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40 years ago today revenue services began on the Melbourne Underground Railway Loop, or, to give it its snappier common name, the City Loop. Prior to that travel to the northern and eastern end of the CBD required a train to Flinders St or Spencer St and a tram across. Daniel Bowen has a more detailed write-up here. The City Loop improved the rail system's coverage in the abovementioned parts of the CBD and stimulated development, particularly in the area around Melbourne Central. Some credit it as the start of a revival in patronage after suburban train usage bottomed out in 1981 (at numbers far less than the bullish forecasts in the 1969 plan). However it was not an unalloyed good, introducing changes and confusion where they previously didn't exist. Although Parliament, Museum (Melbourne Central) and Flagstaff looked like Metro or subway stations, the trains that went into them were the normal Australian cross between regional and urban rail. Services ran all day but not that frequently. Passengers used timetables rather than turned up and went and there were numerous types of express stopping pattern on the longer lines (as there remains today, notably for Ringwood).
The City Loop made cross-city trips harder. Changing from one line to another became a horrid chore, not least due to inconsistency that was almost impossible to plan and remember. Due to the convoluted operations of the City Loop trains could use different platforms on different days of the week, go different directions on different times of the same day and require changing at different locations.
Then, for decades, there were stations that were only open on some days of the week. Because of this inconsistency permanent signs could not be installed. Instead passengers were at the mercy of electronic displays that could go blank or show wrong information with seconds to go before the train arrives. And instead of having a single pulse frequency, like all other Australian suburban rail networks had (typically every 15 minutes in Sydney and Perth, 30 min Brisbane and Adelaide), Melbourne's off-peak trains were a mix of every 15, 20, 30 and 40 minutes. That added to the unpredictability of interchange, even if everything was running to time. The sort of inconsistencies that plague back street bus routes that have been unreviewed for decades came to infect, at a hundred times the scale, on our suburban rail network. Big cities don't impose this sort of thing on their rail passengers. However Melbourne is a curious mix of big city infrastructure and small city operating practice with regards to things like operating consistency and frequency.
As well as the types of trips, with peak period CBD travel most favoured in timetables.Hence, although one can admire the engineering audacity of the project, commenced at a time that suburban rail was in decline, it is also possible to see the Loop as a hindrance as much as a help for some trips. Which is a poor return for the network given its mammoth cost. People think building the City Loop took ages. It started in the early '70s and finishing in the mid-80s (when the last station opened). But that's nothing. Service reform to its operations can take several times longer, especially where, as in Melbourne, decades may pass where the will to pursue it varies between zero and weak. It remains a work in progress, with a substantial step forward occurring this Sunday, January 31 as operations of one of its four portals being made consistent all day and all week. It is hoped that future reforms will be faster than one per decade, with the Burnley group potentially a high priority due to its currently complex operations and coverage of marginal seats.
Measuring the midday gapIt wouldn't be Tuesday without at least some look at timetables. Especially timetable oddities. Which the City Loop causes due to its midday reversal on three of its four portals. This is probably the most egregious example of the City Loop's confusing operating pattern. While it might have resulted in some marginal travel time savings for commuters making certain types of trip (such as Melbourne's eastern and south-eastern suburbs to Parliament) it made many others longer. Explaining the vagarities of the sometimes reversing loop was always in the too hard basket for PTV, Metlink, its predecessors and train operators so they never bothered despite rampant public confusion.
The good news though is that progress is being made, though in time-lines measured in decades. One can look at old timetables like on Krustylink to see examples of lines where trains alternate between loop and direct. That inconsistency made services somewhat less than turn-up-and-go, even in peak times. There were some small consistency improvements in the '90s and 2000s, though these were generally lean times for trains. Then about ten years ago the Clifton Hill group became the first loop portal to scrap the midday reversal. Now trains go clockwise around the loop seven days.
The same will happen for the Caulfield group this Sunday, with Cranbourne and Pakenham trains operating anticlockwise and Frankston trains consistently out of the loop and running to Newport and beyond via Southern Cross. For now though it's got the midday reversal on weekdays. Here is a tabulation of when the last train is at various loop stations in the morning direction and the first train in the afternoon direction on non public holiday weekdays. All times are pm.
Caulfield Group (no reversal from 31/1/2021)Parliament 12:45 - 1:09Melbourne Central 12:47 - 1:07Flagstaff 12:49 - 1:05Burnley GroupParliament 12:42 - 1:05Melbourne Central 12:44 - 1:03Flagstaff 12:45 - 1:02Northern GroupFlagstaff 12:48 - 1:03Melbourne Central 12:50 - 1:01Parliament 12:52 - 12:59To summarise, Parliament sees no trains on any line between 12:52 and 12:59, Melbourne Central 12:50 and 1:01 and Flagstaff 12:49 and 1:02. The longest gap per group at any station is 24 minutes at Parliament for the Caulfield group (though this will soon vanish). That is closely followed by the Burnley group at Parliament with 23 minutes. These intervals are longer than the normal frequency on these lines (10 or 15 minutes). Hence if you find yourself at a Loop station in the middle of the day your waiting time can exceed the train frequency if you arrive at the wrong time. This is not how big city transport is supposed to work. Neither does it optimise usage of expensive infrastructure whose most efficient usage is likely to be in the form of a consistent, connective and versatile network useful for diverse trips beyond the suburb - office peak hour transit that some excessively focus on. At 40 the City Loop has done much good but has not fully lived up to its potential as a consistent simplifier of rather than a some-time hindrance to metropolitan train travel. Simplification of the Burnley and then northern group to remove the midday reversals are essential. After that it could be worth considering more radical capacity-enhancing surgery such as opening parts to facilitate direct Richmond - Parliament - Melbourne Central - Flagstaff - North Melbourne trains. After all most people want to get from A to B, and not around a loop whose geometry suits sightseers more than the majority for whom transport is merely a means to something else. See all Timetable Tuesday items herePS: Curious about public holiday timetables such as applying today? Read the public holiday gamble on Melbourne's buses. This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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