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…
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