False economies at North Melbourne Station?

Last week I looked at the frequently failing escalators at North Melbourne Station, which raises the question – what is causing them to break down so often?

3VL32 runs through North Melbourne under the new concourse

The main concourse at the city end of North Melbourne station opened to passengers in November 2009, and with it came eight brand new escalators to provide access to the six platforms beneath.

Combined with the existing ramps at the north end of the station, the new concourse provided an additional route for passengers to change platforms, as well as aiding access for the disabled by the provision of lifts to each platform. Two escalators and a lift serve each of platform 1, platform 2/3, platform 4/5 and platform 6, with additional staircases also connecting platforms 1 and 6 to the overhead concourse.

As mentioned in my previous post, I first noticed a defective escalator in October 2012, and since then I’ve seen a broken down escalator at North Melbourne at least 16 times – about once every two months.

Escalator 1A 1B 2 3 4 5 6A 6B
Failures 1 3 0 4 0 2 1 5

I have numbered the escalators 1A to 6B – east to west, based on platform number they serve.

Ever bought an escalator?

As with everything in this world, buying the right tool is important – there is no point spending thousands of dollars on something you will only use a couple of times a year, while it is also a waste of money to buy a cheap one that will break after a few hours of heavy use.

The same applies to escalators, with escalator manufacturer Thyssenkrupp dividing their range into three categories:

Commercial applications are typically installed in department stores, shopping malls and office buildings. Commercial escalators are typically designed to move thousands of people and yet look elegant.

Heavy Duty
Heavy traffic applications are typically found in convention centres and stadiums where there is a very high traffic volume. These heavy traffic escalators have increased chain and motor sizing.

Transit applications are typically railway stations, airports and subway stations where there is a very high traffic volume. These transit escalators have a much larger, heavier truss structure, increased chain and motor sizing, heavier step track construction and a larger, heavier handrail drive system.

As you would expect, the designer of a building has to match the number and grade of escalators to the transportation task expected to be placed upon the completed structure – undersized escalators will break down, while oversized escalators are a needless cost for the client.

Back to North Melbourne

I had a closer look at the escalators at North Melbourne, which lead me to ThyssenKrupp – a major escalator manufacturer. After trawling through their data sheets I pinned them down as a ThyssenKrupp ‘Velino’.

ThyssenKrupp 'Velino' escalators at North Melbourne station

Note that the ‘Velino’ is ThyssenKrupp’s commercial grade escalator – their bottom end model which was never meant to be used in a heavy traffic location such as North Melbourne station, where thousands of commuters walk up and down the escalators each day.

In the end, this suggests that the blame for the failing escalators goes all the way back to the design of the station – the level of passenger traffic was underestimated, leaving to undersized escalators being specified, which survived for the first few years, only to progressively fail as the components wear out prematurely.

Conspiracy theory

With my tinfoil hat on, I have an alternate theory – correctly sized escalators were specified as part of the North Melbourne station redevelopment project but the beancounter objected to the cost, leading to lower-specification escalators being substituted instead.

Bonus footnote

Platforms 2-3 and 4-5 have a curious escalator arrangement, with a ‘normal’ width escalator paired with a ‘narrow’ escalator that only just allows two people to pass each other.

Escalator to platform 2/3 at North Melbourne is still out of service

The reason for this was the narrow platforms – if two normal escalators were installed on the platform, where would not have been enough room for wheelchairs to navigate between the escalators and the platform edge. Platforms 1 and 6 didn’t have have that problem, as their width was much greater.

Dud escalators at North Melbourne Station

You don’t have to look far on Melbourne’s rail network to find failure, but the escalators at North Melbourne station would have to take the cake for their endless outages. So how many times have they broken down?

Now the escalator at North Melbourne station platform 6 has died

I first bothered to take a photo of a failed escalator at North Melbourne station on October 10, 2012 – the defective unit was leading to platform 2/3.

Escalator out of use at North Melbourne station in the leadup to morning peak

November 21, 2012 an escalator to platform 1 broke.

One day on: escalator still broken at North Melbourne

And stayed that way for a day.

