Thursday, 4 June 2015

RRL Roundup Part 1: Trains

via Public Transport Victoria
On June 21, Geelong-line trains will finally start using the Regional Rail Link tracks, separating them from Werribee-line suburban trains and grouping them together with Ballarat- and Bendigo-line regional trains. Although the infrastructure was finished months ago, the Andrews government decided to push back the opening date until more trains were built - which was entirely reasonable, given how close to capacity V/Line's fleet is.

Slightly less reasonable, however, is the fact that the new timetables for this change were only released on Sunday, three weeks before the opening date - and they mean sweeping changes for a lot of the network. It's not just the trains that run on these lines that will be affected, but the buses in Melbourne and in regional cities that connect with them. It is quite a lot to digest, so I've divided it into two parts for ease of reading. Part 1 on the trains is below; Part 2 on the buses here.

Geelong Railway Station (via Wikipedia)
Firstly, the stopping patterns for the Geelong line are much better than I expected. It was really quite up-in-the-air as to whether Geelong trains would stop at Sunshine, thus providing a quicker connection to the Sunbury line and to Ballarat services than if they just stopped at Footscray. From the way PTV and the government were talking over the last few years, I strongly suspected they wouldn't - but the new timetable shows that most Geelong trains will stop at Sunshine, which is great to hear. Some express services won't, but that's perfectly fine.

Geelong's new 20-minute inter-peak service also starts with the opening of the new line, which is great to see - it would have been impossible while they were sharing tracks with Metro. It really makes catching the train a much more flexible option for more people, and since about half of them will start at Waurn Ponds (the other half starting at South Geelong) this adds up to a pretty usable suburban network for getting from one side of Geelong to the other, too.

Deer Park Railway Park (via Wikipedia)
Even better, many Geelong trains will also stop at Deer Park. Some of you will know that I used to live in Deer Park, and given how densely populated it is and how close it is to the city, its train service has historically been appalling - only one train every two hours in between peaks, as half of Ballarat-line trains skipped it. Compared to some suburbs in the East, which have electrified trains every ten minutes, it just wasn't good enough. From the talk over the last few years it didn't look like RRL would change anything, either - but I am delighted to have been wrong about this.

It looks like Geelong-line trains will do the same as Ballarat trains did, with about half of them stopping at Deer Park (and one or two stopping at Ardeer). This combines with changes to the Ballarat line - almost all Ballarat services will now stop at Deer Park (except expresses - again, totally reasonable) and there will now be additional half-hourly services that start at Bacchus Marsh, which will also stop at Deer Park. The two lines together add up to an excellent frequency for Deer Park, and while its neighbours Ardeer and Rockbank haven't fared quite so well, this makes sense - Ardeer gets the Ballarat improvements but not the Geelong, and most patrons are close enough to Sunshine or Albion to use Metro trains anyway; and Rockbank simply doesn't have the numbers to justify better service.

Ballarat Railway Station in 2013
While everywhere from Bacchus Marsh inwards gets a lot better service, there aren't many improvements for Ballarat itself. The daytime frequency remains roughly hourly, although it is good to see late-night services have improved - they've added an extra service back to the city at 2200 on weeknights, and have rejigged things in the other direction so the 2154 from Melbourne is moved to 2125 and a 2225 service is added. This is a fairly small and cheap change, but it will make a big difference in making the system more usable - people will be able to actually attend evening events in either city and go home afterwards, without having to drive or spend the night. Ideally, you'd like to see the 2330-ish train from Melbourne that exists on Friday and Saturday nights extended to the other nights of the week, but hey - one step at a time.

Similarly - it's great to see the improvement to Bacchus Marsh's frequency but ideally you'd want that to be extended to Ballarat itself - if Geelong can justify a 20-minute frequency then surely Ballarat can justify a 30-minute frequency. The fact that much of the line is single track does make things difficult, as it always has, but this is long overdue to be addressed. The plan is to add another crossing loop just west of Bacchus Marsh, which would be helpful, and other small bits and pieces are constantly being looked at, but in the long term only full duplication will do.

