An outsiders look at the Melbourne rail network

When people travel interstate or overseas, one of the things they love to point out is how the public transport system is much better than the one they use at home – a case of “the grass is always greener”? If so, what would a person who has travelled on rail systems all over the world think of the Melbourne network?

Werribee-bound Siemens train at North Melbourne platform 6

Robert Schwandl is a Austrian railfan and author, who has travelled to dozens of cities around the world while curating his UrbanRail.Net website.

In 2011 he visited Melbourne and wrote about what the saw.

Melbourne appeared to me as a great city from the beginning, and even a week later I think it is quite a good place to live, not only because of its extensive and mostly well-functioning urban rail system.

Poor access to railway stations was one observation.

I was often annoyed by the bad accessibility. Probably thought to create a properly separated paid area, most platforms are enclosed by fences, so one often has to walk a long way to the actual entrance when an opening at the other end of the platform would be easy to make and save passengers a lot of time.

In particular the interaction with the ticketing system.

Therefore I didn’t understand either why they don’t put proper ticket gates, if the access is channelled through a small slot anyway.

And the abundance of level crossings.

At many stations with side platforms, the two platforms are not really connected, but one has to walk to a nearby level crossing to get to the other side.

Level crossing clear, as a stream of pedestrians cross the railway at Yarraville

Manually operated doors were another thing that stood out.

The second-oldest are probably the largest number, those are the refurbished Comeng trains. They are quite pleasant, except for their peculiar door handles. Unlike on the newer trains, which have a normal button to open the doors, these have a knob, and you have to manually slide the doors open, which can be quite hard, especially if you carry things in your hands.

Along with our poor quality trackwork.

When it comes to riding the train, I might prefer the Siemens, which seemed to offer a smoother ride, but this may also be due to the track, as on some sections I even noticed with my own eyes when waiting for a train, that the track is not in the best condition. When standing on a bridge, you can also observe that the cars move a lot from side to side.

Mud hole in the up line at Carnegie

And the poor condition of the Siemens train fleet.

But there was one thing that stroke me most about the Siemens trains: they are extremely dirty inside! The other trains also have some window scratching (made me feel like home in Berlin…), but the Siemens trains have dirty and sometimes even destroyed seats, while on the other two types I did not observe anything like that.

This may have two reasons – the areas where these trains are used (the southern and the western lines) have a different type of passenger (they say the western districts are more problematic), or, the seats call for aggression, because the fabric used, its colour and pattern, is so horrible that one feels the need to destroy it, very weird.

Looking down a Siemens train to a graffiti covered end bulkhead

Confusion with the City Loop stood out.

Inbound trains normally show “Flinders Street” as their destination, sometimes with the add-on “via City Loop”, but I was not always sure whether the train would go around the loop or not

Congestion around Flinders Street.

but between Southern Cross and Flinders Street all trains I have been on crawl, although there are six tracks between these two main stations.

And a lack of information about onboard services once a train arrives.

On other occasions I took a Frankston train at Southern Cross, which was then stopping at Flinders Street for 10 minutes. Also, while the panels in the station showed Frankston, inside the train the destination remains Flinders Street until the train leaves from there, so passengers boarding a train on the loop cannot really check inside the train whether it continues or terminates at Flinders Street. An accoustic announcement following “Now arriving at Flinders Street” like “This train continues to Frankston” would be helpful.

Complexity in service patterns was called out.

It would be interesting to see a map that actually depicts service patterns.

As was the general uselessness of the network map used until a few years ago.

The network map has some flaws, and I would prefer a Sydney-type map with colour-coded lines. While it is difficult to depict the direction the trains take around the loop (this changes at lunchtime for most trains), the area around North Melbourne station is quite misleading. It appears that trains from Upfield continue west to Footscray!

Level crossings get called out yet again.

All in all, riding the Melbourne Metro trains through the inner suburbs, where stations are very closely spaced, reminded me a bit of the London District or Metropolitan Lines, although with modern trains, or even the Green Line on the Stockholm Tunnelbana. But none of these has level crossings, which in Melbourne are a standard feature. These work fairly well, but make the system appear more like a light rail with heavy and long trains.

Metro liveried Comeng at Kensington

Finally, a subjective view of what train looks better.

Visually, I prefer the Alstom train, which like the Comeng has a wider waist, or a belly, whereas the Siemens cars have completely straight sides, a bit boring.

X'Trapolis 955M at Southern Cross platform 10, beside Siemens 815M in the middle road 10A

And to end.

To conclude, an overall very modern system (in fact, much more up-to-date than I expected) which suffers some problems due to the Flinders Street bottleneck and maybe some other infrastructure issues.

