Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #61: Can we have weekday trains every ten minutes to Ringwood for almost nothing?

Today I'll try to answer a single question: "Can we have trains every ten minutes Ringwood for not very much while also boosting Belgrave and Lilydale service?". 

Why is this significant? On weekends the ten minute service already exists, at least during 'core hours' between approximately 10am and 7pm. The outer portions to Belgrave and Lilydale get a 20 minute service, which is normal for most Melbourne lines. 

Weekdays though are different. The Ringwood line is unusual. Like the 82 tram and a section of the 664 bus, there is a higher basic frequency on weekends than during weekdays (timetable extract below). However if the weekday timetable was fixed then Ringwood would join Dandenong and Frankston in offering a 'turn up and go' ten minute frequency during the day.

Labor's large 2018 win meant that the main belt of politically marginal seats shifted from the Frankston line to the Ringwood line. If either party wishes to win in 2022 we can expect promises  in areas including transport to favour those in Ringwood line seats. More detail than you'd ever want on worthwhile transport service initiatives for marginal seats appears here

I'll only talk about weekday off-peak services. Peak frequencies are higher. But there's a huge number of stopping patterns. PTUA looked over 2006 Connex timetables and found 13 unique stopping patterns. That's just in the outbound direction. And the real number would be higher if loop variations were included. Some details have changed since but the Belgrave/Lilydale line has not had a revamped simplified 'greenfields' timetable that Cranbourne/Pakenham and Frankston got (the latter resulting in large and mostly sustained punctuality improvements). That's worth another post. But in the meantime you can see the variation in the number of trains at different stations, partly due to the complex peak stopping patterns. 

Back to interpeak weekday trains.

There's more to it than this but the current timetable offers a basic 15 minute frequency to Ringwood with portions east to Belgrave and Lilydale operating only every 30 minutes. Missing a train at these stations will severely lengthen your trip. And 30 minutes is the lowest frequency on any populated part of the network and even inferior to the Geelong line (which sees interpeak trains every 20 minutes). As a partial trade-off there is express running at certain off-peak times (something unusual in Melbourne). However the time spent waiting offsets the time saved with express service unless you're dead lucky with the timetable.

All stations trains from Blackburn (every 15 minutes) serve the stations skipped by the expresses. The inbound expresses stop around midday then resume around 2pm with only the closer in stations skipped. This is because CBD-bound Alamein trains resume approximately 90 minutes earlier than starters from Blackburn.  Another complexity is the City Loop reversal; morning trains run to Parliament first, afternoon trains to Flinders Street first. Consequently there is no consistent pattern between the peaks like you have on (say) the Frankston and Werribee lines; the pattern you might have noted will almost certainly have changed two hours later. And again two hours after that.

Infrequent off-peak expresses - not as good as they seem

How much time does express running save for a trip to the city? The 10:47am from Belgrave takes 55 min to reach Parliament, its first CBD station. This is limited stop from Blackburn in. The 12:47pm from Belgrave takes 64 minutes to reach Flinders St (as the loop has reversed). This stops all stations except East Richmond. The 2:47pm is 62 minutes to reach Flinders St as the express running is confined to stations in from Camberwell.

The 9 minute gap between the off-peak express and stopping all stations is about 15 per cent of travel time. But that's only for trips all the way to the city. And it depends on whether the loop is for you or against you for your travel time and destination. Take out these factors and the express running time saving is less significant.

In contrast the 30 minute frequency is significant if a train has just been missed. For Lilydale a just made non-express train takes roughly an hour to do the 38km. As compared to 90 minutes for the next train after one has just been missed. Which translates to a very slow 25 km/h - a similar speed to a bus. The effect of higher frequency would have an even greater relative effect for shorter trips, such as to Ringwood or Box Hill. To summarise, if you wish to speed up travel look to frequency first. Only when frequency is high should one consider express running.

This latter philosophy applies on the Frankston line. Frankston is a similar distance from the CBD as Belgrave and further out than Lilydale. However Frankston gets three times the frequency, with a 10 minute midday service seven days per week. Frankston's lack of interpeak express service make travel slow but the high frequency covers a multitude of sins, especially for shorter distance trips.

Nearly everyone wins with the weekend pattern

Would the Belgrave/Lilydale lines be better off if interpeak service followed the weekend pattern?

I think it would be. While you'd lose the expresses you'd (generally) gain in frequency as below:

Belgrave: 30 > 20 min
Lilydale: 30 > 20 min
Ringwood 15 > 10 min
Alamein 15 > 20 min

The number of trains per hour would drop at some stations. However current timetables are uneven so higher on-paper frequencies can still mean longer than desirable waits. For example while Box Hill has 8 trains per hour in the morning interpeak, maximum wait times are 12 minutes. Whereas an even 6 trains per hour would drop this to 10 min, an overall better result. The diagram below shows the effect, with most stations facing shorter maximum waits with the weekend timetable than on weekdays.

The main instance where this isn't the case is with the very quiet Alamein line whose interpeak frequency would drop from 15 to 20 min. To see if this is an issue it's worth comparing the populations that get more trains versus those who get fewer. Train station boarding numbers are here: https://philipmallis.com/blog/2019/02/14/station-patronage-in-victoria-2013-2018/

They show that, comparing east of Blackburn versus the Alamein line, about seven times the patronage catchment would gain a 50 per cent increase in interpeak frequency as against the small number on the Alamein line who have a 33% reduction. Parts of the Alamein line have nearby frequent trams while others, such as Ashburton, could be compensated for by low cost bus upgrades such as extending Route 734 to Caulfield.

What about the costs?

