Big changes proposed for the City Loop

A Metro (MTM) proposal has emerged for big changes to the operation of the City Loop for trains running through the Caulfield and Burnley tunnels.

The page below is from a document discussing CBD station capacity implications from the introduction of the High Capacity Metro Trains. I’m told the document is genuine.

It reveals that the Caulfield Loop will be required to run anti-clockwise all day – the opposite of the current weekday PM direction. Apparently this is due to signalling changes for the HCMTs, which will run in the Loop when they come into service in 2020, until the metro tunnel opens in 2025. It sounds like those upgrades have only been implemented in one direction.

The document goes on to say that to prevent overcrowding on the remaining trains running from Parliament to Richmond (Burnley Loop trains), they propose to have those services not stop at Richmond.


So, what does this mean exactly?

In AM peak, the Loop would run as at present, except Frankstons would all run direct to Flinders St (“full Cross City operation”) – this is good; it allows more Dandenong and Frankston line services.

The bigger changes are in PM peak:

  • Caulfield Loop trains to/from Cranbourne and Pakenham would run anti-clockwise (Frankstons would all run direct to/from Flinders Street)
  • Burnley direct trains (generally they are the stopping services to Alamein, Blackburn and Ringwood) from Flinders St would continue to stop at Richmond
  • Burnley Loop trains (currently mostly express trains to Belgrave/Lilydale, and Glen Waverley services) would not stop at Richmond – they’d stop at Burnley instead for interchange

Here’s a diagram – modified from the PTUA’s guide to navigating the City Loop.

City Loop proposal

What it means for passengers

Not stopping Burnley Loop trains at Richmond is to avoid what could otherwise be dire overcrowding on those trains. But it would mean Caulfield people have to catch a train anti-clockwise around the Loop.

If going to the Frankston line, you would presumably change trains at Richmond or Caulfield. Sandringham line passengers would also need to go round anti-clockwise and change at Richmond.

For passengers from Parliament or Melbourne Central to any of the lines through South Yarra this inevitably means a longer trip outbound, about 10 minutes. Probably about the same at Flagstaff and Southern Cross, and quicker from Flinders Street.

It’s 3 minutes from Parliament to Richmond direct; the other way around it’s 13 minutes assuming no extended wait at Flinders Street. Which might be a big assumption – Metro’s challenge will be to eliminate or at least minimise this wait.

Metro will also need to prevent any transposals – where a train unexpectedly changes destination after people have boarded. This is especially important now that they’re in the habit of hiding the train’s destination on station displays to discourage late boarding.

"Burn line" hiding the train destination - passenger information display at Caulfield

The change to anti-clockwise all day is similar to when the Clifton Hill Loop changed in 2008 to run consistently clockwise on weekdays. It meant a longer AM trip for passengers going to Parliament, but cut the travel time for those going to Flinders Street – in that case, it was fairer, as they had previously gone the long way around in both directions.

Clifton Hill people don’t have the option of changing trains, but some of them hop off at Jolimont and walk to Spring Street in the morning.

Ultimately, people may need to re-assess their travel patterns as a result of this proposal. Their nearest CBD station may not be their fastest option. (My nearest is Flagstaff, but Flinders Street is only slightly further away, and will become my fastest option under these changes.)

I’m sure we’ll adapt… just as Clifton Hill and Werribee people did in 2008, and Sandringham people did in 1996. Those lines continue to boom. But don’t be surprised if people are grumpy about it.

The change would be much easier to deal with if the Northern Loop was changed to run clockwise all day on weekdays, as it does on weekends. This would provide passengers from Parliament a quick way of getting to Flinders Street to pick up their trains. (It would add to loads, but not as badly as Burnley Loop trains, which have their full CBD load to carry from Parliament.)

Interchange at Richmond

For people starting their trip at Richmond, or changing off other lines at Richmond and wanting to use the Burnley group, they will be able to use the trains running direct from Flinders Street (about 8 trains per hour in peak hour), and change to expresses or Glen Waverley trains at Burnley instead.

