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Did you know that the Sandringham line is the only rail line in Melbourne that runs twice as frequently at midnight on a Sunday than 9am on a Sunday? This is just one quirk that has left the Sandringham line, although a long way from being Melbourne's busiest, with the network's best overall evening service seven nights per week.
The parents of the baby boomer generation were too busy raising families to bother with going out at night. Even if they had time a new-fangled thing called television proved a tempting diversion. And when they did wish to go out the chances are the new family car could provide a fast point to point journey.
Meanwhile labour costs were rising with the militant Clarrie O'Shea winning pay rises for trammies during a time of falling patronage. Evening tram timetables got scaled back to every 15 and then every 20 minutes (30 minutes Sunday night) around the time that the offspring, now going out at night, got cars or at least the use of their parents'. Their nightlife destinations might have had trams, the homes they drove from increasingly didn't.
Evening train services were never as frequent as trams were. The postwar pattern here was a switch to a more commuter style service from growing outer suburbs with falling frequencies closer in and off-peak, including at night. The 1970s were a horror decade for trains with patronage reaching its nadir in about 1981.
A major contributor to this were the swingeing service cuts in 1978 that stripped one in every three trains from the Monday to Saturday evening suburban timetable. That saw frequencies slashed from 20 to 30 minutes on most lines. As well as blowing out waiting times that removed timetable harmonisation with trams that then (and still do) run every 20 minutes Monday to Saturday evenings. I discussed this in more detail last year here.
Melbourne has doubled in population since 1978. As has train patronage. Working hours spread. Until COVID-19 and the more recent curfew people talked about the 24/7 society and the night time economy. Patronage on the services that ran rose. However basic evening train service levels remain little better than they were just after the 1978 cuts except for some mid-evening upgrades on some lines.
A reversal of the 1978 cuts seems as distant a prospect as ever. Consequently, against comparable-sized cities, Melbourne runs about the least frequent evening metro trains service in the world. Even US cities like SF, Chicago and Atlanta do better than us with 15 to 20 minute evening train frequencies typical. Sydney boosted its evening services to every 15 minutes in 2017.
There is however an exception to this story of decline then stagnation. The Sandringham line. It got its evening frequency restored to pre-1978 levels nearly 30 years ago in the early 1990s. This is even more remarkable given the fashion then was cutting services, especially after 7pm trips on Melbourne's buses that were mostly curtailed.
You can see the progress of Sandringham line timetables through the 1990s on Krustylink. There were three timetables issued in 1990. Evening service levels remained unchanged with service dropping from every 20 minutes to half-hourly from about 6:10pm.
Timetables advised that on most trains after 8pm only the first carriage would be open to increase safety and reduce vandalism.
A big revival then happened. The August 1993 timetable shows the weekday interpeak service boosted from 20 to 15 minutes. Evening service went from 30 to 20 minutes until last train Monday to Saturday.
How did this upgrade happen? The PTUA claims to have persuaded the authorities, during a time of tight budgets and recent cuts elsewhere to boost Sandringham's train service. This happened early in an election year though it appeared not to be heavily driven by politics as there were no marginal lower house seats in the area. Below is an extract from its 2002 policy publication It's Time to Move.
An extract from the 1990 timetable is below. End to end time was 29 minutes. Assuming trains returned to Sandringham at Flinders St there were dwell times of 11 minutes at both ends. Hence trains were only operating for 72.5 percent of the time.
Run time was reduced by 2 minutes to 27 minutes. Dwell time at Sandringham was also cut by 2 minutes. By itself that wouldn't be enough to allow the large train frequency boost that happened with four trains. Some fancy timetabling may have helped, possibly in conjunction with other services. You can see the new timetable here where about half the trips continued via the City Loop. The main disadvantage of this is the reduced legibility compared to a consistent schedule.
The 20 minute upgrade back then applied Monday to Saturday only. Sunday service remained every 40 minutes. The late 1990s saw these improved to every 20 minutes, not just on the Sandringham line but across the whole suburban train network.
The Sunday upgrades were only half done, with the improvements only starting at about 10am. In 2020 Sunday morning services remain at their 1978 pared-back frequencies of every 40 minutes on lines in the west, north and, interestingly also the Sandringham line. However at some stage Sandringham's Sunday evening service went to every 20 minutes, better than all trains, all buses and nearly all tram lines.
This pattern compares with longer and busier lines in the east like Frankston and Dandenong. There both Sunday am and evening services are every 30 minutes. In other words they get a better service in the morning and an inferior one at night.
