Melbourne’s most confusing train timetable

Between Richmond and Ringwood there are a staggering 13 stopping patterns within a 6 hour period each weekday.

One of the ways to a more usable train network is reform of the timetables – to remove confusing variants, and cut waiting times.

Last year there was a big step forward: the removal of peak and weekend City Loop variations on the Sandringham, Frankston, Werribee/Williamstown lines, as well as the Cranbourne/Pakenham line now running consistently in one direction through the Loop.

Cranbourne/Pakenham oddly will be gaining a weekday off-peak stop at Malvern later this month. Presumably it’s for shoppers going to Glenferrie Road, but introduces a stopping variation where one didn’t exist.

The Sandringham line is probably the easiest to understand. All trains stop all stations, apart from one single express train (PM counterpeak) which is probably to get a train into position for another run.

Other than that, and a couple of inbound peak services that originate at Middle Brighton, it’s all there-and-back, all day, every day. No Direct vs City Loop with its change of direction. Very easy to understand.

Lilydale express train departing Richmond

What’s the most complex? I’d nominate the Belgrave/Lilydale line.

Loop direction varies according to time of day. Some trains run direct, not via the Loop.

Most trains run all the way, but others (especially during peak) terminate or originate at Blackburn, Ringwood, Mooroolbark, Upper Ferntree Gully – as well as branching off to Alamein.

In the evenings there are shuttle services bouncing between Ringwood, Belgrave and Lilydale, interspersed with through services to/from the City. This means at times you can get a through train, but to minimise your travel time you can sometimes change at Ringwood.

But what’s really confusing is the stopping patterns on the main part of the line. Here’s what we have on weekday afternoons, outbound only, between Richmond and Ringwood:

East RichmondSS
East CamberwellSSSS
Surrey HillsSSSSSSS
Mont AlbertSSSS
S=Stops at this station
Pattern 13 goes to Alamein

That’s a staggering 13 variations between 19 stations within a 6 hour period each weekday.

As far as I can see, pattern 8 is only used once a day. Pattern 10 is used once in PM peak, but also occurs once in the morning.

(And apologies if I’ve made any errors here. It’s complicated – and I’m no Neville Shunt.)

Trains near Camberwell

Stopping patterns are the bus route reform of the railways. Over decades things have been prodded and poked and tweaked, and now they’re a mess and need to be simplified again, but nobody wants to do it for fear of political flak. Witness how long it took to get the Frankston trains out of the Loop.

But if we’re going to have a public transport system that has broad appeal to everyone, not just those who understand its quirks, then it’s got to be simpler so that new users don’t have to work impossibly hard just to understand it.

Train timetables, just like bus routes, need to be as uniform as possible. It’s not the only thing that needs fixing, but it definitely helps.

Complex stopping patterns can also mean excessive use of express trains, resulting in a longer wait for people at some stations – just ask the people between East Camberwell and Mont Albert, who have up to 18 minutes between trains in peak hour, almost double the waiting time of weekends.

Simplification plus higher frequency helps achieve a “turn up and go” timetable, making a train service that’s far easier and more convenient to use.

From what I’ve heard, there is a timetable rewrite for this line in the works, likely to take effect when Surrey Hills and Mont Albert stations are combined as part of the level crossing works. Let’s hope they genuinely try to simplify things.

  • As mentioned above, bus route reform is also very important. Peter at the Melbourne On Transit blog is posting some great, detailed proposals for bus route reform in Melbourne.
  • Although the Belgrave/Lilydale line has over a dozen stopping patterns, V/Line’s Geelong line has even more, with 16 inbound patterns before 10am each weekday.

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 “Melbourne’s most confusing train timetable”

There’s been many times when I’ve missed my stop along the line simply because an express train showed up when I was expecting a stopping all stations train thanks to train delays.

Confusion should be somewhat less, with information being provided. Namely, having passenger information displays at railway stations of which list every stop of which the train is going to use.

In some cases, knowing that about the next one or two trains after that, could also be handy to have and know about.

Having said that, do we really need to have that many stopping patterns through Camberwell?

We really do not need Belgrave/Lilydale trains stop at East Richmond, and I am all for them running express to Box Hill all day long, with Blackburn shorts being all day, every day too.

As for Dandenong corridor trains now stopping at Malvern, I fail to see how this is an improvement to services. Having Gippsland trains stop at Oakliegh for Chadestone, and Narre Warren for Fountain Gate, that would be a major step forward. But, Malvern?????

Tranzit Jim, many Malvern Depot tram drivers will appreciate Pak/Cran trains stopping a Malvern. I’ve looked at some of their journey times when catching a Frankston train to Caulfield and change to those outer lines and the results were not good.

The part you left out, which makes it all less confusing, is that in these peak times all stations box hill inward are running 3 platforms – 1 stopping all stations, 1 the express variations, and 1 trains going against the peak. It’s usually a 5-15 minute wait between stopping all stations services, which is much more often than other lines, and is 5-10 minutes between different express services, which service the most popular stations

Perhaps the reason for inter-peak Pakenham/Cranbourne trains, as well as the peak expresses from Frankston, stopping at Malvern is that it’s easier (but only slightly) to change platforms at Malvern than at Caulfield?.
And/or, is someone thinking long-term, and it’s a “trial” for what might occur when the Airport trains start?

Ultimately it’s a lot easier if there are only a small number of variations. For many lines it’s easy to see if the train is Stopping All Stations or Limited Express, and if it’s the latter, when it’s consistent, any regular will know which stations it’ll stop at and which it won’t.

