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Cutting capacity has side effects

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?

Bentleigh station, peak hour 25/3/2020

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:

5 minutesgreat!
10 minutesgood
15 minutesokay
20 minutespassable
30 minutespoor
40 minutescharity
over 40 minutesalmost unusable

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.

Melbourne University 401 shuttle bus, March 2008

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

In many cities authorities are asking passengers to use the rear doors of trams and buses to board, to keep a distance from the driver. Yarra Trams has started doing this with some trams.

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.

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.

(Did they ever dare run the Siemens trains as 3-cars after the brakes crisis was over? Edit: Yes. See first comment.)

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.

More reading:

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.

16 replies on “Cutting capacity has side effects”

Just on the 3-car Siemens trains. Yes, Metro can still run 3-car Siemens train services, I’ve seen them do 3-car Williamstown-Newport shuttles on the weekend recently (in 2020 before the lockdown).

Hybrid timetable is happening in Perth – most trains and buses are reduced to Saturday timetable, but some bus routes reduce too much on a Saturday, so they’ve added extra services back in.

I would expect a modified Saturday timetable is being worked on now. I’ve always wondered about the awkwardness of opening Comeng train doors. Now I know why.

Also though, normally there has to be a three or four week notification of roster changes to staff. That has to be worked around.

If modifying timetables at short notice was an option, I’d favour some through-routing (with minimal waiting at Flinders St) to make connections a bit more bearable.

20 minute frequency:
Sandringham – Williamstown
Frankston – Werribee via Altona
Pakenham – Sunbury [connects with Dandenong-Cranbourne shuttle]
Belgrave – Craigieburn [connects with Camberwell-Alamein shuttle] (Lucky we’ve still got those Comengs)
Lilydale – Upfield [connects with Burnley-Glen Waverley shuttle]
Clifton Hill group could run out via loop as usual or direct both ways (ensuring there is plenty of spare tram capacity to get to/from loop stations in the CBD)

On the TV news they were showing that in New York City, they’ve cut the services to weekend timetables, and as a result people are now having to crowd onto trains because fewer of them are operating. That just makes the spread of the virus way more likely!

@Leif, sounds sensible.

@Nick, I’m not sure why it would be desirable to shut the City Loop?

And I don’t think it would be a good outcome to see lines like Pakenham (with the most stations, and thus the most passengers) fall back to 20 minute frequencies.

(Apparently the pre-7am trains are still being heavily used by CBD and inner-city construction workers, which means they’re going to need to take care to ensure crowding isn’t an issue.)

@number, yeah London has had issues too. Definitely needs to be avoided.

@Daniel My thinking is that rather than having trains for individual lines going around the loop every twenty minutes, they’d be better off connecting to another line reducing the need for interchanges for inner city stations and possibly beyond, depending on your destination (anyone at South Yarra could get a one seat journey to Footscray, for example).
If Richmond continues to be a station where passengers swap from direct services to loop services and vice versa, that increases the number of people walking past each other (social distancing implications).
With low frequencies there’d be trade-offs no matter how you schedule it.
I should have clarified the 20 minute frequency was a baseline for the middle of the day, with extra services added as required.

I’ve run a quick test for the Victorian rail system. If we temporarily withdraw the Comeng fleet, we could do the following:

Xtrapolis 6car-
Werribee to Frankston 20min – Xtrapolis not cleared as 3car in revenue service for Cross-City Group
Williamstown to Sandringham 20min – if Xtrapolis are cleared to Sandringham in revenue service. Otherwise buses.
Mernda via Loop 20min – to 3car if patronage low enough.
Hurstbridge via Loop 40min + Eltham via Loop 40min – to 3car if patronage low enough.
Lilydale via Loop 20min – to 3car if patronage low enough.
Belgrave via Loop 20min – to 3car if patronage low enough.
Glen Waverley via Loop 20min – to 3car if patronage low enough.

