Monday, March 27, 2023

NDP Metropolitan Rail: 10 years since public release

Today is an important anniversary for public transport network planning in Melbourne. The PTV Network Development Plan – Metropolitan Rail was completed in December 2012 but released to the public 10 years ago today

This ground-breaking plan was important for four reasons. 

It was made public

It is multimodal, with a coordination framework encompassing trams and buses

It combined infrastructure and service uplifts

It was structured to deliver important benefits early and maximise asset utilisation 

Few plans before and none publicly available since have matched it in how it would transform public transport. Its impact, had it been funded and implemented in the specified time-frame, would have exceeded that of any single public transport infrastructure project, regardless of size. The Age described it as a "terrific ambitious plan that just needs someone to fund it". 

What was the NDP Metropolitan Rail? 

In terms of passenger benefits, the NDP was a blueprint for rolling out frequent all day service across the suburban rail network. Its aim was to improve service and reliability by simplifying stopping patterns and deliver consistent all-day 7 day turn-up-and-go service every 10 minutes on all main lines. Smaller branches and some outer sections would meet every second train, with service every 20 minutes while parts of the inner core would enjoy a 5 minute service. It envisaged that large steps would have been taken by 2016 with most of the rest done by 2021 with most stations getting trains every 10 minutes or better all week.  

Making the best use of existing assets was front and centre of the plan. Essentially service first, infrastructure second, and only then dictated by what the service needs. In the plan's own words: 

A central focus of the plan is to regularly overhaul and simplify timetables and train operations, getting every extra service possible out of the existing system at zero or low cost, before turning to more costly infrastructure solutions.

The subsequent infrastructure program aimed to improve reliability, remove constraints on parts of the network that restricted achievable frequencies and extend the rail network to growth areas. Outer network extension was a lower priority than frequency and core capacity; Mernda, for example, would be one of the later stages.  

The plan's four priorities are as follows:

It was envisaged that the plan would be accompanied by tram and bus network reform and harmonised timetables. There was a great need for this; unlike cities (such as Perth) which had multimodal coordination as part of their transport planning DNA, Melbourne had buses every 10, 15, 20, 22, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 55, 60 or 120 minutes and trams every 10, 12, 15, 20 or 30 minutes frequently failing to meet trains every 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 or 60 minutes. Even trains themselves didn't reliable connect with the abovementioned frequencies. The NDP sought to bring a pulse to the network to make connections more reliable across the day over the whole week.   

This would be achieved through a simplified hierarchy of routes with more consistent frequencies all week. For example main routes could operate every 10 minutes and intermediate routes every 20 minutes to harmonise with trains upgraded to operate either every 10 or every 20 minutes. The NDP's frequency hierarchy and coordination framework, applying across all modes, made it far more advanced than 2021’s Victoria's Bus Plan that didn’t have one at all.     

Patronage assumptions

The decade leading up to the plan's completion (December 2012) coincided with a huge boost in CBD employment and public transport usage across all modes. Train usage was driven by increased CBD employment (and fuel prices), trams by inner area densification and bus usage by suburban growth and substantial service increases (especially between 2006 and 2010). 

It assumed a continued fast rise for all modes with network usage rising from 517 million trips pa when the plan was written to 1 billion in 2031. Peak demand was projected to be up 50% in 10 years and 130% later on. This continued growth informed the plan's aims to boost core peak capacity (eg through signalling, bigger trains and selected infrastructure) ahead of suburban extensions, notably Mernda which was pushed back very late. 

As it happened the big patronage growth spurt had tailed off just about when the NDP came out. Bus patronage growth was somewhat weak about 5-6 years ago, attributed to factors such as service quality under operators such as Transdev Melbourne, the growth of ride share and e-commerce reducing the need for people to go to 'bricks and mortar' shops.

Hurting rail usage has been the increasingly part-time nature of the network as train testing, level crossing removals and (paradoxically) Night Network (which reduced available maintenance windows) caused multiple closures and sometimes long waits for substitute buses. Then there was the pandemic, stripping the network of its white collar CBD commuter component as working from home became compulsory and later popular for part of the week.

Public transport patronage has since rebounded but more so for evening, off-peaks and weekends than during traditional weekday peak periods. Hence if we are to still reach 1 billion passenger trips pa by 2031 the patronage rise will need to be very steep since it has been so limited in the last decade. And it is increasingly clear that growth opportunities are being held back by long waits at times when people do wish to travel, especially at night and, to a lesser, extent off-peak. 

What got done and what didn’t? 

I’ll mainly discuss service aspects here. The reformed Frankston line timetable is the nearest to what the plan envisaged on all trunk sections. Stopping patterns were simplified and the line generally operates every 10 minutes during the day and 20 minutes at night. This line runs through to Werribee and Williamstown which have maximum 20 minute waits (a big improvement on 40 min Sunday morning & 30 minute evening waits). 

The Pakenham / Cranbourne lines to Dandenong achieve the greenfields 10 minute frequent service ideal on weekdays and during the day on weekends. However early Sunday mornings and weekend evenings remain with a desultory 30 minute service (unlike similar lines in Sydney with widespread 15 minute service). 