The current Ringwood line timetables mean that for many people it’s basically essential to check and double-check you’re getting on the right train.

@gxh, note the Frankston expresses don’t stop at Malvern outbound in the PM peak!

Meanwhile at night, outbound trains running through Burnley are still timetabled at a ridiculous 5/25 minute frequency, with East Richmond passengers expected to change at Burnley for services towards Ringwood. The bare minimum effort to stop Ringwood trains at East Richmond would allow a 15 minute frequency to Burnley, and make it a lot more feasible for city loop passengers to transfer at Richmond for a South Yarra-bound service.

As Malvern is my local station I wholeheartedly welcome the extra options – though recognise probably a bit strange. Like you say Daniel, the Frankston express outbound PM does not stop at Malvern, that would make things incredibly convenient for me, but no reason for it to stop as its not a huge wait these days for a stopping all to Moorabbin (? I think)

What about, when the Melbourne Metro tunnel opens?

Will Pakenham/Cranbourne line trains need to stop all stations, to give locals that extra option?

Well I think introducing the Malvern stop for Pakenham/Cranbourne trains is a major improvement. This used to be possible and I used to catch the train from Hughesdale to Malvern very frequently. When that stop was removed I had to get off at Caulfield, exit the middle platform (no easy feat with the gates where they are on the middle platform) and catch the Frankston line train. All of this adding anywhere from 5 minutes (if you are lucky) to 20 if you are not. Many times I thought I’d be better off walking instead, but its just a bit further than quick stroll. It’s not just the Glenferrie Rd shops that this opens up access to, but also High St shops and Cabrini Hospital, as well as quite a few large secondary schools. Also, it links up with the Glenferrie Rd tram which links up into Hawthorn, Kew and Camberwell etc. The ability to get to some of these suburbs without going into Richmond and out again is really valuable.

I wish there were more up expresses through the underused middle suburbs at night, but that would require (shock horror) More Trains More Often™ instead of two trains per hour. If you see more than two people get on a Flinders Street train at either Laburnum, Mont Albert, Surrey Hills, Chatham, Canterbury, or East Camberwell after 10PM, buy a TattsLotto ticket. Most of the time the only signs of life between Box Hill and Camberwell are PSOs and pigeons. Auburn and Hawthorn are also 50/50, with the entire station either being completely devoid of passengers or two to five people at the most.

The one which takes the cake for the most confusing stopping pattern is the 8PM up express from Belgrave. It gets to Ringwood at 8:32, then runs express to Blackburn (the only up train which does this), Box Hill and Camberwell, then inexplicably stops all stations except East Richmond after that. Most up expresses are all stations to Box Hill, then express to Camberwell, Glenferrie (not always) and Richmond, with the odd train also stopping at Surrey Hills. Annoyingly, an up Lilydale stopper is timetabled at Ringwood just two minutes after the express, leaving no way to transfer between the stopper and the express, unless of course the express is late and/or both trains are sharing the island platform with the doors open (occasionally I’ve seen drivers changing between trains though). Miss both and there’s a 30 minute wait for the 9:04 as the up Lilydale is the last frequent train for the day. That particular up Lilydale also used to be a 3-carriage train until recently, as did several of the down Ringwood “filler” trains from the city. It took a decade for Metro to understand that trains should not be standing room only at Flinders Street and crush-loaded by Southern Cross at 10PM, never mind the City Loop stations and Richmond. Speaking of those Ringwood trains, if you need to go further east, you’ve got a 15 minute wait at the station for the next train from Flinders Street, as no shuttle is provided.

On the weekend and the umpteen public holidays Melbourne has, the stopping pattern is simple. All stations except East Richmond, meaning that it takes an hour to get to and from the city from what used to be called Zone 3. Night Network goes one step further and stops at East Richmond too, covering the service gap when the little A class trams on the 70 and 78 are in bed asleep.

@Heihachi_73 – the oddball 3-car trains to Lilydale and Ringwood were to get an ‘odd’ number of trains into place at the stabling yards, because the sidings were a bit longer than a multiple of 6-car sets, so they could squeeze in a 3-car set on the end.

They need to quadruplicate the line from Burnley to Blackburn or Ringwood, signalled with the fast tracks on the outside and the stopping tracks on the inside. This simplifies construction as there are no new platforms that need to be built (although Laburnum station would need to be reconfigured as a single island platform). All of the grade separations should have been designed with this in mind.

With four tracks we can easily operate a tiered service, with all stops trains to Blackburn and Ringwood, and expresses to Belgrave and Lilydale that only stop at Richmond, Camberwell, Box Hill and Blackburn. Alamein lines could operate as a shuttle outside the peak, and stop at all stations. This reduces the stopping patterns from 13 to 2 or 3, and these could be run with a clock face schedule at every 15 minutes, doubling in the peak.

A few years back now, I lived a stone’s throw from the Hawthorn station and worked in the CBD and West Footscray. The service frequency during evening peak was awful, with two trains 2 minutes apart, then a 20 minute space between them. Walking from glenferrie was possible, and often as quick as waiting for the next “all stations”, but that assumes the train actually stops there and doesn’t run express to camberwell.

The most absurd thing is evening peak services to ringwood and Alemein origninate at Flinders Street, while the rest travel through the loop. When you are in the loop stations, this is beyond confusing “why are *all* these services running express”?! I wonders how many people end up waiting an hour in Melbourne Central during peak, as I did during my first week of work?

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