More consistency? Yes, but at a cost

There are compelling reasons for running the Loop tunnels consistently all day, including better network legibility (especially for occasional users; PTUA gets hundreds of hits every month on the City Loop guide), cutting long midday gaps between trains, and fairer outcomes for those who go the long way around in both the AM and PM peaks.

This change will also enables Loop passengers to get to Southern Cross and Flinders St in the PM, not currently possible without changing trains. This is very helpful for V/Line passengers in particular.

But it’s at the expense of the consistency of stopping every train at Richmond, which is likely to cause confusion, especially initially, and will cause a blow-out in some travel times.

Could they leave Burnley Loop trains as they are? Yes, but I suspect the modelling is right: the crowding at Parliament and Richmond would be pretty bad, with people heading to Richmond crowding out Burnley passengers.

New metro trains: View along carriage

A few other questions spring to mind:

  • Would the anti-clockwise direction be changed back when the metro tunnel opens and the Frankston Line returns to the Loop in 2025? (Probably not. People will have adjusted by then, I suspect if it happens, they’d leave it alone, and keep the benefits.)
  • What boost in services will be seen on the various affected lines to make use of the extra capacity, and lessen the impact of the changes?
  • For Caulfield Loop trains, will Metro successfully eliminate delays through Flinders Street and avoid transposals?
  • How will Caulfield cope with the increase in interchange of Loop passengers to the Frankston line?
  • Will Southern Cross cope with the passenger increase, especially when there are delays and escalator failures, some of which run for weeks at a time?
  • Even though consistent Loop direction is in principle a good idea, given the problems with it, why didn’t the City Loop upgrades include bi-directional running for the HCMTs? True those trains will move to the metro tunnel in 2025, but won’t they eventually be redeployed to more lines as the Comeng trains get decommissioned?
  • Was it really not possible to change the Northern Loop to cut travel time blow-outs?

Overall there are benefits to this proposal, particularly around better separation of services, which helps reliability and capacity – which is of course a key priority. And it helps connections to V/Line and non-Loop western suburbs lines at Southern Cross.

But this comes at the cost of travel time increases for some passengers, and inconsistent stopping patterns at Richmond.

Obviously making lots of changes at one time is hard, but this would be a lot easier on people if the Northern Loop was changed to run clockwise at the same time.

Especially without that, this proposal looks like one of those awkward compromises that adds some capacity and benefits, but unfortunately brings drawbacks for quite a few passengers.

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.

33 replies on “Big changes proposed for the City Loop”

I’m in a similar boat, catch from Malvern to parliament, though I don’t mind the slight additional walk to my office at 140 Bourke from Flinders.

If it benefits the system then I’m not opposed to these changes

I would like to see Frankston Line trains run through the loop outside of the peaks (especially late at night), as they do now on weekends. How hard can it be to run a train through the loop every 5 minutes?

Caulfield and South Yarra will urgently need an additional interchange between platforms before this plan is put into plsce

Personally, I can’t see it flying.

The problem will be Flinders St; it just adds too much delay to the trip round the loop. The problem is not just the three to five minutes trains sit in the platform at Flinders St, but the congestion this dwell time causes on the approaches to Flinders St. In the evening peak I’ve never had a trip in from Southern Cross that is not from signal to signal. (Note that most commuters don’t experience this delay at Flinders St at the moment – in the evening peak trains originate at Flinders St and relatively few people travel through the station.)

The result would be a trip home that would feel substantially longer (and, in many cases, would be as a percentage). Look at how much grief passengers give the government over express trains – when these only save a few minutes running. Metro is now proposing to cost the commuters more than a few minutes…

In theory, Metro could eliminate the delays at Flinders St; from a passenger perspective there is no reason why the stop at Flinders St should be any longer than that at Melbourne Central. However, they haven’t had any success so far in convincing the Drivers to eliminate crew changes at Flinders St. And it would also require Metro to improve their operating practices – transpositions would be out (a fruitful source of delay as passengers mill around), and there could be no padding in the timetable at Flinders St (if a train was late in, it would be late out, with predictable consequences for on-time working).

