Thursday, March 23, 2017

How to double the capacity of the rail network in three easy lessons

Double the capacity? Really? I'm listening!

Right well get a pencil and paper because here we go.

Lesson 1. Stop thinking about Metro and V/Line separately. Treat Ringwood, Dandenong and Frankston the same as Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo. That means onboard toilets, comfy seats and super express running. Eventually we can string electric wires over the interurban network but that's later.

Lesson 2. Through route everything. Terminating at Southern Cross or Flinders Street and occupying a platform while the driver changes ends is an incredibly wasteful use of scarce inner city platform space.

Lesson 3. Spread recovery time around the Loop stations. Instead of adding seven minutes to the timetable at Flinders Street, add two there and at Southern Cross and one each at Flagstaff, Melbourne Central and Parliament. That way there's still a buffer in case the train arrives late, but each platform at Flinders Street can handle more trains per hour. And since a rail line is only as strong as its weakest link, that boosts the capacity of the whole line.

Lesson 4. Abandon the concept of the single seat journey. Most passengers will burn me in effigy for that, but it has a lot of advantages.

OK, maybe I lied about there being three. And about them being easy.

But it's worth it. Let's put these ideas together and see how they could actually double our capacity without needing an $11bn tunnel.

Run V/Line interurban services from the west through Southern Cross, through Flinders Street and out to the east (lesson 2). Don't stop them for long in the city (lesson 3), which means a single pair of platforms will easily handle twelve trains an hour. That means you can put the Metro and V/Line trains on the same platforms (lesson 1), and run them both at a useful frequency. (The exact frequency you can have is a trade-off with the average speed you let the V/Line trains run at, due to a foible of the universe which states that a fast train and a slow train can't occupy the same space at the same time without the physics police coming down on them like a ton of bricks.)

Metro services can then be redesigned for short journeys - Sunshine, Box Hill and Oakleigh via the City Loop, and new metro services radiating out from the major centres. We have a Bendigo suburban network, why not a Ringwood suburban network? It can have branches to Blackburn, Lilydale and Belgrave. Anyone commuting from Mooroolbark to the city can change trains at Ringwood (lesson 4), which is a bit inconvenient but from there to the city they don't have the stop-start-stop-start journey they do today, and it'll be faster and more comfortable.

Of course it sounds rather like this won't boost capacity at all because the same people will be crowding onto the same trains but at fewer stations. Not quite so - anyone travelling from Narre Warren to Noble Park will stay on the Metro service. Anyone wanting to get to Chelsea to pick up the Smartbus won't touch the overcrowded express service at all. Today, of course, those people are the ones we adore because we can recycle their seats, for which favour we forgive them for blocking the doorway by getting off the train - but under this system they won't be on the train at all, which means less dwell time at stations and faster running.

That last example, of someone who only uses the train to get to the cross-town Smartbus, is the key. The only reason most of today's passengers go to the city is because that's what the trains do. Cross-town travel is outgrowing radial travel and has been for some years, but in many cases the easiest way to get across town is to take a train to the city fringe (eg Richmond) and out again. By deliberately breaking the single-seat journey from most outer stations to the city, this method allows the cross-town Smartbus routes to shine in their own right, without having to compete with the convenience of the single-seat train journeys.

So let's review our three easy lessons.
Lesson 1. Stop thinking about Metro and V/Line separately
Lesson 2. Through route everything
Lesson 3. Spread recovery time around the Loop stations
Lesson 4. Abandon the single seat journey.

Don't forget to name and date your exam papers.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Quick Trip to Queensland: tram envy!

Well hello there folks! It's a lovely day to be back on telling you all about the wonderful time we've had! A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Gold Coast...

So I left you all on tenterhooks wondering what might happen after Kristi picked us up. Well, we spent lots of time gasbagging with her (and her parents, who are similarly awesome), but what you all want to know about is what happened once we got to the Gold Coast. Because the Gold Coast has a brand new tram system!

