Thursday, October 10, 2019

Throwback Thursday: Destination Better - Metro's radical October 2010 train timetable

Today is an important anniversary. A new train timetable. Not just any new timetable but the first step of a phased network overhaul that would see off-peak trains every 10 minutes on most lines within six years. Well that was the plan back in 2012 (graph below). 


As history would have it, progress slowed from 2015. Labor won the 2014 election and put their ambitious building agenda above all else, including adding metropolitan train services. Especially if potentially controversial timetables were involved.

Meanwhile the opposition Liberal Party vigorously opposed the (now generally accepted) Dandenong line "Skyrail" but was weak on areas where it could credibly criticise Labor eg service provision lagging population growth. The parliamentary party was also unfortunate to lose one of its better managers in Terry Mulder who as transport minister presided over a turn-around in train reliability, major rail service upgrades, substantial bus network reform and the creation of PTV.  

To summarise, what appears to have been a bipartisan consensus in favour of turn-up-and-go rail service between about 2009 and 2014 (no doubt aided by electoral considerations!) has since weakened due to an otherwise occupied government untroubled by a passive opposition that those in transport advocacy groups tell me they rarely hear from. 

Reforming the network

Getting back to 2010, one cannot underestimate how revolutionary that year's timetable was compared to previous years'. It marked a departure from the snail-like progress up to then, where once or twice a year one or two new trips were inserted between existing journeys to relieve crowding (although in 2019 we haven't even had that).

That previous incremental approach was inadequate for the booming patronage then being experienced. Added capacity was soon gobbled up by ever-rising patronage. Simply inserting trips added seats but made timetables more fragile since there were more conflicting moves that could propagate delays longer. These were not merely theoretical considerations; from 2003 metropolitan train punctuality went into a free-fall that was not to reverse until the following decade.   

How does one fix train congestion and where do new timetables come into it?

New lines are the most obvious solution. But they're expensive, especially in cities where you may have to resume property and relocate water, gas, power and communications services. Sometimes you don't know where things are until you start digging. Elevated is one option but in dense areas the cost of propery resumptions and the impact of disruption make tunnelling the only practical option.

Modern signalling and train control systems that increase capacity on existing lines by allowing closer train spacing are another possibility. This is cheaper than new lines but governments still baulk at the cost. And they involve information technology, something that successive Victorian governments haven't managed well. Our record with IT projects in public transport (eg Metcard, Myki, bus tracking, a new Metrol) is such that anyone who bets on them meeting promises, deadlines and budgets is probably deluded. Eventually, despite the risks, we will have to modernise train signalling to boost network capacity. But Victoria will need to learn how to manage complex IT and communications projects first.

Cheapest of all are timetable changes. Especially if we've been receiving deliveries of new trains and have been diligent in training sufficient drivers. I think we've got better at this, unlike the training drought that occurred during the time of the unlamented and now departed National Express. 

Extra trips slotted in to an existing timetable seem like a good idea at the time. They're the sort of thing one might do to respond to a crisis when there's no plan. However they cause uneven gaps between trains, a proliferation of complex express stopping patterns (almost no two trains run the same pattern) or tight scheduling that can paralyse the system if one train is late. 

Greenfields timetables and their risks

The smarter approach involves revised 'greenfield' timetables. These simplify operating patterns, seperate lines into independent operating groups (to isolate delays) and reduce point switching and conflicting moves so the timetable becomes more robust and can recover quickly from delays. 

Radical timetable changes seem a no-brainer, and cities like Sydney and even Perth are now ahead of us. However they change the way people use the network so can be controversial. And sometimes they fail and have to be rescinded, such as what happened with Sydney's 1975 and 1996 timetables, to the embarrassment of all concerned. 

