Extending Sydenham to Sunbury

Sydenham trainThere’s a debate raging about whether or not electric trains should be extended to Sunbury. Some Sunbury passengers are arguing that they want to keep V/Line services.

There might be a bigger issue here: whether Sunbury people want to be part of suburban Melbourne or not. I gather that came up at last night’s public meeting.

It’s of course totally understandable that if you’re happy with your V/Line train, you wouldn’t want to change it. People quite rightly value the express ride, the comfy seats, and the presence of conductors.

But while Connex-bashing is a very popular sport, some of the arguments don’t quite stack up.

V/Line trains do not stop at all stations. “If electrification occurs, the trains will stop everywhere and add 15 to 20 minutes,” Mr O’Farrell said. — The Age

In off-peak hours, the quickest V/Line trip seems to be Sydenham to North Melbourne in 19 minutes. The off-peak Connex time is 27 minutes.

Interestingly in the middle of peak hour, V/Line trains from St Albans to North Melbourne take up to 22 minutes, just one minute less than the Connex trains, no doubt due to network congestion. Even if you added extra stops at Sydenham and Keilor Plains (at a minute per stop, which is the benchmark), it would only be 3 minutes slower by suburban train.

So, it appears the maximum difference is 8 minutes, but at peak hour it may be as little as 3 minutes.

And the (slightly) longer trip time is compensated by shorter waiting times. In peak hour currently 10 suburban trains arrive at North Melbourne between 7:30am and 9am. It’s half that on V/Line, and if the project went ahead, those V/Line trains would become suburban ones. Off-peak there are 3 suburban trains an hour, vs 1 per hour on V/Line. So switching to suburban trains would mean about three times as many services, both in peak and off-peak hours, for Sunbury.

Sydenham suburban train users also have a quicker trip for those heading into the loop (but a bit slower for those wanting Southern Cross).

“They (V/Line) don’t have the number of cancellations and they don’t have the delays.”

Interestingly this turns out not to be true.

The latest figures for February show Connex out-performed V/Line on the line, in delivering services (98.9% to 96.2%) and on-time performance (90.2% to 82.1%). Of course, February was a real mess for both operators, with heat and fires and lots of equipment failures.

But in fact, every single month for the past year, Connex has out-performed V/Line on these two factors.

V/Line Sunbury and Connex Sydenham service delivery/cancellations
V/Line Sunbury and Connex Sydenham on-time figures
(Figures compare V/Line Bendigo, which includes Sunbury, and Connex Sydenham services. “On-time” is the usual weasel definition: within 5 minutes and 59 seconds.)

It’s worth noting that some Sunbury residents do want electrification, as is shown in the online discussion on the Sunbury Leader web site.

And it’s not all about the current users — it’s also about attracting new people out of their cars and onto the trains. Previous experience has shown that when electrification arrives, with more trains (especially outside peak hours), more capacity on those trains and services that run later into the night, 7-days-a-week, patronage goes through the roof. The Craigieburn extension resulted in patronage growth of 250% in just the first year.

In the case of the Sunbury line, it’s also about better using the track capacity on the line. Whereas the electric trains are carrying around 1000 people each (far from ideal), some V/Line trains are carrying only about 200 to 250 people each. And because the four AM peak trains originating at Sunbury serve only two stations (Sunbury and Digger’s Rest) and then run express much of the way, they use up a lot of track capacity. Replacing them with electric trains would add capacity to the trains and to the track, and based on current usage should actually get the numbers per train back down below the “desirable” 798 figure.

All that said, it’s totally understandable why current Sunbury train users don’t want a change. Connex has a reputation that is not entirely undeserved.

And nobody can deny that on V/Line, the seats are nicer, more comfortable, and the conductors are good for passenger service and security.

What should happen is a better quality of service on the suburban trains. Ensure there are staff on all the stations from first to last train, more TravelSafe staff on the trains, particularly in the evenings, and make sure that the trains and stations are kept clean. These things, along with better reliability and higher frequency services would help ease the pain for current Sunbury train users, as well as bringing lots of new people onto the rail system.

And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?

(Not that I expect to convince the Sunbury people who don’t want it.)

Performance: V/Line archive / Connex figures Feb and Jan
Train loads: DoT passenger surveys, May 2008

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

14 replies on “Extending Sydenham to Sunbury”

I heard a Sunbury resident arguing to continue their V Line service and I thought that there was a lot of self interest in what he said and not much thinking about the greater good. But if I lived in Sunbury, I expect I would do the same.

Perhaps if the railways stations were more comfortable – heated waiting rooms, toilets which were open so you could actually use them – the need for V/Line comfort would be reduced.

There are some people in Sunbury who still have this illusion of grandeur, that it’s a country town and they don’t want to spoil that (which electrification will, supposedly).

I think the majority of people (such as the silent majority who don’t use V/Line) are in support of it, but some selfish people who the existing service might suit are loudly against it – like if you only travelled from Sunbury to the City in the morning and back in the evening and the trains went at the perfect times for you, you’d want to keep it.

But I’m not sure why they’d want to keep enjoying 45 minute waits if they miss the train in peak hour, or for up to two hours on weekends.

Really it’s all about the comfy seats for Sunbury commuters. Besides in the morning peak Sunbury passengers will have the pick of the seats, in the afternoon it’s a free for all. As it is the Journey from Sunbury/Sydenham is comparatively short compared to the eastern/southern lines, I’d take more frequent trains and better access to the loop over a comfy seat any day.