Two days on: escalator still broken at North Melbourne

Staff put up an ‘out of order until further notice’ sign, with the escalator still being broken three days after the initial fault.

Escalator 'out of order until further notice' - what a joke

A few weeks later on November 26, 2012 the other escalator to platform 1 broke down.

You just fixed the other escalator at North Melbourne, and now the neighbouring one is broken?

On December 5 the escalator for platform 6 was next to fail.

Now the escalator for platform 6 at North Melbourne is broken

A few months went by without me noticing a failed escalator, when on March 27, 2013 I discovered a hand written sign advising passengers of the fact.

Another day, another failed escalator at North Melbourne station

A few days on, and that escalator to platform 1 was still broken.

A few days on, the escalator at North Melbourne station platform 1 still broken

Two weeks later the escalator was still kaput, when I took this photo on April 10.

Escalator at North Melbourne station platform 1 still broken!

Fast forward to late 2013, and I spotted an out of service escalator to platform 6 on December 23.

Out of service escalator leading from North Melbourne platform 6

January 8, 2014 the same escalator broke yet again.

Escalator to North Melbourne platform 6 broken yet again

Staff wrote out a sign telling passengers to use the staircase or lift to exit the platform.

Notice that the escalator to North Melbourne platform 6 is broken yet again

April 30, 2014 an escalator to platform 2 and 3 died.

Broken down escalator at North Melbourne platform 2 and 3

May 30, 2014 the escalator leading to platform 6 died again, leading some wag to write “Is this a joke” on the sign.

Broken escalator leading to North Melbourne platform 6

Metro Trains must have picked up on the plague of escalator failures, as they printed up some fancy looking posters to take the place of the handwritten signs.

Escalators out of order again at North Melbourne platform 6

But two days later on July 4, that sign was still there.

Escalators still out of order at North Melbourne platform 6

On August 12, 2014 it was the turn of platform 1 to receive the new ‘Escalators out of order’ posters.

Escalator at North Melbourne station platform 1 is dead yet again

Two days later platform 6 snatched it back.

Now the escalator at North Melbourne station platform 6 has died

Platform 2 went belly up on October 28, 2014.

Escalator to platform 2/3 at North Melbourne is still out of service

A day later the fancy ‘out of order’ sign was out, but no mechanics to fix the fault.

Escalator to platform 2/3 at North Melbourne is still out of service

With so many photos of failed escalators I am now starting to run out of witty captions – this was platform 6 on November 11.

Escalators to North Melbourne platform 6 out of order yet again

Platforms 4 and 5 appear to be the least trouble prone – this photo was from December 1, 2014.

Yet another escalator out of service at North Melbourne platforms 4 and 5

In the race to fail, with platform 2 and 3 racking up another win on February 3, 2015.

This time an escalator at North Melbourne platform 2/3 has broken down

At least this time there was technician there to fix it – they needed to pull out the electronics box at the top end.

Technicians having to fix the dodgy escalators at North Melbourne yet again

So which escalator failed the most?

Collating the data found above gives me this table. I have numbered the escalators 1A to 6B – east to west, based on platform number they serve.

Escalator 1A 1B 2 3 4 5 6A 6B
Failures 1 3 0 4 0 2 1 5

Looks like platform 6 is the big dud!

October 2012 to February 2015 is 29 months, and in that time I’ve seen the escalators at North Melbourne break at least 16 times – so that is once every two months. I’ve been working in Melbourne CBD Monday to Friday for that entire time, which suggests that the number of escalators failures could be higher, but probably not by a massive amount.

Finally, of the other railway stations I pass through, neither Southern Cross or the City Loop stations appear to have as escalators that fail as frequently – is there something in the water at North Melbourne?

Bus route backflips in Blackburn

Last year in Blackburn, minor changes to bus routes resulted in mass community outrage, followed by a sudden backflip by Public Transport Victoria.

Route 901 bus at Blackburn station, but the signage has no mention of the route!

The story starts in August 2013, when following a public tender process, new entrant Transdev took over the operation of a number of bus routes across Melbourne. Included in the new contract was:

A requirement for the operator to conduct a comprehensive review of all services included in the franchise to identify opportunities for improvement and implement a “greenfields” timetable change by the end of April 2015.

