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People love stuff for free. Free food. Free beer. Free almost anything else. There's even scope for free and low cost improvements in transport services. However despite claiming to drive innovation, our Department of Transport can be weak at pressing opportunities for zero and low cost public transportnetwork service improvements. Presented below is an example where theirkeeping of an archaic rule is denying better service to thousands of passengers.
With service every 40 minutes, many of Melbourne's major rail lines, including Sunbury, Craigieburn, Mernda and Sandringham have the lowest Sunday morning suburban train frequency in the country. Similar lines in Adelaide and Brisbane run every 30 minutes while Sydney and Perth lines often enjoy a 15 minute frequency. To our credit we can boast Night Network but this doesn't alter the fact that more are up and travelling at 8-9 am Sunday than 3-4 am. The ultimate solution is to boost frequencies like was done for Frankston, Werribee and Williamstown on January 31, 2021. This would need more train drivers to be recruited. But since most railway operating costs are fixed the overall benefits of a more frequent service are greater than the relatively small increment in extra running costs. But what if there was a way of doubling Sunday morning service at the busiest station on the Sunbury line without spending a cent or even changing a timetable? As it happens, through a stroke of serendipity, there is. It's almost as if the people who specified or wrote the timetable intended it to eventually be. However rail planners don't necessarily control a certain restrictive rule that is holding back the full benefits of their scheduling adeptness. Look at the two train timetables below (click for better view if required). The top one is the Metro Sunday inbound timetable for Sunbury with Sunshine highlighted. The lower one is the inbound V/Line timetable for the Geelong line. Both have times for Sunshine but, under current rules, only Metro services can be boarded by passengers there.
The lucky thing is that not only does both Metro and V/Line run every 40 minutes but their times are almost perfectly offset by 20 minutes. This means that city-bound trains pass Sunshine every 20 minutes from 7:21 am.
What's stopping people at Sunshine from taking advantage of this more frequent combined service?
It's archaic boarding restrictions. Despite integrated fares, V/Line rules ban suburban passengers from their trains. That is denoted by the D footnote about Sunshine being a drop-off only station. It affects about half the inbound services that stop at Sunshine in the popular 7 to 10am Sunday time slot.
This V/Line restriction applies at all times. This is even (a) on inbound trips where every longer distance passenger who wishes to board has had the opportunity to do so and (b) when no substitute Metro service departs Sunshine at a similar time, such as is the case on Sunday mornings due to the latter's low frequency.
The result then is that between about 7 and 10 am on Sundays the very busy Sunshine Station (and NEIC hub) gets stuck with its 40 minute Sunday morning frequency. That's only half the service enjoyed by quieter stations like Aircraft, Seaholme, Patterson and McKinnon. Whereas if V/Line's boarding restriction was scrapped Sunshine would immediately get a service doubled to every 20 minutes with no timetable change required. The current low frequency means that if you've just missed a train you can drive to most destinations (including the CBD) in less time than the wait for the next train.
Are there local precedents for allowing suburban passengers on country trains like they do in Sydney?
Yes. At least two. One existed for decades at Pakenham Station, which long had an inferior Metro frequency, with Dandenong's (then) ordinary frequency being further split between there and Cranbourne. Except for Sunday mornings (where Pakenham trains remain hourly) service has since substantially improved.
When it electrified in 2012 Sunbury was similar. It got half the standard Metro train frequency as half the line's off-peak services finished at Watergardens. That lesser service provided a fair reason for V/Line trains to still serve Sunbury passengers. So like at electrified Pakenham, Sunbury passengers could continue to board V/Line trains despite also now having Metro.
The option to keep using V/Line was a strong stated preference of Sunbury passengers. Unlike other outer suburbanites, who will embrace any transport infrastructure upgrade that comes their way, the Sunbury community was lukewarm about Metro Trains coming to town. And, if it must happen, it was imperative that the choice of being able to board more comfortable but less frequent express V/Line trains was preserved. Which ended up being the case in the first couple of years.
Then in 2015 something happened. In June PTV announced that Pakenham and Sunbury passengers would lose their right to use V/Line services to and from the CBD. The claim was that forcing these passengers onto Metro services would improve consistency and reliability. Much to the chagrin of crowding-weary metropolitan passengers who saw half-empty V/Lines whizz by. A Sunbury Leader article reported Sunbury passengers as being 'outraged' by the decision.
