A Common Resource?

Ninthnotch suggested on Riccardo’s blog that it might be a good idea to have a common resource for some of the issues we’ve been discussing, and I personally think it’s a really good idea. I was thinking along the lines of setting up a new site (probably just a wordpress blog to start with because it’s easy to edit and free) that could function as a more centralised resource for technical (and perhaps comment) pieces than the blogs do currently, of course without impinging upon the independence of the current blogs.

Also, it might be good to have RSS feeds from Riccardo’s, Peter Parker’s and my blog (and perhaps others) so that visitors have an easy way of linking to new posts on our respective blogs.

I’ve got a couple of questions regarding such a potential site. Firstly, to everyone, would you be interested in visiting such a site and also potentially contributing technical and/or comment articles? Secondly, mainly to Riccardo and Peter Parker, would you be happy to lend some of the great content on your respective blogs to be published on such as site as well?

Depending on people’s thoughts on the matter, we can hopefully get onto setting it up in some form or other in the near future.

cheers,

Phin

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Paul Austin reports in today’s Age that Eddington’s “Paris Metro style”* rail tunnel is looking increasingly like becoming a reality. Apparently, “Some Labor Party strategists believe a commitment to a rail tunnel would help Mr Brumby to go to the 2010 election portraying himself as a man of the future with a low-carbon-emissions plan to cater for the transport needs of Melbourne’s rapidly growing population.” It’s now very clear that this tunnel will be used as a political solution to Melbourne’s public transport woes, something I’ve blogged on before. While some may that the reasons don’t matter – so long as it’s built – I say that unless such a project is done properly, it merely wastes huge sums of money and further ingrains existing poor operating practices.

In other news, there have been some strange developments in the way Melbourne University are teaching transport planning. I’m sure you all recall that the university got rid of Paul Mees for his constant criticism of government (well they demoted him, but I’m sure they knew he was so proud that such a course of action would lead him to resign). There was quite a bit of controversy at the time about the university getting too close to (and therefore unduly uncritical of) the state government, but I believed they just wanted to get rid of him for more personal reasons – and having taken a subject with him before I know how abrasive and difficult he can be.

But I’m coming to reconsider this view – there are signs that the university is actually getting more cosy with the government on transport planning issues. Take for instance the recent piece in The Age by Nick Low and Bill Russell (now Melbourne Uni’s most prominent transport academics) in which they strongly supported Eddington’s rail tunnel while admitting they hadn’t seen detailed reasoning as to why it was needed. Moreover, my eyebrows were raised this morning upon receipt of an email regarding one of Mees’ old subjects – Advanced Transport Planning. I’m taking the subject for a bit of fun (yes, what a nerd I am) and I was surprised to read that Mees’ replacement is “mostly … guest lectures (sic) drawn from industry”. It’s running as a five day intensive in September – I’ll report back on what transpires.

* One would think given Australians’ predilection for international travel, that someone in the media would have picked up on the fact that Eddington’s proposal isn’t anything like a metro at all. Apparently they haven’t.

Heavy rail to Highpoint?

I was looking through the Eddington Report public submissions (by which I mean browsing Vicsig and looking at what the media’s picked up on), and I was somewhat surprised to see that Highpoint’s submission being picked up by the Herald Sun for its suggestion that the Flemington Racecourse line be extended to Highpoint Shopping Centre. Extending the Racecourse line is a suggestion that comes up occasionally (and is currently being discussed on Railpage), so I thought it might be worth looking at what such a plan might involve, and whether it would be worthwhile. Below is the ‘Highpoint Environs’ and Eddington study area taken from their submission.

What Highpoint want

The fact that Highpoint was allowed to be built how and where it was is symptomatic of a broader Melbourne failure to put patronage generators near the existing rail system – a costly mistake. But now Highpoint seem to be angling for a railway line via the racecourse – among the numerous road upgrades, of course. They also advocate extending this line to the airport in the future. But let’s look at the immediate,  lowest cost rail proposal, the approximate route of which is shown below.

This proposal calls for around 2.65km of underground rail and 0.7km of surface rail, as well as one station and a bridge. Using the per km costs I calculated a while ago ($78.72m for underground rail minus station fit out and $13.7m for surface rail), we could expect the track to cost around $218.2m. Throw in say another $30m for station fit out (remember the shell is already included) and $15m for flyover works at Newmarket, and it’s a bit under $265m. Not an obscene amount of money, but quite a bit for just one station when so many other projects are crying out for funding.

