Express trains and Melbourne’s suburban sprawl

A common refrain from some public transport activists is the “Melbourne’s trains used to carry more passengers in the past – so why can’t management do the same today”. But there is an explanation for this – the introduction of express trains to carry peak hour commuters from far flung suburb sprawl to the Melbourne CBD.

Notice of Frankston line express services at the bottom of the next train display at Richmond station

So where do express trains run?

The Lilydale and Belgrave share a third track as far as Box Hill, allowing express trains to overtake all stations services.

'Express' and 'Ltd Express' options used for trains in the Burnley Loop at Flagstaff

The same applies to Frankston services as far as Moorabbin.

Frankston train transposed to Flinders Street platform 4, normally used by Craigieburn trains

But double track lines also see express trains – like the Sunbury line as far as Sunshine.

And a minute later, the 'Change at North Melbourne' message is gone!

And what does it mean for capacity?

In March 2008 Rod Eddington raised this question in his ‘East West Link Needs Assessment’ report:

In 2007-08, Melbourne’s train system will carry about 200 million passengers – a historically high number exceeding the peak of the 1940s and 1950s.

With the city’s train system only recently exceeding the number of passengers carried in the 1950s, some Melburnians ask the question: if the system could carry that many people 50 years ago, why is it so hard today?

Then provides the answer:

When measured in passenger kilometres – rather than simple passenger numbers– today’s rail system performs a much greater task than in the 1950s.

The geographic expansion of Melbourne (with low density land use and widely spread employment and residential locations), together with the introduction of express commuter trains, means that a direct comparison between the passenger numbers carried today and those carried in the 1950s is more complex than simply counting passengers.

Melbourne has changed considerably since the 1950s – and so has the way the city’s trains are operated. In the 1950s Melbourne’s population was around 1.5 million, with 70 per cent living within 10 km of the GPO. Today, Melbourne’s population is moving towards 4 million, with around 16 per cent of people living within 10 kilometres of the GPO.

Industry was concentrated in the inner and middle suburbs, meaning that people had very short journeys from home to work. In addition, very few people owned cars – in 1950, there were less than 200,000 cars in Melbourne (around 113 vehicles per 1,000 people) compared to today’s 3.5 million vehicles (around 680 vehicles per 1,000 people).

This animation by GIS analyst Cody Phelan illustrates this growth.

‏With Rod Eddington describing the impact it had on the rail system.

With such short journeys to work and with so few people owning cars, there was no great demand for express trains over such short distances, and no competitive pressure from car travel. Melbourne’s trains ran regular services of short distances compared to today, with very few express trains.

In 2008, express trains are a highly valued part of the metropolitan train timetable, with some Melburnians commuting 40 or even 60 km each day from the outer suburbs to the CBD. Express trains were introduced partly as a response to competition from the rise in car ownership: as car ownership exploded in the 1960s, people began to leave the public transport system and a long steady decline commenced that has only recently turned around.

Express trains ‘eat up’ capacity. Where express trains share track with ‘stopping all stations’ trains, greater space between trains must be ‘hard coded’ into the timetable, limiting the number of trains that can be run on the line. Reducing the number of express trains would help to increase capacity, but would significantly increase travel times from the outer suburbs and may dissuade commuters from using the train at all. Boarding data supplied to the EWLNA shows a clear commuter preference for express trains, with maximum loads on these trains and ‘stopping all stations’ trains carrying significantly lower loads.

The distance people travel on the train has also increased as the city has grown. Today, the average journey length is around 18 km; in 1930, it was less than 11 km. The result is that when the number of passenger kilometres run today is compared to that of the 1950s, the load being carried by the system in 2008 is far greater.

In addition, the peak hour ‘spike’ is far more extreme today than in the past. Today, the system has to cope with a peak period of extreme demand that is 50 per cent greater than 1969, stretches system capacity and makes it difficult to meet that demand with extra services. These differences between the way the system operated in the 1950s and today mean that direct comparisons about passenger numbers are misleading.

The growth in express services is shown in figure 31 – Percentage of trains running express, 1940 and 2006.

East West Link Needs Assessment report

And figure 32 shows the driver in demand: average distance passengers travel by train, 1930 to 2006.

East West Link Needs Assessment report

With the end result figure 33 – CBD station exits, 1939, 1969 and 2006.

East West Link Needs Assessment report

Looking back

As far back as the 1950s, the Victorian Railways was concerned that Melbourne’s suburban sprawl was impacting on their ability to efficiently provide rail services.

SLV image H31188

From the 1956-57 Victorian Railways annual report:

At the same time, suburban travel demands have changed. The growing population in the developing outer suburbs involves a greater proportion of longer distance suburban travel and this imposes operating problems during the peak periods because the track facilities serving many of the areas limit the service which can be provided. More trains are also required for peak period operation because of the longer turn-round.

The following graph illustrates the steady increase in suburban journeys over six miles in distance and the gradual decrease in journeys under six miles.

SUBURBAN PASSENGER JOURNEYS: Proportion of Total Journeys

Work is in progress to increase track capacity on several suburban lines so that, with the new trains being put into running, improved services can be provided. Increased traffic in the outer suburbs has also necessitated the provision of four new stations. One – Oak Park on the Broadmeadows line – was opened during the year, but progress could not be made with the others due to limited funds. For similar reasons, a number of other essential works to facilitate suburban train running had to be deferred.

Combined with the growth in private car ownership and a reduction in off-peak passengers, rail patronage began to enter a death spiral – with express trains seen as the saviour.

Weston Langford photo #113741

With the 1958-59 Victorian Railways annual report explained the financial impact of these changes.

Suburban passenger journeys totalled 162,631,736 – 376,668 more than in 1956-57. This traffic is also adversely affected by the use of private cars but the chief difficulty is the lack of patronage during off-peak periods.

During the intense morning and evening peak periods, aggregating about 3 hours daily, it is necessary to operate 122 trains and even then the loading is mostly uni-directional, but off peak traffic requires only 60 trains. The balance of the trains remain idle. Drivers, guards, shunters and station staffs must also be augmented to handle the peaks and they cannot always be economically utilised at other times. The fact that the suburban electric system is not used to capacity needs no further elaboration.

Another factor affecting suburban traffic results is the increase in the average length of the suburban journey, which in 1957-58 rose from 8·73 miles to 8·82 miles, continuing its progressive increase with the growth of population in the outer suburbs. Concurrently, however, traffic at the inner stations has declined substantially with the result that the total number of suburban journeys has remained relatively static in the last few years.

The increased average length of journey has necessitated the spending of large sums of money on development of the suburban system by duplication of lines, provision of new stations, additional trains, etc., but the revenue accruing from the longer journeys has fallen far short of making good the losses of short haul traffic and meeting the heavier fixed charges and increased cost of operating the added train mileage.

Increases in fares having failed to keep pace with increased costs, it is not surprising that for a number of years the suburban electric system has been operated at a substantial loss-estimated at £2,500,000 in 1957-58 after making arbitrary allocations of the cost of facilities common to suburban, country passenger and goods services, e.g. tracks, signalling, stations, etc.

With the object, therefore, of complying with Government policy that this loss be reduced and one class suburban travel introduced, a new schedule of one class fares, estimated to produce additional annual revenue of £1,300,000, was brought into operation on the electrified system on 14th September, 1958.

Continuing to run clapped out ‘red rattler’ trains from the 1920s didn’t help to attract passengers.

Weston Langford photo #112453

With the 1963-64 Victorian Railways annual report describing the worsening of the post-WW2 malaise.

During the past fifteen years, the extensive development of outer suburban areas, particularly to the north, east and south-east of Melbourne, has been reflected in the steadily increasing length of the average distance travelled by suburban passengers. The following table is indicative of this trend:

Although there has been a growth of traffic from the outer areas, the traffic at stations within nine miles from Melbourne has declined substantially, the overall result being a drop of about 26 million passenger journeys compared with the total for 1 949-50, the peak year for suburban rail travel.

The increased average length of journey has necessitated the spending of large sums of money on track duplication, signalling improvements and the provision of new stations and additional trains. However, the revenue accruing from the longer journeys is not sufficient to offset the loss of short haul traffic or to meet the heavier fixed charges and increased cost of operating the extra train mileage, because of the manner in which the suburban fare tariff tapers off as the distance from Melbourne increases.