Like new lines and better signalling, new timetables are necessary, often before the other measures. Unfortunately we have tended to introduce them only after crowding has got really bad. While governments might justify infrastructure projects on the basis of the capacity unlocked, authorities no less than the Auditor-General have found a reluctance to fully realise benefits when they do open. Werribee people, for instance, are still waiting for a large increase in suburban train services promised when Geelong trains were diverted via Sunshine (RRL) in 2015.  

Timetables with goodies like turn-up-and-go frequencies (though transformative in how we use trains) require higher operational funding. Small recurring increases are vastly harder to obtain than much bigger one-off amounts for capital spending. And operational reforms may require changed work practices that unions won't always like. It may or may not be because of this that some of the largest timetable upgrades (eg Melbourne's 1999 boost to Sunday train and tram services or Sydney's reforms in 2017) occurred under assertive Coalition governments. 

As for the controversy, because our train network is so CBD focused and frequencies on most lines were not particularly high, almost everyone got accustomed to taking trains that serve all stations in the City Loop. With trains from multiple lines funnelling into the loop and its capacity close to full, the only way more trains could be accommodated was to bypass the loop. For example operate trains from Richmond to Footscray via Flinders Street and Southern Cross. 

Because of low frequency and poor reliability changing trains was considered a major imposition, even though it is key to how big city networks run. Since an election was coming politicians and candidates whipped up public fears about what could happen to their trains if the other side had their way. Having people grumble about a service that was merely mediocre might have been thought more tolerable than risking outright hostility to something radical.   

Goodbye Connex, hello Metro

By 2008 people were 'sick of Connex'. This would not have displeased some in government grateful that opprobrium was being spread in a caring sharing way. Having private operators to blame could have been one reason for the government not to resume operating the metropolitan network when it had chances to (2004 and 2009). One minister, the late Lynne Kosky, was famously quoted saying that she did not wish to run a train service. However the Bracks government, heavily dependent on regional support and with a major regional rail agenda, did reclaim V/Line as a public operator after National Express quit. 

Playing games with brand names and private operators could only do so much. The state copped increasing flack for overcrowding and the deteriorating system performance. It was doing stuff for regional trains (Regional Fast Rail), metropolitan buses (Meeting Our Transport Challenges), and architects (Southern Cross Station's roof) but neglected metropolitan trains. New ticketing (itself in trouble with the Myki project) was a side issue if people couldn't board trains.

Concerns about train service delivery were rattling government's core as the network failed, particularly during hot weather. A parliamentary inquiry to inquire into train services had just been established. And when refranchising came along in 2009 the government was only too happy to dump Connex for MTM which promised to bring Hong Kong-style efficiency to Melbourne's decrepit rail network. 

There were no real changes from Day One. Neither were many apparent a year later, despite hopes from the premier when Metro took over. Some were muttering that Metro might be 'worse than Connex', that tarnished brand having entered the local lingo as a byword for hopelessness. The graph below tells the story.

"Destination Better"

This was the context that greeted Metro's new timetable introduced nine years ago today. Government MPs had their fingers crossed. After all it had major implications for train services on the (then) electorally sensitive Frankston line. If the timetable, introduced just weeks before the election, failed then it could risk their decade-old government.  

Metro launched a new website for this timetable change. Called 'Destination Better' you can read the archived version here: 

Information on the then Department of Transport website is here: 

The change marked the start of what became the cross-city group between Frankston, Flinders Street, Southern Cross and Werribee. Some Frankston trains (then operating every 15 minutes off-peak on weekdays) were taken out of the City Loop.  As a sweetener Frankston off-peak frequency was boosted from 15 to 10 minutes.

A 10 minute frequency is close to what many would regard as a 'turn up and go' service. That service concept is common in European metro systems but rare on most Australian suburban rail systems.

The 10 minute frequency would have been ground-breaking if it was consistent. But it wasn't. Instead half the trains went via the City Loop while the other half went to Werribee via Flinders Street and Southern Cross. Read my post at the time about this here

This was not a neat arrangement. However it was not as dramatic as removing almost all of them from the loop in one go. That was to happen later.   