Alternatives

Whilst rail may be still be option for Highpoint, there’s plenty of tram infrastructure nearby that, while almost useless in its current form, could be made to work well for Highpoint at minimal cost and in a more timely fashion. Both the 57 and 82 trams run tantalisingly close to Highpoint, but in the case of the latter especially, follow pointless diversions to make them useless for highpoint shoppers. For example, the 82 diverts around the back of Highpoint when it should go straight past the front door, and runs at such a bad frequency that it offers no competition to the car anyway. Moreover, instead of running as a feeder from the Craigieburn line, poor station placement at Ascot Vale means that train/tram interchange is very inconvenient. The most frustrating part of this mess is that trams should be in their element for these kind of shopping trips, but poor planning and infrastructure has left them useless for highpoint.

So what’s the solution and how much would it cost? I’d advocate the extension of the 57 to Buckley St, rerouting the 82 via the Highpoint front door, moving Ascot Vale station north to provide a train/tram interchange and running the trams on a 6 minute headway all day every day. The 57 extension, some 3.4km long, should cost around $37m (@$10.87m/km) and the 0.85km 82 diversion should cost around $9.25m. Assume that Ascot Vale station costs $15m and we’re looking at capital costs in the order of $61.25m. Of course, more trams and drivers would be required to operate these services. The map below shows the broad plan I’m advocating.

The main problem with this plan is that it still doesn’t get the 57 into Highpoint properly. But with 6 minute headways, passengers would only have to wait 3 minutes on average to transfer to an 82 tram. Ultimately, this sort of thing is basic stuff which should have been done decades ago, if not from the beginning.

Stuck Inside of Melbourne With The Metro Blues Again

Public submissions to the Eddington report have been released – some 2042 of them – and one wonders what effect (if any) they will have on the whole process. I doubt much of it will be read, let alone inform decision making within the government. But on a broader level, public pressure to improve public transport has become a key political issue for Brumby and co. and it’s likely that it will come to dominate the 2010 state election.

Intuitively, this seems to be a very positive step for public transport – but will it see better outcomes? Having sat on their hands for so long, it will be difficult for the state government to make meaningful improvements without the public complaining that those improvements should have been made 5 or 10 years beforehand. With potential political gains muted by a decade of inaction, the opportunity cost of spending that money on public transport becomes too high to bear.

On the other hand, the government may see fit to pour resources into public transport, as the apparently impending $20bn Eddington response suggests. But that’s also potentially problematic. The Ribbon-Cutting Effect, as detailed in Riccardo’s Training Track series is a key issue. There’s a real risk the current political pressure may result in a big new project, but the chances of investment occurring in the boring but necessary stuff are much slimmer. Just look at how the Dandenong triplication – arguably the rail centrepiece of Meeting our Transport Challenges, a plan that fell squarely into the boring but necessary category – has been quietly abandoned (not that the triplication was a sound idea but I digress). It is important to acknowledge that many boring but (to varying degrees) necessary track amplification works have been undertaken in Melbourne over the last half century – but what happened to the investment to actually run a decent service over the improved tracks? It never came.

Moreover, many of the problems in Melbourne’s public transport have come to be seen solely through the prism of the Eddington report, an inquiry that was never asked to investigate how best to improve Melbourne’s public transport, instead focussing solely on east-west congestion. I fear that Eddington’s public transport recommendations will be taken as the complete solution to Melbourne’s transport woes, leaving many necessary improvements out in the cold for another few decades. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

Blogless

I’m off overseas for two weeks today and probably won’t have any internet access. But I’ll be back on the 13th and will be posting on branding, fare structures and goodness knows what else.

cheers,

Phin

Some Suggestions for Better Network Maps

I’d planned to write a post on Melbourne network maps a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t quite get around to it. I’d actually been thinking seriously about the issue for a few months prior, ever since a friend lent me Maxwell J. Roberts’ great book Underground Maps After Beck, which documents the history of network maps of the London Underground.

What amazed me about the book – aside from the detail in which the maps are reproduced and discussed – was how harsh Roberts was on Harold Hutchison’s attempts at map drawing. Now there’s no doubt that Hutchison’s maps were a big step backwards, that Beck’s removal was particularly mean-spirited and unnecessary and that London Transport made a general mess of the affair; but even Hutchison’s much maligned map is better than Melbourne’s maps today. What criticism would Roberts have for them?

In this post, I’m going to look at what I believe a good network map should convey, Melbourne’s recent experiences and finally some alternative designs.

What do we want in a network map?

Ideally, a network map should be simple and easy to read, yet convey important information about the network to an even infrequent user and be part of an integrated scheme to make the system highly navigable. If possible, the map should be readily recognisable and aesthetically pleasing, acting as an advertisement as well as a just a map (just as London’s does) – but I’d stress that this is difficult to achieve and may take decades to occur (just as it did in London).

