With all the talk of falling public transport patronage (some estimates have suggested it’s down 90%) and persistent (but unconfirmed) rumours of reduction of services to weekend levels, it’s worth remembering that capacity is only one aspect of service levels.
Normally, trains trams and buses are often packed, but with patronage currently so low, passengers are able to travel and easily maintain “social distancing” as a precaution against COVID-19.
Provided plenty of space can still be provided, it may make sense to reduce capacity.
But before you just declare “Okay then, let’s switch to a weekend timetable!” – what else would be affected?
Wait times and connections
Perhaps a little less obvious, particularly to those who don’t use public transport often, is the effect of service levels on frequency and waiting times.
This is particularly relevant for big cities where people increasingly use connections between services to complete their journeys. You can choose what time to leave the house, but you can’t choose what time your connecting service arrives.
You also probably can’t choose what time you can arrive at work, and what time you can leave work at the end of the day. This likely to be especially the case for people who are still attending workplaces – those of us with cushy white-collar jobs might have some flexibility, but most of us are already working from home.
How long should people wait? There was an old PTUA document that described 20 minute intervals in an urban context as “passable”, and 40+ minutes as “charity”.
Expanding that out (and being a little less charitable, because this is now the 21st century; most people have the choice of a car; and Melbourne is now a city of 5 million, not a sleepy hollow of 2.5 million), you might get something like this:
|over 40 minutes
If they switched trains to a Saturday timetable, that would cut the busiest rail lines from around every 5 minutes in peak to every 10 for most of the day (especially if there were some extra services to boost the morning peak). That would probably be bearable.
But the other lines would drop back to every 20 minutes. Merely passable, not good, especially for connections.
Trams on a Saturday timetable would be mostly every 10-15 minutes through the day. That’s probably bearable.
But Sunday timetables are a different story. That could mean:
- late starts, with the first trains not reaching the City until about 8am
- virtually unusable 40 minute services on half the rail network before 10am
- trams only every half-hour after 7pm, and poor frequencies in the morning peak
Buses on a weekend timetable? That would result in many already poor (but just about usable) half-hourly services dropping to an almost unusable hourly frequency. That would make them useless for connections, and create real difficulties for the essential workers relying on those routes.
And blanket weekend bus timetables would mean some critical routes, such as the 401 shuttle into the hospital precinct, would not run at all.
Express journey times
A switch to a weekend timetable would remove express trains on the lines that have them: Frankston, Ringwood, Hurstbridge, Sunbury, Werribee.
While the impact is not as bad as service frequency cuts, it would mean longer journey times for some users.
For example, most Werribee trains on weekdays take 31 minutes inbound to North Melbourne, thanks to direct express services. On weekends this blows out to 42 minutes.
Doors – and fleet management
But the other issue is who opens the doors. Can passengers avoid having to do it?
Bus doors are opened by the driver.
Tram doors involve a game of bluff. The newer (post-2000) trams have buttons to open the doors, but generally the driver opens the doors at stops, which is consistent with older trams.
Train doors are problematic. The newer models have press buttons to open them. Metro is apparently exploring if this can be made automatic, which would help.
But on the older Comeng fleet, there’s a handle to pull to open the door – a handle with a deliberately awkward design to prevent people forcing doors.
If there is a train timetable cut, hopefully the service could be mostly or entirely run by newer trains, to reduce the risk from unwanted door handle contact. At least with button-operated doors you can use an elbow to press.
I don’t think it’s my imagination: some people seem reluctant to be first to the train door, hoping someone else will press the button or pull the handle to open it.— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) March 11, 2020
Makes me wonder if cleaning regime has been boosted, and if trains with power opening doors can be set to auto? pic.twitter.com/odkXdKu5nt
In fact, one silver lining of a period of reduced service would be an opportunity to push ahead with fleet upgrades/life extension projects on older vehicles, if any are pending.
Greatly reduced passenger numbers are certainly making bus operations easier during the autumn construction blitz. The Sandringham line has been closed for almost two weeks now without any fuss.
A service cut is probably inevitable
We shouldn’t kid ourselves. With patronage at perhaps 10% of the usual numbers, it’s a massive waste to keep running a full weekday service.
With so few passengers, and so little fare revenue, the system is haemorrhaging money, which ultimately would be better put into service upgrades when patronage is back to normal.
And there’s an ongoing risk that staff availability may be affected in coming weeks by the virus, which would make cuts will be impossible to avoid – and potentially forced to happen in a less controlled way.
One perhaps unforeseen aspect of a pandemic is that a flexible pool of train drivers able to drive multiple lines is now an advantage, rather than being seen as an unnecessary extravagance. Lack of flexibility is causing grief in London: Nearly a third of TfL’s workforce have called in sick, many of whom are trained for specific lines, and therefore cannot be transferred over at short notice to fill in the gaps.
One option on the trains might be run 3-car sets to the usual frequencies. This would maintain workforce requirements, but cut running costs including maintenance. 3-cars was once routine on weekends, though it’s unclear what operational changes might be required to do it again.
The system must remain usable
The key is to maintain a decent frequency that people can still actually use (not hopeless 40 minute trains and hourly buses) and enough capacity that passengers and staff can spread out and stay safe.
And it would make sense to make any changes as further COVID-19 restrictions are introduced – following reductions in demand, not prompting them.
Ultimately, a system-wide weekend timetable would make many bus routes unusable – and thus the overall public transport network would be compromised.
The last thing we need is essential medical and food supply chain staff having trouble just getting to work.
But a hybrid timetable: perhaps Saturday trains (plus some peak extras) and trams, and weekday bus timetables just moderate reductions to the few bus routes that are actually high frequency – with timing adjustments to take advantage of light traffic.
That would still provide a usable system for the essential workers who need it.