My biggest criticism of the changes is simple: the change seems to be entirely driven by the operational needs of Metro, with no consideration of what the passengers might actually want, or weighing the benefits/costs to the passengers. Personally, I don’t think that decision making process is the best approach to achieve a public transport system that people actually want to use.

As it stands, passengers going to parliament have the shortest commute going both ways. With consistent loop direction running every day, everyone does the full city loop once, either in the morning or the afternoon (or half/half) depending on your station.

In return for the slightly longer commute, passengers who get on at Parliament have a much better shot at getting a seat than they do currently.

As for stopping/not stopping at Richmond I think it’s a bit overkill but I can understand why Metro would be concerned.

@Terry K All Frankston trains would be through-routed to Newport. It’s not like they don’t have a destination on the otherside. Until 2025 Frankston trains won’t be getting any loop action. After that, it looks like they might be permantely routed to Craigieburn via the Loop and not even stop at FFS!

For anyone on the Frankston line at stations that are only serviced by stopping all stations trains eg Bentleigh, Ormond etc, this just sounds like a painful change. It’s already a pretty long commute as it is without having to add more interchange.
And the interchange at caulfield is so dreadfully inadequate. I’ve missed so many trains because I have to touch off my myki pass on platform 4 and run to platform 2, past dawdling passengers, and line up to get through one myki inbound gate. It would be so much easier if platform 2 and 3 could be the interchange between the 2 lines, similar to platform 7 and 8 at Richmond. At least changing trains would be less painful.

If such a move has to happen, wouldn’t it be better to have the Dandenong loop trains skip Richmond instead of the Burnley loop trains? This would:
-maintain a one stop journey for Parliament to Richmond in the PM peak
-get Dandenong passengers used to the idea that Richmond won’t be on their line when MM1 opens
-allows anyone at Richmond who wants to connect with a Dandenong train to catch a Sandringham/Frankston train and change at South Yarra or Caulfield
-Burnley group trains that currently run express through Burnley (a fair chunk) won’t have to be modified to stop at Burnley to allow passengers to connect from Burnley direct trains

This is how I wish the network was arranged

Frankston-Werribee becomes 1 single line permanently everyday going via Flinders and Southern cross running express between Footscray and Newport

Dandenong services use the city loop permanently everyday and running express between South Yarra and Caulfield (as it currently does)

Craigieburn and Sunbury services use the loop permanently everyday (as it currently does)

Ringwood Services use the loop permanently going express from Richmond to Burnley to Camberwell.

Alamein and Williamstown lines become 1 single line permanently everyday stopping all stations and going via Flinders and Southern Cross (It would allow Werribee and Ringwood services to run express which reduces overcrowding and scrapping the inconvenient shuttles from Newport and Camberwell)

Sandringham line runs direct to Flinders everyday permanently everyday

Mernda and Hurstbridge lines run everyday through the loop as currently do

Upfield and Glen Waverly lines merge into 1 line stopping all stations via Flinders Street and Southern Cross (Upfield line would need to be upgraded for X-Trapolis trains and single track from Gowrie to Upfield would need to be duplicated)

I hope they build some additional shelter at Burnley platforms 3&4.
Burnley’s platforms are certainly wider than Richmond to support the interchange, but shelter is needed.
This is a small investment given the scope of the proposed changes.

This is a great change for other lines. finally giving passengers at the loop stops access to southern cross\flinders in the evening without having to walk substantial distances or run the 128 gauntlet on a tram.

A more consistent routing would be great for everything.

@Terry K, but one of the points of the changes is making it consistent, which can then be conveyed on a map. If all Frankstons go through to Southern Cross and Newport, people can plan for that.

@Phillip Jeeves, I think there’s real concern about Caulfield, particularly post-2025 when the metro tunnel opens. But yes, even this proposal is going to mean more interchange. There seems to be as yet no commitment to upgrades beyond what has already gone in (more shelter).