We saw the tram tracks as we were coming off the freeway, but our main impression was of the way they go through the middle of Surfers Paradise itself. Almost all the track is completely independent (a Class B system - there's still traffic lights) with just a few sections where traffic joins the tram line for a short section. But even there it's a pure thoroughfare with no on-street parking so it flows fairly well.

The service is fairly frequent, and seems to be quite popular - they run 40m trams (our D2s and Es are 30m) and when we rode one it was packed to the gills. Of course, it was New Years Eve at the time - which was why we were on the tram, pushing through the crowds on the footpath isn't as much fun here as it is in Melbourne where most people walk in straight lines.

There was plenty to see apart from the trams. The "Aquaduck" is a hybrid bus/boat, with massive tyres like a container fork and a V-shaped hull like a Bushranger armoured personnel carrier. It drives around the streets for a bit like a tourist bus in any other city, and then it goes out into the water. And it doesn't just wade either, it has a propeller and rudder at the back of the hull! We didn't go on it but we saw it around plenty.

While we were out shopping we saw one of those stands in the walkway advertising heavily discounted tickets to various tourist attractions - including the Outback Spectacular, which had the same logo as the Snowy River Spectacular we saw on DVD all those years ago (and which sparked off Midga's interest in country music, which is why there's so much of it on my MicroSD card). So we stopped to find out what was up.

We were asked at the beginning whether we were Australian, New Zealand or Fijian residents over the age of 25. That was a bit weird. Then we were asked to fill in a form saying how much we earn, and various other bits of please-spam-me information. Still, a 70% discount is a 70% discount, and with the amount of spam protection available these days how bad can it be? So we signed up.

As it turned out, the spam wasn't the kind that arrives in the inbox or the letterbox - it was a case of sitting down with a salesperson for a 90 minute interview offering us membership of a club that gives discount holidays. "Did you know that you'll spend $131,500 on holidays over the next 30 years? Pay us $37,000 and we'll give you free holidays for the next 65 years!"

We knew from the get-go that we were going to say no, but played along a bit (we didn't have our Outback Spectacular tickets yet). It helped that the room was incredibly noisy and the sales woman wasn't really listening. "If you could have your dream holiday, where would you go?" "Port Melbourne beach, it has the best sand of any beach I've been to worldwide!" Apparently she mishead Port Douglas. "If you went to Paris, where would you want to stay?" "My friend lives there, I'd stay with them and sleep on the couch!"

As a last ditch attempt to make a sale she showed us the kind of room we could be staying in if we signed up. It wasn't anything particularly special, but the design of the ensuite and kitchen were quite clever so we made mental notes in order to copy the design for our own house.

It was interesting to analyse her selling technique. It was a fairly standard one where she said money wasn't everything in life and it's good to spend time with your family and friends before they grow up and leave home - the unstated major premise being that in order to spend time with your family you need to go on a holiday and stay at a posh hotel. She exposed her hand when she said something on the lines of "What, you'd rather sleep on a friend's couch than in a resort like this?"

When we'd finally considered all the options and weighed the alternatives at length to arrive at our decision we headed back up the highway to the theme park area where the Outback Spectacular was set up. As we went in they handed out hats with coloured bands - the audience were divided into teams which would be pitted against each other in the "audience participation" bits of the show. We got to keep the hats at the end of the show too.

In the foyer before the show there was a country singer standing on a stagecoach accompanying himself with a guitar and a backing track. All round the walls were old signs, photos and even bits of machinery to get us in the mood. I could swear the shearing gear was straight out of Pat's main shed.

Once the doors opened and we went inside we were seated in heavily tiered seats (which was good, I was worried about seeing over people wearing hats) with a full dinner setting ready and waiting for us. Luckily I didn't have to endure the whole waiting-for-humans-to-eat thing as the dining was part of the show! Soup was served during the Mobile Phone Speech, and then when the plot referred to Bluey the cook looking after the cast on their camping trip they served it to the audience as well. And yet it didn't seem stilted at all.