If you wanted to summarise these sentiments, it is this: People want trains all for themselves. A seat for oneself is OK but two or four would be even better. V/Line commuters from regional areas don't want their trains filling with suburbanites, even in cases, such as on inbound trips, where they had first choice of seats. These 'suburbanites' include travellers from places like Pakenham and Sunbury who have access to Metro Trains. The view amongst some regional V/Line passengers (given legitimacy by PTV in 2015) was that only they should be able to ride country trains (despite these being subsidised by taxpayers statewide).
It's more nuanced than a simple two-way regional versus metropolitan divide. Some Sunbury passengers would also prefer not to share trains with people further in. Hence their stated preference (which can be different to revealed preference) for the option of being able to use V/Line trains for CBD travel.
Personal security was another expressed concern. Unlike V/Line trains, Metro trains lacked conductors. And they served areas, like St Albans, Sunshine and Footscray, with reputations for crime. Metro trains were then graffitied and dirty. Cleaning standards only improved about three or four years ago after a deterioration earlier in their franchise period.
Sunbury had other differences that some of its residents, notably those allied with the Sunbury Residents Association talked up. Rather than being another sprawling Metro-served suburb of Melbourne, Sunbury saw itself as a regional town (served by V/Line) with a proud history in our nation's culture (Eg The Ashes). The SRA was not only wary about rail electrification but also wanted demographically distinct Sunbury to secede from the younger, more diverse and generally poorer City of Hume. Hence the heated debates over rail services got conflated with other local issues including community identity.
With Sunbury people revealing their preferences and proving rail electrification successful this could hardly be reversed. But there was still a yearning to return the V/Line access that PTV withdrew in June 2015. The Sunbury Train Association and others campaigned vigorously for this with at least one well-attended (and at times rowdy) community forum being held (with the local MP Josh Bull and the minister present).
In November 2015 then transport minister Jacinta Allan directed PTV to abandon its ban for all but a few peak direction V/Line trips . Minister Allan also extended more Watergardens Metro services to Diggers Rest and Sunbury, with boosted shoulder peak and evening service. This proved fortuitous as the early 2016 V/Line wheel slip crisis took its trains off the tracks.
The sky didn't fall when the restriction was lifted. Today Sunbury and Pakenham remain with their increased choice of trains. Their communities are getting more value from V/Line. And public transport is most viable when it is well used so boarding restrictions should be applied sparingly if at all.
Parallels with Sunshine
The Sunday morning situation for Sunshine is similar to that for Sunbury most times. That is a 40 minute Metro frequency applies. Why not also drop V/Line's restriction for Sunshine at least for the services starting at Waurn Ponds?
Do that and you've just got a big service upgrade at a busy station for zero cost. Sunshine's existing 40 minute maximum waits would be halved to 20 minutes after 7 am. Those connecting to Southern Cross for SkyBus or regional connections would be key beneficiaries.
All that's needed is a memo from the Department of Transport to V/Line and some passenger information to make it happen. If they were serious about their 'simpler connected journey mantra' it could be done in days.
Is this seen as important in the Department? Will they do it? Or will it, like the Sunbury issue did, require intervention from the Minister?
Not just Sunday morningsI've concentrated on Sunday mornings but it's worth looking at what Sunshine gets relative to its importance as a transport hub. By any measure it is short-changed. There are stations that have one-tenth the patronage but get double Sunshine's service at most times. Also Sunday's Age reported on the possible diminution of plans to upgrade Sunshine station to a 'super hub'. Sunshine's neglect on the service side is also prominent when compared to other busy suburban stations. Sunshine ranks as seventh busiest. Yet it gets substantially less Metro frequency at most times than any other station in the top twelve (click for clearer view).
Longer term the Geelong and Sunbury lines (at least from Wyndham Vale and Watergardens in, respectively) both need doubled interpeak, evening and weekend service frequency. But for now a freeing up of V/Line stopping restrictions at stations like Sunshine (at least for off-peak trips) could be a useful stop gap measure.
Sunshine passengers are taxpayers too. They contribute to the running of V/Line which likely has a higher per passenger taxpayer subsidy than metropolitan services. It is reasonable that they be allowed to use it for suburban trips provided that longer distance passengers, where V/Line is the only service, are not disadvantaged.
The latter is more likely for inbound trips, which, in conjunction with the low Metro frequencies operating then, make Sunday mornings a good time to start when relaxing restrictions. Also upgraded DoT information services such as real-time crowding reporting could help passengers decide where they have a choice between Metro and V/Line.
We know reform is possible. Sunbury on the same line proved it in 2015. The question then is whether any ministerial or Departmental will can prevail over V/Line's likely "won't".
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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