Read more about these changes here:

While the transitional 'half direct and half loop' arrangement may have been less radical it didn't seem to fix reliability. The breakthrough here had to wait for further operational changes introduced the following year

Off-peak frequency wasn't the only gain on the Frankston line. Weeknight mid-evening trains were also improved. Instead of operating every 30 minutes (as they had done since service cuts in 1978) they were boosted to operate every 20 minutes until about 10pm. 

On the other side of town there were changes to Werribee trains. Laverton Station was rebuilt. This allowed for trains to start and finish there. Again this was tied up with Frankston as part of a cross-city group that was to be created in the 2011 timetable. Details of the Werribee changes here: 


This timetable, though a transition effort, was historically significant. It was a bridge between the very slow changes of the mid-2000s to the rapid changes in train timetables in the 2011 to 2015 period. As mentioned before there were further larger changes, with all off-peak Frankston trains eventually being routed via Flinders Street and Southern Cross to Footscray and beyond to form a cross-city group.

It was this second change in 2011 that improved consistency, made the 10 minute service meaningful and restored reliability to early 2000s levels (see previous graph). The busy Werribee line also gained but at the cost of the quieter single-track Altona line whose passengers lost their off-peak direct CBD trains. Instead they had to change at Newport to trains that did not always come.  

While not beneficial for everyone, the 2011 timetable set in train scheduling reforms that led to improved reliability on some major lines. There were especially large gains on the politically marginal Frankston line whose service had reached a particularly low ebb. While not a fashionable view amongst those who regard infrastructure as everything, revised timetables (ie the way we use infrastructure) could change the world. Or at least get train problems off the front pages.

All this came too late for the Brumby government which lost numerous Frankston line seats, and thus office, in 2010. Had the 2010 and 2011 timetables happened a year or two earlier the state's political history may have been very different.


Anonymous said...

So where to from here? Skyrail has been built, there are trains available - why do Pakenham and Cranbourne trains have 20 minute frequencies after 8am (citybound) and 20 minutes after 6pm (Pakenham bound)? It can't be due to infrastructure or platform availability at Dandenong because during peak hour it operates every 5-10 minutes. I thought metro was required to release a new "Greenfield" timetable every 6 or 12 months? There hasn't been anything major in 2 years or so.

Peter Parker said...

Good question. My understanding is that Metro is keen enough but government is the stumbling block. In terms of evening/off-peak frequencies, I think the glaring priorities for upgrades should be busy lines to stations like Watergardens, Craigieburn, Mernda and Werribee that still have 20-30 minute service. Not to mention the cheap to fix Belgrave/Lilydale line that is still on 30 minute off-peak weekday frequencies, actually has a better weekend timetable and passes through numerous marginal seats.

Michael Angelico said...

I think the views in the corridors of power are that people basically don't want their travel plans to change. Remember when the Clifton Hill loop was changed so weekday services always run clockwise, which works better with the portal at Jolimont? The complaints flooded in, even though the potential for punctuality improvement was huge. The same thing happens whenever a country line changes to Metro (Craigieburn, Sunbury, etc) - the people don't care that they'll have a tenfold increase in frequency, they want to get the V/Line so it runs express, even though the time saved by running express is tiny compared to the reduced waiting time from the increased frequency.

If the government can't just grit its collective teeth and wait for the storm of complaints to blow over, they could point out some of the previous success stories and draw a parallel with the changes they need to make. They could also throw the serial complainers a few crumbs by advising them to visit the PTV Hub to consult an expert on how to make the best of the new timetables, and put some media spin on how they've put extra people on duty to ensure everyone can enjoy the benefits of a 21st century train system.

Daniel said...

Some people will always complain when there's a change, but how has patronage gone on the Clifton Hill group since they started going clockwise? Or Werribee since it came out of the Loop on weekdays? Or Sandringham since it came out of the Loop on weekends? Up, up and up.