Behind this requirement was the intent to make Melbourne’s bus network more efficient – remove little used bus routes and deviations, and redirect the resources towards bus routes that passengers will actually choose to use. The side benefit to this was no net increased in the level of government funding.

The first sign of these coming changes was in June 2014, when Public Transport Victoria publicised their new timetable, only one month before it came into operation.

Their website was very vague, with the metropolitan bus page not being much help.

  • Major bus network changes in Brimbank, City of Port Phillip, Manningham and Bacchus Marsh
  • Minor bus network changes in Banyule, Boroondara, Darebin, Hume, Maroondah, Whitehorse, Wyndham and Yarra

Not to mention, who the hell knows the names of local government areas besides the one responsible for picking up the rubbish bin outside their house?

It took a while before people actually found about their local bus routes being cut back – this piece from the Manningham Leader was the first newspaper article to publicise the changes.

Manningham bus commuters blast Transdev’s announcement of service cuts from July 27
Anna Chisholm
June 30, 2014

Manningham commuters are about to be dudded again with the announcement Transdev will be scrapping a number of bus services, starting next month.

Scrapped routes include 201, 203, 205, 286, 303, 313 and 315.

Transdev told Manningham Leader in early June it would finish collecting data on passenger numbers, punctuality, frequency and timetables during the third quarter of the year.

Leader has today asked why the review and changes were fast-tracked.

Public Transport Victoria (PTV) spokeswoman Helen Witton said the changes would provide simpler routes and more frequent services that better connect with trains.

She said there would be improved connections to key stations like Croydon, Ringwood, Mitcham, Blackburn, and Box Hill railway stations.

Many local residents were very vocal.

But public transport users have taken aim at Transdev, Public Transport Victoria, and the State Government on the Yes to Doncaster Rail Facebook page.

Commuters vented their anger about the timetable changes on the Yes to Doncaster Rail Facebook page.

The storm of angry comments was directed at changes to time tables and reduced routes to the city — including the 908 SmartBus and 305 which will no longer operate to the city during off-peak times and weekends.

The Doncaster Rail Advocacy Steering Committee’s Facebook group members posted over the weekend, saying a number of routes in Manningham would be scrapped as of July 27.

The post revealed some routes would have reduced frequencies and operating hours.

“This was done with absolutely NO consultation with the community, unlike other areas of Melbourne who seem to get special treatment,” the post read.

“Some people will be better off, but generally, PTV has decided to reduce services in Manningham as they believe our public transport is good enough.”

The spokesperson from Public Transport Victoria said that the changes were a response to previous consultation.

PTV spokeswoman Helen Witton said the changes would remove duplication in the bus network and provide more direct services.

She said Transdev undertook a detailed market research study in late 2012 with both users and non-users of bus routes in the Manningham area.

“Transdev’s planning team also consulted with relevant local councils and took into account current traffic and patronage data before submitting their proposals to PTV for review and approval,” she said.

“PTV and Transdev also receive regular feedback from customers who consistently tell us they want more direct, simpler routes and more frequent services that better connect with trains, and this is what this network and timetable change delivers.”

And a Transdev manager also mentioned the reasoning behind the changes.

Transdev stakeholders and marketing general manager Emilie van de Graaff previously told Manningham Leader the scheduling of 52 bus routes was under review by Transdev and Public Transport Victoria, as part of Transdev’s franchise contract.

She said the review was aiming for a “more effective use of existing resources”.

“A lot of bus services are running around empty, which is costing money,” she said.

“They could be used in other areas where more services are needed.”

Ms van de Graaff said Transdev had clear targets to increase patronage by improving services by 2015, as part of their contract with PTV.

However the timetable changes occurred despite the backlash, with bus stops along the withdrawn route 286 being covered up with temporary signs.

Disused bus stops in Blackburn, following the removal of the route 286 bus

Leaving bus shelters in streets that no longer saw buses.

Disused bus shelter in Blackburn, following the removal of the route 286 bus

The removal of bus route 303 was also a sore point, so in September 2014 the government back flipped, and found $860,000 to source an extra bus to reinstate the service.