As a show it lacked plot - the story line was basically just a way of stringing together a whole lot of clever acts. Nothing like the Snowy River version at all. But the horsey bits were more amazing, and there were tricks with sheep dogs, quad bikes, a classic Holden ute, an old pre-war diesel truck and a circus trapeze act. All in all a very good night's entertainment!

New Year's Eve in Surfers Paradise looked like an ant colony from our 22nd storey room. The beach had been cordoned off for a section so they could let off the fireworks, and from our altitude the crowd was a mass of blinking lights - even if cameras don't flash, they have LCDs. We spent a lot of the evening drawing house plans - it can be quite a social activity, everyone likes thinking about how a home can work. In the end Asha got a bit stressed out by people constantly offering conflicting suggestions and packed the drawings away.

So here we are, it's New Year's Day of 2016 and we're flying home. Brisbane Airport Domestic Terminal Gate 28 has some highly evil power points - located in a perfect location near the waiting area but with no power coming out of them. So we bought an iced coffee as an excuse to sit next to a vending machine which was plugged into a double power point with nothing in the second outlet. Phew!

Looking out the window we saw a plane with upswept winglets - not the double arrow type which Jetstar have always painted orange since they got their first A320s. Unfortunately on closer inspection it was just a slightly newer A320. Still, we got to board via the airstairs (they had two sets in use) and from the tarmac we saw a Jetgo regional jet boarding at the next gate.

As a flight it was fairly nondescript. We were above cloud most of the way, and in-flight entertainment is via an iPad which can be hired for the duration of the flight for $10. No thanks. Unfortunately our neighbour in front was rude enough to not only lean his seat back without regard for us, but then complain that he was being poked in the back. Luckily he consumed enough alcohol during the flight to mellow down a bit.

Personally, I felt a bit miffed at the amount of liquid spilled on me during the flight. First Asha opened a serving of milk to put in her hot chocolate and it splashed all over me. Then another passenger opened a baby's bottle, which had been sealed up at ground level air pressure. But unlike the water bottle trick which just gives you a jet of compressed air, this sprayed water because the bottle had a straw all the way to the bottom. Well, I guess this is why Lenovo designed me with a keyboard that can resist spillages.

Asha and Kristi kept going on the house plans through most of the flight, drawing bathrooms on the back of the airsickness bags in the seat pockets! I think it's a step down from sketches on a shirt cuff or table napkin, which is where most good ideas come from, but hey, we use whatever we need to!

We were early into Melbourne, so Air Traffic Control told the captain to slow down, which meant throttling back the engines way before descent. It was strange to hear the different note without seeing the nose-down attitude. We arrived about 15 minutes early, and as we taxied to Terminal 4 we passed some Rex SAAB 340s - one of which was VH-REX! As we got off the plane we noticed we'd been flying on VH-VFT, and I can't help but wonder what would happen if Jetstar ran high speed rail.

Due to the amount of space in the car Midga and I had to take the Skybus home! It took a few goes to get aboard, because on the way back to the city it stops to pick up at three different places, so they have to be careful not to let the bus get too full at T4 (which is the first stop). But we got one of the brand new double deckers, and we got the Seat of Power right up the front! Like the London double deckers we rode last year it rolled quite alarmingly, especially when overtaking on the freeway. We didn't notice any differences in its behaviour which could be attributed to the twin-steer layout. Maybe it affects the height - we went full tilt under the railway at Dudley Street, which is signposted as 4.3m clearance, whereas the bus they're using at Werribee is 4.42m and the new London Routemasters are about the same. As we got in toward home we went downstairs to be near the door but the driver told us off. :( As it turns out there's not much seating downstairs at all - just luggage racks and some longitudinal flip-down seats. There are two stairwells, one at each end, which cuts down capacity a lot - they each take up three meters (on one side) of the available space.

