Monday, 28 March 2016

Primer - Line-on-a-Map Syndrome

A related phenomenon to the Coverage vs Patronage tension is Line-on-a-Map Syndrome. This is what you get when public transport advocates look at a map and say "There's no coverage here! Why don't we invest in some public transport to serve this area!" Or they might say "Hey, there's a freight railway line here, why don't we put a passenger train along there!" Or maybe "Hey, there's still an old railway station here, why don't we bring it back into service!"

It is essentially a symptom of giving too much weight to coverage and not enough weight to patronage, in many cases magnified by nostalgia and/or a strong preference for trains. It's all very well to say that there's no coverage there, but who lives there? Where do they want to go, and why? If you run a bus or train line through the suburb, will it take any of those people where they want to go? If not, nobody will use it, and it'll be scrapped. Similarly, just because there is a freight line between two suburbs doesn't mean that people who live in one suburb want to work or study or shop in the other - you might get a couple of people who do, or a couple who want to visit friends, but the numbers just don't stack up to the cost of providing the service.

A section of Victoria's rail network in 1940 (via VRHistory)

The "There used to be a station here" argument is actually quite illuminating. If you look at maps of Victoria from the 1890s through to about 1940, there are railway lines EVERYWHERE. Not only do the lines crisscross the state like a spiderweb, there are stations everywhere too - every little town, multiple stations in regional centres, tons of sidings for businesses or farms...even a lot of racecourses had their own station in those days. This is because, before cars, buses and trucks became viable alternatives, trains were all we had. They had to serve the coverage AND the patronage goals - they had to get enough passengers to be viable, but mainly they had to stop absolutely everywhere because otherwise people would be largely cut off from the outside world. Since they didn't have to compete with anything else, the patronage goal was easy to fulfil, so much more emphasis was placed on the coverage goal. Which is why it made sense to have a station in every tiny town 100 years ago...but it makes absolutely no sense now. Which is why most of these ideas to bring back dead stations have no merit.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes public transport hasn't kept up with development, and a new suburb really does need some coverage - a feeder bus to bring people to the station in the next suburb, say. Sometimes a small town that lost its station as its population dwindled will experience a revival due to the introduction of a new industry, or because it's become a dormitory suburb for a nearby centre. Sometimes that small town never should have lost it, but ideological transport planning saw it cut along with so many worthwhile services. Sometimes urban sprawl turns what used to be a stand-alone town into a contiguous suburb of the big city.

In any of these cases - sure, look at it. But even then you need to keep why you're doing it in mind. So, this town or suburb might now have the population to support the return of its station. But maybe the demographics have changed, maybe the station (or the tracks themselves) are in a place that doesn't serve the community so well any more. In that case, bring back the train - but in a new station in a new location.

Traffic projections for East-West Link (source unknown)

It is worth noting that Line on a Map syndrome does not just afflict Public Transport; it is present in all forms of transport planning. The worst example of this was Melbourne's proposed East West Link. It was all well and good to draw a line on a map and say "Hey, there's a gap! We need to join the Eastern Freeway and CityLink!" but when you look at where people actually wanted to go, it turns out not many of them wanted to get from the Eastern to CityLink. Which is why the business case just didn't stack up.

Purple and Pink lines showing better routes for Ballarat-Castlemaine rail (modified from original by PTV)

Returning to Public Transport, the Geelong-Ballarat-Bendigo project is again a useful example for this phenomenon; Line on a Map syndrome is the primary problem with the Ballarat-Bendigo leg. The plan is to join these two cities via Maryborough, not because it makes any kind of logistical sense, but basically because it is there. Because there are old, disused tracks that join them, because we used to have trains along this corridor, those are the tracks it assumes we have to use. The problem with this is, unless you have incredibly high line speeds along the route from Ballarat to Castlemaine (which is very expensive and flatly will not happen) it will be slower than the existing bus along the Midland highway - simply because the road is very direct, and the railway is almost twice as far (51km vs 92km, Creswick to Guildford).

Don't get me wrong - those buses are inadequate and should be made more frequent as soon as possible. But if and when there is the potential patronage to justify the return of trains, we shouldn't be stuck with the old meandering route via Maryborough. We should build a new line from Creswick to Castlemaine, possibly via Daylesford. Obviously building a brand new line is more expensive than just restoring the old lines to a basic standard, but it's much better in the long run, because it does what a train is supposed to do - move large numbers of people quickly in a straight line. Of course, from a political perspective, this option is impossible for the foreseeable future - pretty much all the political will to return the trains between these cities is based on winning votes in the Maryborough area, so to bypass it would be suicide.

As fascinating as I find delving into what used to be there, and as much of a train nerd as I am, when it comes to designing a modern public transport system you can't be tied to the past. You can't be tied to what would be cool for historical reasons, you can't be tied to romanticism or a personal love of trains or trams - you have to go with what will work, now and into the future.

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