A big V/Line fare cut is coming up next week, and it may see a rapid surge in passengers.
Labor promised the change during the 2022 election, and it starts on 31st of March. The cap will be:
- $9.20/day (adult, weekdays)
- $6.70/day (adult, weekends and public holidays)
- Half that amount for concession
- For Passes, the same as Zone 1+2 Myki Passes
This is slightly different from metropolitan Myki fares in that it’s a daily cap, not a $4.60 one way fare maximum.
In other words, the maximum one way fare will be $9.20 – though there are some exceptions for services running outside Victoria to places like Canberra. In those cases, you’ll pay more if travelling more than 60km outside Victoria.
How much is the discount?
In one of the most expensive cases, the $46 Swan Hill to Melbourne fare will be $9.20 one way, a cut of 80%.
If you decided to come back the same day (perhaps unlikely given it’s a 4.5 hour trip each way, and there aren’t many services) then you’d pay no extra – a total of $9.20 for what currently costs $92, or a 90% cut.
A more common trip might be Geelong to Melbourne return. This is currently $27.60 return in peak. It’ll drop to $9.20 return, or 67% cheaper.
An off-peak return is currently $19.32. On a weekday it’ll be $9.20 (52% cheaper). On a weekend it’ll be $6.70 (65% cheaper).
The fare cut seems to put paid to the idea that the ticketing system needs complex rules to track hundreds of zone combinations.
And – apart from weekends being cheaper than weekdays – the change also ends the distinction between V/Line’s peak and off-peak fares.
Peak and off-peak was part of managing demand. Peak usage is still down on 2019 levels – against off-peak being more-or-less back to “normal”. So perhaps it isn’t important anymore. Which brings me to…
The obvious question is: if the fares get much cheaper, how many more people will travel?
Given the higher cost of peak at present, it may prompt more people to travel at peak times when services are more frequent/convenient. Right now the system can probably cope with some extra peak passengers, given numbers are still down compared to pre-COVID. (As on other modes, Mondays and Friday patronage is still lower than Tuesday to Thursday.)
I suspect though that the patronage increase will be higher at other times, as recreational/discretionary travel grows. Interpeak, evening and weekend travel might increase the most. And patronage at those times is mostly back at pre-COVID levels.
Are more services planned?
The good news is that if most of the increased demand is outside peak times, there’s plenty of carriages and track capacity to run more and longer trains… at least in theory. But will they run more services?
Some. Another part of Labor’s election pledges was more services on the Geelong and Ballarat lines. But these aren’t expected to start until next year.
It’s worth noting that carriages aren’t necessarily available while they’re not in service. I’m told a lot of carriages are in maintenance on the weekends – meaning more investment in maintenance capability is needed from government.
I’m not sure the same is true between the peaks on weekdays, given the number of trains often parked at Southern Cross during the day.
What can V/Line do?
From chatting to V/Line management, they are only too aware of the fare cut’s potential impact on their services.
They’ll be trying to ensure that all their services run as planned, including the number of carriages as scheduled.
The VLocity fleet normally runs as 3 or 6 cars. When a 6 car set is scheduled, but only 3 turn up, you predictably get crowding:
(You can see what is meant to run in the Network Service Plan aka Working Timetable.)
Shorter than expected trains are usually due to faults and animal strikes.
But they’ve also got short trains scheduled in the timetable. The Seymour line often has 2-car trains for instance, which are often already full, and unlikely to cope with much growth.
So really they need government investment to improve the availability of carriages – allowing more consistent running of longer, and more services.
Running more services requires more drivers, conductors, fuel and maintenance staff, again meaning government has to provide the funding.
And you can’t wave a magic wand and instantly get fully qualified staff. It all takes time.
It’s interesting to compare with events 15 years ago on the suburban rail network. At that time, Connex ran a lot of short trains outside peak times.
There was strong 7-day patronage growth around this time, leading to crowding, and the removal of Zone 3 in 2007 and the introduction of the Weekend Saver fare in 2008 helped push that along.
As it turned out, nothing gets funding for rail upgrades like crowding. I get the strong sense that history is about to repeat itself.
Coach services will also be something to watch, with some reports already of strong patronage ahead of the fare cut.
Fare cuts are good, especially given the anomalies in the old fare structure. And more people using public transport is good. But only if the system can cope with it.
If an influx of passengers crowds out some people, and in the medium term puts people off using the service… that’s not so good. It’s a missed opportunity to win those passengers.
Brace yourselves, V/Line users. The next few months may be rocky.
And if you see problems, be sure to snap a photo on your phone and post it on social media, or failing that, send it to me!
- The Age 16/2/2023: V/Line to take you anywhere for $9.20. But will it get you a seat?
- North Central Review 14/3/2023 – focusses on crowding on the Seymour line