So we disembarked, crossed the road, and walked one block to get home. Now quick, let's tidy the place up before the girls get home!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Quick Trip to Queensland: out hunting EMUs

So we're in the middle of Brisbane, living atop Central station, and have half a day to kill. What shall we do? We shall go gunzelling!

We left Asha to rest her weary knees and read her book, bought a GoCard (which is, according to the station staff, like a Myki but refundable), and headed down to the platforms. Since all the lines run at a fairly low frequency there were some minutes before the next service was due, but that was OK because it gave us a chance to check Wikipedia so we could recognise the different types of train. The original 1970s EMUs are almost all still in service, so let's ride as many as we can!

Central Station has an underpass connecting the platforms which is lined with old photos of QR operations - a sort of mini museum. The stand-out feature for me was a little window in the wall (which was, we saw, only a modern facade over a much older wall) showing all the types of tiles which had lined the underpass in years past. Let's bear this in mind for Flinders Street - since the tiles are heritage listed but any attempt to clean them is doomed to failure because of their maintenance intensity, we should copy this idea of just preserving a very small section in a special heritage section of the station.

When we finished looking at the photos we started our gunzelling with a trip to Roma Street. If you're reading at home, you can think of Central as Flinders Street and Roma Street as Southern Cross. So we found ourselves an EMU, jumped aboard and waited. Yes, Central is like Flinders Street even to the amount of dwell time for each train running through.

EMUs have a quite distinct set of sounds. Most of them are vaguely reminiscent of a W tram - the controller notching up, the motors revving, and the air brakes. We never heard the compressors though. The seats aren't original, but they're very nice, just like the ones in the IMUs we rode last night.

At Roma Street we headed for Platform 10, to see if any long distance trains were running. Mmmm, narrow gauge locos. Or maybe tilt trains. No such luck - it being Boxing Day there was track work and everything was bustituted. Then we went to Platform 2, which is where the XPT calls in. Dual gauge track with a huge gap between the rails! And overhead wires!

Even better, Roma Street has a busway stop attached - in fact, the busway is really part of the station, because there's cross-platform interchange between the XPT and the south-eastern busway. Now I have to tell you, busways are big in Brisbane - since the trains have such low frequency, the buses have to be pretty good, so they've given them Class A right-of-way to make them quick. Shall we take a ride? Yes, let's.

We don't want to get lost, so we take a bus which is heading for another bus/rail interchange. The bus is just like any other (a fairly modern Volgren, for the record) but as it descends into the tunnel we're disappointed to see that the busway is just a road - no o-bahn guidance system or anything. There's even traffic lights to separate out the different routes, so while they've done the most expensive bit of Class A infrastructure (the tunnel) there's a lot they could do with smart technology to speed up the trips.

South Bank isn't a very good bus/train interchange, but that's not a disaster because it's so close to the city that people are unlikely to interchange there. Heading to the station we find that it's 15 minutes before the next train back to the city, but that gives us a chance to take photos of outbound trains!

We stay on the train through Central and go to Bowen Hills, partly to get a bit more of a run (it's another EMU so we want to get as much time on them as possible) but mostly because Mayne Depot is there. We saw it on the way in last night - sparks, locos, the lot, all maintained and stabled there. Unfortunately we can't get anywhere near it because of the security, and there's a freeway bridge running right past so we can't even walk around the perimeter like we used to do at Southbank tram depot.

It's now time to head back and check out of the hotel. Kristi is coming to pick us up and life is always fun when she's around.

A Quick Trip to Queensland: landing in Brisbane

By reading the destructions in the in-flight magazine Midga has worked out that wifi can be switched on independently of flight mode, and now has full access to the entertainment app. Without headphones the only thing to do is look at the map - as we fired up the app we were flying between Gunnedah and Tamworth, and the lights of the town were visible below. Only just - it's a bit foggy, and the wingtip light means we can't see a lot. On a plane this size it feels like we can reach out the window and touch the wingtip (and it even has a nice winglet which would provide a nice hand hold) but on a pressurised plane I don't think it would be a good idea.