Sounds about right to me!

On the subject of comparisons

Australian transport lecture Alexa Delbosc wrote a piece titled Public transport is always greener on the other side at The Conversation:

As a researcher in public transport, I am frustrated by a narrative I see time and again. It comes up in comments in focus groups and pops up at the bottom of news articles. It goes something like this:

I’ve been to London / New York / Tokyo and their public transport system is better / cheaper / more reliable than ours! Why can’t our public transport be that good?

Australia’s public transport systems seem shoddy compared to other countries for a number of reasons. These reasons make me question whether those comparisons are valid.

The first reason this comparison is flawed is because when we’re on holiday, we don’t use public transport the same way we do in our mundane commute back home.

The other reason this comparison is flawed is due to the super-size of Australia’s cities.

While American transit consultant Jarrett Walker wrote about the The Disneyland Theory of Transit:

Political leaders frequently take junkets to other cities, ride those cities’ transit systems as tourists, and then come home proposing to build the same kind of service. But our values as tourists are different from our values as commuters: We enjoy riding the Ferris wheel, but that doesn’t mean we’d enjoy commuting on one.

And more comparisons

Photos from ten years ago: September 2007

Another instalment in my photos from ten years ago series – this time it is September 2007.

We start down at Geelong, where I photographed a SCT Logistics Perth-Melbourne freight service behind a trio of Pacific National locomotives.

Almost into Melbourne

Running from one other side of country to the other, the tank wagon at the front of the train removes the need for refuelling stops along the way. SCT Logistics continue to operate these services today, along with a newer Melbourne-Brisbane service, but now hauled by their own fleet of locomotives.

I also photographed a six car long VLocity train on a Geelong-bound V/Line service.

VL24 and co at North Shore

Made up of three 2-car VLocity sets, such a train is no longer possible – only 3-car long VLocity sets now exist.

A curious advertising campaign was launched by former suburban rail operator Connex Melbourne in September 2007, titled “There is no ‘I’ in Carriage”.

'Martin Merton' book distribution at Glenferrie Station

It featured a book authored by fictitious character Martin Merton, “America’s number one train etiquette expert”. The campaign was created by Leo Burnett Melbourne.

September 2007 also saw V/Line ramp up their marketing – covertly working on a new livery for their fleet of trains.

I spotted the first example poking out of the shed door at Newport Workshops.

Sprinter 7007 in new V/Line livery at Newport Workshops

With a matching carriage set breaking cover soon after, headed to Geelong and back on a shakedown run before the public launch.

Quick shot at North Geelong on the return

September 12 saw the politicians out in force to launch the new visual identity.

Launch of the new livery

Two trains were in place to show off the new livery – Sprinter 7007 and carriage set FSH25.

7007 and FSH25 at the launch

Around the corner at Southern Cross, I swung past the future site of platforms 15 and 16.

Site of partially completed platforms 15/16 at Southern Cross

The bare concrete and gravel platform was partially constructed, minus tracks and escalators, as part of the redevelopment of the station, intended to form part of a future airport rail link. They sat empty until Regional Rail Link was conceived in 2009, with the decision made to incorporate them into the project to increase platform capacity at the Melbourne end of the V/Line network.

But change for V/Line was a backward step – the reintroduction to service of 60-year-old carriage stock.

N455 with newly formed carriage set SN7 on test at North Shore

Built between 1937 and 1956, the last five ‘BS’ type compartment carriages were retired from V/Line service in 2006 following the delivery of new VLocity trains. However the Kerang rail crash of June 2007 saw a 3-car train taken out of service, leaving V/Line scrambling to fill the gap. The decision was made to reactivate the previously stored carriages, and operate them on a return peak hour run between Melbourne and Geelong each weekday. They continued in this role until August 2010, when they were finally retired for good, thanks to the delivery of yet more VLocity trains.

September 2007 marked the Geelong Football Club’s appearance at the AFL Grand Final. V/Line operated a number of special trains from Geelong to carry Cats fans to the game at the MCG, where they saw Geelong defeat Port Adelaide.

P12+P16 in the siding at South Geelong

V/Line still runs football trains today, but only with VLocity trains – the use of 8 carriage long ‘push pull’ trains ended in 2011.

And finally we end on something V/Line still does today – cancelled trains and platform confusion at Southern Cross Station.

The 11am train gets canned at 11:56
The 11am train gets canned at 11:56

I was intending to catch the 11:00am Geelong train from Southern Cross platform 5. After waiting almost an hour, at 11:56am V/Line finally announced that the 11:00am train would not be running, and for everyone to board the 12:00pm train in the platform alongside.

