Off-peak rail frequencies – part 2

So why aren’t off-peak railway frequencies better? There are only a couple of possible excuses that come to mind: firstly, that patronage levels would not justify it; and secondly that it’s too expensive. The government uses ‘lack of infrastructure capacity’ as an excuse, but if a line can handle x tph during peak, then there is no reason to assume that that line can’t fewer services off-peak.


Let’s deal with patronage issues first. Patronage on the Melbourne train network has been growing strongly for some years now and is up to about 170 million trips per year. Off-peak growth has been strong enough to shame Connex into running 6 car sets all day on some lines. If that’s the case, then why is improving frequency so important? The answer lies in the relationship between supply and demand. Now a neo-classical economic analysis of a perfectly competitive market tells us that demand is a function of price, and is independent of supply. Of course, changes in demand would affect supply through the price mechanism – but this is an indirect relationship. However, the market for urban public transport is a natural monopoly, and demand for public transport is a function of the supply of public transport services. If someone wants to catch the train, but the service is too infrequent, the chances are that they will drive, because as a consumer they are unable to send an effective price signal to the monopolist public transport provider. However, if a sufficiently frequent and attractive service is provided (supply is increased), more people are likely to use it. This is the concept of induced demand. Price is also important (just look at the patronage increases on V/Line since fares were slashed 20%) but if we want a significant increase in the modal share of public transport – which is purportedly government policy through Melbourne 2030 – the government needs to start increasing the frequency of services across the board.


Cost is another potential hurdle. More drivers would be required to run the extra services. Currently, Connex need just under 700 drivers to maintain the existing schedule. Now I don’t pretend to have worked out how many drivers are required to increase services to the level I’m talking about; but for arguments sake we’ll assume it would need a 50% increase in the number of drivers. Lets say those extra 350 drivers are paid $65,000 per annum – we’re looking at only $22.75 million per annum. Even if the number of drivers were doubled (which would be unnecessary), that’s still only $45.5 million extra spending a year. Training costs are going to lead to higher costs in the first couple of years, and train maintenance and electricity use will also increase. But that’s really virtually no money when compared to total public transport expenditure and is definitely affordable. But the bigger question is can we not afford to improve services? Large sums of money are expended on the train system, yet outside of peak hours the government is failing to maximise its return on its investment. Given that public transport creates significant positive externalities such as lower pollution vis-à-vis car use and increased public amenity; as well as a reduced need for the government to fund the alternative – expensive road projects. The fixed costs are already high, but the marginal cost of providing better services off-peak is miniscule – surely we as taxpayers should demand a better return on our investment.


17 Responses

  1. Nice format btw.

  2. Oh, you’ve got to love Joe Hockey-

  3. Thanks Matt. I like Peter Martin – he really knows his monorail!

  4. I like public transport almost as much as I like emails from my friends.

  5. Gee Phin – I had no idea you were so interested in public transport!

  6. this is really great phin!!!! i love it!!!!

  7. An exemplary tract!

    Welcome to my blog sidebar, which makes me think ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, which makes me think Guns ‘N’ Roses, which makes me think “Hey — I know this song, the guy I tutored Math used to make me listen to it”.

    Wow… It’s been a long day.

  8. Ha ha Jono I love it! I’ve put you on my sidebar too…

  9. Great articles Phin, you make a lot of sense. The number of new trips provided by that extra $45m a year has to be far larger than the number on a several billion dollar project, like a freeway.

    I’m going to recommend everyone reads this blog. You have my full endorsement and advertising space on my facebook page

  10. I don’t think they’ll be increasing frequency of services on the Glen Waverley line for a while! They’d probably be happy to go at 50kmph, from what I’ve heard.

  11. The article about costs of public transport is interesting.

    The problem you have overlooked is that public transport is really very cheap. Compared with a total federal budget of 250-odd billion, the cost of public transport extensions planned for decades is very small. Even undergrounding the Glen Waverley, Hurstbridge and Epping lines would cost no more than 0.1 percent of the current federal budget.

    The problem is that Australia’s large mineral deposits produce an extremely powerful road lobby that effectively places a moratorium on public transport projects because the mineral industry relies on cars for a significant part of its profits and the size of its resources give it a political power impossible in any other country.

    A report into this was needed back in 1981, and the way our climate is changing, Guy Pearse’ “The Greenhouse Mafia” looks too late.

  12. I find your model to be intriguing – and would like to subscribe to your newsletter. The tram model expenditure wise looks solid and as a resident of the greater camberwell area would like to see this recieve the gov’t stamp of approval (whomever is currently in power in spring street – i forget)

    Cheers for the good work!

  13. […] 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 transport […]

  14. […] what sort of service standard should we be looking at for Melbourne? I’ve said on numerous occasions that most of Melbourne’s lines need to be running at least 6 trains per hour all day every […]

  15. […] improvements can make a difference and big improvements needn’t be that expensive (improving off peak rail frequency for instance). I suppose my point is that policymakers need to be mindful of what the investment is […]

  16. There are some journeys I do that could be on the train, but I just can’t cope with 30 minute off peak frequencies. So I use the car instead

  17. Hereiam, I think your experience speaks for most people

    The reasons most people say they will catch the train in peak and not off peak would be

    -safety (not enough other people on the trains to deter crime) – which can be fixed by making o/p more attractive

    -roads are quieter (read: the car is faster than the train) – so why do we run SLOW in o/p but fast in peak, should be the other way round

    -frequencies (which makes the true end-to-end travel time even longer, on top of the slower all stations timings)

    -parking is more widely available

    -weather and nighttime (read: again this is frequency related, most waiting around in less pleasant conditions is because of the long waits)

    If you do a cause and effect diagram, you can see frequency is at the heart of most of the issues.

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