Soon after we started our descent and tried to gather as much geographical knowledge about South East Queensland as possible. The landing itself was pretty smooth, but the amount of reverse thrust that was applied to bring us up was quite substantial. The E190 feels a lot more nimble than a 777 though, so it didn't feel out of place.

We disembarked (last - it's easiest to just stay put and let everyone else crowd the aisle as long as they want to), collected our baggage and headed for the Airtrain. Now last time Midga was in Brisbane he didn't know either me or Asha, but he did know about trains, and decided to ride from International to Domestic while Dad was de-hiring the hire car. This time we'd take a proper journey, all the way to the city.

We just missed a service, and the normal train frequency in Brisbane is half an hour. That's not so good. Still, nothing to do but wait. Well, and make snide Facebook posts about narrow gauge rails.

By the time we got onto the train it was dark, and the double glazing and scratchiti meant we couldn't see much out the window. For the record, it was IM8162, the I standing for Interurban - this service would run all the way to the Gold Coast. The seating was about the same as we'd find on any spark at home, but with Real Padding that would stay comfortable for the whole trip. It was very quiet inside, even when we were cruising at 100km/h.

Coming off the airport branch onto the main system we merged with two other lines, onto a single track section which went for quite some distance! No wonder the frequency isn't going past half-hourly, they must have awful timetables during peak time.

We got to Central station, disembarked and pulled out Google Maps. We needn't have bothered though, the signs to our hotel were right there along with the rest of the station signs! The hotel is literally part of the station complex. Let's bear that in mind when we talk about refurbing Flinders Street!

The humans were quite tired and I was running low on battery, so we didn't do much more that night. The hotel room had a desk, which was a logical place to put charging electronics, but since we use Bible Gateway instead of carrying a dead-tree Bible, evening devotions had to be done there instead of in bed! So if anyone asks you what it's like to see a grown man standing in a hotel room in his pyjamas reading Hebrew names off a smart phone (we're up to 1 Chronicles), you may refer them to Asha for her opinion.

A Quick Trip to Queensland: the Jungle Jet

We made it to our new gate without incident - well, with only one incident. Midga had completely forgotten that he had his mini screwdriver set in my case, a throwback to the days when my hard drive was playing up. Customs in Terminal 4 had examined them closely but not said anything. In Terminal 3 they said screwdrivers are prohibited on flights and took them off us. Ah well, we'll get another set some time, and they'll be brand new instead of slightly damaged ones.

So as I was saying, we got to our new gate. It was right at the end of the terminal so we weren't sure which plane was ours, but there was a Jungle Jet (Embraer E190) out the window and we were hopeful.

As we arrived the staff were in the middle of an announcement about people who might have trouble boarding - and said we'd be using airstairs instead of an aerobridge! What fun! Asha said she'd appreciate help with the stairs (her knees are still giving her a bit of grief) so she got to get on board first. Midga and I followed, and since we were from a bumped flight we were right down the back in the cheap seats - which was great because we could get in and settled before everyone else started crowding onto the plane.

We've never been on one of these before, but wanted to ever since Australian Aviation ran an article about them. It said they'd done a lot of second-mouse improvements over the 737 and A320 ("The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese" - ie if you wait til someone else has gone in and done something, you can learn from their mistakes). The windows are nearly twice as wide as on a 737, and line up with the seats fairly accurately. The fuselage is wide enough for 2+2 seats with a very comfortable amount of width and an aisle that people can pass each other in. And the way Virgin have done them there's enough leg room even for Midga to stretch out without kicking the person in front. I very much suspect we're in better comfort here than in Emirates' 777s!

There was a bit of condensation coming out of the air conditioning as we were waiting for takeoff - the same as on the Aldi Airlines DC-9 we flew when we were in the USA. Maybe it's a back-of-the-plane thing.