Xtrapolis 3car
Camberwell-Alamein shuttle 20min

Siemens 6car –
Craigieburn via Loop 20min
Sunbury via Loop 40min + Watergardens via Loop 40min
Pakenham via Loop 20min
Cranbourne via Loop 20min

You’d have to use a combination of bus 531 and tram 19 in lieu of Upfield, both for LXRA works and because there aren’t enough Siemens trains.

This leaves the Comeng fleet entirely spare and takes about 60% of the Xtrapolis fleet; less if some Burnley Group services run as 3-car.

For V/Line-

Waurn Ponds 20min

Bacchus Marsh 20min (1-in-3 to Wendouree, 1-in-6 to Maryborough or Ararat)
Bendigo 60min (half to Eaglehawk, half to Epsom)
Traralgon 60min (1-in-6 to Bairnsdale)

Shepparton, 3 hours apart

Warrnambool, 3 hours apart
Swan Hill, 6 hours apart

Albury, 6 hours apart

Frankston to Stony Point, 120min

This leaves a handful of spare VLocity and loco-hauled N sets, most of the Sprinters (all, if Stony Point is suspended) and all the H type carriages. Of course, if patronage or available staff drops low enough, it might end up cheaper and safer to outright suspend services on some lines and use taxis for the handful of remaining passengers.

Last time I checked in Sydney, the frequencies are business as usual – perhaps due to the fact that Sydney Trains/Buses/Ferries is publicly owned and also due to the bigger population and density. (Not sure if publicly operated.) Maybe the Victorian Government should accept that public transport is a public good and foot the difference it takes to keep a minimum of 15 min frequency for all transport modes.

@Hisashi The number of people using trains in Sydney has dropped just as much as in Melbourne, so it’s inevitable that service will be cut here too.

The cost savings might be lower for a government operator to reduce services, but it can’t be justified running giant 8 carriage double deck trains every 3 minutes in peaks to carry about 40 or 50 people per service, which is what is happening on the T1 Western line (usually the busiest in the network) at the moment.

Dandenong Group lines are the same on Sat/Sun between 10am and 7pm, as what they are on Mon-Fri. The only drop here is the peak hour frequency, which really needs to be improved.

Ringwood group, Beyond Ringwood, Sat/Sun is a better frequency between 10am and 7pm, but, are stop all stations to the city.

Both Dandenong and Ringwood groups could certainly go to Sat/Sun timetables during the day, but would need better frequencies before 10am and after 7pm.

I cant talk about other lines. Bus routes I know of, do have half the frequency on Sat/Sun vs Mon-Fri.

Time to retrofit proper door buttons to the Comeng fleet. It’s sad that Adelaide has beaten us to it by several years. Their 3000/3100 class railcars are virtually just diesel-powered versions of our Comeng trains (and I would imagine they were also built here in Dandenong) but with a different layout with no centre doors. The older 2000 class “jumbos” also had door buttons retrofitted to them, before they were withdrawn and scrapped a few years ago.

Re: Buses. Let’s also not forget that even in this day and age, some bus routes still don’t operate on the weekend (be it no services on Sundays only, or no services at all on either Saturday or Sunday). Does the government need a carrot and stick approach or a cattle prod to drag the bus companies into the 21st century? So much for the government’s own “minimum service standards” if they are never enforced. It is equally insane that buses are still being ordered and built without any passenger information displays – the first trains to have these installed were back in the year 2000 when the first Comeng set came back from refurbishment (517M-1109T-698M, just a coincidence that 698M was also the highest-numbered carriage?), with trams gaining them not so long after when the D classes were introduced (technically the Citadis fleet also had them since new but they apparently never worked properly thus were always turned off). Case in point, Transdev’s newest buses are fitted with them thus almost always run on SmartBus routes (despite having regular PTV livery and not SmartBus silver), yet Ventura’s newest buses are not, despite both companies ordering the same buses. PIDs should not be limited to the small handful of SmartBus routes – clearly they work when a SmartBus is dragged onto a non-SmartBus route (although when that happens the announcements are mostly silent due to not having audio data for every single street in Melbourne – the LED signs still work however).

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