The only difference today is that V/Line trains to Geelong now run every 20 minutes between peaks on a weekday, and every 40 minutes on a weekend.

Further reading

Footnote

Here you can find the rest of my ‘photos from ten years ago

Flipping trucks with bollards in Melbourne

Bollards are support to protect pedestrians from stray road vehicles. But on Racecourse Road in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington, a set of bollards has done the exact opposite – destroyed a series of emergency vehicles on their way to save lives.

From ABC News on 18 June 2014:

Fire truck rolls on its way to Melbourne apartment blaze, causing traffic headaches on Racecourse Road
18 June 2014

A fire truck has rolled on its way to a blaze at an apartment block, causing traffic dramas at Flemington, in Melbourne’s north-west.

The truck flipped on tram tracks on Racecourse Road underneath CityLink about 5:00am, just 500 metres from the fire.

The road was closed for hours in both directions as crews cleaned up but one lane is now open each way.

Assistant chief fire officer Ken Brown said the four crew members in the truck managed to escape injury.

“The good news for our firefighting families and other firefighters is that all the crew are safe and well,” he said.

“[The crew’s] very shaken obviously and we’re investigating with police the cause of the truck rollover.”

But it turns out this was not the first such accident beneath this very bridge.

From the Herald Sun:

Paramedics escape harm in Kensington ambulance flip
Christopher Gillet
5 October 2012

Two paramedics escaped serious injury after their ambulance flipped over while on the way to a job in Melbourne’s northwest.

The ambulance was travelling along tram tracks in Kensington just before 8.30 last night.

The van flipped on Racecourse Rd when it hit a bollard. It is not yet known if the vehicle was travelling at high speeds.

A patient was not inside the vehicle at the time of the accident.

A police spokeswoman said two paramedics were taken to hospital for observation, but were not hurt.

A spokeswoman from Ambulance Victoria said another ambulance was immediately sent to cover the job.

Nine bollards were originally placed between the tram tracks on Racecourse Road to prevent vehicles turning right towards CityLink from cutting the corner.

It appears the first crash in 2012 took out the first five bollards, with only four left in this March 2014 view.

With the second crash taking out the last of them, leaving just a row holes in the concrete.

The bollards are still missing today – presumably deemed too dangerous to reinstate given the crash history.

Bollards removed from between the tram tracks at the corner of Racecourse Road and CityLink

Bollards removed from between the tram tracks at the corner of Racecourse Road and CityLink

Footnote

Another photo of the flipped fire truck

Photos from ten years ago: August 2007

Another instalment in my photos from ten years ago series – this time it is August 2007.

We start at North Melbourne looking towards a sparser looking CBD skyline.

N460 on the North Melbourne flyover

This flyover was previously only used by standard gauge passenger services and light engines accessing the locomotive depot at South Dynon, but has since been rebuilt as part of the Regional Rail Link project to allow V/Line trains to access Southern Cross without conflicting with suburban trains.

Around the corner I paid a visit to the Melbourne Steel Terminal, where steel products were transhipped between broad and standard gauge trains.

Western end of the Melbourne Steel Terminal

The terminal was last remaining part of the vast Melbourne Yard complex that stretched between the Melbourne CBD and the docks, but no longer exists – the land earmarked for the new ‘E’ Gate development.

Over at the South Dynon locomotive depot I saw a pair of CLP class units.

CLP12 and CLP10 shunt over Moonee Ponds Creek at South Dynon

These units were retired from mainline serivce by owner Aurizon in 2012 then put up for sale overseas, but are still sitting in store at Goulburn in NSW.

I also found a pair V/Line locomotives in the red livery of the period.

Note the different logos on P11 and P12

Then found them again later in the day, with a set of carriages between them.

P12 traverses the reversing loop, on the way back from being stabled between peaks at Melbourne Yard

For the past decade the P class locomotives have been used in pairs on ‘push–pull’ trains, a mode of operation that has come to an end following the August 27 V/Line timetable change.

Another everyday V/Line sighting was this Geelong bound train passing through the Werribee Street level crossing south of Werribee.

N457 on the down at Werribee

Since 2015 the level crossings now sees just a handful of trains a day – Geelong services now use the Regional Rail Link tracks to the west.

But a far more unusual sighting was this two carriage long V/Line charter departing Southern Cross.

N457 with Avoca and BTN264 on a charter depart Southern Cross

The brown carriage is dining car ‘Avoca’ – on loan to V/Line from the Seymour Rail Heritage Centre, who restored the carriage to operational condition. Avoca entered service in 1927 and remained in use until the 1980s, when it was replaced by the smaller ‘snack bars’ currently found on V/Line trains.

