Melbourne’s mysterious ‘City Circle’ train

The other week fellow transport Philip Mallis raised an interesting question – would the average Melbournian know what a ‘City Circle’ train is, if they were told to catch one?

Passenger information displays at Elizabeth Street entrance to Melbourne Central Station
Philip Mallis photo

The back story

The City Loop encircles the Melbourne CBD, with trains services from different lines taking different routes around it at different times of day, before finally arriving at Flinders Street.

Redesigned 'Trains from Flinders Street to' screen on the platform at Flinders Street

And because the loop consists of four independent tunnels, train services can continue running on one line while another one is closed.

Rerailing work in the Northern Loop between Parliament and Melbourne Central stations

But what about passengers on the line which isn’t running through the City Loop?

Answer – they catch a “Train Replacement Train”.

Confusion abounds

These “train replacement trains” start at Flinders Street, then visit Southern Cross, Flagstaff, Melbourne Central and Parliament, before arriving back at Flinders Street.

Screens on the concourse at City Loop stations call this replacement service the “City Circle”.

Passenger information displays at Elizabeth Street entrance to Melbourne Central Station
Philip Mallis photo

But the screens at platform level call them a ‘Flinders Street’ train.

'Flinders Street' train on the PIDS at Parliament station platform 1

And the trains running these services just show ‘Special’ on the front.

X'Trapolis 78M arrives into Parliament station platform 1 with a 'City Circle' service to Flinders Street

While back at Flinders Street Station, it’s called a ‘City Loop’ train.

'City Loop' train on the PIDS at Flinders Street Station platform 3

Confused?

Enter the ‘City Circle’

With four independent tunnels in the City Loop looping around the CBD, each one needed a name.


MURLA diagram, undated

Based on which train lines they are connected to.

  • Northern Loop – serving the lines through North Melbourne,
  • Burnley Loop – serving the lines headed towards Burnley,
  • Caulfield Loop – serving the lines headed towards Caulfield, and finally
  • Clifton Hill Loop / City Circle – serving the lines towards Clifton Hill, along with a branch back to Flinders Street.

The Clifton Hill / City Circle name can be seen on tunnel walls.

Clifton Hill Loop / City Circle tunnel at Parliament station

And on emergency exit signage.

Glow in the dark 'Clifton Hill / City Circle Loop' signage at the Southern Cross portal

The most interesting feature of the Clifton Hill / City Circle tunnel is an underground junction, located just south of Parliament station – a popular spot for urban explorers before security was upgraded.

Trespassing in the City Loop, circa 2004
To avoid any unwanted attention Iā€™m not going to link back to the original photographer

The other end of the tunnel is located beneath the Exhibition Street bridge.

City Circle Loop portal at Flinders Street

My only photo of the junction was taken hanging out of the open window of a Hitachi train, packing a high powered flashgun.

Junction of the City Circle and Clifton Hill tunnels in the underground loop

But I recently made a special expedition to the portal to capture it in use.

Headlights shining out of the City Circle Loop portal beneath the Exhibition Street bridge

And after a loud TOOT an X’Trapolis train emerged from underground.

X'Trapolis train emerges from the City Circle Loop portal beneath the Exhibition Street bridge

Headed up the ramp bound for Flinders Street Station.

X'Trapolis train emerges from the City Circle Loop portal bound for Flinders Street

Footnote: some photos from the past

Until August 1993 the ‘City Circle’ service operated full time to provide cross-CBD travel, until it was replaced by the newly-introduced free City Circle Tram service at ground level.

All three modes of public transport in Melbourne - train, tram and bus

But City Circle trains still ran as required for operational reasons – I stumbled upon one at Flinders Street platform 1 back in 2005, advertised as a ‘City Circle’ service on the old CRT next train display system.

PIDS at Flinders Street Station displaying a City Circle train, headed anticlockwise around the City Loop

And took one for a ride in 2012, with the displays onboard the train calling it a ‘City Circle train’.

'City Circle train' on the internal PIDS of a Comeng train

So that’s great progress in the past decade – going from consistent ‘City Circle’ messaging towards passengers, to a mix of ‘City Circle, ‘Flinders Street’, and ‘Special’.

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13 Responses to “Melbourne’s mysterious ‘City Circle’ train”

  1. Craig says:

    One correction to a claim that I often see made – the City Circle Tram was not a direct replacement

    City Circle trains ended on 21 August 1993, a cost saving measure by Kennett Government

    City Circle trams didn’t commence until 29 April 1994, 8 months later

    The original City Circle train timetable was a hard-to-remember 24 min frequency between the peaks, little use for spontaneous trips around the CBD

    In 1989 it was upgraded to every 10 mins along with Epping & Hurstbridge Lines upgrades but arguably too late to catch on

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Thanks for the clarification – the “City Circle Tram was a replacement” claim came from the old City Loop history page the Department of Infrastructure put up 10+ years ago.

      It’d be interesting to see what Hansard and contemporary newspapers had to say on the withdrawal of the service.

      • Steve says:

        The City Circle train was the only way to get from the underground stations to Flinders/Spencer Sts in the afternoon, and vice versa in the morning – other than that it probably had limited utility as you could travel between Flagstaff, Museum and Parliament in both directions on normal trains.

        I think from memory how it basically ran was a Epping/Hurstbridge arrival at Flinders Street would effectively do two circuits of the underground before heading back out to Epping/Hurstbridge. Presumably when it was cut the existing Epping/Hurstbridge service could be run with fewer trains.

        Funny that the electronic signage can’t cope with it.

        Does Metro occasionally need to run trains that way between Flinders Street and Parliament to keep the line operational?

      • Jay says:

        I’m curious about the destination “city circle” because i have a feeling it pre dates the loop. The original “city circle” ran in a circle departing flinders street/ stopping at spencer st/-nth Melbourne/Royal Park/Carlton/Fitzroy/Rushall/Clifton Hill/Victoria Park/Collingwood/West Richmond / -return to flinders. (also known as inner circle) The red rattler vintage red trains (Tait trains) have city circle on their destination blinds (and they were on the rails 1920s-1980’s ! šŸ™‚

  2. Dave says:

    And the announcements say stopping all stations to Parliament instead of stopping all stations to FSS…

  3. Tom the first and best says:

    The only way that the City Circle track connecting Flinders St and Parliament would have been widely useful would be if the following thing had also happened:

    The Museum/Melbourne Central to Clifton Hill via Fitzroy tunnel had been built.

    A corresponding Clifton Hill to Parliament tunnel via Fitzroy had been built.

  4. gjh says:

    Occasionally recorded in-train announcements when approaching Richmond on a train from the Frankston line inform us to change at Richmond for (amongst all the other lines) “City Circle” trains. They mean “City Loop” of course. I’m not sure, but I think this is limited to some of the Comeng trains. It’s in the same category as the announcements at Richmond telling us that the train is “stopping all stations to Flinders St”.

  5. Tony Bryer says:

    Thanks for this. I got to FSS yesterday (04.02.23) and saw a City Loop train signed, so out of interest rode it all the way round back to FSS. I knew such a service existed the early days of the loop but don’t previously recall seeing it in my 14 years here.

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