The great disparity between peak and off-peak traffic further militates against economical working of the suburban system. During the intense morning and evening peaks, totalling about three hours daily, it is necessary to operate up to 130 trains of seven carriages, but for the off-peak traffic less than 60 trains, many of which are reduced in length to four or two carriages, are sufficient to handle the traffic offering. Because of this uneven distribution of traffic, a great proportion of the suburban carriage fleet, representing an investment of many millions of pounds, remains idle for most of the day.

Moreover, the necessity for much of the costly duplication and other works undertaken in recent years to increase track capacity has been dictated largely by rush hour traffic requirements.

The general decline in off-peak rail travel has been contributed to by many factors, the chief of which is undoubtedly the increased popularity of the private car as a means of transport during leisure hours.

The 1980 Victorian Transport Study Report on Metropolitan Public Transport also discussed the fall in patronage.

However the use of public transport subsequently declined with the increasing ownership and use of private cars. Population and jobs have become dispersed and people travel, in the main, by private motor car. As recently as 1955 public transport provided approximately 50% of annual passenger travel in Melbourne.

Since then travel in Melbourne has approximately trebled and the public transport share has dropped to little more than 10%. Over this period public transport patronage has declined from approximately 500 million per annum to slightly more than 250 million.

This rapid change in patronage has been associated with increasing costs of operation and reduced productivity – the relatively greater reduction in off peak usage being an important factor in this.

And the impact on rail operations.

During 1978-79 suburban trains covered 13.4 million kilometres and carried over 89 million passengers. Although the suburban network has seen some expansion in overall physical capacity (an increase of 28 route kilometres, 76 track kilometres and more than 60 carriages over the past 20 years) much of this capacity has been absorbed in catering for an increase in the average length of journey from 13.9 to 16.2 kilometres during the same period.

In the 1970s the City Loop was conceived as the saviour to turn the tide in patronage – but all it did was arrest the fall.

Hitachi train at Melbourne Central platform 4

So transport planners came up with another way to deploy express trains – off peak ‘flyer trains’ to Dandenong, Frankston and Ringwood; and triplication to Ringwood and Dandenong.

X'Trapolis 72M on a down Lilydale service arrives into Laburnum station

But it took the growth of visitation to the Melbourne CBD from the mid-2000s to see patronage commence the climb seen today.

Overcrowded platforms 9 and 10 at Southern Cross Station

Today’s priorities – the Metro Tunnel under the CBD, removing level crossings and rolling out all-day 10 minute train services to more lines.


The PTUA looked at the why can’t we run more trains question from a different angle, in their article titled “Myth: We’d have to spend heaps of money on infrastructure“. Their conclusion – kill off express trains:

However one looks at it, the supposed capacity shortage is revealed to be a management problem, not an infrastructure problem.

In conclusion, if there really is money available to spend on new tracks, the priority should be

  • the remaining single-track sections in the network, which make the provision of reliable high-frequency services difficult to impossible whether inside or outside peak hour;
  • and network extensions to areas that currently have no train services at all, no matter how fast or frequent.

Once the real bottlenecks have been fixed it may then be appropriate to consider additional tracks for ‘super expresses’, which are in any case only useful in peak hour and then only for central-city commuters. Needless to say, all of this should be undertaken by competent and skilled planners, every one of whom is worth more than their weight in gold-plated steel rails.

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3 Responses to “Express trains and Melbourne’s suburban sprawl”

  1. Alex says:

    I’ve wondered about the cultural divide between JR (ex government railways) and private railways in Japan in allowing for express services. JR uses extra tracks, eg quadrication, it seems for the most part to allow slower trains to be overtaken. Private railways seem to have narrower reservations and a standard pattern of duplicate track for the whole route and passing loops at pretty much every station where slow trains are held. This of course requires more staff and track work, and regular patterns of clockface timetables. Maybe the private railways have an economical method

  2. Dean says:

    Do you think that trains carry less passengers now because of the increasing numbers of fat people? There are fat people everywhere now and they take up so much room (and stand in doorways)

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