This month I also scored a tour of the railway workshops at Newport. There I saw locomotives under heavy overhaul.

G521 under refurbishment for SCT, with N473 beside under overhaul

Wheelsets getting reprofiled on a lathe.

Wheel re-profiling lathe with a finished axle

Bogies being lifted in the bogie shop.

Bogies being lifted in the bogie shop

Massive locomotive engines getting reconditioned.

Finished V16 engine

And a pile of spare fibreglass front fairings for the Comeng train fleet.

Fibreglass front fairings for EDI refurbished and original Comeng trains

I also ended up at the top of the former WC Thomas & Sons flour mill in Newport, which gave me a great view of the trains down below.

Look ma - no brakes!

As well as the sidings next door.

Spotswood depot from the south

Demolition commenced in early 2017, with much of the site already gone.

Another long abandoned Melbourne building was the Spencer Street Power Station at the corner of Spencer and Lonsdale Streets.

Spencer Street Power Station

After laying idle for decades demolition commenced in September 2007, being fully cleared by April 2008 with apartment towers now occupying the site.

But one abandoned site that lives on is the former Fyansford Cement Works.

Three sets of of abandoned silos

The cement works closed in 2001, with the bulk of the site demolished in 2004, but the concrete silos atop the hill still remain in place today.

More photos

Footnote

Here you can find the rest of my ‘photos from ten years ago

Promoting V/Line to new residents of regional Victoria

From time to time you will see a rail operator going out and chasing new passengers via a marketing campaign – but this campaign by V/Line to new residents of regional Victoria was quite clever.

Quad Sprinters led by 7012 on a down Geelong service at Wyndham Vale South

From the 2006-07 V/Line annual report:

Understanding customers even better

The experience of the past year indicates significant potential for sustained patronage growth as long as V/Line continues to develop and offer the services that people are seeking.

The challenge now is to attract new customers from three identified key future growth markets:

  • Families – Melbourne and regional
  • 50+ market – Melbourne and regional
  • Tree changers – regular commuters at key locations

Selling the benefits of rail

Movers’ Campaign – V/Line initiated a targeted direct mail program for the first time. Using Australia Post’s Mover Redirection data, people who relocated to an area served by a V/Line commuter service received a mail pack containing information on local train services and an offer of a free weekly ticket from their local station to Melbourne. At the end of June, more than 850 people had taken up the offer.

Unfortunately promoting further growth in the commuter market wasn’t such a good idea given a politically motivated 20% fare cut pushed patronage through the roof from 2007, so in 2007-08 V/Line changed tack:

In 2007–08, V/Line’s direct marketing program to people moving house in our catchment areas exceeded expectations, with 18 per cent of those contacted taking up the offer of a trial ticket. About 40 per cent of these have indicated they would use V/Line more regularly as a result of the promotion.

While the regular commuter market still accounts for the majority of our patronage growth, with most peak services operating at capacity, some off-peak and counter peak services have spare capacity that could be better utilised – particularly on weekends

The solution – promoting travel on off-peak services.

This year we trialled a new Family Traveller ticket to attract day-trippers to Melbourne or country Victoria. The trial was successful and demonstrated the potential for growing the family tourism market. The number of trips made in January 2008 was 20,000 higher than in the previous January.

As well as travel in the reverse direction.

Working with councils, tourism operators, the Department of Transport, Tourism Victoria and the Victorian Government, we launched a $1.3 million ‘See Things Differently’ advertising campaign to put V/Line – and regional Victoria – into the minds of Melburnians.

Key to its success is that the campaign promoted use of off-peak, outbound train services during quieter periods such as during the middle of the day, or on weekends – making more efficient use of existing services, crucial to our push to deliver a more sustainable operation.

Even a tram featured in the campaign!

B2.2127 advertising 'V/Line' on route 59 on Elizabeth Street at the Flinders Street terminus

Today V/Line continues to promote off-peak travel to families as well as leisure travel to country Victoria.

'Next stop, cosy country pubs' promotion for V/Line, at Southern Cross Station

 'Next stop, bushwalks and fresh air' promotion for V/Line, at a tram stop on William Street

But the explosion in commuter travel still continues to fill trains without any extra advertising.

Footnote

How does Australia Post’s Mover Redirection data work? From their website:

Target movers at the right time

Over 87% of movers use our Mail Redirection service, which means we know when and where they’re moving. A significant number opt in to receive marketing messages – and we can give you access to this receptive audience.

And the way to avoid these marketing messages – make sure you opt out of them when signing up to Australia Post’s mail redirection service!