@Belle of Bentleigh, regarding Caulfield: When changing, you don’t have to touch-off platform 4. Just skip past everybody else and go to platform 2. You can touch-on there, or if the gate has been left open (which they’ve increasingly done recently) and the train’s coming in, just go straight through, as you’re still touched-on. (This does not constitute official advice, of course.)

@Nick, really interesting idea actually! I wonder how many people would still try and go Parliament-Richmond/Richmond-South Yarra then swap to a Dandenong train? Surely not too many? But a lot of people heading to Frankston and Sandringham would still want to use the Burnley Loop trains, which might be a concern.

@Phil, your plan involves a lot of sharing tracks between Flinders St and North Melbourne. One of the points is to keep trains separate so that delays don’t cascade.

@Kevin 1, the whisper I’m hearing is that yes they are looking at extra shelter at Burnley.

For years people have asked for making the Burnley Group stopping patterns more consistent (I think someone calculated that there are somewhere around 17-18 different types). This just makes the whole situation even more confusing, especially as there are quite a few express trains that do not stop at Burnley.

I wonder by which year their modelling shows Richmond becomes too overcrowded? If it’s beyond 5 years, the service changes after MM1 sound sufficient to be able to deal with that by taking Dandenong trains out of Richmond altogether. I agree with Nick above that taking those trains out from Richmond would make more sense (if it has to be done at all).

Also with the example given of Flinders Street and Flagstaff and changing travel behaviour, the difference with Parliament is that people who work in the area don’t have that additional option to walk to – i.e. there is no station to the north/north-east. There are no trams in the area that connect to Flinders Street either, unlike the western and central parts of the city, which means either a long walk attempting to navigate city footpaths during peak periods or trying your luck on the City Circle tram to get a stopping train at Flinders Street. As a result, this change of not stopping at Richmond would add a lot more than just 10-13 minutes to a passenger’s journey.

Bottom line – the population in Melbourne is too high. Immigration is too high. Infrastructure won’t cope, as it is clearly not at the moment.

Very timely article Daniel. And well balanced.
My understanding is that the changes mean that a typical afternoon train from Parliament to Prahran would take around 20 minutes under the new proposal compared with around 10 minutes now? (I’e added a few minutes for changing trains at Richmond). Is this about right? If so, boy, are we going backwards!

The current reversing of direction in the Loop in the afternoon for Cranbourne / Pakenham services meant that I had to change at Richmond to go direct to Flinders St to save 10 minutes travel time. Pleased to find out that at least I no longer have to change trains at Richmond in my evening commute home.

I believe that they should run all Frankston lines to the west via the cross-city lines as well as running the morning loop pattern all day, and also have all trains stop at Richmond. That way you have to get on your own train at Parliament, Melb Central, Flagstaff in the pm and travel anti-clockwise around the rest of the loop, rather than overcrowding a ‘reverse’ loop service and changing at Richmond. Will work, so long as crew changes for loop trains are not at FSS, to eliminate the annoying wait time at FSS (direct/cross-city trains could remain with crew change at FSS though).

So the transfer point between inbound direct and loop trains would be at Richmond/ North Melbourne all day, which you presently cannot do in the pm. So at Richmond, Sandringham, Frankston, Glen Waverley/ Alamein are direct to FSS, while Pakenham /Cranbourne and Belgrave/Lilydale loop. Similarly North Melbourne for Craigieburn/Upfield/Sunbury lines to loop and Werribee/Williamstown direct.

It is very common for Frankston loop trains to be re-routed direct to FSS in the morning peak anyhow, even when only running a couple of minutes late, and then sitting just past Richmond for several minutes waiting for a platform to become available, so this just simplifies it all, and hopefully removes the wait time into FSS.

Once MM1 is finished, Frankston will go back into the loop, and Sandrigham trains become cross-city, so this is just swapping the loop line from Pakenham to Frankston. Also the Northern line trains will run in the clockwise loop direction if they also eventually through-route Frankston to Craigieburn via North Melbourne as per the Network Development Plan.

