Were there more trains 100 years ago? (Part one)

Melbourne’s suburban train system was originally steam operated, but was converted to electricity in the 1910s and 1920s. By about 1930 most of the network we know today was in place.

My friend Andrew leant me a copy of the suburban 1924 timetable. I’ve also got a PDF of the 1974 timetable. So let’s compare the train service from 100 and 50 years ago to the present day.

Bear in mind that back in 1924, the working week was Monday to Friday, plus Saturday morning. This meant that Saturday train services had peak periods in the morning and at lunchtime to cater for that demand. (To this day, there are bus services that still run only until lunchtime on Saturday.)

In 1924, on Sunday trains had a handful of services around 10am, then stopped again until about 1pm, and finished on Sunday night around 10pm – rather than midnight as on weekdays and Saturdays.

I’ll do this line by line, going clockwise around the network, starting with the lines through Newport to Williamstown and Werribee (including the Altona Loop).

Departure signage at Flinders Street station

Williamstown line

Until 1987 the Williamstown line went slightly further than today, to Williamstown Pier station. Not all trains served this station – basically a few each peak hour presumably to serve dock workers, and some on weekends for day trippers to the area. Most trains only went as far as Williamstown station, the current terminus.

It’s also worth noting that until 1976 when expansion to four tracks was completed, one track pair was shared by all trains between the City and Footscray station. (The Bunbury Street tunnel serves standard gauge freight and long distance trains, but these do not stop at Footscray.)

Regional Rail Link was completed in 2015, and included further expansion to six tracks: two for the Sunbury line, two for V/Line trains to the Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong lines, and two for the Werribee, Altona and Williamstown lines.

So, comparing the timetables:

Williamstown line192419742020
Service patternMost trains through-routed to/from Frankston or Dandenong/Pakenham.Most trains still through-routed to/from Frankston or Dandenong/Pakenham.Now run in conjunction with the Werribee line and Altona Loop.

Weekday daytime: trains to the city, mostly through-routed to/from Frankston

Evenings and weekends: shuttles Williamstown to Newport
Running time
(Outbound midday)
Flinders St-Williamstown: 27 minutes

+2 minutes to Williamstown Pier
Flinders St-Williamstown: 27 minutesFlinders St-Williamstown: 27 minutes
Peak hourAbout every 10-12 minutesAbout every 12-15 minutesAbout every 22 minutes
Weekday off-peakEvery 20 minutesEvery 20 minutesEvery 20 minutes
Weekday eveningsAbout every 20 minutes until midnightEvery 20 minutes until midnightEvery 20 minutes until 10pm (shuttle),
then every 30 minutes (shuttle)
Saturday off-peakEvery 20 minutesEvery 20 minutesEvery 20 minutes (shuttle)*
Saturday eveningEvery 20 minutesEvery 20 minutesEvery 30 minutes (shuttle)
Sunday morningTwo services around 9:30 to 10am, then nothing until 12:45pmFirst service around 9:30am, then every 30 minutesEvery 40 minutes until 10am,
then every 20 minutes (shuttle)*
Sunday afternoon About every 20 minutes Every 30 minutesEvery 20 minutes (shuttle)*
Sunday evening About every 20 minutes Every 30 minutesEvery 30 minutes (shuttle)
*Expected with the next timetable change: trains from Williamstown will run all the way into the City on weekends during daytime.
Yarraville station

Altona line

The Altona line was built by property developers, which probably explains why it’s single track most of the way, partly on a narrow alignment which would make full duplication difficult.

Victorian Railways ran the line with financial contributions from its owners. In late 1924, VR took over ownership of the line, and electrified it in 1926 – but as of the 1924 timetable, it was still steam trains.

For many decades the line terminated at Altona. In 1985 the line was extended to Westona (with a passing loop there) and then through to Laverton to join the Werribee line, becoming known as the Altona Loop.

From 1985 to 2010, most Werribee trains ran via the Altona Loop, with a few in peak running via the direct line from Laverton to Newport.

In 2010 a third platform opened at Laverton for terminating Altona Loop trains, so they could run separately to Werribee trains at peak times and during inter-peak periods on weekdays.

The single track continues to cause problems, with services often bypassing the Altona Loop when running late to prevent cascading delays.

The track layout at Laverton makes bypasses particularly likely for outbound trains, because it’s difficult to run a delayed train outbound via Altona Loop then inbound back to the City on the direct line. This can cause havoc for passengers in evening peak periods.