The Belgrave/Lilydale lines were only really done on weekends during the day where a 10 minute service operates to Ringwood. Evenings remain half-hourly. Weekday timetables have also stayed unreformed with 30 minute gaps east of Ringwood and a huge number of complex peak stopping patterns. 

Other lines remained with widespread 30 or 40 minute waits with 7 day 10 minute frequencies continuing to be available on only a low proportion of lines (apart from Frankston). And during the day there are widespread 20 minute intervals even on busy main lines like Craigieburn. Because rail frequency boosts under the Kennett and Baillieu/Napthine governments tended to favour 'their' areas in the south and east, the traditional Labor strongholds in the north and west are falling further behind with waits for trains twice as long. This is because Labor hasn't yet substantially rewarded its most loyal voters with frequent service like the Liberals did for some of theirs. 

There was significant activity in achieving such upgrades before 2015, especially on the Frankston line along with weekend services to Ringwood and Dandenong. The plan's first major setback under the new government was the abandonment of a major reformed Metro train timetable in mid-2015. The following 6 years were to be a lean time for metropolitan train service reforms as the government shifted gear to infrastructure, notably level crossing removals in practice, and the even bigger Suburban Rail Loop in vision. 

During this time the government released its own rail plan called Growing our Rail Network 2018 - 2025. A short document, with none of the NDP's detail, it listed key capital projects, notably the level crossing removals, HCMTs and Metro Tunnel. Significantly it did not repeat the NDP's emphasis on simpler timetables, early frequency boosts nor intermodal coordination. However the Andrews government could argue that (unlike its predecessor) it was more interested in construction results than  unrealised plans, with  evidence of the former growing every day.   

I have said before that political fashions and budgetary circumstances can change but good plans can endure. This is because they address truths the responses to which can be deferred but never avoided. The NDP - Metropolitan Rail was an example of a good plan, even if its service first approach was politically out of favour for a while. 

Small but worthwhile progress towards the plan resumed in 2021 with that year’s timetable simplifying services and adding trips in the spirit of the plan on the Frankston, Werribee and Williamstown lines. Completing loose ends from about 7-8 years prior, the 2021 reforms made Frankston the first (and so far only) main line to have a timetable almost entirely consistent with NDP aims, ie maximum 10 minute waits during the day and no more than 20 minute waits at night.

Dandenong trains also got a revamp with simplified and consistent 7 day City Loop operating patterns. However, despite being the network's busiest line, the opportunity to cut weekend evening waits from 30 to 20 minutes (or better) as done on other lines including Werribee, Williamstown and Frankston, was not taken. 

Tram reform was even more limited. The main item of note was the new Route 58 which operates every 10 minutes during the day and 20 minutes at night, ie in conformance with the network coordination framework. Route 82 has also had some weekday frequency uplifts. Scope exists for the Metro Tunnel to stimulate a tram rethink due to the capacity added on the Swanston St corridor. This should enable the tram network to be simplified with some routes shifting to popular but underserved parts of the CBD. 

Bus reform included significant changes in parts of Melbourne in 2014, 2015 and 2016. These included new networks in Brimbank, Wyndham, Geelong, Mernda and Cranbourne which made routes more direct and improved connectivity with trains. There were also big changes on many routes (then) operated by Transdev in 2014. However an even bigger greenfields network got cancelled.  These were relatively cheap reforms and, despite growing in population by about 1 million people, Melbourne has not added a single premium service SmartBus route since 2010. Hence we are overdue for a substantial uplift in resources for buses including the roll-out of ubiquitous 7 day service and many more direct routes operating every 10 to 20 minutes (rather than the more common 30 - 60 minute frequencies).   

Some projects in NDP - Metropolitan Rail were adopted and funded by the successor Labor government. For example high capacity Metro Trains and the extension to Mernda. Ordering could vary significantly with politicians taking a different view to the planners. For example the NDP pushed Mernda off out into what was effectively the 'never never' (Stage 4 within 20 years) but both Liberal and Labor promised a Mernda extension much sooner in the 2014 election. Victorious Labor delivered this in its first term, with service starting in August 2018.    

Rail infrastructure planned during this era was better served by complementary reformed bus networks than that since. For example both Williams Landing (2013) and Regional Rail Link (2015) had complementary bus networks in Point Cook, Werribee/Tarneit and Geelong. Since then project planning has become separated from service with integrated bus network planning only sometimes happening (yes for Mernda, Caroline Springs and Cobblebank, no for Southland and most if not all level crossing removals). 

The Metro Tunnel under the CBD is an interesting case. A product of the Eddington report the concept was developed under the Brumby government. It featured in the NDP - Metropolitan Rail developed by the Baillieu Coalition government. However new premier Denis Napthine abandoned it in favour of Melbourne Rail Link via Fishermans Bend. This promised to be less disruptive during construction but skipped the already important destination of Parkville in favour of (currently) much less important Fishermans Bend. However Labor, now returned, restored the CBD alignment whose construction is well advanced.  

