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With the Ballarat Line Upgrade project in its final push this month, we'll be getting upgraded services once the line reopens. We've known for a while the basic structure of the upgrades - every 20 minutes in the peak, and every 40 minutes off-peak - but as of Thursday night the full timetables have been released, so let's take a detailed look at what they mean for Ballaratians.
Consistency and clockface times
Prior to Christmas, the Ballarat line had trains every hour in between the peaks - clockface times, exactly an hour apart - while the peak frequency was a lot messier, anywhere from 16-40 minutes apart. We'd been advised that the post-BLU frequency would be more even in the peaks but this doesn't seem to be the case - the interpeak services are exactly 40 minutes apart, but the peak services are still a bit randomly timed. Still, this probably isn't the end of the world; any regular commuter can memorise the handful of peak train times, and any irregular commuter will have to look up the times regardless.
It's worth noting that while the interpeak services are consistently spaced, they're not technically clockface times, because they're every 40 minutes, which means you can't memorise a "minutes-past" time for every hour. For example, trains leave Ballarat at 1004, 1044, 1124, 1204, 1244, and so on - so the pattern only repeats every second hour. It's still an improvement - trains every 40 minutes is a lot better than trains every hour - but it's one reason that I think it's a mistake for the government to set 40 minutes as the target in its Regional Network Development Plan. Within the next few years, we should be going that little bit further, to every 30 minutes - not only because it's more frequent but also because it's a clockface time.
There are two new early-morning services to Melbourne - one at 0423, about an hour before the previous earliest train, and one at 0602 which slots between two existing trains. After that, though, there's really only one new peak train added in, at 0701, with the other peak trains just being rejigged a bit. Frustratingly, the train that used to leave at 0744 and arrive in Melbourne at 0859 now leaves at 0745 and arrives at 0905 - which means that the number of trains that arrive in Melbourne between 8am and 9am actually hasn't changed - there are still only three.
That 0745 train has been a bugbear of mine for a while, because it used to be much more useful for commuters. I have an old July 2014 timetable showing it leaving at 0735 and arriving at 0849, which would have been much better (although to be fair, at the time it was the only train leaving Ballarat between 7-8am). In around the 2016-17 period*, it had been pushed back a bit (possibly in part to space it out from the newly-added ~0720 departure) but it was still useful - I don't have a timetable from that period saved, but I recall it left Ballarat around 0740 and arrived in Melbourne at 0853 or something like that. This was still useful to me when I had to go down to Melbourne for training days for work - I'd catch it to Footscray, change to a Loop train and just make it to Melbourne Central on time. Since it's been pushed back to arrive at 0859, though, it's useless for that, and I need to take an earlier train - pushing it back to 0905 just exacerbates the problem.
*Since this post was first published I've gotten access to some more timetables - it was still 0849 in October 2014, but 0858 by June 2015. There probably would have been a timetable update at the end of January 2015 so it may have changed then, but yeah.
Something that will no doubt upset a lot of people is the change to travel time. As far as I can tell, every peak train (both morning and afternoon) is 4-9 minutes slower than its pre-Christmas counterpart. This seems to be mostly caused by the peak trains stopping at more stations - trains that used to run express from Sunshine to Bacchus Marsh now stop at Deer Park and Rockbank, adding 5-7 minutes to journey times - but the timetables also reveal the trip between Ballarat and Ballan is taking 1-3 minutes longer than it used to.
Stopping at those suburban stations is probably the unavoidable timetabling decision in the short term, but it really underscores the need to get the Melton line electrified and to get all Ballarat trains (not just the peak expresses) to bypass these suburban stations entirely. When it comes to the added time between Ballarat and Ballan, I'm hopeful this will be temporary. New track takes a little while to bed down properly, and they often run trains a little slower over new track for this reason - so I'm hoping that's what's going on here. However, one shoulder-peak train (the morning service from Maryborough) seems to be 14 minutes slower - 6 minutes of which is increased time between Ballan and Bacchus Marsh, which isn't explained by either of these things.
The afternoon peak has done better out of this than the morning peak. There are two clearly new afternoon peak services, plus a new peak-shoulder train at 1848, which I think will come in handy for a lot of stragglers who left work late (or who wanted to have a quick knock-off beer in the city before heading home). The old 1710 service has also been pushed back a bit to 1718, which I think will make it useful to a lot more people - it'd be hard for many people to get to Southern Cross within ten minutes of knocking off at 5pm, but extending that to eighteen minutes widens the catchment a lot.
If you want to commute to Ballarat, things look good in the mornings - there used to be two trains that arrived before 9am, and now there are four. And the two existing ones both arrived before 8am, which means a lot of waiting around if your shift starts at 9, whereas the two new ones both arrive between 8-9am - there's an 0808 arrival which would work well for people commuting out to Mt Helen for IBM or the Uni (or anywhere else in Ballarat that requires you to catch a bus), plus an 0842 arrival which would be useful if you worked in the CBD.
There's historically been a bit of a hole in the late afternoon counterpeak timetable, because the peak trains take up all the paths. There's the usual hourly train at 1519, but instead of having trains at 1619, 1719 and 1819, they move one train forward to 1554, have more than an hour gap before a coach at 1715, and then a train at 1803. This has broadly been improved, with the existing trains rejigged, the coach moved forward by an hour, and two extra trains slotted in before 6pm.
Before, there was an extra train and a coach acting as a poor substitute for the base hourly frequency, whereas they now have actual trains sticking (roughly) to the base 40-minute frequency, supplemented by the coach. So it's a significant improvement, even if I suspect some of the specific times of the trains might be less convenient for some.
There's also a lot more options for getting back to Melbourne after 6pm than there were previously - with three extra trains, including one at 2334 - about 40 minutes later than the previous last train, and a very good option for someone who wants to go to an event in Ballarat and head home to Melbourne afterwards.
We already knew that this timetable would increase frequencies throughout the whole day, and it has delivered on that promise - and it's hard to overstate the importance of this. Some of the new information this timetable reveals, about slower peak trains or about specific timings being made less convenient, take the edge off this a bit, but broadly speaking I don't think these reflect poor decisions on the part of the timetablers - they reflect the compromises that must be made when you have a railway that has to do too many things at once.
It really goes to show that we can't sit on our hands - we need the line to Melton to be electrified, and a new express track pair to be built next to it for Ballarat trains, to separate these very different functions from one another. These issues aren't going to go away until this happens.
The Ballarat line will have the most substantial changes, but a bunch of other changes in Melbourne are being introduced on the same day. Daniel Bowen has a good blog from December on what was expected, and Peter Parker has written a good overview of the timetables as released.
There are also implications for Ararat and Maryborough passengers which I haven't had the space to go into here - this might be a topic for a future post.
This article first appeared on the-iron-road.blogspot.com
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