Why can’t you tell me where my train is?

It is 5pm on a Friday afternoon, you are standing around at the railway station waiting to head home, but there hasn’t been a train for ten minutes. If you haven’t got your smartphone out to find out what the issue is, then you’ll be listening out for the platform staff making announcements over the public address system. So how do they get kept in the loop?

Comeng arrives into Melbourne Central platform 3

At Central station on Hong Kong’s world famous MTR network, the platform supervisor sits in a glass booth facing a bank of CCTV monitors that shows everything going on around them at the station, in addition to a computer screen that displays the current location of each train on the line. With all that data, working out how long until the next train arrives is a simple task.

Platform control room at Central

Over at Central station in Sydney, CityRail’s platform staff also have computer screens showing them where their trains currently are, but only for those running through the inner city area. If the issue is out in suburban whoop-whoop the platform staff won’t see it, and need to get on the phone to the control room to find out, but at least it gives them something to work with.

Multiple sources of information for platform staff at Central Station

Meanwhile back in Melbourne, getting any form of real time data is wishful thinking – the platform staff at Melbourne Central Station gets an A4 ring binder containing a printed version of the timetable, a telephone link back to Metro’s main train control centre, and a window to look at the same screens that every passenger is squinting to see.

Metro ensure that their platform staff receive critical information in order to keep passengers informed (NOT!)

Thankfully Metro Trains have realised that that lack of up-to-date data provided to their frontline customer service staff is an issue of critical importance, as seen in this tweet from late August:

So just remember next time the rail service in Melbourne heads up shit creek and the staff on the platform can’t tell you anything – antiquated technology means they probably know just as much as you do.


It seems that the train tracking system up in Sydney is more advanced than I through it was: a report from 2005 describes the “Train Location System” as such:

RailCorp is gradually rolling-out the Train Location System (TLS) which enables station staff to see where trains are on the network and reduces their reliance on telephone calls from the signal box. It is now available at 201 (out of 306) stations and covers about two-thirds of the network. The TLS allows station staff to see where a train is and provides advanced notice of late running services or cancellations.

Their main control room is also a world ahead of that in Melbourne: this 2011 article from the Daily Telegraph takes you on a tour.

I have also been told that the “Train Location System” has since been rolled out to virtually the entire CityRail network – putting Melbourne to shame yet again.

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5 Responses to “Why can’t you tell me where my train is?”

  1. Bob says:

    But Marcus! Surely these trains have a GPS device on board that can broadcast the trains location?.

    I refuse to believe that half the nations primary school children are easier to track than a train that carries thousands of people every day.

    • Marcus says:

      Melbourne’s trains get tracked in a few ways:
      – Track circuits are used to detect the presence of a train on a given set of tracks: most of Melbourne has covered for decades, but only a small percentage of the data gets sent back to the main control room.
      – The automated announcements at station are driven by a system from the late 1990s, where trains ‘check in’ via transponders every few kilometers.
      – The trains themselves work out when to play the automated announcements through the use of GPS.

      A GPS device on every train and talking to the main control room seems a step too far!

  2. Andrew says:

    Your smartphone may not tell you much either. I feel for the platform staff. They can’t pull up their pants if they aren’t given any. The same goes for staff who have to direct to replacement buses when there is a breakdown in the system.

  3. […] morning, and keeping everybody up to date regarding late running and cancelled trains. While the sources of real time train information available to them were often patchy, they did their best with the resources available to ensure everybody got to work on […]

  4. […] stared in wonder at the realtime train data provided to platform staff at Central […]

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