NDP and politics

The NDP - Metropolitan Rail was a 'planners plan' more than a political plan. The low priority given to South Morang could be seen as evidence of that. It's service first, infrastructure later, if needed, approach is correct if you want to deliver the most benefit for the least spending. It also matches the prudent Swiss approach of tying projects to long term goals, rather than building for its own sake.  

In public transport the 2010 - 2014 Coalition government had a reputation for not building much but raising expectations with regards to Doncaster, Rowville and Avalon rail. It presided over a significant improvement in metropolitan rail reliability from 2012 onwards. However this didn't seem to earn it much political credit despite poor service being a major reason for people to swing against Labor in 2010. 

Their rail frequency improvements were good but neither sufficiently widespread nor well promoted to yield political dividends. The Coalition putting all its eggs in the E-W Link basket (as opposed to the more distributed benefits of Labor's 50 level crossing removals) might also have cost it support (and office) in 2014. 

Urban congestion issues, relatively high unemployment in 2014, low interest rates and the 'cranes in the sky' symbolism of building made capital projects politically attractive even if 'planners plans' might say that they are either not necessary, can be deferred or cost-effective alternatives exist. The extremely low interest rates after the GFC made the costs of servicing billions of debt trivial and given rise to projects that might not have passed muster under other circumstances getting the nod.  

A transport plan that prioritises service frequency is better for long-term sustained jobs than one that emphasises construction projects. However treasuries prefer the latter as the former involves significant recurrent spending that is difficult to wind back. Whereas public construction is a tap that can stimulate the economy when private sector demand is low. However the latter also risks putting pressure on procurement costs and leaves us with large interest bills on debt when rates rise (such as happening now). 

Concentrating almost exclusively on capital construction also means poor asset utilisation and substandard service.  On this Sydney has done better than Melbourne. Their public transport priorities have tended to better balance service with construction than Melbourne's almost exclusively construction-only approach. 

It may be just a coincidence but the 'Big Build' construction focus has greatly widened job opportunities for CFMEU members who no longer need to seek big pay in the Pilbara. A 'Big Service' focus would have done similar for RTBU and TWU members working in public transport with the added bonus being that they are more sustained jobs. However  current projects, priorities and political sway appears to favour builders over drivers.

Labor retained the 'Big Build' agenda in 2018 and 2022, winning big majorities against a demoralised opposition. However changing travel patterns with off-peak travel becoming relatively more important are making existing train and bus timetables look more and more disconnected from the community's travel needs.  And finances are tighter as project costs mount and interest rate rises bite. There might not be much new money to throw around this budget but getting the ball rolling on carefully targeted service upgrades and simpler timetables should be a high priority.  

What could a NDP written in 2023 look like?

Many themes would have continued from 2012's plan. However boosting off-peak service frequency and simplifying peak timetables (some of the first steps in the 2012 plan) would assume even more importance as 'all day good service' replaces 'maximising peak capacity' as the top priority. 

There is still a need for capacity and coverage expansion to accommodate projected growth. Initiatives like removing remaining single track sections, electrification extensions especially in the north and west, second entrances at busy stations like South Yarra and Frankston, high capacity signalling and infill stations at locations like Campbellfield and Paisley remain as important projects.

Splitting the City Loop with some trains running from Richmond to North Melbourne via Parliament, Melbourne Central and Flagstaff could be a cost-effective (though in the short-term disruptive) way to increase core capacity if warranted.

In the longer term, Fishermans Bend can't be taken seriously as a dense development site unless it has efficient Metro-type access from both the west and CBD directions. Also fast circumferential own-right of way transport across the suburbs to feed radial routes from multiple directions is needed to transform the network from a one-trick CBD feeder to the fast multi-directional web it needs to be. Second only to our currently low service frequencies the lack of such connections is the main reason that our otherwise extensive network is less versatile than those in cities like Paris, London and even Sydney.  

Access to stations and local destinations need to be boosted with a mix of connected bike and walking paths separated from cars and revamped bus routes. Flexible route buses have had some devotees but their limitations are becoming more known, especially in our increasingly dense growth areas. Hence they do not present a scalable mass transit solution though they may have some niche 'special needs' applications.  

Public faith in rail's availability and reliability needs to be restored after years of disruption. There needs to be fewer occupations with all measures taken to reduce their number and length. And for those that are still needed a more robust, direct and frequent regular bus route network between parallel rail lines could help relieve pressure on rail replacement buses. And in outer suburbs, the 4% cancellation rate of V/Line trains needs to be slashed to less than 1% as routinely applied before about 2003. 

The 2012's NDP stress on frequency harmonised tram and bus services would remain in 2023 as much remains to be done. This requires complementary tram and bus reform plans. Since there remain major infrastructure projects on the go key themes of these would include service reform to precede and then feed infrastructure such as the Suburban Rail Loop and make the most of infrastructure soon to come online including the Metro Tunnel and North-East Busway.  


The NDP - Metropolitan Rail was a ground-breaking document that charted a course for rail's development in Melbourne. Parts have been overtaken by events but its focus, especially on simpler and more frequent service, remains fresh today. Give it the anniversary it deserves by reading it

No comments: