Services when the Metro tunnel opens

Some good coverage in The Age today of suburban train frequencies.

It’s important to boost off-peak frequencies because:

  • off-peak patronage has recovered faster than peak, and has potential to grow further if not constrained
  • there’s spare fleet and track capacity. Extra services are cheaper using those than when more needs to be built first
  • waiting times often are far too long to attract people out of cars
  • overall travel demand is considerable – just look at the roads – and PT is mostly doing a terrible job at serving most of it

The big hope is that the Metro tunnel will finally bring some relief. The project is edging forward. Hopefully the problems seen a few weeks ago are not a portent of things to come.

I thought it might be worth summarising the line changes expected when the tunnel is commissioned in 2025.

Line changes

The Sunbury line will be connected through to the Cranbourne/Pakenham line, via the tunnel.

This means those lines will no longer serve Southern Cross, Flagstaff, Parliament or North Melbourne. They’ll still serve Flinders Street (Town Hall) and Melbourne Central (State Library), plus new stations as Arden, Parkville and Anzac (formerly known as Domain).

The Frankston line will move back into the City Loop, using the freed up Caulfield Loop tunnel. Given recent signalling changes, I think we can assume it will continue to run anticlockwise permanently.

The Werribee/Williamstown lines are currently through-routed to the Frankston line… this will change to the Sandringham line instead.

Presumably this also means platform changes at Flinders Street, with Frankston taking over 6+7 (currently used by Cranbourne/Pakenham) and Sandringham/Werribee/Williamstown moving over to 8+9. Not sure about 10. They need to fit V/Line Gippsland trains in somewhere, but preferably without causing too many conflicts.

Moving the Sunbury line leaves the Northern Loop tunnel running with the Craigieburn and Upfield lines.

Playing cards on the train

What about the map?

You’d assume they will want to minimise colour changes, so I’m guessing Sunbury switches to light-blue to match Cranbourne/Pakenham, leaving yellow to Upfield/Craigieburn.

And Frankston would presumably retain green, with Werribee/Williamstown going pink to join the Sandringham line. Shame it couldn’t be a watery/Bayside colour.

Will they come up with a snappy new name for the tunnel line? I guess we’ll see. So far they haven’t for the Frankston to Werribee/Williamstown line – internally it’s known as the Cross City group, but that’s not used for public information. Perhaps that’s because it’s temporary.

Passengers arriving at Southland station, 21/4/2018

Cutting waiting times

One of the keys to making sure the metro tunnel works as intended is high frequency services at all times of day, on all lines, to ensure interchange to and from the tunnel is quick and easy.

For instance, relief for the always busy St Kilda Road/Swanston Street tram corridor won’t be achieved if the current 20-30-40 minute Sunbury frequencies were used.

I’m focussing on off-peak services, because we now know that post-pandemic travel patterns are expected in the short to medium term to show peak is still well down on pre-2020 levels, but off-peak is back to what it was.

And a key part of the deservedly-lauded “Turn Up And Go” concept is that it doesn’t just apply during peak.

The Metro Tunnel service plan document goes into some detail – and I once again note that the government has said it’s a “base case”. In any case for the lines through the tunnel it seems to have been partially superseded by the Melbourne Airport Rail business case (appendices document, page 11), so I’ll need to summarise from both documents here.

So it appears the off-peak service frequency will be 12 trains per hour through the tunnel:

Direction / DestinationTrains per hour (off-peak)
Eastbound / Pakenham3
Eastbound / Cranbourne (later Clyde)3
Eastbound / Westall6
Westbound / Sunbury3
Westbound / Watergardens3
Westbound / West Footscray or Sunshine (later Airport)6

The older document says of the other lines:

  • 6 trains per hour to Frankston, Craigieburn, Gowrie (Upfield line), Sandringham
  • No big changes noted on other lines such as the Burnley and Clifton Hill groups – these are stated as being “unaffected” in the Metro tunnel document. (There was talk of a complete timetable re-write for Burnley as a result of the Surrey Hills/Mont Albert merger project underway now, but I haven’t heard anything about this recently.)
Evoluton HCMT train arriving Murrumbeena

A good start

Burnley and Clifton Hill aside, if this is what they deliver, then it’s a good start.

12 trains per hour in the tunnel means an average wait time of about 5 minutes. Not as good as the Swanston Street trams, but higher capacity and a quicker trip if you’re going somewhere near a station.

The other key to ensuring the tunnel gets the patronage it deserves is ensuring all connecting services also have frequent services at all times.

On some lines that’ll be a train every ten minutes. Not too shabby. Sandringham, Craigieburn and Upfield upgrades will be very welcome. This is especially important on Sunday mornings, where those lines have gaps of 40 minutes, which frankly is terrible for a big city.

What about other lines? 20-30 minute weekend and evening connections aren’t great. Will they at least fix the 40 minute Sunday morning gaps on the Mernda and Hurstbridge lines?

The Metro tunnel is a chance for the government to back up their impressive infrastructure agenda with the services to make use of it.

There’s some talk of “Activating the Big Build”. Rolling out ten minute all-day frequencies on all the lines that can take it will make a huge difference to the usability of the rail network, sparking strong patronage growth, and help Melburnians see a pay-off for years of disruptions due to upgrades.

Let’s hope they take the opportunity.

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.

22 replies on “Services when the Metro tunnel opens”

I’m not one to get excited about new train stations, but I’m pretty excited to see this lot finally opening! I wonder is there going to be an underground walkway/pedestrian tunnel (from Flinders Street station to Town Hall station) and (from Melbourne Central to the State Library station) ?
Something like the now closed Degraves Street underpass with shops and community space would be nice, or better still (Shinjuku Subnade, Myeongdong Underground/Taipei City Mall /Toronto Path) with shops, cafes, restaurants.

It’s worth pointing out that 12 trains an hour actually means a *maximum* wait of five minutes, with average waits of 2-3 minutes. Incredible that something so transformative gets tucked away in an appendix to the business case. This is making really good use of the new infrastructure, especially if all other lines go to 10 minute frequencies. The question is whether the government actually commits to delivering it. Let’s hope so.

(Side note, I expect the cross-city line at Flinders St will work similarly to at present, with platforms 8 and 10 for through Sandringham-Newport trains, and platform 9 for turning back Werribee expresses.)

Re platforms at Flinders Street, it’s also possible, if not probable, that 8+9 will remain Frankston, with 6+7 used for terminating Burnley Group services i.e. Glen Waverley, Alamein and Blackburn, and 10+12 for Newport, 13 for Sandringham with occasional through-routing at 12. This would help to solve congestion in 2+3 and 4+5.

Upfield Line: Rail Network Development Plan (2012, refreshed in 2016) puts forward after Metro tunnel Opens that 6 services an hour during peak times for Upfield line may be implemented, but half will terminate at mid point (Coburg? Gowrie? It is not clear. Gowrie would need a new turnback installed) Off-peak would remain at 3 services per hour.
There is still silence on Upfield second platform (Rail Network Development Plan Stage 2 (within 10 years) – ie 2012-2022)
Silence on track duplication between Gowrie and Upfield and Somerton Link extension to Craigieburn (Stage 3 (within 15 years) – ie 2012-2027)
Silence on electrification and extension to Wallan (Stage 4 (within 20 years) – ie 2012-2032)

Meanwhile residents of Kalkallo are screaming in news reports about vehicle access to their suburb, with car dependency already well locked in, high mortgage and cost of living pressures, poor access to Donnybrook V-line Station.

City of Hume, City of Whittlesea and Mitchell Shire all have substantial residential developments that would feed people into using the Upfield extension to Wallan. These are population forecasts for next 20 years:

Kalkallo: 5,049 in 2021, forecast to be 9,624 in 2026, 13,145 in 2031, 17,369 by 2041.

Mickleham: 15,011 in 2021, forecast to be 24,486 in 2026, 34,312 in 2031, 47,670 by 2041.

Donnybrook: 2,232 in 2021, forecast to be 12,103 in 2026, 25,829 in 2031, 52,664 by 2041

Beveridge: 4,642 in 2021, Forecast for 2022 is 6,034, forecast to grow to 78,191 by 2041

Wallan: Forecast for 2022 is 16,444, forecast to grow to 49,871 by 2041.

Where is the rail transport infrastructure to match the demographic growth?

Slightly off topic, but dealing with the “here and now”: Supposedly, the Laverton/Williamstown lines are now through-routed to the Frankston line (and v/v). Except that all too often, at Flinders Street, a train is reversed, and heads back from whence it came, sometimes with only minimal announcements being made, notwithstanding that sometimes (true, not always) the signage in the train has suggested until the last minute that the train will continue on. Perhaps there are operational reasons for these events, although they’re not visible to mere observers such as myself (for example, no obvious late-running). True, maybe alert commuters can cope but especially given the frequently poor quality of announcements, last minute changes such as these hardly inspire confidence.

Please please please no fancy new names for the through routes with no destination names in them.
On a recent trip to Sydney found it really hard to find where a train was going (even with a basic understanding of Sydney suburbs) T3, T4 etc. are useless for infrequent users.

The off-peak frequencies need to be at night as well. The current half-hour frequency for Sunbury line trains just doesn’t cut it.

But interesting to see that the higher frequencies proposed under the Metro Tunnel are only for the main part of the spine (West Footscray to Westall), which creates four levels of off-peak service –
(I) past Watergardens and Dandenong, 20-minute frequency
(II) Tottenham-Watergardens and Springvale-Dandenong, 10-minute frequency
(III) Middle Footscray & West Footscray, and Carnegie-Westall, 5-minute frequency
(IV) Footscray and Caulfield, better than 5-minute frequency and/or access from more CBD stations

(Assumption here being that the inner terminus will be West Footscray rather than Sunshine since the turnback is there, currently gathering dust and rust.)

Until the Airport line opens, in which case Sunshine frequencies will go from 10 to 5 minutes. What happens for Middle Footscray, West Footscray and Tottenham depends on the stopping pattern of Airport trains – if they run express Footscray-Sunshine then arguably Middle Footscray and West Footscray could see a service degradation, if they stop all stations then Tottenham will get a frequency upgrade as well.

The technological capacity of the metro tunnel is going to be 18 trains per hour (The Age, 21/11/20) at the time of opening so glad to see they’re not going to try and saturate it immediately and stick with 12. Will be interesting to see when the Melbourne Airport Rail opens (with supposedly an additional 6 trains through the tunnel) how that substantial service uplift changes everything. It’ll be many more trains through the CBD but not as many through suburban stations.

Also, when we talk about uplifting off peak frequency to that of peak frequency, we think that we could run at peak frequency all day long just with enough drivers’ paycheques. But a lot of operational sacrifices go in to accomplishing peak hour frequencies. Many trains pre-position themselves prior to peak hour, and balances with eg interwoven V/Line services on the Packenham line have to take a back seat for half an hour or so to allow for such dense metropolitan frequency. The more infrastructure we build, the less these weaknesses and compromises have to hold back the timetable, but obviously to uplift services on an entire line, the entire line has to be capable of supporting the uplift. Therefore the frequency can only be as great as its weakest bottleneck. It just makes the roadmap for future upgrades all the more obvious!

Such is the reluctance to make any timetable changes, Alamein trains are still mostly running as shuttles during the Surrey Hills/Mont Albert works despite no Belgrave/Lilydale trains running between Camberwell and Box Hill.

Hoping to see an improvement on the Sunbury service from the now 1 service every 40 minutes most times sooner rather than later. Even without the Metro Tunnel, I thought it would be possible to just extend all terminating services in Sunbury rather than the staggered Watergardens and Sunbury right now.

I honestly feel like the Craigieburn line has been abandoned by the Labor Gov, 2 level crossings in 3 terms is pathetic.

When I first moved to Pascoe Vale 10 years ago you could get a seat in peak, now with the councils cashing in and allowing over development, it is arm pit space only just slightly lessened now due to covid lingering.

We also have a 2 tier system now, one for the rich and one for the poor.

Don’t believe me, jump on a Craigieburn line and observe the train you get and the state of the stations, once you arrive at Flinders Street jump on a Glen Waverley and let me know if it’s the same experience.

This will be made more so once the metro rail tunnel opens and the peasants are left with the original loop stations that have barely seen a drop of paint in the coming up to 40 years they’ve been open.

@johnenglart My prediction is that they won’t touch Upfield until they invariably get around to removing the level crossing there, which would probably be promised in the lead up to the 2026 State Election. This hypothetical project could involve the long awaited track duplication from Gowrie to Upfield, hopefully an extension to Roxburgh Park (and ideally a new track pair all the way to Craigieburn). It might even give us a new station at Campbellfield if we’re lucky (as the Camp Rd level crossing left provisions for this, and it may well provide a useful SRL interchange if the project ever gets that far). Infrastructure Victoria keeps recommending constructing the ‘Somerton Link’, so it should really happen sooner rather than later.
Anyway, at least they’re removing the inner level crossings on the Upfield line, which gives me hope that they have a service increase in mind!

If and when all this work is done, the line would bear striking resemblance to the Northern line in London with its split in the middle!

This all sounds quite good to me for off peak day usage.

John Englhart, why can’t trains just reverse once past Gowrie and on to the single track come back on the dual inbound track? The last carriage passes the points to the single track, the driver changes ends, the points are changed to inbound and away he/she goes back to the city.

Sandringham really should be a ten minute off peak service but Williamstown and the very busy Werribee line will only have a twenty minute service.Train passenger numbers from Williamstown may be fixed but they are growing immensely on the Werribee line.

Yes, nothing in concrete yet but all interesting to wonder about.

Bigbuild vic website states that the maximum signalling capacity of the meto tunnel line is 24tph, so a train every 2.5min. That still leaves room for 6tph from the future Melton line to be added to the current 12tph, bringing it to 18tph, every 3min, with room for an additional 6tph at peak times.
Then we’ll finally have a proper metro frequency service operating in Melbourne.
Also will we ever add numbers or letter desegregations to our lines for some extra clarity, as most other metro systems do, it can be a little confusing, especially for tourists to understand the lines. This will only become more confusing when we have services terminating at midway points.

Shouldn’t the goal really be at a minimum 4 trains per hour on all lines like in Sydney and Perth? The single track sections need to go, Sydney only has Richmond to Schofields, Perth doesn’t have any that I’m aware of.

@Kylesy, the trend in Victoria (basically the whole state) is to gradually align everything to 5/10/20/40 minute frequencies, so where different routes intersect, they’re compatible.

Yes, a lot more of the Metro network needs to be more frequent than 20 minutes!

l doubt the metro tunnel will give the light-blue line a unique name. Cross-city Group basically confirmed for me that Melbournes gonna keep their terminus based approach to naming lines, maybe w a “via Town Hall” or imo gauche “via the Metro Tunnel” on announcements/PID screens. This might change after city loop reconfiguration though.

Well, there’s our complete Burnley group timetable rewrite (feel free to add an /s or not, depending on your mood and/or political forecast). Mont Albert and Surrey Hills stations scrapped, Union station added in between with trains departing one minute later than the station it replaced (depending on direction), and an extra one-minute wait at Chatham or Box Hill to make up for running express through a nonexistent station.

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