Also on the Ballarat line, there has been a slight rejig of the Ararat timetable, so that the first train from Ararat gets to Ballarat at 0809 instead of 0826 as it currently does. This may not seem like a big deal, but it means people who start work at 0830 can do so more easily. There was also historically an issue whereby the Buninyong bus (which goes out to the University at Mt Helen, and is therefore the bus a lot of people want to catch) left at 0823, so you couldn't use the Ararat train to (reliably) get to the Uni before 0900 - there was a bus at 0840 which arrives at exactly 0900 but that cuts it a bit fine for most. This change to the train timetable would solve that...if it weren't for the simultaneous changes to the bus timetable. More on that in Part 2.

Sadly, the LEAST depressing photo of Bendigo Railway Station I could find (via Wikipedia)
The Bendigo line doesn't seem to really have any significant changes, at this stage (although I'm not intimately familiar with their timetable as I rarely use the line). It is worth noting that Bendigo-line trains do not currently stop at Sunshine, to connect with Metro or Ballarat trains, and it was hoped that this might change with the introduction of Regional Rail Link, especially with the added bonus of connecting with Geelong trains. Sadly this isn't the case, but I suppose it's something we can push for in future.

It's also worth pointing out that there used to be a heap of padding in the timetables, which was introduced when trains started using the new tracks between Footscray and Southern Cross. It added a heap of extra time between those two stations, supposedly to compensate for lower speed limits while the track was bedded in, but which mostly had the effect of making their stats look better than they really were; when they inevitably crossed this section quicker than they were timetabled to, it made up time they'd lost further down the line. In any case, this has now been removed and the timetable now reflects the actual journey times.

Overall I'm really very happy with the way things have turned out here. The decisions made around stopping patterns are great, and while the Geelong line gotten the bulk of the improvements, the changes to the Ballarat line are very sensible. There are a few things that I would've liked to see changed - improved inter-peak frequency on the Ballarat line, Bendigo trains stopping at Sunshine, etc - but these are long-standing issues, and there's nothing stopping us from fixing them in the coming years.

I am distinctly less happy, however, with the changes to buses. Part 2 is here


  1. Regarding the ~30 minute frequency in peak on the Ballarat line, implementing the same for the rest of the day might still be difficult, due to the opposing traffic. In peak, most of the trains head in one direction, hence crossing loops are less of an issue. If you want trains every 30 minutes running in *both* directions, working out where opposing trains can cross is the hard part.

    1. Ah, yeah that's a good point actually. I'll edit that bit when I add the links to Part 2.

  2. Good analysis! I work in the Deer Park area, so use the station occassionally, and the 2-hourly frequency has always been a joke. The increase in frequency is welcomed, but there are still issues. Firstly, Geelong trains will skip Deer Park in peak and on weekends. So for everyone who lives in the Geelong-Wyndham corridor and works normal hours, the changes are useless. Secondly, there is no coordinated timetable for Deer Park, and trying to work out which train will be stopping at Deer Park next when standing at Southern Cross won't be easy. Lastly, the Route 420 bus departures at Deer Park have been timed poorly against the train arrivals. There is only 2 minutes or so of transfer time, for a bus stop which has seemingly been placed in the most inconvenient location possible, about 350m from the station itself. See this Streetview if you want to see what I mean:

    1. Yeah I made heavy use of the 400 and the 420 (and its predecessor the 451) back when I was in Deer Park, the timetables never were much chop. Always quite poorly coordinated with each other; if you were trying to go to Sunshine and catch a Metro, there'd be a huge gap and then both would arrive together! Haven't had a chance to check out the new timetable in depth but it wouldn't surprise me.

      The bus stop is pretty poorly located relative to the station, but that intersection is a nightmare, so there aren't any better alternatives, really. They do at least have proper shelters and footpaths leading to them now - only added about a year ago.

      I had missed that the weekend stopping pattern was so poor - that's definitely something that should be improved in the near future. It's not like it'd cost anything really.

  3. Excellent analysis - keep up the good work