Effects of electrification on train patronage

Twelve years ago debate was raging in the Sunbury community over the electrification of the line from Watergardens. I blogged about it here, pointing out that yes they might lose their comfy V/Line trains, but overall service levels would rise, with more frequent services right across the day.

Looking back, did people desert the service when suburban trains arrived in town, or did more people start using it?

Philip Mallis posted data for 2005-06 to 2018-2019 showing station-by-station annual patronage levels, and this covers the transition of some stations from V/Line to Metro service at both Sunbury and Craigieburn.

I’ve also included the previous last suburban stops on those lines: Watergardens and Broadmeadows – because the extension of suburban trains might have seen some passengers shift to a station closer to home.

Craigieburn station patronage shot up immediately on switching to electrified suburban services. By 2018-2019 passenger numbers were up to an incredible 7 times the patronage levels prior to electrification.

This is no doubt helped by local population growth, which some years has run at more than 10%.

The scale means it’s not obvious, but Broadmeadows patronage has also climbed, by a modest 30% in this time, and although I haven’t included them on the chart because they opened with or after the electrification, Roxburgh Park and Coolaroo both have substantial patronage, together almost equalling Broadmeadows at about 910,000 boardings per year.

Sunbury station patronage also grew, but not by the same stratospheric heights as Craigieburn. From 2005/06 to 2018/19 it grew by 72% – so if lots of people did desert the trains after V/Line was replaced by Metro, you wouldn’t know it.

While overall V/Line patronage has risen in the last decade, understandably the Bendigo line fell in the period straight after Sunbury electrification. (You can still catch V/Line to/from Sunbury, apart from outbound peak hour trains to Sunbury which are marked as “pick up only”.)

Population growth in Sunbury has been more modest, which probably explains the growth in train usage being lower than Craigieburn’s. Still, up 72% is not too shabby.

Interestingly, while Watergardens station patronage has grown strongly (up 90%), patronage at the intermediate station Diggers Rest has been slightly below zero growth, down about 5% over the period measured. I’m not sure why that might be – perhaps there’s been little or no residential growth in the area. This area is beyond the main contiguous urban area of Melbourne.

Then-Premier John Brumby at Craigieburn station (re)opening, first day of suburban trains, 30/9/2007

Population growth has clearly helped public transport patronage, especially at Craigieburn. The 2015 fare zone changes also helped.

But also important is a decent level of service to attract passengers, and alongside capacity, that was a key benefit of the switch from V/Line diesel services to electrified suburban trains.

Obviously travel patterns are up in the air post-COVID-19. But to keep getting more people on board, more services at the times people want to travel will be critical.

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.

10 replies on “Effects of electrification on train patronage”

Perhaps more frequent electric trains to Sunbury would increase patronage and limit car use. The long gaps between trains are a huge disincentive. The lack of lifts at Sunbury with the very long high ramps are a huge disincentive to older folk as well!

Diggers Rest losing passengers is quite interesting to me. I believe there are a couple reasons for the decline:

1. No V/Line trains. Diggers Rest likely got a slower service post-electrification as only metro trains stop there. Sunbury at least got to keep most of the V/Line trains.

2. No amenities. The station building and toilet have been closed since electrification, meaning that waiting at the station isn’t particularly pleasant.

Still, I don’t think these are big enough reasons for the fall in patronage, particularly when you consider that it is a growth suburb, with housing estates popping up all around Vineyard Road.

With Craigieburn it’s probably important to note how dire the service levels were pre-electrification

In 2005 there were just three AM peak trains, hourly PM peak trains, 4 trains each way Saturdays, 2 on Sundays…

Hardly the levels of service to be usable to many – locals generally had to resort to a 532 bus to Upfield or Broadmeadows, or the 544 bus added in early 2006

It would be interesting for both stations how much demand is generated by park+ride customers coming from further afield attracted by higher service levels than offered at their local V/Line stations, such as Gisborne, Wallan and Kilmore

40-minute off-peak ‘service’ from Diggers Rest, or one stop up at Watergardens it’s 20 minutes. Anyone with a car will drive to Watergardens, or keep driving and skip the train entirely.

I think you guys are right about the poor frequency at Sunbury and Diggers Rest. In peak it’s pretty good with a train about every 10 minutes, but after 9am the 40 minute frequency would put people off using the trains at those times.

The extra V/Lines (serving Sunbury only) are about once an hour at Sunbury – they fill some gaps, but not ideal.

12:16 (Metro)
12:52 (V/Line)
12:56 (Metro)
13:36 (Metro)
13:52 (V/Line)
14:16 (Metro)
14:56 (Metro)

In contrast the Craigieburn line has trains every 20 minutes off-peak – could be better, but it’s still double the Sunbury/Diggers Rest frequency.

@Craig, really good point about the pre-electrification service to Craigieburn (and the current service at stations north of there) being so poor.

In that sense it’s interesting that Broadmeadows patronage initially dropped after electrification, recovering from about 2013 onwards.

Is Airport Rail going to share with Sunbury? If so, Sunbury frequency improvements would be limited. The Airport Rail would probably be the priority.

Interesting article, and I agree Sunbury lines poor frequency between Watergardens and Sunbury likely contributes to slower patronage growth. Ideally trains should be off peak every 10 minutes to Watergardens and every 20 minutes to Sunbury, which would boost the attractiveness of the service and likely patronage. Also a 20 minute maximum waiting time in the early morning and late evening at Sunbury would improve the quality of service too.

Cragieburn also could easily justify a 10 minute day time off peak frequency, hopefully Sunbury and Cragieburn will be upgraded in the next timetable update. If Diggers Rest has a toilet and waiting room available this should be made available to passengers, especially with long waits between trains.

Over recent decades, electrification meant a more frequent service came with it. Not a relative medicore improvement like from going up from say 20 minutes to 8, but, a more significant improvement from only one or two across hours, to a few an hour, makes the service ‘practical’

I am not saying that, its bad to have 10 or 8 minute frequency, but, those frequency-differences are more of convenience than the serious barrier that is what V/Line trains operate to. Therefore the change from a few trains in the morning is a really major game changer in respect to accessibility to a service.

I would suggest, you mark on that graph, where the Craigiburn and Sunbury Electrifications happened.

Sunbury customers must be turning in their beds, when they are due for an even greater jolt down in train quality once the HCMTs take over on their Metro services.

I had to visit Craigiburn just before Christmas as part of an Airtasker job I did. It is impressive how large Craigiburn is.

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