Regional Rail Link to skip Sunshine station?

As part of the Regional Rail Link project, platforms were built on the new tracks at just two stations: Footscray and Sunshine. With an inconvenient interchange at Footscray and no platforms at North Melbourne, Sunshine is the stand out station for passenger convenience.

VLocity VL16 passes through Sunshine on the up

Citybound V/Line services stop at platform 3, where it is just a short walk up the stairs to the overhead concourse, then back down to platform 1 for a City Loop services – with no need to exit the paid area.

Alstom Comeng arrives into Sunshine with an up Sunbury service

However the number of V/Line passengers able to use Sunshine station is small, due to the limited number of services that stop there.

The vast majority of Ballarat line services stop there to drop off inbound passengers who want to change for a suburban train at Sunshine, and pick up outbound passengers for the country.

V/Line Ballarat line timetable - October 2014

However the current Bendigo line timetable doesn’t have any stops at Sunshine – V/Line passengers need to change trains at either Footscray or Sunbury.

V/Line Bendigo line timetable - October 2014

For the purposes of comparison, the current Geelong line timetable has three stops in the suburban area – Footscray, Newport and Werribee.

V/Line Geelong line timetable - October 2014

So should all V/Line non-express services stop at Sunshine? From an interchange perspective, I say the answer should be yes – as the meeting point of all three V/Line routes that use Regional Rail Link, changing trains at Sunshine will save passengers at least 15 minutes compared to changing at Footscray, and even more time compared to changing at Southern Cross. In addition, Sunshine is also a major station on the suburban services towards Sunbury, saving country passengers the ~15 minute trip into Footscray, just to catch the train back out from the city.

Finally, Sunshine has been designated as one of nine ‘Metropolitan Activity Centres’ in the Plan Melbourne metropolitan planning strategy released in May 2014 – the same designation as Footscray.

Plan Melbourne: Metropolitan Activity Centres fact sheet, May 2014

Sunshine was also designated as one of 25 ‘Principal Activity Centres’ in the now-defunct Melbourne 2030 planning strategy released in October 2002.

With Geelong trains due to start using the new Regional Rail Link tracks via the back of Werribee from mid-2015, it would seem like a sick joke if passengers boarding V/Line services from the new stations of Tarneit and Wyndham Vale have to travel all the way into Footscray just to catch a suburban train back out to Sunshine!

Refreshing Melbourne’s ‘Bumblebee’ trams

Back in 2008 Melbourne’s tram network was overflowing with passengers, so Yarra Trams turned to a different tactic to address it – they imported five secondhand trams from France to expand their fleet.

C2.5103 'Bumblebee 3' on route 96 westbound on Bourke Street at Swanston

Known as the ‘C2′ class trams in Melbourne, these five-section Alstom Citadis 302 trams were originally built for the French city of Mulhouse, but were surplus to their requirements. Yarra Trams originally leased the trams for four years at a cost of $9 million, until were purchased by the State Government in 2012.

In the years since, the harsh Australian sun started to fare the special ‘Bumblebee’ livery.

Faded 'Bumblebee 2' stickers on C2.5113 (originally named 'Ungersheim' at home in Mulhouse)

Vandals scratched the windows to within a inch of their lives, making the glass look more frosted than clear.

'Bumblebee 2' stickers removed from one end of C2.5113

The decals on the site also became tattered following repeated graffiti attacks.

Tattered remains of 'Bumblebee 4' decals on the side of tram C2.5106

Five years old and falling apart - faded 'Bumblebee' decals on a C2 class tram

Finally in July 2014, something was done about the decrepit look of the ‘Bumblebee’ trams when Public Transport Victoria started to roll out their livery to the fleet of five.

C2.5113 heads east on route 96 at the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Street

In a nice touch, the ‘Bumblebee’ name has been retained at each end.

'Bumblebee 1' decal on PTV-liveried tram C2.5123

When repainting things Public Transport Victoria walks a fine line between polishing turds and keeping things fit for purpose – at least this time the work wasn’t an attempt to distract the public.

Change at Footscray for the City Loop?

With no platforms for the Regional Rail Link tracks at North Melbourne, V/Line trains no longer stop at the station, forcing passengers for the City Loop to change trains at Footscray instead. So how much harder is this transfer for commuters?

Siemens 747M arrives into Footscray with a City Loop bound service

With the current setup at Footscray, each set of platforms is in effect a separate railway station, with passengers often having to touch off, head across the bridge, and then touch on again in order to change trains.

