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!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Airport rail link study - analysis

So I read the official report of the Melbourne Airport Rail Link Study, which doesn't seem to be available any more but I can send you a copy if you like.

Well, I won't beat around the bush - it's not a good study. I started doing a page by page critique but in the end I found there were three main categories of failing:

  1. It suffers from being a study in isolation, rather than a part of a full scale integrated urban and transport plan. Of course we didn't have a full scale integrated plan back then (and still don't really) but it causes all sorts of problems for the study.
  2. It shows indecision about the purpose of the airport rail link - whether it's to be an express shuttle or a suburban stopping service
  3. The methodology is flawed with the result that some worthwhile options were not even considered.

So let's look at some examples. I'll try to avoid repetition because that's dead boring, but take it from me that these failings are liberally scattered throughout the report.

A study in isolation

So as I said up there (I could make you scroll up and read it again but I'm Mr Nice Guy today), the study was made in isolation - it examined options where a project started, delivered an airport rail link, and then finished. It couldn't examine any options where a project started, delivered all sorts of improvements over a number of years, and allowed an airport rail link to grow from the seeds it dropped by mistake.

Intuitively, an airport shuttle has high commonality with an intercity high speed rail link. They use similar technology, and in Melbourne they'd most likely run along a similar corridor. Unfortunately at the time this airport link study was released the Federal government's high speed rail study was incomplete. This meant that only basic tests could be run to see if the two were compatible, or to realise any economies of scale between the two. In an integrated long-term transport network study, each project exists as a stage of a rollout, rather than being designed in isolation. That would not only ensure compatibility between the two, but the studies into each project would be cheaper too.

Surprisingly, in this study, as the team went through the various options for an airport rail link they only rated integration with the PTV and Melbourne Airport plans as one of the criteria in the assessment. Some options were shortlisted even though they didn't fit with the other plans, which means they would need to be modified, at some cost.

There are several examples of options being rejected by the study due to capacity bottlenecks in the rail system today. For instance:

  • On p113 the study team found that "Melbourne Metro is expected to reach capacity at the time when MARL services are introduced", and therefore decided not to run airport services via the Metro. But lack of capacity could be solved by introducing technologies from overseas which allow frequencies of up to 48 trains per hour, using systems similar to our proposed High Capacity Signalling.
  • On p119 the study team were measuring running times via various routes, to see whether it was possible to meet the requirement for overall journey time to the airport. The team assumed current line speeds and timetables, even though these could be improved with track upgrades - but the upgrades were outside the scope of the study, which made certain routes unviable.
  • On p125 the study team came up against a critical lack of capacity at North Melbourne station, because airport trains would be added to the already overcrowded tracks used by Sydenham services, and more capacity would be required on the Craigieburn line as well. The station has space for two more platforms and the junction could be redesigned, which would benefit the entire system, but again this was outside the scope of the study.

In each of these cases it would be possible for the extra capacity to be added, but the cost of doing so would be out of proportion to the value to airport travellers. An integrated transport plan could recognize that other services on the system would be improved by the works, giving a benefit to passengers on non-airport services. These options couldn't be considered by a plan for an airport line in isolation.

Possibly the most telling example in this category was on p133. The effectiveness of various station locations was being examined, but the study had to eliminate both feeder buses and Park & Ride from consideration, because those two factors have almost infinite variability and would be impossible to study within the timeframe. But they can change the dynamics of a transport network dramatically, and affect the viability of a project. An integrated plan would, by definition, include all of that.

Indecision of purpose

The case for an airport line was defined by the study team in terms of air passengers (p10-11 and throughout the document). If travellers are the target market, the ideal service is an express stopping at major transport interchanges only. However, throughout the study there are indications that the thinking behind the plan is for a metro service. For example:

  • In the Functional Requirements section express running is described as "desirable" but stopping services are acceptable if the travel time requirement is met. Air travellers don't want to stop - particularly at stations where airport trains will be acting as a Metro service because there's nothing else available, as it would overcrowd the trains.
  • It was assumed that airport trains would run either the Melbourne Metro tunnel or the City Loop, and stop all stations through the suburban system (stated explicitly on p151 and p130 respectively but hinted at several times prior). This is consistent with a metro service but not with an express shuttle.
  • The orbital option, with airport trains running from Broadmeadows to Sunshine, was eliminated from consideration because it "will not align with future metropolitan rail strategic operational planning, due to them being in two different sectors of the future rail network". An express shuttle should be part of a separate network again, on separate tracks.
  • On p133-4 we are told Skybus will continue to operate after the rail line opens - this would be unnecessary if the rail service was an express shuttle.

But then on p133-4 we are told that the line will operate with flat rate fares, separate from the Met zone/fare structure, and at rates similar to Skybus tickets today. That will make the airport line unattractive as a suburban service.