Transport Minister Terry Mulder reinstates bus services from North Ringwood to the city
Thomas O’Byrne
Maroondah Leader
September 02, 2014

Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder has apologised for making an $860,000 blunder and restored two axed bus services in Melbourne’s east, following fierce opposition to the bus’ scraping.

In a victory for commuters, Mr Mulder announced today that the government would reinstate the bus route 303, a peak hour service from North Ringwood to the city, which was scrapped in July amid a major shake-up of the bus network.

Eastern Metropolitan Region upper house Labor MP Shaun Leane told Maroondah Leader last week that his party would restore the 303 route if elected in November.

Mr Mulder laid blame for the “mistake” at the feet of bus operator Transdev and said the company’s public consultation process had failed to identify the route’s value to the community.

“I would just like to apologise for what has happened … we’re always prepared to acknowledge that we don’t get something 100 per cent right,” Mr Mulder said.

Then Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder blamed Transdev for making the changes.

“We did rely on this particular case with the operator (Transdev) conducting all of the research with the passengers.”

Mr Mulder said a new bus would need to be sourced and refurbished for the route 303 at a cost of about $860,000.

Asked if the Coalition was playing catch-up on public transport policy, Mr Mulder said it was “easy to make an announcement from opposition.”

Mr Mulder said this was the first time Public Transport Victoria was not heavily engaged in community consultation but the department would take a “far greater role” in the future.

The Minister said Transdev had made the decision to axe the two bus routes following public consultation.

“We understood, at the time, that those matters had been conveyed to the council and customers were aware of what’s going on,” Mr Mulder said.

“But quite clearly, the message I got back from (Liberal candidates) Dee Ryall, Tim Smith and Robert Clark was that was not the case.”

Leader has contacted Transdev for comment.

Note that the government was more than happy to take credit for “listening to the public”.

Eastern suburbs bus improvements commence on 13 October 2014
September 02, 2014

Following suggestions from Member for Mitcham Dee Ryall, Member for Box Hill Robert Clark and Liberal Candidate for Kew Tim Smith who listened to community feedback and fought hard for the restoration of some bus routes, Minister for Public Transport Terry Mulder today announced that improvements would be made to some Transdev Melbourne eastern suburban bus routes from Monday 13 October 2014.

Eastern Freeway bus route 303 (Ringwood North – Melbourne CBD) will be reintroduced, while bus route 271 will be deviated to restore trips to Blackburn streets. Public Transport Victoria (PTV) will also consider how best to reintroduce a bus route along Kilby Road, East Kew.

Mr Mulder said that at community drop in sessions in August, PTV and Transdev staff listened to concerns about what the 27 July 2014 timetable changes meant for individual passengers.

“The community feedback indicated that fine tuning of existing bus routes in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs was warranted to help passengers travel to jobs or university in Melbourne’s CBD and the North Carlton area,” Mr Mulder said.

“Route 303’s resumption will reduce crowding at the Middleborough Road and Eastern Freeway on-ramp, also benefiting route 906 and 318 passengers. Route 303 will operate along its previous route and have four peak period morning and afternoon trips on weekdays.”

Ms Ryall said that this was great news for local residents.

“I am thrilled that my representations on behalf of local residents has assisted bus route 303’s reinstatement,” Ms Ryall said.

Mr Mulder said that Mr Clark suggested the rerouting of bus 271.

Bus route 271 will be altered to have a similar route as the previous 286 in the Blackburn area along Marchiori Road, Goodwin Street, Elm Street, Fir Street and then onto Blackburn and Box Hill stations, returning via Goodwin Street.

Mr Clark said that the alteration of route 271 would make travelling to school, Blackburn station and Box Hill easier for residents living near Goodwin and Elm Streets.

“Pedestrian access across Whitehorse Road to route 901 is difficult. This warranted the Coalition Government’s reconsideration of the July timetable change,” Mr Clark said.

Mr Clark said that he was very pleased the Napthine Government was able to work with the local community to devise a solution to better meet residents’ transport needs.