I did a quick addition of train minutes inbound between 10am and 5pm (as measured at the CBD end). I got 2369 live train minutes (excluding the Alamein line Camberwell - Alamein) for trips between the terminus and the first CBD station (ie either Flinders St or Parliament).

For weekends I got 2583 live train minutes (again inbound only) for a 7 hour period. Although in this case I took an hour midday sample and multiplied by 7 as train frequencies are less earlier on weekends. The difference between the two is a bit over 200 in-service train minutes. Outbound numbers were not measured but should be similar. If I included the Alamein portion south of Camberwell the difference would be slightly less due to the Alamein interpeak frequency reduction.

Very roughly then we're talking a difference of about 400 to 500 in service train minutes per weekday counting both directions. To put that in context, that's about 8 hours extra service. Or about a 10% increase in interpeak service.

Since the Belgrave/Lilydale line is quite peaky and the peaks go longer than for other lines the increase in service counting peak, evening and weekend trains as a base is probably nearer to 4% if not less. As a proportion of all Metro train services in Melbourne this increase would equates to an increase in total train operating hours somewhere around 1.5% if not less.

That's not much to deliver a 10 minute turn-up-and-go interpeak service on the key line to Ringwood while boosting Belgrave and Lilydale service from near the worst on the network to the more normal 20 minute headway. Such a frequency would also support bus upgrades, such as boosting the 201 express shuttle from Box Hill to Deakin University to every 10 min and the 733 (Box Hill - Clayton only) from 30 to 20 min interpeak and the same for the 664 serving Chirnside Park, Croydon, Bayswater and Knox City.

Apart from the political appeal benefiting five marginal Labor seats (Bayswater, Hawthorn, Box Hill, Burwood, Ringwood) and three marginal Liberal seats (Croydon, Evelyn and Ferntree Gully) the cost would be much less than the boosting 20 minute lines like Mernda, Craigieburn and Watergardens from their current 20 to 10 minutes interpeak since these are coming from a much lower base.

Increasing service on those lines is also important but the costs are higher and you'd need to train far more train drivers. If you wanted something substantial yet quick to do before the 2022 election with the other lines (which mostly serve safe seats) for afterwards, you'd pick the Ringwood line first. And the momentum generated from this small increase (eg stepped up training for the extra train drivers needed) could be scaled up for other lines later.


Adopting the weekend timetable for interpeak weekdays would give an easy local win with improved service to a catchment of hundreds of thousands. That includes ten minute service to Ringwood and upgraded frequencies for Belgrave and Lilydale to consign today's half-hour waits to the history bin. It's not free but it's cheap. Since the suggested timetable already runs on the weekends there's no question about it not being feasible. And the politics stacks up as well!

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

PS: An index to all Timetable Tuesday items is here.

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Anonymous said...

Steve McGhee Melton not Mitcham. Ballarat Line issues here.

Peter Parker said...

Many thanks. Fixed!

Anonymous said...

As a Lilydale commuter, it's crazy to me that weekend frequency is better than weekday. Super frustrating just missing a train and waiting 30 minutes off peak

Heihachi_73 said...

Start running full-time trains to Mooroolbark and Upper Ferntree Gully in between the Lilydale and Belgrave trains, as having trains every 15 minutes all day would even be a step up for the most part. If the same thing can be done on the Hurstbridge and Sunbury lines (with every second train terminating at Eltham and Watergardens respectively) there is no reason why it wouldn't work beyond Ringwood, although in Sunbury's case it's more "CBF running them" than lack of rail infrastructure (every 40 minutes beyond Watergardens between peaks yet every 30 minutes at night when they all run to Sunbury).

Once that's done, bribe Ventura to provide a semi-decent "Knox Transit Link" style service running until the last train. The 680 and 693 already duplicate the single-track Lilydale and Belgrave sections* respectively, although the 693 runs all the way to Oakleigh so a new bus route might be needed (so, simply terminate the 693 at UFG and have a new bus route continue along Burwood Hwy to Belgrave).

While the track count drops to one after Ferntree Gully station, there is (or should be) enough headway to run the train on the single track to Upper Ferntree Gully. Of course, duplicating this short stretch would be child's play if there were enough corrupt politicians nearby with money to burn (as with the line formerly known as Epping, which had virtually half the entire line duplicated and then extended twice).

Tom said...

The Ringwood line should be upgraded to every 10 minute, with every 20 minute services for each of Belgrave and Lilydale. However on weekdays it is relatively complicated.

The Glen Waverley line also currently has a 15 minute frequency and altering one frequency but not the other would throw out the connections, including East Richmond.

One of the reasons that Alamein gets such low patronage is that it is a shuttle service outside peak (its peak however includes post-school peak), with another being low peak frequency (due to the low capacity of the single line section at the end). A minor upgrade (restoring the second platform at Ashburton) would allow 10 minute services. Alamein as a non-shuttle service could replace the Blackburn short services between peaks.

Peter Parker said...

Thanks. Eventually I'd have GW every 10 min interpeak. That's cheaper than but a lower priority than 10 min to Watergardens, Craigiwburn, Mernda and Werribee. I'd tolerate the poorer connectivity in the interim. After all we currently tolerate it at Richmond between Dandenong & Ringwood & with Sandringham at South Yarra. GW line has few attractions anyway except near the end where people may instead use a bus instead of going in to Burnley. So not ideal but in my mind not a dealbreaker if there is a higher ans bigger aim.

Peter Parker said...

Btw agree on Alamein. Once we've got a basic 10 min service on all lines out to about 20-40 km, I'd like a two tier interpeak on the longer lines with SAS locals every 10 min and interpeak expresses every 10 min for further out.