Altona line192419742020
Service patternSteam-operated shuttles Altona to NewportShuttles Altona to NewportWeekday daytime: trains Laverton to the City

Evenings/weekends: operated as part of the Werribee service
Running time (Outbound midday)Flinders St-Altona: 39 minutes
(including 5 minutes change at Newport)
Flinders St-Altona: 35 minutes
(including 4 minutes change at Newport)
Flinders St-Altona: 31 minutes

+2 minutes to Westona
+2 minutes waiting at Westona due to single track
+4 minutes to Laverton = 39 minutes
Peak hourOnly had a handful of trains each peak, about every 30 minutesAltona: about every 20-25 minutesAbout every 22 minutes
Weekday off-peakAbout every 2 hoursEvery 40 minutes (shuttle)Every 20 minutes
Weekday eveningsAbout once an hourEvery 40 minutes (shuttle)Every 20 minutes until 10pm,
then every 30 minutes*
Saturday off-peakAbout once an hour to AltonaEvery 40 minutes (shuttle)Every 20 minutes*
Saturday eveningSee aboveEvery 40 minutes (shuttle)Every 30 minutes*
Sunday morningNo serviceOnce an hour (shuttle)Every 40 minutes until 10am,
then every 20 minutes*
Sunday afternoonAbout once an hourAltona: once an hour (shuttle)Every 20 minutes*
Sunday eveningEvery couple of hours, with the last train at about 9pmAltona: once an hour (shuttle)Every 30 minutes*
*At these times, Werribee trains run via the Altona Loop
Outbound train waits for inbound train at Westona on the Altona Loop

Werribee line

For many years the Werribee line was a semi-rural service, part of the Geelong line, with some local trains from the City or Newport. As noted above, the line was eventually electrified and connected to the Altona line in 1985.

Werribee line192419742020
Service patternSteam service, part of the Geelong line, with some local trainsDiesel trains including some local services, and some shuttles from Newport connecting with Williamstown trainsWeekday daytime: trains bypass the Altona Loop and run express most of the way to the City

Evenings/weekends: trains run via the Altona Loop, stop all stations to the City
Running time (Outbound midday)Flinders St-Werribee: 52 minutes

Spencer St-Werribee: 45 minutes on a Geelong limited express train**
Flinders St-Werribee: 56 minutes (including 7 minutes change at Newport)

Spencer St-Werribee: 34 minutes on a Geelong limited express train**
Flinders St-Werribee (express Footscray-Newport-Laverton): 40 minutes

Weekends via Altona Loop, stopping all stations: 51 minutes
Peak hourA very sparse service, only about four trains per day, including one in peakAbout every 40 minutes**About every 10 minutes
Weekday off-peakVery sparse serviceAbout once an hour**Every 20 minutes
Weekday eveningsOne outbound service on Wednesdays only at 11:33pmAbout every 1-2 hours**Every 20 minutes until 10pm,
then every 30 minutes*
Saturday off-peakOnly about 5 trains to Werribee on Saturdays**About once an hour**Every 20 minutes*
Saturday eveningOne outbound service only at 11:33pmAbout every 1-2 hours**Every 30 minutes*
Sunday morningNo serviceAbout every 90 minutesEvery 40 minutes until 10am,
then every 20 minutes*
Sunday afternoonNo serviceAbout every 90 minutesEvery 20 minutes*
Sunday eveningNo serviceAbout every 90-120 minutesEvery 30 minutes*
*Trains at these times serve Altona Loop and Werribee
**Some Geelong trains served Werribee station, but did not serve other stops on the line
Werribee train departing Flinders Street


So what’s the verdict? It depends.

In 1924 and 1974, the Williamstown line was actually more frequent at peak times and in the evenings than today. Back then it was the main suburban line through Newport – now the main line is the Werribee line.

Over time the Werribee and Altona services have expanded as population has grown. This reflects that 100 years ago, Werribee and the (few) other stops along the line were basically country outposts, not built-up suburbs of Melbourne.

In 2020, there are frequent services in peak out to Werribee, and good daytime weekday frequencies between the City and to Newport – far better than at anytime previously.

However at other times of day, especially evenings and weekends, frequencies are still lacking for these lines, which serve some of the fastest growing areas in Melbourne.

The Williamstown and Altona Loop/Laverton peak frequencies of every 22 minutes are particularly problematic, but so too are the 40 minute Sunday morning services.

Monday-Saturday evening services are actually less frequent than in 1974, following network-wide cuts in 1978 (from 20 minutes to 30 minutes) that were never fully restored.

The next timetable change will see some improvements, with Williamstown weekend daytime trains running into the City instead of shuttles, and the frequency between Newport and the City set to double.

Hopefully in time there are more upgrades coming.

UPDATE: Just after posting, I heard the December timetable change has been postponed – apparently due to delays on the Ballarat Line Upgrade project on which the timetable change depends.


PT Minister Ben Carroll will be guest speaker at the PTUA Annual General Meeting on 12th November, and will take questions. Details here. If you’re not a PTUA member, join up.

Lead photo: via State Library

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.

3 replies on “Were there more trains 100 years ago? (Part one)”

Thanks Daniel, this was an interesting analysis! The Werribee line today still needs a far more frequent off peak and early morning/late evening service. I think Werribee main line services could justify a 10 minute off peak frequency and every 15 to 20 minutes in the evening and early mornings. Ideally weekend Werribee main line services in the day would be at least every 10 minutes also, it is good the Newport to City section will get an upgraded frequency.

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