The story of the Sandringham line's superior evening service is one about transport planning in Melbourne I never tire of telling. People outside transport sometimes assume that there is a rational reason for why service levels are what they are.
The truth is messier. What we have today is what we had yesterday. Plus the accumulation of large and small decisions over 50 or more years.
No transport plan has been more influential on service levels than some single decisions affected by other factors, such as a government's need for economy (service cuts) or a desire to become a 24 hour city (Night Network).
The influence of the 1978 cuts cannot be underestimated. They date from when patronage was falling and the looming Lonie Report threatened the very existence of some lines. Melbourne then was half its current size with evening train usage perhaps one-fifth of that forty years later. Although there have been some subsequent early weeknight upgrades, these cuts remain a key shaper of current service patterns, that is a half-hourly service, on many lines after about 7:30 or 8 pm.
Except for Night Network (whose cost would exceed boosting pre-midnight weekend service from every 30 to every 20 minutes), metropolitan train timetable development has basically stalled in Melbourne. This is due to a political emphasis that aggressively favours infrastructure over service.
Unlike its equivalents elsewhere, the Department of Transport does not have much of a culture of continuously reviewing timetables and making adjustments like Perth's Public Transport Authority does. The COVID-19 pandemic has made our inflexibility particularly apparent, with frequent peak services still operating, despite the collapse in passenger numbers. In contrast those who need to travel (basically only essential workers post-curfew) have seen evening frequencies halved with hour-long waits common. The longer we neglect timetable review and development the more they reflect past patterns and decisions, making our services increasingly unfit for a modern city.
When timetable changes are made where do they come from? Some can be attributed to network-wide timetable reforms while others are more piecemeal. Important network wide changes include (a) the large evening frequency cuts of 1978, (b) the large 10 am to 7pm Sunday upgrades of 1999 and (c) the introduction of hourly Night Network services on all Metro lines in 2016. There were some improvements to peak services in the 1980s followed by some cuts in the early 1990s due to government economic imperatives.
Other changes are more piecemeal. They may benefit one line or a group of lines. Line-specific upgrades include the abovementioned Sandringham line frequency upgrade of 1992, and, only a few years ago, Watergardens - Sunbury evening upgrades. That's interesting from a timetabling point of view as it makes Watergardens - Sunbury the only part of network with more frequent trains at 11pm on a Sunday night than in the middle of the day (every 30 versus every 40 minutes).
An even more recent winner has been the extension of 10 minute services later at night to Dandenong. The interesting feature here is that trains are three times more frequent at certain times on a weeknight than the flat 30 minute network-wide Saturday and Sunday night frequencies that kick in from around 7:30pm (earlier for inbound trains).
Also benefiting the Dandenong (and Frankston) lines were were off-peak upgrades to Dandenong and Frankston where trains went from every 20 to every 15 minutes. Implemented in early 1996 (an election year), these served seats important for the then Kennett government. We had a more recent echo of this when these eastern lines improved further from every 10 to 15 minutes at least on weekends (weekdays are still lagging on the Ringwood lines, despite these now being marginal seats).
During all this time, while the east was getting improvements, lines in the politically safe north and west stayed at every 20 minutes interpeak, although some, like Werribee and Williamstown, gained some evening upgrades from every 30 to 20 minutes when routed through to Frankston. The result is that long busy lines like Mernda and Craigieburn remain with a less frequent interpeak service than shorter and quieter lines like Alamein and Glen Waverley. This is despite the longer northern and western lines having demographics more likely to support heavy all-day usage than Glen Waverley or Alamein that have more of a rich commuter skew.
Sometimes an upgrade can affect the course of history much later (ie path-dependency). For example ex-tram routes had a long period of government operation under Tramways Board. That had a tradition of higher service levels including frequent evening service, even on routes that do not justify it. Getting back to the Sandringham line, because Saturday night services were already every 20 minutes (better than on any other line) a network-wide decision to boost Sunday night frequencies to Saturday levels gave it a superior service seven nights per week.
Conversely, because the 1992 Sandringham upgrade did not boost Sunday morning services, and the 1999 changes did not benefit services much before 10am, even today early Sunday Sandringham line trains run at their unimproved 40 minute intervals. 2016's Night Network improved early Sunday services but its scope was limited to early Sunday operating hours rather than frequency improvements.
To summarise, constraints like signalling, track capacity and numbers of trains affect peak period timetables but are less likely to prevent improvements at other times of the day on most of the network. Simpler and more frequent timetables are possible but only if there is the political will, as found in 1992 for the Sandringham line, to implement them.
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This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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