Off-peak rail frequencies – part 1

One of the things that continues to astound me about the Melbourne train network is the relative lack of off-peak services. Whilst congestion is a big problem at peak hour, at least large parts of the system do receive fairly frequent services. Now to fix peak hour issues, more trains, drivers and fixed infrastructure are required, which while worthwhile, cost a lot of money. Off peak, however, the number of trains run across the system drops right back. Most lines receive 3 or 4 trains per hour (tph) during the day, and 2 tph at night. There are exceptions of course; beyond Ringwood and Dandenong only get 2 tph during the day, and beyond Eltham only gets 1.5 tph. Sandringham is unique in enjoying 3 trains per hour at night. So between around 10am and 4pm, and after about 6:30-7pm, there is plenty of spare capacity on the tracks, and a lot of trains sitting unused in stabling sidings. The questions then arise; what sort of frequency of service could be attained off-peak, why would it be desirable to improve off-peak services, and why this isn’t being done

What can be achieved off-peak, and why do it?

Assuming that we hold infrastructure (trains and tracks) constant, the theoretical maximum off-peak service level would be the same as the peak service level. In reality it would be a smidgin less, due to the need for more frequent maintenance because the trains are clocking up more kilometres and because some sections of track – like between Eltham and Hurstbridge – are running over capacity at peak. Of course, more drivers would be required to operate the services. In terms of the ideal frequency of service – I’d say that it needs to be frequent enough to be able to turn up to the station, without having looked at the timetable, and be assured of having to wait only a few minutes for a train. A train every 10 minutes – or 6 trains per hour – is a good daytime off-peak number for much of the system. The concept of induced demand suggests that increasing service frequency increases demand, but I’ll discuss that further later. Not only are those frequencies attainable on large stretches of most lines without needing to upgrade infrastructure (Werribee, Sydenham and outer reaches of some other lines like Hurstbridge, Cranbourne etc. are exceptions), they set the average wait time at five minutes – low enough to make rail use competitive with cars. Trains ought to run every 10 minutes until 9 or 10pm, and then no less than every 20 minutes until midnight (or later on the weekend). Obviously, a 10 minute frequency to Ringwood would mean 20 to Lilydale and Belgrave (the same goes for Dandenong and Cranbourne and Pakenham), and Eltham to Hurstbridge can’t (and shouldn’t) receive more services.

More on why this isn’t really happening later…


11 Responses

  1. Insightful, if only the Greens would advocate it…

  2. I agree with matt.

  3. Honestly I have my doubts about increasing services during off-peark.
    The star design of the network really limits its use beyond city commuting.
    I don’t think there’s much room for demand off-peak because you can only travel in one sorta dimension.
    I remember someone who came out from europe who said increasing frequency would increase usage, but I’m really not so sure.
    Off-peak users are more likely to be using public transport for leisure reasons. Its much easier to plan those trips out and work out when to be at the station so you don’t have to wait.
    I think most people don’t use trains because they don’t like public transport not because of the frequency.
    Now if we had an outer loop, thats probably where you could have frequent services, but I don’t think it will do anything on the outer suburban lines.

  4. […] enough to be a viable alternative to the car off-peak. I’ve written about this issue before – here and […]

  5. […] that high frequency services are impossibly expensive is a joke. I’ve discussed it before – here and here – so I’m not going into it in detail. But anyone who knows anything about public […]

  6. Our ‘transport institute’ should write a comprehensive theory of train frequencies and customer attitudes.

    Here’s my take:

    -any double track railway that isn’t working every 3 minutes, every hour for 18 hours, 7 days a week – is a waste of money. The infrastructure is designed to be used that way. That is efficiency

    -there is such a thing as the ‘gradient’ – the difference in quality of service between peak and off peak, which actually influences the travelling behaviour of the public. People actually schedule their lives in the city around the practicality of not travelling by road in peak, and not travelling by rail in off-peak, because of this gradient. If rail became more attractive in off-peak, more people would volunteer for the afternoon shift, or be less pressed about getting their children to and from school or childcare.

    -the customer uses a weighted average calculator of journey time, being a function of the typical (modal) weight time for the train, plus an average or median reliability factor (will it actually come at that time), plus the actual station to station journey time. And the further out the station is, the weighting shifts towards actually checking the time rather than turning up and going.

    So if I go to uni at Monash Caulfield, I turn up and go, very little inclination to check the train time, I factor a 5 minute wait (for a ten minute frequency) + a 1 minute unreliability factor (typically that late) because even though I turned up and expected a train, the previous train was on time but mine happened to be late. Then 15 minutes to Melbourne Central gives me 15+5+1 or 21 minutes total journey time. This is competitive with driving.

    But if I go to Carnegie, suffer 10 minutes of waiting for a 20 minute frequency, 2 minutes of unreliability and 17 minutes of travel, I’m now up to 29 minutes. A big difference and starting to get into the zone where a car does it better. I can do 10 minutes from the High St on ramp to Exhibition St, 5 minutes from there and find a park on Latrobe St with minutes to spare, and I have my car with me.

    If I could get that Carnegie train to run every 3 minutes, with an average wait of 1.5 minutes, and then get the unreliability factor down by 1 minute, I have a 17+1.5+1=19.5 minutes, a ten minute saving, and back to beating the car again.

  7. Thanks Riccardo, sorry about the late reply. You make a good point about the link between travel patterns and service level – the link is two way. It’s not simply a case of the DoI looking at existing travel patterns and providing fewer trains off peak to reflect this – people actually avoid using transport during these times because the service is so bad. The supplier induced demand effects are massive, but for some reason we don’t hear government talking about it at all…

    I fully agree re. running the tracks at capacity all day. What’s the point of spending all that money to build and maintain a rail network if you aren’t prepared to fork out a little bit extra to make it usable?

  8. Is it possible to put a link in this article going directly to part 2? If you could that would be great, thanks!

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