Mr Mulder said that PTV would examine how a Transdev bus route could be reintroduced to Kilby Road, East Kew by April 2015.

“Under Melbourne’s existing bus route contracts, this requires negotiation with Ventura,” Mr Mulder said.

Mr Smith said that he would continue to liaise with Mr Mulder.

“I look forward to working with Mr Mulder to ensure that East Kew residents again have access to a freeway bus route that uses Kilby Road,” Mr Smith said.

Information on the revised bus network and timetables will be available at www.ptv.vic.gov.au and www.transdevmelbourne.vic.gov.au in the coming weeks while passengers may also call PTV daily between 6am and midnight on 1800 800 007.

As well as bringing back the route 303 service, the existing route 271 bus was diverted via the back streets of Blackburn to replicate the removed route 286 service. Good thing they only covered up the old bus stops!

Bus stops back in use in Blackburn, after route 271 was altered to follow former route 286

Since then

Transdev is currently working on a new timetable for the rest of their bus network, and this time they have released their plans to the public long before the timetable itself is due to come into effect. The official consultation period commenced on December 1, 2014 with the changes supposedly due to occur in April 2015.

Further reading

‘Mr Scruff’ and the Total Car Park

I was out in Melbourne the other night and stumbled on a very interesting looking poster – the accuracy of which caught me by surprise.

Poster for a 'Mr Scruff' gig at 170 Russell in Melbourne, featuring the Total Car Park

Spruiking an upcoming gig by British DJ ‘Mr. Scruff’ at 170 Russell – located at the corner of Russell and Little Bourke Streets in Melbourne – the cityscape featured in the poster was a dead ringer for the view outside the venue.

Google Street View - corner of Russell Street and Little Bourke Street, Melbourne

Both the Total Car Park and the Chinatown gateway arch feature in the foreground, along with the ‘Crystal Jade’ Chinese restaurant on the other corner, TAC House at 222 Exhibition Street at the rear left, and the Rydges Melbourne hotel at 186 Exhibition Street to the rear right.

As for the artist behind the poster, Wikipedia has this to say:

Mr. Scruff’s album and single cover art, music videos, merchandise and his official website are noted for their whimsical cartoonish look; the cartoons are drawn by Scruff himself, in what he calls “potato style”.

If only I could find a larger copy of said poster!

V/Line ticket queues before Myki

For all of the things that Myki has managed to screw up, there is one positive outcome from the implementation of the new ticketing system – the ability to pre-purchase V/Line tickets ahead of time. So what did V/Line passengers have to put up with before?

Monday morning at South Geelong, and a ticket line so long it spirals around the entire waiting room

Before Myki

The inability to pre-purchase a V/Line ticket might sound a little odd to someone who never left Melbourne, but it was true – V/Line travel was almost as inflexible as travelling with a low cost airline, and nothing like Metcard, where you could buy a ticket ahead of time and keep it in your wallet until you needed it.

In the days of paper V/Line tickets, they could only be purchased from major railway stations, or a limited number of ticket agents in country towns, and every time you bought a ticket you needed to know on what date you wanted to travel.

V/Line airshow ticket:

It was possible to buy V/Line tickets ahead of time for a future trip, but if your travel plans changed, a trip back to the ticket office would be required, to get a refund on your old ticket and have a replacement ticket issued for the new date – and too bad if you forget to get the refund before your travel date!

With all of that mucking around, it was no surprise that the majority of passengers bought their tickets on the day of travel. As a result the busiest times for V/Line station staff was after the commuter peak – hoards of passengers headed for a day out in Melbourne would all descend on the station ten minutes before the next train, each needing to be sold a ticket before the train departed.

3VL40 arrives into South Geelong, school holiday crowds filling the platform

The difficulty in pre-purchasing tickets also resulted in massive lines at Southern Cross Station every Friday evening, as Melbournians headed for the country waited to buy V/Line tickets from the booking office.

It didn’t help that the majority of Melbournians didn’t know that V/Line tickets could be purchased most staffed suburban railway stations.

