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

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20 Responses to “An outsiders look at the Melbourne rail network”

  1. Daniel Bowen says:

    Sometimes people like what they see elsewhere, but they don’t want to deal with the consequences of us trying to get to that same level of service.

    “We should have trains like in London/Tokyo/etc, every few minutes!”

    “Okay, well to do that, we’ll need to separate ours out so they don’t all run via the City Loop….”

    “What, no! Outrage!”

  2. Myrtonos says:

    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.

    But he omitted to mention that we have a simiar issue at tram stops too. One has to cross half the road to get to the stop from either side of the road. Sometimes people miss trams while waiting at traffic lights.

    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.

    And yet some see our level crossing removal project as being about benefiting cars, not public transport.

      • Myrtonos says:

        He does mention a bit about our tram stops, but doesn’t mention people missing trams while stuck at traffic lights.

        Fact is that some see our grade separations as road projects rather than rail projects. Just look at which level crossings are on the list and you are likely to see why.

        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.

        Remember that these trains were only built in the early 1980s, and I believe that powered doors had long been standard on new trains in other countries in the developed world and maybe even in Eastern Europe, in spite of Eastern European backwardness.

        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.

        There is an example of that in Sydney. People in Sydney travel a lot, and travel to other cities with smaller trains typically running underground in tiny tunnels and come back home thinking how great it would be to have it back home. Rodd Staples is one of the ones who proposed such a service.
        But most cities with such metros are older cities that were heavily developed before there were ever served by rail. Some also have suburban rail in newer parts of those cities, for example London’s Overground and the R.E.R of Paris, but I believe not as many tourists ride these.
        Sydney developed later and was able to bring surface rail right into the city centre, and it was also electrified before there was a need for underground railways, therefore the existing network could be extended underground once running out of surface options.

        Now look at what our Austrian says about Sydney suburban.

        • Tom the first and best says:

          Apart from the 9 level crossing between Caulfield and Dandenong, which are a connected train capacity issue, the government`s list is based on road issues and road politics. If it was a list prioritised based on rail and/or tram needs then Glen Huntly Road Glen Huntly (and consequently Neerim Rd Glen Huntly/Caulfield East) would be a near the top priority because of the tram level crossing, the busiest of the 3 remaining and the only with either a significant number of express trains and/or 3 tracks. The other 2 (Glenferrie Rd, Kooyong and Riversdale Rd, Camberwell) would also be on the list. Burke Rd, Glen Iris probably only made the list because the Liberals had already promised it.

          With Versailles and Charles de Gaul Airport having RER termini, Orly Airport having connections to a couple of RER lines, the major rail termini and several major attractions, it would get quite a few tourists (although not on all lines). It is also a major part of inner Paris transport where it competes with the Metro.

          • Myrtonos says:

            If it was a list prioritised based on rail and/or tram needs then Glen Huntly Road Glen Huntly (and consequently Neerim Rd Glen Huntly/Caulfield East) would be a near the top priority because of the tram level crossing, the busiest of the 3 remaining and the only with either a significant number of express trains and/or 3 tracks. The other 2 (Glenferrie Rd, Kooyong and Riversdale Rd, Camberwell) would also be on the list. Burke Rd, Glen Iris probably only made the list because the Liberals had already promised it.

            Some say that the construction of the South Eastern Arterial (since renamed Monash Freeway) should have been used as an opportunity to grade separate 5 level crossings on the Glen Waverly line, this would have included both tram squares on that line.

            Suppose the list were prioritised based on all mass transit needs, be it rail or street transit, this would be the right priority. Not only should the list be proritised on the needs of non-car transport options, but grade separations that most benefit such transport options should be prioritised over all other transit improvements. We should fund such level crossing removals every way we can.

          • Tom the first and best says:

            The problem with either the construction of the South-Eastern Arterial in the 1980s or its conversion to a freeway in the mid-1990s is that it would likely have meant road over rail, at least for most of the crossings, the most pedestrian (and thus station user) hostile form of grade separation that messes up the local area (see Warrigal Rd, Oakleigh, North and Huntingdale Rds, Huntingdale, etc)

          • Myrtonos says:

            I don’t see why it would. The freeway runs under all roads in that area except Glenferrie road.

          • Tom the first and best says:

            Maybe not all of then but Tooronga has still has plans for the raised road bridge over the railway, as an extension of the raised road bridge over the freeway. There is a Public Acquisition Overlay still in place over a shape that indicates a road over rail bridge.

            http://planning-schemes.delwp.vic.gov.au/schemes/stonnington/maps#pso-planningSchemeMaps-grid06

        • Marcus Wong says:

          I would argue Sydney is the only Australian example of a railway system that terminates at the edge of the CBD – it took the City Railway as designed by John Bradfield in the early 20th century to extend services from the not-quite ‘Central’ station, into the business heart of Sydney.

  3. Nick says:

    At Dallas Union Station, platform interchange is by crossing adjacent to platforms at track level, and there are no gates / bells / warning systems at all. It was slightly offputting to discover this while rushing for the train..

  4. Somebody says:

    I can’t speak about the Melbourne system as an outsider as I’m not one, but an interesting point in comparison IMO is the level of service provided to middle/outer suburban areas equivalent to where the average person here lives.

    Melbourne compares very well to many overseas cities in that regard. Compare it to say New York City, one of the reference points for supposedly great public transport, where if you’re out in the suburbia served by the LIRR you can expect a huge twelve car long EMU once every 30 minutes in the off-peak that costs about $12 for a one way trip!

    • Marcus Wong says:

      The same applies to the suburban areas of other American cities – their subway / mass transit system terminates around 30 minutes travel time from downtown, with infrequent commuter trains serving areas beyond – often with diesel hauled push-pull double deckers.

      • Tom the first and best says:

        The often local government run PT systems in the inner-cities of North American systems and the outer suburban systems, usually on nationally regulated private railways, do often seem to have quite different levels of service.

        The Australian system of state government run railways do provide better outer suburban services than this. Although it should be noted that Ontario is upgrading the outer suburban rail system of Toronto (Go Rail) to the sort of standard of Australian outer suburban rail.

  5. mich says:

    So I read the first paragraph, and I thought “Aha, I can tell the Victorians what they are doing wrong, too”. But then he has mentioned almost all of my criticisms already.

    The Loop is a ridiculous concept in itself, and the poor information and signage and announcement system just make it worse.

  6. mich says:

    90% of his commentary about Sydney seems to be based not upon his own observations as an observant tourist, but on stuff he has picked up from other blogs and websites.

  7. myrtonos says:

    So because he called off level crossings, here’s a look at our level crossings and those in Europe:

    Macaulay road, Kensington – This one is operated from a signalbox (not automatic), yet it doesn’t retain the original interlocked gates and the barriers only cover the entry side (when lowered) and the pedestrian gates have emergency exits.
    Because there are pedestrian gates on only one side, the bell on the other side stops once the barriers are lowered and the pedestrian gates closed.

    Another one in Austria – This one has skirted barriers that cover the full road width as well as the footpaths, and no emergency exits. One might wonder if there is a camera monitoring the crossing, to ensure that the crossing is clear when the barriers come down. The bell stops when all the barriers are closed.

    One in London – Again skirted barriers cover the full road width and the yodel alarm stops when all the barriers are down. The lights on one of the exist barriers don’t work.

  8. myrtonos says:

    Okay, the UK ones are definitely remotely operated, and often have cameras monitoring the crossing, which allows the use of full barriers.

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