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Today we'll take a quick look at part of Melbourne's most complex train timetable. It involves Belgrave, Lilydale and Alamein line services between Ringwood, Camberwell and Richmond. These lines cover some of the first parts of Melbourne to seriously suburbanise. Until overtaken by the faster growth of the lines to Dandenong around 15 years ago, the lines to Ringwood were the networks's busiest with the most intensive peak service.
Many of our longer lines have a growth area at the end. Most notably the Werribee, Sunbury, Craigieburn, Mernda, Pakenham and Cranbourne lines. These were amongst those most stressed by the patronage surge from about 2004.
Then there was rising usage on the inner portions of these and other lines as suburbs gentrified with CBD workers. 10 to 15 years ago the network was beset by cancellations, suspensions and delays, with the worst performance often recorded on the Caulfield group, including the politically sensitive Frankston line.
The Burnley group lines (as the Alamein, Belgrave/Lilydale and Glen Waverley lines are called) did not serve high growth fringe areas.
They were more reliable and peak frequencies were mostly good with substantial express running. Its riders sometimes complained about peak crowding but this was usually less than on the lines mentioned before (although issues existed around 9pm due to a 3 car train and a frequency fall-off to Ringwood).
The result is that while other lines got rewritten greenfield timetables the Belgrave and Lilydale lines only got incremental changes. That can result in a proliferation of stopping patterns to finely balance loads or to shoehorn in an extra trip in without upsetting the paths of earlier and later trains. Even quieter stations like Laburnum have their own occasional super-expresses as you'll see later. Like almost any service that relies on public funding, there is a political element to public transport. Transport professionals (not all of whom are politically savvy) don't always like this. They can have a point; 'bowing to politics' (as they see it) may impose opportunity costs. For example insisting that everyone gets a single seat rides can lead to confusing, infrequent and unreliable timetables. And there can be some silliness with fares policy, eg the 'free' tram zone.
On the other hand political pressure can be a force for good. Political pressure forced out a government that did too little too late when train reliability plunged. Extra maintenance and boosted timetables led to a turnaround from around 2012. We wouldn't have trains to South Morang or Mernda if it wasn't for political advocacy. Ditto for Southland Station and some station upgrades around the place.
There will always be politics in transport and we should humour politicians for their PR and stunts if they contribute to achieving a bigger, worthwhile goal. The best outcome would be if candidates from all parties see public transport as important for votes and compete with one another to implement plans that make it better. This is why, whenever I talk about Ringwood trains, I show this Victorian Electoral Commission map. It shows the concentration of marginal seats around the Belgrave, Lilydale and Glen Waverley lines. Many were picked up by Labor in its 2018 landslide.
The Coalition will need to win these back (plus some elsewhere) to form government in 2022. Hence these lines are politically now what the Frankston line was in 2010 and 2014.
Apparently MPs (or staffers) sometimes search their own names for mentions. To assist, those marginal seat members indicated above include John Kennedy (Hawthorn), Tim Smith (Kew), Paul Hamer (Box Hill), Will Fowles (Burwood), Neil Angus (Forest Hill), Dustin Halse (Ringwood), Nick Wakeling (Ferntree Gully), Jackson Taylor (Bayswater), David Hodgett (Croydon) and Bridget Vallence (Evelyn).
Many different stopping patternsIn years past one would have defaced printed timetables with highlighters and printed timetables. This time I used a screen shot from the Classic PTV website (being switched off tomorrow). Here's a link to the Belgrave timetable on the new PTV site. The print is probably too fine to see but what you see below are city-bound weekday trips. Each colour is a unique stopping pattern.
As you can see there are over 10. And that's just in the morning. If I included the (counterpeak) afternoon trips there would be more, not least due to the City Loop's reversal. I gave up then which is why you don't see shading on later trips.
I also didn't look at the afternoon trips from the city. In some ways these are even more complicated because you need to be aware of terminating points. For example many trains finish at Blackburn. Others finish at Upper Ferntree Gully or Mooroolbark. Nor did I examine non-PSR trains (services that carry passengers but are counterpeak positioning moves that can be cancelled without penalty). If I did there would be even more patterns.
There is also varied use of the City Loop. That doubles complications when combined with a large number of stopping patterns. To take one example, there is around 40 minutes (around 4pm) where there are no trains from the City Loop to Surrey Hills.
Whereas a more frequent service operates before (as all stations Blackburn trains operate via the Loop pre-pm peak) and after (as some expresses that have come via the Loop do stop there). Complications like these make the network hard to use, especially for people with variable finish times.
Table of stopping patterns
Getting back to weekday mornings, below is a tabulation of inbound stopping patterns. The leftmost column is Ringwood while the rightmost is to Flinders Street Station via the City Loop. I didn't bother showing stations before Ringwood because all trains stop all stations (though some have different starting locations). The colours on the left align with those drawn on the timetables above.
To summarise, everything that passes stops at all stations between Ringwood and Blackburn. Plus Box Hill. Just one pattern has trains stopping at East Richmond (which is served more by Glen Waverley trains).
Most patterns have trains stopping at Camberwell. This has a tram, large nearby shopping area and branch line to Alamein. Most of those also stop at Glenferrie, with another tram, more shops and Swinburne university/TAFE.
Then there are the smaller station variants that make things more complicated. Auburn, Hawthorn and Burnley benefit from Alamein trains during peak periods. These get service from other trains when Alamein operates as a branch during the off-peaks. Surrey Hills gets a couple of stopping patterns that give it a 'super express' service to Richmond. Laburnum has some similar trips though these vary whether they stop at Surrey Hills or Camberwell + Glenferrie.
How waiting times vary
A consequence of having many stopping patterns is that even though many trains per hour may pass, you can't have very high frequencies on each pattern. And there can be uneven spacing. Hence a station might average six to eight trains per hour (which many would start to treat as a 'turn up and go' service) but irregular timetables extends maximum waits between trains.
This unevenness forces people to rely on timetables to avoid long waits and may artificially make some trains busier than others. Both can lead to poor passenger experiences with the latter also giving rise to crowding. That can exacerbate delays due to longer dwell times on the busier trips.
The tables below show the effect. The longest am peak waits are typically 2 or 3 times longer than the shortest waits. Longest waits during peak periods are similar to (and sometimes more than) weekend service (ie every 20 min Belgrave/Lilydale, 10 min inwards from Ringwood). One cancellation or a train not starting where it should can extend the longest waits to close to 30 minutes if it happens at the wrong time.
ConclusionTrain timetabling is complex, especially on a long multi-branch group like Belgrave/Lilydale, Alamein and Glen Waverley. Many matters, including capacity, signalling, interactions with other lines, availability of trains, service standards, load balancing, desired frequency, varying usage of stations, the public's desire for express services and broader network priorities need to be considered. Also single and three track sections can constrain scheduling more than a network comprising only two and four tracks. Still these are major lines. Is the current timetable and operating pattern the best it can be? Does the reduced demand due to COVID-19 provide an opportunity to revise the timetable? Should we rethink the peak/off-peak express/stopping balance with a simpler and more frequent midday service every 10 minutes? Would simplification produce useful benefits and what would you say to those who might lose express trips or be required to change? Please leave your comments below if you have any thoughts. PS: An index to all Timetable Tuesday items is here.
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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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