Thursday, March 26, 2020

Throwback Thursday: Liberals promise trains every 10 minutes three years ago

Three years ago today Channel 9 reported on a 2017 state Liberal policy to increase all-day train services to every 10 minutes. 

While adding train services is dearer than adding bus services it would benefit huge number of people and give the public transport network a really good spine serving most suburban corridors. Currently Melbourne's train network is extensive but waiting times, especially in the fast-growing north and west, are typically 20 minutes during the day, 30 minutes at night and as high as 40 minutes on Sunday morning

A 10 minute train frequency is true on-demand public transport. Rock up at a station and there will a train within a few minutes, even if you've just missed one. That makes trip planning and connections much easier if changing from a bus. And if a service is cancelled the waiting time to the next service is halved so the network is more robust as well. That compares to now where a single cancellation can mean 40, 60 or even 80 minute gaps between trains. It's the sort of service that could really shape our cities to a more transit-oriented form, with it being more attractive to locate homes and businesses near stations and car ownership less necessary. 

In terms of patronage and projected patronage growth, the biggest needs are in the fast growing north and west. Lines like Mernda, Sunbury (to Watergardens), Craigieburn and Werribee, probably in about that order. The Upfield and Hurstbridge lines have infrastructure constraints but 10 minute service could be provided part-way. 

Politically, if we look at the seats the Liberals need winning to gain government, they're mostly on the Ringwood line (being their traditional electoral heartland with much lost in 2018). Fortunately for them a Ringwood line upgrade to every 10 minutes would be the cheapest on the network and deliver benefits for outer areas like Belgrave and Lilydale as well. That's also a busy line that would benefit from train frequency upgrades. And the outer portions would no longer have interpeak train frequencies worse than Geelong gets. 

30 or 40 years ago both parties were pretty poor when it came to running trains. Rupert Hamer's Liberals saved the trams but cut evening train services in 1978 to every 30 minutes (where they mostly remain today). And for passengers industrial disputes caused significant disruptions during the latter part of the Cain/Kirner Labor era. 

More recently both parties can point to instances where they increased train frequencies under their watch. While Labor has done the most for rail infrastructure, it's been the Liberals who seem to understand the need for service frequency more. Examples go back to the Kennett government with lines like Frankston and Dandenong being boosted from every 20 to every 15 minutes interpeak during the 1990s. Also a few years later in 1999 the whole train and tram network got radically boosted Sunday timetables so that midday frequencies matched Saturdays. That greatly improved mobility including to sporting games and special events. 

The Baillieu government also boosted rail frequencies. They commissioned and made public the PTV Rail Network Development Plan. That called for 10 minute services on the major lines. And they were starting to implement this. Read another Throwback Thursday for details. Labor won in 2014, flicked the switch to infrastructure and stopped substantially upgrading timetables and reforming bus networks soon after. 

One would expect that the opposition would hold the government to account on this. Especially given that the Coalition can demonstrate achievement on train frequencies during the Baillieu and even Kennett governments.  The tweet below describes an insider's frustration with then leader Matthew Guy who did not actively push this policy at the 2018 election. 

Instead their energy seemed to be against Labor's 'Skyrail', mainly on the Dandenong line. This proved misdirected. Skyrail proved a success. Former opponents became supporters or at least accepting. And in 2018 there were large swings to Labor in seats that had or were threatened with Skyrail. 

What about buses? Unlike train services the Kennett government didn't have much of a record on them. The Bracks era was mostly also slow. However service upgrades accelerated from 2006 with the MOTC plan delivering probably the biggest ever burst of upgrades. This included extended hours for local routes and bold new SmartBus orbitals. The Brumby government possibly didn't get as much credit as deserved for this as other issues loomed taller. For example the continuing myki saga and their loss of control of the train network with reliability in freefall. 

The same could possibly have been said, a decade previously, with regards to the Kennett government since cuts to lines overshadowed the improvements they made to rail frequencies, although until the Sunday upgrades came along, they were skewed towards their heartland in the south and east.

 The Baillieu government saw significant bus reforms with some major changes in 2013 and 2014, most notably in the Point Cook, Brimbank, Fishermans Bend, Northcote, Preston, Kew, Manningham and Maroondah areas. It was also under them that the large upgrades in Geelong and Wyndham were planned. However most were 'smell of an oily rag' improvements with service kilometres per capita starting to decline from that time. With surging population growth and few bus network expansions, this decline continued under the Andrews government. 

Again a strong opposition could have done something. In public transport policy though Matthew Guy was anything but strong. Even if some of his shadow ministers might have been. For example they had a bus policy involving a $70 million commitment. If that amount was per year that could put approximately 140 buses on the road and deliver upgrades over a wide area. Especially if accompanied by well-planned network reform that could have quite an impact. 

However when it came to selling the policy Guy proved deficient. For example there were no specific measures by area that marginal seat candidates could sell seat by seat, street by street. And the release, issued on election eve, was too late anyway. It might as well not come out. The shadow minister concerned would have every right not to be amused.   

The result was although its record on service levels had been lacklustre the Andrews government was returned with an increased majority in 2018. It was able to campaign positively on its large infrastructure program that was producing results all over Melbourne. The opposition Coalition parties were unable to capitalise on the government's weaknesses in service delivery. And where they had good public transport service policies they were either (a) announced early and not reaffirmed (10 minutes train frequencies) or (b) not made specific and announced at the last minute (bus upgrades). Their electorally successful NSW Liberal colleagues, in contrast, have done better with some real runs on the board. 

What have we heard since the election from the Coalition on transport services? Not a lot. Things are not normal right at the moment with the Corona Virus. However there are still weaknesses in government (service reliability, crowding (under normal times) and limited services) that a vigilant opposition could exploit. David Davis and Co would do well to be using the extra time available (with meetings being cancelled etc) to be planning some transport service policies for 2022. Even if they were just a cut and paste job from here

This post appears in place of this week's Building Melbourne's Useful Network 

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