This change does not help people coming from the South Yarra direction to Richmond that want to change on to a Burnley group express train. What is the pm peak time for trains now days? Will it always be a consistent platform that will have trains stopping at Burnley ie. 10 and 9 becomes the bypassed one. It’s probably going to be easier/quicker to go to Parliament and add to the congestion there now that Dandenong trains go direct from Richmond. So getting off at Richmond (if not on a Dandenong train) will involve looking for the next train to Burnley or Parliament and changing to that platform.

If they are going to rejig trains in this way I hope they even out the timetable better in pm peak it’s all over the place with inconsisent times between trains and all over the place stopping patterns.

Also, aren’t the Dandenong trains going to get even more crowded from at least Flagstaff onwards as this gives passengers better access to trains to Flinders st/Southern Cross to catch the Frankston/Sandringham lines.

How much will separating Frankston and Dandenong services change travel times?

The current timetable seems slightly different, but a Dandenong–Parliament service used to take 4 minutes longer during peak times – an extra minute on each section between Westall>Oakleigh>Caulfield>Richmond>Parliament. I assume there are similar time differences on Frankston services.

In peak hour, Parliament to Richmond via the loop would be 13 minutes compared to 4 minutes running direct. So that 9 minutes (plus stopping time at Flinders St) could possibly be offset by quicker trains both to and from work.

You’ll never pick up enough time to make the combined daily commute to/from Parliament shorter, but many Dandenong passengers would be happy with a 5 minute longer total commute offset by a seat on the way home.

The reason the trains are overcrowded is simply because there aren’t enough trains. Get moving with duplicating the line between Dandenong and Cranbourne, which should have been done 30 years ago, and perhaps we can have some better frequencies and less crowded trains as a result.

Here’s my idea;
Burnley & Caulfield loop trains go via city loop anti-clockwise all day everyday. This means no one will be able to get on a Burnley loop train at Melb Central/Parliament to Richmond in the PM, and it still means all Burnley trains can stop at Richmond like they currently do. HOWEVER;
Northern & Clifton Hill group would run clockwise all day everyday. So basically 2 tunnels going one way, and the other 2 going the other way. Those at Melbourne Central/Parliament who want to go to Burnley or Caulfield can catch a Northern group train to Flinders St and change for a train going home. Those in the morning who want to go to Flinders St can change at Richmond for a Frankston or Sandringham line direct train. Likewise those on the Northern Group in the PM using the loop stations can get on a Caulfield or Burnley train and change at Southern Cross. This would prevent the current absurd situation of the PM peak where you can’t get a train from the loop to Flinders St or Southern Cross.
I have no sympathy for those who will complain from Parliament. I used to go from Watergardens to Southern Cross, and I had to transfer EVERY DAY in BOTH directions. Why should those on the loop get preferential treatment in both directions? Now I live on the Clifton Hill line, so I’m very used to the train always going in the same loop direction and it’s no big deal. I work almost exactly halfway between Flinders St and Flagstaff, so in the morning I get off at Flinders St and in the evening I get on at Flagstaff. Easy.
As for the driver change thing at Flinders St, this is just stupid and needs to stop. I’ve lived in Sydney and Brisbane and they don’t change their drivers in the main central stations (I’m not sure where they do it, but I think it’s in the suburbs). Why don’t they just make 3 driver depots at North Melbourne, Richmond and Jolimont/Clifton Hill and just do away with Flinders st as the depot? In Sydney you have trains that go from Penrith to Hornsby which is way further than any of our lines go, and they seem to manage without driver changes at Central. It’s just another stop like any other. I love Melbourne, but my god the PT planners down here are either very incompetent or never use the system (probably both).

Agree 100% Shaun. However if there are no crew changes at FSS for loop trains, then your MC/Parliament pm commuter can either take a clockwise northern loop train to FSS and change onto their Caulfield/Burnley outbound train as you suggest, or they can just get on their own anti-clockwise Caulfield/Burnley train home and go around the loop the other way. Time difference marginal if no crew changes at FSS and you’ll likely get a seat. Similarly northern line pm passengers in loop stations can either take an anti-clockwise Caulfield/Burnley loop train around loop and change at SC, or just get on their own clockwise Northern loop train and travel home via FSS. Shimple.