The failure of paper based ticketing - almost 50 people waiting to buy one, on the Friday night before the long weekend

Regular commuters were a little more lucky, as their regular travel patterns allowed them to confidently purchase their weekly or monthly tickets ahead of time – my usual trick was to pick one up at my local station on my way home, ready for the next morning. However that didn’t prevent queues forming at country stations every Monday morning, as forgetful commuters realised that their tickets had expired over the weekend.

South Geelong on a Monday morning - 'round and 'round the booking office goes the ticket line

Fast forward to today and V/Line travel is far more convenient, at least for irregular travellers – just top up your Myki ahead of time, and if you decide to take a trip on a V/Line service, all you need to do is touch on and off.

The loser with Myki are V/Line commuters – gone are the days of just walking onto the train, falling asleep with your weekly ticket on your lanyard, and then waking up in Melbourne – now you need to touch on when you board, get woken up by the conductor for a ticket check, and then wait in a long line at Southern Cross to get out of the ticket gates.

Why so inflexible?

The above raises a question – why were V/Line tickets so inflexible? The reason itself is thanks to Myki.

If we go back about decade, V/Line trains were a lot less busy than they are today, with services being both slower and less frequent.

N453 on a down South Geelong service at North Shore

The V/Line ticketing system was also different, with the rules being more flexible – each return ticket gave the holder seven days to make the ‘forward’ journey and 30 days to complete the ‘return’ leg, with the conductor walk through each train in order to punch a hole in every ticket.

In addition, a ticket to ‘Southern Cross’ was just that – V/Line ticket holders were only entitled to travel to the stations listed on their ticket, so any journeys involving a connecting leg on a suburban train required passengers to buy a separate Metcard to complete their journey.

Changes came in January 2006, when the V/Line and metropolitan ticketing systems were integrated as part of the extended lead up to the introduction of Myki. The V/Line website circa 2006 described the changes as such.

A number of changes to V/Line fares and conditions came into effect from 1 January 2006.

Designed to further align ticket rules ahead of the introduction of Victoria’s new public transport ticketing solution in 2007, the changes affect a number of ticket types, as well as some of the rules and conditions applying to travel on V/Line trains and coaches.

The changes will lead to greater consistency across the public transport system – directly linking regional and metropolitan fares – making it easier for customers to access different forms of Victorian public transport.

One of the most significant changes will provide V/Line ticket holders with free access to the metropolitan system (trains, trams and buses), as well as regional buses, from 22 April 2006.

It was this change to ticketing rules that killed off “open” return tickets – with the new benefits given to passengers, there were many ways to game the system. Some of them included:

  • With V/Line tickets now valid on suburban services, you could buy a cheap V/Line return ticket, punch the ‘forward’ leg, and then spend the next 30 days travelling in Melbourne for free, while telling ticket inspectors that you were headed back to the country later that day.
  • The new VLocity trains did not allow conductors to change carriages mid-journey, so passengers could play ‘dodge the conductor’ to avoid getting their ticket punched, and reuse the ‘return’ leg of their ticket another day.

When V/Line added restrictions to their paper tickets back in 2006, it was originally intended that the ‘New Ticketing System’ (Myki) was to replace it within a year or so. As a result, V/Line never bothered to come up with their own way of pre-purchasing tickets ahead of time, or implementing any form of automatic ticket machines – the supposed silver bullet of Myki was ‘just around the corner’ for half a decade.

V/Line did experiment with online sales of tickets, such as this ‘Travelwise’ flyer from 2009 shows. Unfortunately the initiative fell flat, as the collection options were anything but convenient – purchasers had the choice of waiting 48 hours to pickup from a station, or 7 days for postal delivery!

V/Line 'Travelwise' flyer promoting online sales of tickets

It took until June/July 2013 for Myki to be finally rolled out to V/Line commuter services, which allowed paper tickets to be killed off in February 2014.

‘Business Card’ footnote

Another defunct V/Line ticket was the ‘Business Card’ – a 10 trip ticket that could be purchased in advance, and then punched by the conductor each time you travelled. The original intent behind it was making it easier for irregular passengers to travel by train, but from 2006 it was vulnerable to the same loopholes as ‘open’ return tickets. It was eventually killed off in 2007 because the majority of purchasers were only using them to game the system.