That’s all well and good, but more excitingly, I got to ride in one of the new converted carriages this morning on the way to work (around 8.33am from Mitcham – city loop train).

The train before was extraordinarily packed, so much so I couldnt get on it.
So i let it go by, turned up the podcast I was listening to and was surprised when another train pulled up 2 mins later.

I got on and got a seat. I can’t be sure coz I was tuned out but I suspect it may have been an unscheduled train. I dont think the fact it wasn’t packed can be put down to the new design!

However, it was funny to notice some things never change. Did the few people standing hold onto the poles, including the new middle pole – No! they leaned against them. Okay when no else is around but bugs the shit out of me when one person is leaning against 5 handholds worth of pole.

A bit off-topic, but this is the closest blog post I could find to send you a question Daniel:

My GF is currently posted in Horsham. She or I undertake quite a long drive to see each other each week, between 3 to 3.5 hours from Brunswick East where we live. However, this time pales in comparison to the “train” journey on offer from V-line:

– Train from Melbourne to Ararat = 2 hrs 40 mins
– Coach from Ararat to Horsham = 2 hrs 30 mins

Depending on the day, there may be a wait between train / coach up to 20 minutes.

We would use the train service like we did when she was stationed in Wangaratta, but for a regular thing, this trip is ridiculously long in comparison to driving. This is primarily due to the lack of a train-only journey. Since plenty of freight trains roll through to Horsham, I can only assume that it’s the small population living there that is the reason for the lack of such an option. And I guess this is my main gripe – the Australian rail network is geared around turning a profit rather than providing a service. A trip to Europe makes you realise how fantastic such a system can be if the community’s needs are put first.

I’ve met many people in Horsham that are dismayed with the state of the train service, and while going beyond Ararat may not be cost-effective for V-Line, the service would certainly be used. If we compare Bairnsdale (which does enjoy a train service) to Horsham, it becomes difficult to see why Horsham does not have a passenger train service : while being an extra 30km from Melbourne than Barinsdale, it has a larger population (14 versus 11 thousand).

Daniel, how much do you know about the history of Victorian regional train service decisions? Is there any chance that lobbying would make a difference?

A couple of things to add :

– I realise that the Overland is temporarily providing a service, which is okay price-wise but still takes 5 hours.

– I’ve been a fan of you blog for around 10 years. Keep it up!!

Cam, the issue is to do with Victoria’s assortment of rail gauges. Pre-Kennett days they used to run the V/Line through to Dimboola. This service was cut back to Ballarat around 1993. At that time there were broad gauge tracks through to Adleaide.

In 1995 the Melbourne-Adelaide line was converted to standard gauge, including the Dimboola-Ararat section that was formerly operated by V/Line. This is what is used by the freight trains and the Overland service. The SG line then continues to Melbourne turning south from Ararat via Cressy, North Geelong, Newport, Sunshine (via the goods line through Brooklyn), past the Tottenham Yards, under the Footscray Tunnel and over the flyover at North Melbourne. Nearly all single track with passing loops. I have witnessed the shortcommings of the Overland on this line first hand – if you miss your ‘time slot’ in the single track line you end up waiting for BLOODY AGES in passing loops for freight trains comming the other way and can arrive in Melbourne hours late

The direct route Ararat-Ballarat-Melbourne remains broad gauge so when V/Line services retuned past Ballarat it could only go to Ararat. There are issues with the government not returning all the regional rail services promised – I think they may return Mildura – around 2050 probably!!!! Kind of like the recycled promises for suburban extensions that never happen.

By the way at the Adelaide end of this line, the suburban service to Belair was formerly two tracks but one changed to a standard gauge for the Overland and freight trains, with the other remaining broad gauge for suburban trains. The suburban service originally terminated at Bridgewater further in the hills (single track section past Belair), but was cut back around 1987 due to poor patronage over the indirect route. This section of track now forms part of the SG line. You can see the ghost platforms along the SG track to Belair from the suburban train.

Thanks, Andrew – very nicely explained.

Doesn’t sound like it’s every going to happen then – and with the drought testing rural lifestyles and populations, it’s hard to see an increase in the clamouring for better services.

We will only be in Horsham for another 3 months or so, so it’s no biggy for us – but I feel bad for the people of Horsham and the surrounding districts.

That’s a hard question to answer. In terms of operating emissions only, because electric trains are powered by brown coal, on a one-for-one basis they are believed to generate more emissions than a diesel train. But electric trains have more capacity, and the greater frequency of services is expected to get a lot more cars off the road, which would weigh heavily in electric trains’ favour. I’d be interested to see the maths on this actually.

thanks daniel.

makes me wonder if the next generation of suburban trains should be powered by diesel (or another alternative to electricity).

my uneducated and uninformed view is that electric run trains was this wizz bang new development in the early 20th century and we have just continued on with it because we have the infrastructure in place.

The easiest path is to simply switch the power generation for trams and trains to a sustainable source, eg solar or wind. Yarra Trams have done it for a couple of trams (well, buying sustainable for the power used by a couple of trams; obviously the green power isn’t specifically directed to them). No mucking about with splitting the train fleet up into incompatible halves.

But remember — the real saving is in getting cars off the road in the first place. One comparison of emissions figures is here.

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