Friday, 23 March 2018

Waiting forever at Footscray

We in public transport circles often lobby for more frequent services, better-connecting services, and more consistent stopping patterns. There's a lot of theory behind why these are good ideas - but in a practical sense, what does it mean to the average person?

I'm currently planning a trip which is proving to be a good example. I need to get from Ballarat to Castlemaine, to attend a meeting at 1pm on a Saturday afternoon, and it's proving surprisingly difficult to do it without a ton of waiting around.

Castlemaine Station (via Wikipedia)

The problems

There is a coach that goes from Ballarat to Bendigo via Castlemaine which I could use. But there's two issues with this - it doesn't run at all on weekends, and even on weekdays it only runs once a day - much too late to be useful for a 1pm meeting. So that's out.

The next most obvious option is to take a train from Ballarat to Footscray, then another train from Footscray to Castlemaine. If you plug this into Google Maps or the PTV Journey Planner, it gives you this:

Journey Plan (via Google Maps)

So basically, the whole journey takes three and a half hours - but that includes a 59-minute wait at Footscray.

59 minutes? Yes - trains to Ballarat and Bendigo both run hourly on a Saturday morning, and by a horrible coincidence they're timed in the worst possible way for someone trying to make this kind of trip. If the Ballarat train were a few minutes earlier and/or the Bendigo train a few minutes later, I wouldn't have that huge delay, a 3.5-hour journey would turn into a 2.5-hour journey, and I could sleep in for another hour that morning.

Now, it doesn't happen often, but sometimes (if you're quite PT-savvy, and/or willing to sprint to make a connection) it is possible to plan a quicker journey than Google Maps or PTV's Journey Planner thinks is possible - you just have to know your alternative routes, and break the journey down into its individual components.

The Ballarat train stops at Sunshine a few minutes before it stops at Footscray - maybe you could change there?

Sunshine Station

Unfortunately Bendigo trains run straight through Sunshine without stopping, and have for as long as I can remember.

Okay. Maybe if you got off the Ballarat train at Sunshine, and took a Metro train further out, you could pick up the Bendigo train at a later station?

Bendigo trains have an unusual stopping pattern within suburban Melbourne - basically half of them stop at Watergardens and the other half stop at Sunbury.

You can definitely get an outbound Metro train not long after the Ballarat train arrives, and it'll get you to Watergardens pretty quickly - but unfortunately this particular Bendigo train runs express through Watergardens, so that doesn't help you. You'd get to Watergardens just in time to watch the Bendigo train zoom past.

This Bendigo train is one of the ones that stops at Sunbury instead of Watergardens. Okay - so why not just take a Metro train from Sunshine to Sunbury?

Unfortunately only every second train on this line extends to Sunbury, with the other ones terminating at Watergardens. That train I mentioned earlier terminates at Watergardens - and since there's a forty minute gap between Sunbury trains, the nearest options are either too early or too late.

So basically through a comedy of errors, it looks like I'm stuck waiting at Footscray for an hour. It's amazing to think how many things need to go wrong for this to happen - but by the same token, only one of them needs to go right to fix it.

Coaches at Ballarat Station

The solutions

First things first - the coach. It is pretty ridiculous that Ballarat and Bendigo, Victoria's third- and fourth-largest cities, don't have a direct connection on weekends, and have such a crummy one during the week. Reinstating direct passenger trains might be a big ask, but running coaches more often would require no new infrastructure - just the operating costs to run them. Running three coaches a day, every day, is not too much to ask to link cities of this size - particularly when decentralisation is all the rage. It's not just about strengthening the links from regional centres to Melbourne - you've got to link the regional centres to each other as well.