Now here's something for the tech heads. Midga and I can't work it out with our combined expertise so let's open it to the world. As part of the In-Flight Entertainment there's free wifi on board this plane (told you the Jungle Jets were good), but to access it we need Virgin's app and - here's the weird bit - we need to be in flight mode. Doesn't flight mode turn off wifi? Or does Virgin's app have special permission to use wifi even with flight mode on? Anyway, we can't seem to make it work, and besides, we don't have any headphones so the only option is to pay for them. That kinda takes away the value of free wifi. Shame about the movies though.

Fairly soon after we reached altitude the snacks came around. Being a much smaller cabin than on a 777 they arrived at our seats pretty quickly, even with only one trolley doing the whole plane. Midga put his tray down to hold his cup of tea, and I could fit on the remaining section of the tray. It's good being a slightly smaller laptop sometimes.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Quick Trip to Queensland: departure, take two

Good afternoon dear listeners, you'll never guess what happened! About two seconds after we last spoke, our flight was cancelled. They'd been juggling flights around departure gates for a bit, so I suspect we got the short end of the stick in a massive cascading exercise - take a plane from a less-crowded flight to avoid cancelling a more-crowded flight, and delay another flight to allow a crew from an incoming flight to make a quick transfer to avoid another cancellation.

So we're now flying with Virgin instead of Jetstar, which is fine with me because it'll probably be a 737 or E190 rather than an A320. It's departing two hours later than our Jetstar flight was going to, so hopefully the Brisbane Airtrain runs all night on public holidays.

Virgin's check in system hadn't caught up with the fact that we're now flying with them so they told us to come back in an hour. Jetstar gave us some vouchers for airport food as an apology for the inconvenience - and while I deplore the silly habit most humans have of eating all the time, if they must do it it's probably better to do it now than when they get to Brissie. And the cafe they chose to eat at has a TWROAPP!

As a "new world order airline" rather than a low cost airline, Virgin fly from Terminal 3 not Terminal 4. It's a few years since Asha worked at the airport but she still knows every nook and cranny of T3 - no matter how much the shops and decor get changed the structure is still the same.

I guess that makes it time to go and check in. I'm going to get x-rayed again, I bet you. No pain, no gain...

A Quick Trip to Queensland: day 1, departure

For no reason at all folks, what's the date? December 25th, it's Christmas! What, so they both fall on the same day? Must be slippery!

Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week. My name's Clippy and I'll be your compere for this holiday blog.

So I guess you're all wondering where we are. Well look around you - airliners, overpriced coffee, crying babies, and banks upon banks of uncomfortable seating. Yes folks, we are in an AIRPORT!

To be quite exact we're in the brand new Terminal 4 at Tullamarine. It's very nice - lots of windows for looking at planes from, power points at every seat in the eating areas, and drinking fountains that have vertical taps for filling water bottles. Considering it's the "el cheapo" end of Tullamarine, serving Jetstar and Tigerair, I'm quite happy with it. A High Speed Rail station underneath is the only thing that could improve it.

So we're flying with Deathstar, and our A320 is just outside the window waiting for us. Narrowbody jets look so tiny after all the 777s we've been on before! The cafe next to the terminal has a huge mural of a Douglas A-26 Invader (the 1944-45 version with the eight guns in the nose, can't remember which version it is), and the radial engines on the wall look bigger than the whole fuselage of the Airbus.

We used the self-service check in to drop off our hold luggage. It's quite a painless process, just press a few buttons, scan a few barcodes and you get your luggage ID sticker. Stick it on, drop it on the conveyor belt and you're done. And there's people around to help if you need it.

Then we went through the usual x-ray (they took a good hard look as I went through - all the phone chargers etc were packed in the front pocket and it lit up like a Christmas tree) and then tramped through the endless corridors to our gate. Since this is the budget end of the airport we didn't have to thread our way through duty free alcohol and jewellery shops, which was an unexpected bonus.

Our flight has just come up on the departure board so I'm going to sign off and have a short snooze until Midga lets me know we're at altitude and I'm allowed out. Talk soon!