Dandenong line debacle

After almost a month of major works, including bus replacements for trains between the City and Dandenong and Moorabbin, trains returned to the Frankston and Dandenong (Cranbourne/Pakenham) lines on Saturday 28th January.

The works included rationalisation of the junction at Caulfield, points installed near the Metro tunnel eastern portal in South Yarra, and a lot of new signalling equipment installed.

Declan Martin has a good Twitter thread about the various changes.

There’s some controversy around the junction rationalisation, which removes connections between the Frankston and Dandenong tracks at Caulfield. It doesn’t really untangle things as the government claimed because they were not normally used, but it probably is important for the new in-cab signalling, and may improve speed and reliability. Hopefully the loss of operational flexibility doesn’t come back to bite them.

Anyway, almost immediately after the trains returned on the Saturday, a fault in the new signalling equipment caused disruptions.

This took some hours to resolve, but it wasn’t the end of it. They stopped trains again overnight on Saturday to do “urgent works“.

Surprise service cuts

Then on Sunday morning, they announced that there’d be a peak hour service cut from Monday… for an undefined period, for unspecified Metro tunnel works.

About the same time, the government was out talking about the completion of works and promoting Melbourne’s first use of Platform Screen Doors… but apparently mentioned not a word about the service cuts.

The cuts had obviously been organised in a hurry. The online timetables (normally updated on Thursday nights) aren’t showing the changes.

Leaving aside the lack of transparency around the reasons, and the unknown end date, it quickly became apparent that the claimed “every 6 to 7 minutes” was hopelessly optimistic.

Instead, what we saw on Monday was mass cancellations, with some big gaps in the peak hour service.

I was sent this photo of crowding on Tuesday morning. My correspondent said the gap between peak trains wasn’t 6-7 minutes… more like 10-15 at times – nowhere near enough to cope with demand.

Dandenong line crowding, AM peak 31/1/2023
Tuesday morning AM peak. Photo supplied by a passenger

And while the interpeak period was largely okay, the post-PM-peak evening service was slashed, with long gaps of 30-40 minutes.

Taking a look for myself at Caulfield during Tuesday evening peak, it was a mess, made worse by a defective train. Some passengers were reaching Caulfield on Frankston line trains, but then unable to board the Dandenong line trains when they eventually came through.

But watching this play out… it felt like 2019 again, when peak hour patronage was much higher, and uneven frequencies made crowding worse.

To their credit, Metro did deploy some standby buses at Caulfield, running all stops to Westall, and repeatedly announced them to passengers, some of who took that option.

Spontaneous use of buses in evening peak from somewhere like Caulfield is probably fairly straightforward because you’re likely to have large numbers of people waiting at one location. It’d be much more difficult in morning peak to anticipate crowding and delays and deploy them to multiple locations, letting people know they’re available. Hopefully they’ve thought about strategies for this.

Dandenong line crowded platform at Caulfield, PM peak 31/1/2023

What’s causing the disruptions?

So what’s the cause of all this? It’s clearly related to the latest upgrades.

Unconfirmed rumours point to commissioning problems with the new signalling, and some safeworking being done by hand, limiting train throughput until they resolve it. This seems plausible.

Additional info: I’ve been told it’s related to the train control, specifically when trains are handed over between old and new sections. A manual process has to be done currently, limiting them to about 9-10 trains per hour.

They don’t seem to know how long it’ll take to resolve, but they really should be as open as possible about it.

Perhaps during peak, they should be more proactive about running buses for the stations close to Caulfield, to reduce crowding on the trains.

Preferably there should be an actual reduced frequency timetable to ensure even gaps between trains, not just semi-random cancellations in the existing one. But this might be difficult.

And they should definitely try harder to prevent cancellations outside peak, to minimise long waiting times.

As it is, it’s pretty embarrassing that what should have been a welcome upgrade has gone so badly wrong.

Update 22/2/2023: It seems like in the last week or two the problem has been resolved, but they still seem to be having hiccups (at least that’s what I assume this is):

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.

19 replies on “Dandenong line debacle”

I read the reasons here first and certainly not anywhere official where the information should be available. I am reassured by the knowledge that behind the scenes, staff will be making huge efforts to ensure things work, effectual or not. Now, did highly paid managers have clear plans in place to deal with such a disruption?

Have they decommissioned the older fixed-block signalling before the new in-cab signalling was ready? We were told previously that freight trains and (I think) Vline would continue to use fixed-block signalling, but with a lower throughput capacity. If it has been decommissioned, it seems like a stupid decision, because there would be times when freight locomotives or Vline trains won’t have working in-cab signalling. While there may be a pool of locomotives and Vlocities dedicated to the Dandenong line with in-cab signalling, sometimes these may not be available and a substitute is required. It also means that no other suburban train types would be able to use the line other than the specially equipped HCMT’s. What if the HCMT’s develop a problem like the weld issues on one of Sydney’s light rail lines, and the entire fleet has to be withdrawn, leaving Melbourne’s busiest rail corridor without trains?