Now - the V/Line trains. Would it be possible to simply tweak the times a bit to allow connections like this? The short answer is - I don't know. Both these lines have a lot of single-track sections (especially the Ballarat line) and the pathing near Southern Cross station can get quite tricky, with all the regional lines trying to go through the same bottleneck at once - so there may genuinely not be much wiggle-room in how to timetable the two lines in relation to each other. Plus, we don't know how changing the timetable to enable this connection could throw out other connections. It's best we give the timetablers the benefit of the doubt here.

But this is one reason we say "frequency is freedom". The more frequently your trains run, the less you have to worry about planning specific connections like this - because even in the worst-case scenario, where one train pulls in a minute after the other one's left, there'll be another one along soon enough.

Map of single- & double-track sections of the Ballarat & Bendigo lines (source)

Again, the frequency of both lines is a bit constrained by their infrastructure at the moment. An hourly frequency in both directions is about all the Ballarat line can handle right now, but it'll be capable of a forty-minute frequency come 2019; the real question is whether we'll only get that on weekdays, or whether we'll get it on weekends as well. Beyond 2019, the line needs further duplications - enough to allow at least a thirty-minute off-peak service.

The Bendigo line has issues with single track in its outer reaches (though not as bad as Ballarat's), as well as sharing tracks with Metro trains between Sunshine and Sunbury. I don't know what kind of off-peak frequency the line is capable of in its current state, but I imagine it's better than hourly. (If you have any insights, please comment below).

Making either or both of these lines more frequent would cut down a lot on the waiting times, even in the worst-case scenario.

As an aside - why don't Bendigo trains stop at Sunshine? They use the dedicated regional tracks there, along with Ballarat and Geelong trains - but unlike Ballarat and Geelong trains, none of them stop at the platforms. Again there may be some timetabling difficulties in making this happen (particularly in the weekday peak when everything's busiest) but as far as I can tell, it should be doable, particularly outside peak times. Certainly there are big benefits to stopping them there - Sunshine is a major hub and destination in its own right, and it would allow Bendigo passengers to interchange with V/Line, Metro and bus lines.

The Bendigo line's stopping pattern is very strange. The general rule of thumb for where an "all stations" (ie non-express) regional service should stop in the suburban network is:
- the central terminus (Southern Cross)
- the last suburban station on the line (Sunbury)
- any big hubs along the way, usually where lines branch off (Footscray + Sunshine)

This kind of stopping pattern generally strikes the best balance between speed and connectivity. It stops at enough key points and allows for easy interchange with the Metro network, so most people won't have to backtrack too much to get to their destination; while at the same time ensuring the train still progresses through the suburbs at a decent pace, not stopping every thirty seconds.

Watergardens Station (via Wikipedia)

The Bendigo line's pattern is therefore a bit weird in that it skips one of the major hubs (Sunshine), occasionally stops at the third-last station on the line (Watergardens) and occasionally skips the last station (Sunbury). The Watergardens-Sunbury shuffle is probably due to the fact that the Metro trains do the same thing, and the lack of stopping at Sunshine is probably due to timetable constraints. So it's sort of understandable in the short term - but in the longer term, a more consistent Southern Cross -> Footscray -> Sunshine -> Sunbury stopping pattern needs to be implemented.

Anyway. Given the infrastructure issues mentioned above, let's assume it isn't possible to do much about the V/Line frequencies for the time being. There is absolutely nothing stopping Metro from running trains more frequently on the Sunbury line outside peak times.

Very often, when the prospect of more frequent trains comes up, the excuse is "The City Loop's at capacity! No more trains will fit!" This may be true during the peak, but between the peaks there is plenty of capacity available. Given what a booming part of Melbourne the line runs through, it really should have trains every ten minutes - all day every day.

All of these measures need to happen for a whole host of reasons - it's not all about me, or about this one trip. It is fair to say that some of them require pretty substantial investment on the part of the government, so in a world of finite budgets, they won't all happen tomorrow.

But it would really only take one or two of these issues to be fixed to make my trip go a hell of a lot smoother - so it underlines that a few incremental improvements can have massive benefits for passengers.

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