Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #83: The Metro train timetable that never was

Today marks 5 years since an important article was published in The Age. It was about the 2015 Metro train timetable we never got.

It proved a turning point in public transport policy priorities. And not in a completely good way. Along with the abandoned 2015 Transdev greenfields bus network it marked the start of what might be called 'Allanism', that is a strategy based on 'big build' infrastructure to the exclusion of significant network, service or timetable reform. 

Allanism replaced the previous coalition government's doctrine of Mulderism. That was almost exactly the opposite. Key ingredients included the production of reports on things like Rowville rail but little movement on projects. On the plus side was the setting up of PTV (the best institutional arrangement we've had in years) and its activity in ramping up long-overdue network and service reform across train and bus including higher frequencies. Premier Napthine  eventually proposed new infrastructure in his ill-fated 2014 campaign but his side lacked credibility. That was partly due to hopes raised and dashed earlier in the term on silly sorties like Avalon airport rail while slothing out on Southland station. 

Had the plug not been pulled on the Transdev bus and Metro train timetable changes we would have got transformative network and service reform in 2015. What got delivered (V/Line's Regional Rail Link and new bus networks in Ballarat, Geelong and Wyndham) were big in those areas but not metro-wide (see Daniel Bowen's write-up here). 

The 2015 Transdev proposal certainly had problems. The minister might have been right to abandon. However she never delivered the subsequent promised "more balanced bus network proposal". 

Also not delivered were most parts of the 2015 Metro train timetable. That decision effectively killed off the implementation of 2013's Network Development Plan. This was formulated under the Baillieu government, during a brief bipartisan pro-service consensus (2009 - 2014) when it looked like big things were possible. Had the NDP gone to schedule we would by now have many more lines running every 10 minutes each day on simpler timetables than the two we have now (Frankston and Dandenong). 

By not proceeding with the 2015 Metro changes Jacinta Allan stopped the momentum. Melissa Horne, her successor, lacked the experience, budget and/or authority to restart it. A short document, called Growing our Rail Nework was published in 2018. This was a simple list of rail infrastructure projects being built. Apart from brief references to 'turn-up-and-go' there was nothing specific on  improved frequency and when we would get it. In particular the NDP's key aim of boosting service to every 10 minutes as early as possible and over as much of the network as possible subject only to infrastructure constraints, had vanished. 

David Davis, her Liberal parliamentary opponent in the other place, did little to hold the government to account. Instead he listened to an unrepresentative minority of anti-Skyrailers to oppose what ended up a popular and successful project. Also, by refusing to press service issues such as low frequencies even in his party's eastern suburbs heartland (unlike predecessor David Hodgett) Davis gave Labor a free kick while downplaying his own party's in-government achievements going back to Jeff Kennett of substantially upgrading suburban train timetables. This stance is puzzling given the electoral politics as you'll see later.    

What was in the 2015 Metro train timetable that never  happened? The best summary is in this Daniel Bowen post written when The Age article came out. We know that behind the scenes Metro Trains advocate timetable reforms to government. However governments of both sides have held train timetable changes back. Mostly over political concerns about taking a small number of Frankston all stations peak trains out of the City Loop. 

But had it gone ahead there would have been major all-day network-shaping changes on three lines: Alamein/Belgrave/Lilydale, Glen Waverley and, possibly later, in 2016, Sunbury.

The first of these would have delivered a 10 minute offpeak service to Ringwood and fixed the situation where off-peak trains to Belgrave and Lilydale operate less frequently (every 30 minutes) than trains to Geelong. The Glen Waverley line would also  have got a 10 minute service. 

After Labor's large 2018 win seats along these lines have turned marginal. Both major parties will be battling to keep or gain them in 2022. The Ringwood line boost, in particular, makes transport and political sense, especially given its low implementation cost 

While not politically marginal, the Sunbury/Watergardens boost is also of prime importance to the network. It's stuck with a 20 minute service (30 evenings and 40 on Sunday mornings) but offpeak patronage and demographics justified a 7 day 10 minute service years ago. No one has said what will happen post-Metro Tunnel. Until we know the West Footscray train turnback looks like a snub to the west; a sign that, high patronage notwithstanding, it's not good enough for the frequent service that parts of the east now enjoy. 

The 2015 timetable had other features as well. For example some extra peak services on some lines. However the trade-off would be that some would no longer go via the City Loop. In the west stations out to Newport would gain a 10 minute weekend service. Altona would also get its direct CBD interpeak trains back; a loss that has been felt since they were converted to shuttles in 2010

What has been the legacy of not doing these timetable changes in 2015, imperfect as they might have  been? We got some small boosts. For example Dandenong got its 10 minute weeknight service extended a bit later (although weekend services still drop to half-hourly ridiculously early). Evening services on the Sunbury line were extended all the way, rather than some stopping short. Some peak service upgrades occurred. And  Altona (represented by former shadow Transport Minister Jill Hennessy) finally got its interpeak CBD trains returned. 

Nothing though has been truly transformative like the NDP's network-wide roll-out of 10 minute service would have been. The 2015 Age article described the then state of play well.  

The 'significant deviation from the plan' became a long-term stalling. Far from the promising 'complete reboot' the government got cold feet. Not even in 2019, after it had just been re-elected with an increased majority (the ideal time to introduce potentially controversial changes) was the NDP upgrade program revived. 2015's decision turned out not to be a simple deferral of a timetable change but the end of a brief but fruitful period of service reform that, under both parties, transformed train services where they were implemented. However, with the 2018 election redrawing the electoral map, reviving the 2015 timetable could just be the 2022 vote winner both parties need in critical marginal seats. 

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True Believers said...

You mention the PTV development plan in this, just wanna mention the Labor government in the department of transport secretly worked on the updated version of the PTV plan, which seems to also lack in many details. I really wonder what kinda reforms were in the updated plan and I think there is so much shuffle in the transport planning area that it hasn't really been easy to get reforms into action. Transport for Victoria -> DOT -> the merging of Vicroads. The development department also conflicting by pushing SRL out of nowhere. Also you have Infrastructure Victoria which in itself has little influence in transport decision making, since the government can just dismiss one of it's policies such as price charging. Honestly we really need more consistency in the transport sector, the amount of changes in departments in the last few years is one of those reasons why much of the good service structure planning has stalled.

Peter Parker said...

Thanks True Believers. Yes I should have mentioned the update. I've now added that to the post. It's a very short document talking about current infrastructure projects with nothing specific on service. Link for others is here. https://transport.vic.gov.au/about/planning/transport-strategies-and-plans/

Undertheclocksblog said...

thoughts on the 10 minute rail system in this link https://undertheclocksblog.wordpress.com/2020/06/23/post-covid-melbourne-railways/

Actual 10 minute timetable in progress