Friday, June 21, 2019

What real network reform looks like: Regional Rail Link turns four

Today is an important anniversary. Four years since the commencement of services on the Regional Rail Link. The official opening was actually a week prior but today is the more significant anniversary.

Regional Rail Link routed Geelong trains on new tracks away from Werribee via Sunshine. This allowed trains to service the fast growth areas of Wyndham Vale and Tarneit (which never had trains before). And it freed up line capacity for more trains between Werribee and the CBD.

As for Geelong, although the line on the map appears less direct, the faster running of the trains  on its own tracks meant similar travel times to before. And off-peak weekday frequencies increased from every 60 minutes to every 20 minutes. This is a major improvement that made trains more useful for more trips including business travel. It's just a shame that the City Loop's convoluted operations (including the midday reversal) still makes getting to Geelong a lottery from the northern and eastern CBD.

Transport today would not cope without the Regional Rail Link. Although 'Regional' is in its title, the big growth in passenger numbers has come from outer suburban Wyndham Vale and Tarneit.

Five years ago Tarneit Station didn't exist. Now it's the busiest V'Line station outside Southern Cross. It and Wyndham Vale's car parks are amongst the biggest on the rail system. And well-used direct buses run from the new stations to established Werribee line stations.  This is like the pattern in the middle-eastern suburbs (eg around Mt Waverley), where north-south buses serve train lines that run east-west, providing a grid style network where both buses and trains attract good patronage numbers. When you do the same thing you tend to get similar successful results.  

More to do

The RRL remains an unfinished project in some ways. Three road-rail grade separations at Deer Park and Sunshine West (Robinsons, Station and Fitzgerald roads) that should have happened were not done. Although we think of V/Line trains as being infrequent, these crossing are so busy at peak times that more trains pass through them than those on some Metro lines.

Timetables on both the Geelong and Werribee lines now don't meet today's demand. For example Tarneit (the busiest station mentioned before) has almost a half-hour gap in departures around 5pm. Cancelling just one critical trip would cause there to be no trains for nearly 50 minutes. And the 40 minute weekend gaps are at least twice what they should be.   

The Werribee line's peak timetable is other unfinished business. The peak timetable on it and related lines (including Laverton and Williamstown) currently have an awkward 11 and 22 minute pattern. Werribee's peak timetable does not fully exploit the capacity freed by rerouting Geelong trains. This was mentioned by the Auditor-General who found that benefits from RRL have yet to be fully realised. And the government came close to but eventually did not proceed with a radical metropolitan train timetable overhaul in 2015

New bus networks

Less heralded than the RRL infrastructure and associated train services, are the bus network improvements that also started on this day in 2015. These were not mere tinkerings. Instead, almost every bus route in Greater Geelong and Wyndham (incorporating Wyndham Vale, Tarneit, Hoppers Crossing and Werribee) got a new alignment, a new number and a new timetable. A complete redesign from a blank slate. Historically significant and quite rare.

The multimode network diagram below, though not quite accurate, showed how the more frequent services in Geelong and Melbourne's western suburbs fitted together. I did it at the time as an experiment and it never went anywhere.

You can compare sections of a reformed network (central Wyndham) with an unreformed network (central Melton) below. Notice how Wyndham has direct routes that stay on its main roads with local routes serving areas in between. Whereas Melton's routes are all half and half - a mix of main road and local street running. Its basic network structure hasn't changed for years. Like Wyndham, Melton is an outer growth area and there are large areas without service.   

The big differences aren't evident on the map. Frequency. Wyndham's bus network is two-tier. Its main road routes operate every 20 minutes during peak periods. The most important of these also run every 20 minutes off-peak. And sometimes even on weekends as well (eg 170 and 180).  Local street routes in Wyndham are typically every 40 minutes - their main purpose is to provide coverage to areas distant from the main roads. Both types of routes attract good patronage, with peak usage so high that extra trips on some will start next month.

In contrast Melton's routes are (at best) every 30 minutes on weekdays (even in peaks) and hourly on weekends. Melton's mix of unreliable V/Line trains and infrequent local bus routes makes using them unattractive for commuters seeking an alternative to parking at the station. 

Geelong also got a new bus network. It was not uncontroversial. However the only people who liked the old network were existing users. This can skew results when people are asked about network changes intended to attract new riders. Like in Wyndham, many of Geelong's routes were made more direct and upgraded to operate every 20 minutes off-peak on weekdays, harmonising with train frequencies. This is summarised in the hypothetical advertisement below.

Both revised networks represent the two biggest examples of comprehensive bus network reform we've seen for years. Despite continued strong population growth and networks that need reform, nothing bigger has been implemented since.  And where bus reforms have occurred, it's mostly been in conjunction with rail extensions such as in the lead up to and again when Mernda's line opened.

A well-known motivational quote from Norman Vincent Peale is: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”

In the context of Melbourne public transport, this could be rewritten to say "Advocate for a train. Even if you miss you'll get a better bus network". The record shows you'll probably have more success than asking for buses directly. Whether it's trains to Doncaster, Rowville, Cranbourne East or South Morang (initially) or trams to Knox City, advocates have shamed governments into providing  improved bus services at a higher standard than almost anywhere else.

That's more than seems to have been achieved by those advocating directly for buses since about 2011. Despite a strong case, advocates for bus services haven't done very well with this government. The only bright spots have been universities (with new or improved shuttle routes) and local MPs in formerly marginal seats (who have gained local routes layered over existing unchanged dysfunctional networks). Real network change has been minimal despite the opportunities presented by road-rail grade separations to renew bus networks based on improved traffic flow and easier interchange to the rebuilt stations. 

I've veered off-topic, haven't I? But they illustrate the historical significance of today's anniversary. A day, four years ago, when real train and bus network reform was delivered with substantial community benefit. May we have many more future days like it. 

For now though, enjoy the videos I made at the time. 

Regional Rail Link Open Day

RRL construction (day)

RRL construction (early morning)


The RRL (and its associated bus network changes) have been great successes. Maybe even too successful, with services currently straining under patronage pressure. However it paved the way for bigger and even more transformative rail projects that are now under construction. 

Note: This post appears in place of Building Melbourne's Useful Network. That's back next Friday. 

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)

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