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Melbourne rail map should look just like the London Underground map, (the latter is much more complex), but we need to be mindful of what we’re aiming for in a map and base designs on the benchmarks I mentioned above. I’m not convinced this has happened in Melbourne.

Melbourne’s experience with network maps

Over the decades and various changes of management, Melbourne’s train and tram systems have had a variety of train and tram maps. None that I’ve seen have been particularly revolutionary. But when we look at the past quarter of a century or so – it’s clear that we’ve seen basically one predominant train map style (with the exception of the privatised pre Metlink mess and some of the early loop maps) and two main tram map styles (with the aforementioned early privatisation caveat). Below you can see the 1994 and current rail maps (note that that only real change between the 1994 map and those from the mid 80s was the change of zone system) and 1981, 1994 and current tram maps.

Melbourne’s train maps have primarily shown zone structure at the expense of other features, like individual lines. While I’d argue that this almost the least important thing to show on a two zone multimodal system, at least there’s the excuse that the rail network is reasonably simple and hasn’t cried out for line by line colour coding. But with Werribee being taken out of the loop (albeit only during peak) and Eddington’s rail tunnel perhaps occurring (although I’d be surprised if it actually went ahead), this excuse is no longer going to hold.

Melbourne’s current tram network doesn’t have any such excuses. It’s complex (more than many metros) and is basically all in zone 1, so there’s really no reason to colour lines based on zones rather than where they are going. Worse still, the Met was making a much less confusing map back in the 90s. Sure it wasn’t perfect, but it acknowledged that the tram network was complex and prioritised showing where the lines went rather than what zone they were. That’s an efficient choice to make when a map can’t show every piece of relevant information – it simply has to be prioritised.

This ought not reflect poorly on the designers of the map, they were probably just given a brief to integrate it better with other public transport as part of the Metlink programme, and how they showed zones probably wasn’t something they had control over. But if we want to show zones on a network map, we should do it the way the London Underground Map does – as part of the background.

Alternative designs

In many ways, Beck’s guiding principles should be instructive for Melbourne. Roberts summarises Beck’s design principles thus:
– Only horizontal, vertical and 45-degree lines are used.
– The centre of the map is enlarged but at the expense of the suburbs.
– A distinctive interchange symbol is used.
– Street details are not shown.
– Stations are denoted by tickmarks.
– Lines are denoted by distinctive colours.

Whilst I don’t think these ideas should necessarily be taken as gospel, they may provide some insights. My recent train and tram network maps incorporate some elements of this overarching design (although the tram map much less so). They aren’t by any means perfect, but hopefully they illustrate my point about navigability and ease of reading.

I’ve also been thinking about mapping based on service standard rather than mode, and Australian Rail Maps has a very well done Beck like rendition of Melbourne’s trains and trams on the same map. But in many ways, mode has come to say so much about service standard in Melbourne (trams = slow but frequent, trains = less frequent but faster and longer distance, buses = rubbish) that it would be hard to do differently. If I had my way and the outer reaches of routes 75 and 86 became heavier light rail, perhaps they should be shown on the rail map too – but there’s many questions about how that should be done and I don’t really have the answers. Furthermore, I don’t have any answers about how to go about a decent bus network map – I’d be interested to hear ideas on this one.

Paul Mees in today’s Age

I see that Paul Mees has an anti rail tunnel article in today’s Sunday Age. It’s typical Mees fare – he seems to get half way there in his claim that the Loop (defined in a broader sense of the inner city rail system) was built to handle more trains than it gets today, and that there’s scope for squeezing more capacity out of the system. But then he goes and wrecks it all by failing to realise (and convey) that lots of little infrastructure improvements (like flyovers etc.) are necessary to get to this point – the same mistake he made with his Dandenong line paper.

What I find most strange is that he berates the new rail tunnel as an “excuse for doing nothing else for a decade”, but then he only proposes minor alternatives – namely taking crew changes away from Flinders street and reconfiguring carriage seating. Don’t get me wrong, I think that there’s plenty of valid criticism of the new tunnel (although I’d love to see north-south rail, albeit in a different form), and changing seat configuration and changing crews at suburban termini are very useful reforms; but you can’t ridicule DoT for doing nothing and then propose only slightly more than nothing yourself. If Melbourne wants a large scale modal shift to public transport, we’re going to need a lot of targeted infrastructure investment in both outer-suburban commuter rail and inner city metro as well as cultural reform.

I have a question regarding Mees’ article – he claims the loop cost $5 billion in current dollars. But I seem to remember reading that it cost about $350 million or so at the time. If we index that from say 1980 to now, it’s still only just under $1.2 billion. Have I got the wrong numbers here or has Mees exaggerated the cost by over four times?