the latter's residents cursing the forced off-peak change at Newport (later removed with through-running restored).

What were the new timetable's shortcomings? These are mainly along the lines of the 'not going far enough' rather than it being too radical. It's best to regard the 2011 timetable as a major step forward rather than a solution to all the network's problems (which it never claimed to be). For example keeping some peak Frankston trains in the City Loop lessened simplicity for passengers and operations but was seen as desirable politically (the Frankston line seats then being where government was formed or lost).

There were also some issues with cross-city travel. Train dwell times at Flinders Street made some trips slower than desirable. You might still have needed to change as not all trains continued through to Southern Cross especially during peaks. Passenger information still treated Flinders Street as everyone's destination. This made cross-city travel one of those secrets that (like the operations of the City Loop) the powers that be didn't like to explain because (a) it was too complex or (b) it could change at short notice with transposals or early terminations.

The 2011 timetable change was a major step forward for the Melbourne rail network. The network of today would have been unworkable without it. Just like the network circa 2010 wasn't with its then low reliability.  There were further Metro train timetable changes. For a couple of years we seemed to be progressing well towards the vision in 2012's Rail Network Development Plan of a ten minute service at most stations.

Fast forward to 2019. The pace of infrastructure work has quickened. We gained new stations like  Williams Landing, Cardinia Rd, Lynbrook and Caroline Springs. We've had nearly four years of the Regional Rail Link. Electric trains run to Sunbury and Mernda. There are far fewer road-rail level crossings. Much of the Dandenong line has been elevated while serious work is being done on the Metro tunnel.

On the service side, metropolitan network and timetable reform (on any mode) has basically died. Neither government nor opposition promised significant metropolitan train service initiatives in the 2018 election campaign. This contrasts with Jeff Kennett's Sunday trains and trams in 1996 or even the substantial bus upgrades from premiers Bracks (2006) and Brumby (2010).

The upshot is that most Metro lines still have the same 40 minute Sunday morning and 30 minute weeknight service that existed after service cuts of the 1970s. Off-peak waiting times at busy stations like Sunshine often exceed the time it takes to drive to a destination. And the Burnley group, with its complex peak timetable and infrequent 30 minute weekday service beyond Ringwood remains untouched. Overall, Melbourne has muddled while Sydney surged with the latter gaining major train service upgrades in 2017. 

What does the future hold? There's talk of a new Metro train timetable later this year. It will be interesting to see if this resumes the work so enthusiastically started eight years ago but more recently put aside.

You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics

Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit Steven Higashide NEW!

The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees Gleeson & Beza

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, Institutions (Access Quintet Book 4) David Levinson

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives Jarrett Walker

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)


Fake TfNSW said...

Not announcing the actual destination for trains on the Cross-City group bugs me every time. Why can't they just put on the actual destination instead of Flinders St? They seem to be able to put on the actual destination at Southern Cross for Frankston bound trains from Newport just fine even though the switchover actually happens at Flinders St. And Sydney seems to manage to show the actual destination of North Shore Line and Western Line (and for Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra Line too) trains at all stations just fine, instead of just Central. The PIDs just lists all the stops with the city stations in the middle.

Malcolm M said...

It would be nice to see a chart of interpeak boardings for stations with the 10-minute service before and after the change, compared to the other stations on the network that remained at a 15 or 20 minute frequency.

When the Parliamentary Budget Office made their estimate of the costs and benefits of a 10-minute service for the Greens, they also had to make an estimate of the increase in revenue. The latter was based on a model from Infrastructure Australia. They did not check how well that model had performed on the Melbourne lines where the frequency had increased, nor compared it with Sydney where frequencies have recently increased. The model showed a one-off increase in patronage followed by no further increase other than through population, whereas I expect growth would continue well beyond the first year. I suspect over the last 8 years growth on the Dandenong corridor has outstripped stations with only a 20 minute interpeak frequency, partly because it encourages more bus transfers, and partly because it encourages further intensification of development. As a Budget Office their responsibility is to downplay increases in revenue and make sure there are sufficient funds to deliver what is promised. So they will err on the side of over-estimating costs and under-estimating revenue. It would be good to see a more comprehensive estimates of these costs and benefits.