Citybound V/Line services arrive at Footscray platform 3.

Citybound VLocity 3VL20 arrives at Footscray platform 3

Passengers for the City Loop have to leave the train here.

Passengers depart a V/Line service at Footscray, so they can change to a City Loop service

Then head up the stairs, escalators, ramp or lift to the overhead concourse.

V/Line passengers climb one flight of stairs at Footscray for their City Loop service

At the top they find a set of ticket gates, where these is a queue to touch off.

Now a set of ticket gates at Footscray for V/Line passengers changing to City Loop services

Once outside the paid area, it is time to head down to street level.

V/Line passengers have to head downstairs at Footscray for City Loop services

At the bottom, you want to make a right.

Changing trains at Footscray - head down the escalator, and down to the street

That will lead you toward the entrance to platform 1.

Changing trains at Footscray - now down the ramp for platform 1

Note the entrance isn’t anywhere near the footbridge.

Changing trains at Footscray - keep going down the ramp for platform 1

Now it is time to line up again, this time to touch on.

Changing to a City Loop service at Footscray, and you have to touch on again

And once you get inside the ticket gates you’ll finally find out when the next City Loop train is due to arrive.

Changing trains at Footscray - one train was cancelled, so you'll have to wait 9 minutes for the next one!

Note that on the day I visited, the next City Loop train ex-Sunbury had been cancelled, leaving passengers a 9 minute wait for the next one!

No wonder that Commuters from Bendigo say the “upgrades” have made their commuter take longer:

Castlemaine’s Bernadette Ervin said she had been using the same service once a week for about four years, but started driving when the Regional Rail Link work began.

“There’s no real advantage for me catching the train anymore,” she said.

“It’s much easier for me to get in the car, even as one person – which I am philosophically opposed to – than deal with the stress of my train commute now.

“It used to be quite a convenient service but it’s not now. It’s maximum inconvenience for regional commuters.”

She said having to change trains at Footscray rather than North Melbourne meant she had to “run like mad” to catch the next connecting train to get to work on time.

“What happens is you arrive at Footscray and you get spat out of the station and then have to get back in to the station,” she said.

“Then you miss your connecting train and have to get the later train, so it’s about a 10 minute delay.”

That’s progress for you!

Footnote

At Footscray station passengers can only change between platforms 2 and 3, and platforms 4 and 5 without leaving the paid area. Any other transfer requires passengers to touch off, head across the bridge, and then touch on again.

In the case of passengers heading from platform 3 to platform 1, there is room to add a staircase linking platform 1 to the ‘paid’ side of the overhead footbridge, which would make things much easier for V/Line passengers changing for the City Loop.

Passengers make their way to platform 1 at Footscray station

Linking platform 4, 5 and 6 into the same paid area would require a little more work, as the existing footbridge might have to be widened to allow for separate ‘paid’ and ‘unpaid’ passages.

They cover over the top of the new Footscray footbridge, but use perforated panels that left water through?

Unfortunately for Victorian commuters, bottlenecks at station entrances and interchanges seem par for the course – we can only hope for the improvements suggested above!

Melway still beats Google Maps?

The other day the publishers of Melbourne’s Melway street directory boasted that their maps were more up to date than Google Maps. It reminded me of an experience I had the other month.

I had spent a morning near Footscray station, waiting to photograph a steam train headed from Newport to Castlemaine.

D3 639 heads towards Southern Cross at Footscray, using the Werribee suburban tracks

My vantage point was in the middle of a public park, but I didn’t know the name of it.

Looking towards the city from Fordham Reserve

I plugged ‘Footscray’ in Google Maps, scrolled around a bit, and ended up with this map – no dice!

Footscray's Fordham Reserve on Google Maps

I then headed over to street-directory.com.au, which uses Melway maps, and found my answer.

Footscray's Fordham Reserve on a Melway map

Turns out Fordham Reserve is the park I had been standing in.

The plot thickens

On closer inspection, in the above example the Melway map is actually out of date – the connection from Whitehall Street into Neilson Place was severed back in December 2011 when Regional Rail Link works commenced through Footscray, yet it is still shown as a through road.

North end of Neilson Place blocked off for RRL construction

I believe that street-directory.com.au still uses Melway maps dating back to 2010, which might explain the discrepancy.

Footnote

The Regional Rail Link Authority is part way through reinstating the Fordham Reserve, as during the construction of the two additional tracks through Footscray, the entire area was a work site.