Just came back from Singapore. A world class system with many of the frequent, on time, clean trains being driverless.
Screens on all platforms. Efficient service, low cost, zero rubbish or graffiti. What have we got in Melbourne after nearly 20 years of ALP Government? We are so far behind it’s embarrassing.

@Malcolm M. The new signalling system is designed to handle both CBTC equipped and non CBTC equipped trains.

Why can’t I help but suspect that the problem likely arose because some brain-dead econocrat in Treasury and Finance was too stupid / tight-arsed to shell out for some redundancy and just assumed that everything would work perfectly from day one? It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.

CBTC is not being used at present. Existing fixed block conventional signalling is still being used until mid year. Several issues with were identified after commissioning but at present it’s mainly around train numbering as it passes from the ‘new’ system to the existing system. On another note the system that was removed from Caulfield to Clayton was newer than the signalling that has now been installed(technology wise). And the rationalisation of the corridor is to isolate the lines for easier franchising in the future where Sunbury to Pakenham can be franchised off as a seperate business.

“And the rationalisation of the corridor is to isolate the lines for easier franchising in the future where Sunbury to Pakenham can be franchised off as a seperate business.”
I doubt that very much. Nobody in their right mind thinks we ought to go back to the days of Connex vs M>Train.

@Michael Tandora, you may not believe this to be true but this has been touted ever since Metro took over. There are indications everywhere, the rationalisation of Caulfield and South Kensington, the removal of the metro name on new livery on trains etc. to name a couple.

Who’s touted it? I get no sense whatsoever that anyone in government is seriously considering it.

I don’t think the network will be split again. Even though Metro doesn’t appear on the front of the trains anymore (at least with the Xtrapolis and HCMT), it still appears on the trains, but in a different position. The trams don’t have Yarra Trams in large writing on the front, but has it in a different position, that doesn’t mean it will be split up. So I am not sure where you got the information from.

And the split of the tram and train networks was the worst idea any government has ever done, so I doubt it will be repeated.

The minimisation of the operators name is not limited to Metro. This is standard when a vehicle needs new livery, PTV is the umbrella and this is the predominant branding. Refreshed busses have had the operators logo removed, E class trams have a small YT logo and you won’t find them on stop signage.

The ‘Metro’ name is also owned by the government. Metro Trains Melbourne (MTM) is the operators name.

I’m not sure if you were around during the National Express and Conexx debacle, no one of government is contemplating going back.

“Splitting the network”, as in different operators? Maybe not, but it’s possible to have a lot of operational separation without going to that extent – which seems to be what’s occurring.

There have been rumours about moving back to multiple operators for years now, but I’ve seen no actual evidence that the government is planning that. Yes, they have been looking at more distinct line groups – much the same as on many big metropolitan rail systems.

(SRL of course is a different matter, given that will be a completely separate line with different technology.)

Junction rationalisation is partly prompted by the signalling upgrades done or coming to the Sunbury and Dandenong lines, but not the Newport and Frankston lines.

As Lockie notes, operator names on all modes have been de-emphasised in the latest liveries and stop flag designs.

I actually like rationalisation but not from a redundancy perspective but more on the reliability/efficiency side of things.

Firstly, the speeds through Caulfield can now be increased other than over the subway, which will shave a minute or two in updated timetables.

Secondly, I think all lines should be segregated as to not impact other lines during disruptions and also being able to boost frequencies with independent line running rather than sharing tracks/junctions between multiple lines (ie city loop Burnley, Northern, Clifton Hill tunnels).

Finally, has anyone thought that by rationalising, you can increase the overhead power? I’ve heard that the HCMTs are struggling at 1.5 kV DC and that they are designed as dual voltage and that the OHLE will eventually increase to 3 kV DC. Personally I would have preferred 25 kV AC especially if VLine were to run electric trains 50+ years from now on the shared Dandenong tracks

AV, totally agree. There’s a reason why Sydney did the long series of works known as Clearways, and even then, there are still places where segregation of different groups weren’t completely achieved, which can cause big problems with delays spreading onto other lines, as what has been happening over the last few years under severe weather. Segregation of different routes isn’t the problem, just lack of contingency planning or preparation, and lack of substantial and thorough notice for possible disruption.

I have been catching the train from the city to Dandenong and back (and some days Pakenham) for the past week. I used to rely on the PTV app which was always spot on. This week it has not reflected actuality. Long delays, Saturday had to wait 40 minutes for a train to come back

@Janey – travelling on the Frankston line middle of the day on Saturday, everything seemed to have come to a halt on the Pakenham/Cranbourne lines. Signals all at red, trains stationary…..not sure what was happening (or not happening).

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