The key is avoiding delays at Flinders. Have they not fixed that problem yet? As long as the train just stops there briefly (like at any other station) and carries on, it’s barely worth one’s while changing at Richmond, surely? And the crowding will deter people from doing it too: it’ll make more sense to just get your train at Parliament and go around the loop anticlockwise. Provided there is never a delay at Flinders. I’m guessing there still regularly is because they insist on changing train crews over and having delays of several minutes at the busiest point on the entire network.

Spare a thought for the unfortunate folk that work in the area near East Richmond station, then commute home outbound from there (as I used to do about ten years ago). Not only will most trains continue to skip East Richmond, they will no longer be able use workarounds like walking to Richmond station instead, or catching an inbound train to Richmond and changing to an outbound train there.

It would probably be no fun for those wanting to transfer from the Sandringham line to the Burnley group outbound either. Catching the 16 tram from Balaclava to Kooyong/Glenferrie may even work out to be the better option.

On the upside, when they’re re-doing the timetable, maybe they will take the opportunity to have the Burnley group services run slightly more often than once every half hour after 7pm.

These changes to have some broad merit except for not stopping at Richmond at major interchange. If all Frankston trains go direct to Flinders Street this needs to be 7 days a week, not change to a loop service at weekend.
If we are trying to move to a metro system there needs to be consistency of service patterns and platforms ie all Frankston trains on PL 8 and 9, not some on other platforms at the weekend like they currently are. These should be the same for Sandringham services.

This all comes down to, the cheap introduction of the HCMTs. I guess the loop needs some changes to it, for the HCMTs to work within?

Is it a need to move signals?

Given the HCMTs will only use the loop for five years, there is no point going all out for full adaption of the loop for HCMTs in both directions.

The other ways of doing it is, to modify the loop properly, or, can we limit HCMTs to only direct Flinders Street trains in the PM peak?

In respect to making the map simple, having a mix on Frankston line all day long, with a small frequency going into the loop all day, all the rest direct, will fix that matter.

You’ve not considered the benefits for vline passengers. There is currently no way to get from Parliament to Southern Cross in PM. This will now be possible.

It occurs to me that they could run the Burnley Loop clockwise all day and the Northern Loop anti-clockwise all day. You’d then get two loops running clockwise all day and two loops running anti-clockwise all day. AM peak up Burnley Loop expresses could then, for consistency with PM peak down Burnley Loop expresses, also skip Richmond to avoid passengers from the Belgrave and Lilydale lines for Parliament trying to cram on to trains from the Cranbourne and Pakenham Lines – instead they could use the Northern Loop to get from Flinders Street to Parliament. Does that make sense or have been I befuddled the City Loop’s workings?

Until Werribee trains started to run direct via Southern Cross, you couldn’t get to Southern Cross without changing trains at Flagstaff – luckily a quick move across to Platform 4 was generally OK (but something on Platform 3 advising of the next service to Southern Cross would’ve been useful!). Because you’d never take the train the whole way around the Loop to Southern Cross!

I never really did it in the reverse direction (preferred the bus), but I always had the sense you’d catch the train before if only you could get to Flagstaff from Southern Cross (which of course you could do. I imagine Dandenong passengers at Parliament would feel similarly.

Of course, when the Metro Tunnel opens, Dandenong and Sunbury passengers at Flagstaff, Parliament and Southern Cross will need to change travel patterns because they will have to change trains at one of the new Tunnel stations anyway. And these trains won’t stop at Richmond, South Yarra and North Melbourne, giving fewer options – although frequency on remaining lines through these stations should increase.

Is there scope to increase services on the Burnley Loop to ease pressure? Or could the City Circle be reopened to provide capacity from Parliament to Flinders Street (if the Northern Loop couldn’t be reversed in the pm peak)?

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