Widening the north side of the cutting at Wightman Street

Regional Rail Link platforms and North Melbourne

As part of the construction of Regional Rail Link, V/Line trains that once stopped at North Melbourne now bypass the station, forcing passengers to change trains elsewhere. So why was the stop removed?

VLocity VL04 leads a down Geelong train past North Melbourne station on the RRL tracks

The reason was the separation of V/Line trains from the existing suburban tracks, removing the delays that used to occur when country trains headed into and out of Southern Cross Station. The new track layout has two routes.

The first one leads towards Southern Cross platform 15 and 16, with two tracks running along the western side of North Melbourne station then south over Dudley Street.

VLocity 3VL27 on an up Geelong train passes North Melbourne on the RRL tracks

Meanwhile a second track pair lead to Southern Cross platforms 1 through 8. Once only used by the interstate trains to/from Adelaide and Sydney, these tracks skirt the railway sidings west of North Melbourne station.

P15 trails a push-pull H set bound for Southern Cross, climbing to the North Melbourne flyover on the new RRL tracks

Then pass over the top of the suburban tracks via an upgraded flyover.

Outbound V/Line service crosses the North Melbourne flyover, as a pair of suburban trains pass beneath

Which brings them down onto the eastern side of the railway corridor, which leads directly to the country platforms at Southern Cross.

VLocity VL08 and classmate arrive at Southern Cross on the rearranged lead to the station

The Regional Rail Link Authority has the following to say about the removal of the North Melbourne stop.

Q: How do regional passengers connect to North Melbourne railway station, the Route 401 bus and City Loop services?

A: Regional passengers have two options to connect to metropolitan trains and other transport modes; they can either continue to change at Southern Cross Station or change at Footscray railway station.

Regional passengers wishing to use the Route 401 bus can change at Footscray railway station for high frequency trains to North Melbourne railway station.

Regional passengers travelling directly to Southern Cross Station can connect to metropolitan trains operating through the City Loop.

The above doesn’t help much for existing commuters, who have to traipse around Footscray station to change trains.

So why were platforms not built on the new Regional Rail Link tracks?

In the case of the tracks that lead to Southern Cross platforms 15 and 16, there is plenty of room for new platforms to be built at North Melbourne.

Big gap between North Melbourne platform 6 and the new RRL tracks to Southern Cross platforms 15 and 16

Platform 6 at North Melbourne currently only has tracks along one side, so it would be easy enough to bring the citybound RRL tracks onto the other side as ‘platform 7′, and then build a new ‘platform 8′ for outbound tracks, with passenger access being provided via an extension of the existing concourse at the north and south ends of the station.

A more complicated problem to solve is platforms on the tracks leading to Southern Cross platforms 1 through 8 – the RRL tracks are about a hundred metres west of the existing North Melbourne station and separated from it by a number of existing railway sidings.

Push-pull service climbs towards the North Melbourne flyover, with a stabled Comeng train in the yard below

The tracks also split into a ‘V’ shape once they leave the flyover, with one leg of the tracks leading towards the main railway to Adelaide and Sydney (right hand side in the photo below), while the other carries V/Line trains towards Footscray.

VLocity heads for Southern Cross on the new RRL tracks, as a push-pull H set descends the North Melbourne flyover

Building platforms on the flyover, on a curve and atop the suburban tracks, would be a difficult operation.

N458 leads a down Intercity service over the North Melbourne flyover

As would be linking the new platforms to the existing station concourse – a long walk would be required, as well as a number of changes in elevation to dodge the existing tracks.

In the end I reckon the omission of platforms came down to finances – back in 2011 cost increases put the entire project in jeopardy, so presumably something had to give.

At least building platforms 7 and 8 at North Melbourne to serve trains headed for Southern Cross platforms 15 and 16 would have been an achievable project. However the usefulness of them would have been doubtful – V/Line appears to be incapable of making their trains use the same platform at Southern Cross each day, so it would be pot luck for passengers whether they would be able to count on the North Melbourne stop for their everyday commute.

Footnote

Another possible way to provide a North Melbourne stop for all V/Line trains would have been to build four new RRL platforms immediately west of the existing station. Two of the tracks would lead into Southern Cross platform 15 and 16 as per the current arrangement, while the other two would continue south a short distance, and then cross over the suburban tracks via a new flyover, reaching ground level just before the La Trobe Street bridge.

Looking towards North Melbourne: West and East Bypass Track, then the up and down RRL lines

Given the number of tracks already in place between North Melbourne and Southern Cross, I hate to think of how much disruption building said flyover would require!