An unstated assumption in many recent rail studies is that all rail lines are assumed to be equal - if there's rails there should be stations. There's no concept of express shuttle services (airport), regional services skipping suburban stops (RRL) or bypass lines serving existing stations only (Melbourne Metro). New stations are good for the people who live within the "pedshed", but it means that new rail lines only increase the catchment of the system - they don't reduce overcrowding, either of passengers on trains or trains on tracks.

Flawed methodology

The supposedly exhaustive examination of available corridors, with multiple sub-options and three vertical alignment options for each, took so much of the study team's time and effort that other available corridors, eg the Upfield line, were not considered. A good study doesn't need to test everything - it should be clear from the outset that certain combinations of horizontal and vertical alignment are badly sub-optimal, which will leave the study team free to target their work more precisely.

Possibly because of this drain on the team's resources, some variables were eliminated from the study and converted to assumptions - eg the service frequency of ten minutes (p133). By not testing the model with different combinations of variables the study team has left the project open to the possibility of vicious cost cutting - for example, if a future government decided to build the line but only allow for hourly services, the study would have no hard evidence to prove that the line would fail to provide an effective airport link under those circumstances.

In both the Strategic Merit (high level) and Rapid Appraisal (low level) sections of the study, equal weighting was given to every criterion - and each criterion was given only two possible values, there was no graduation of "more worse" and "less worse". This resulted in a relatively crude method of scoring. It should be the role of PTV to establish a standardised method of appraisal (a set of criteria, with weighting of each) based on an extended form of triple bottom line, formulated by customer surveys.

There were also internal contradictions in the text. The question of through-running with services in the Dandenong corridor (via the Melbourne Metro tunnel) was specifically avoided due to uncertainty of the way the rail system will be run when the rail link opens. However the benefits of single-seat journeys from the south-eastern suburbs to the airport were noted at several points. Even if the operational layout had been settled, the study made no reference to the requirement for extra rollingstock to service the longer route, or to track capacity on the Caulfield lines for the extra services. Surprisingly, near the end of the study on p145 the cost savings from through-running of trains are quantified, even though the possibility of through-running had not been confirmed.

Possibly the most disturbing inconsistency was that at several places the study showed signs of an incomplete understanding of track design - for instance, assuming the use of a flat junction next to a tunnel portal, instead of using a split portal arrangement to form a completely grade separated junction (which would have a negligible marginal cost). Also, on p103 the line is specified to cross the Maribyrning River after flying over a local road - which would require gradients too steep for trains to climb.


As a study, this shows severe flaws and its findings should be considered indicative at best. Before any moves are made towards building a rail link to the airport, the above three issues should be addressed.

Monday, January 5, 2015

How to fix up Flinders Street

Cross-posted from "A World Class Transport System for Victoria", which I've been working on since 2008 or so and which has been about three years from completion over most of that time.

It's all in stuttered point form because that's the way I like to write. Laconic. Terse. To the point.

Heritage restoration

Dismantle clock tower, domes, platform canopies and ironwork, main entrance clocks and interior pressed metal fittings. Completely restore them and document any details lost from the original plans. Demolish existing building, platform structures, concourse and underpasses, including main Elizabeth Street sewer, and build new facilities to modern building codes, with equivalent function (but higher capacity), in approximately the same location as today’s.

Transit oriented development

Build three storey transit oriented development covering entire station area (St Kilda Road to Elizabeth Street, Flinders Street to Yarra River walk track). Replicate the original facade and apply restored interior fittings to the new structure, with replicas to make up additional quantity. Space allocation:
  • G (Elizabeth Street level): platform access only, with replica cellars along Flinders Street, designed for use as service-industry retail outlets
  • G1 (St Kilda Road level): station concourse (see below)
  • 1: Retail development, with food court along south side incorporating panoramic windows overlooking Yarra River
  • 2: Commercial office space
  • 3: Residential development
  • Roof: Recreation lawn and swimming pool
  • Main dome: Public event space
  • Clock tower: luxury hotel suites incorporating self-guided technology museum of station clocks

Main entrance and concourse (“Under the Clocks”)

Build fast food outlets around perimeter of concourse to avoid impeding passenger flow.

Elizabeth Street entrance and underpass, including Sir Robert Risson tram terminus

Build walkway 20m wide with DDA-compliant ramps to platform level. Apply PIDS screens on walls to avoid hanging signs, thus reducing requirement for depth. Build two platform tram terminus in underpass, for better interchange with heavy rail services. Fence off 4m wide section on west side of tram terminus for bike track connecting Yarra River with Flinders Street.

Degraves Street entrance and underpass
  • Build walkway 10m wide with stairs to platform level (DDA compliance is not required as the Elizabeth Street subway and main concourse will be sufficient for mobility-impaired passengers).
  • Apply PIDS screens as per Elizabeth Street underpass
  • Add another exit for direct access to the tram stop on Flinders Street

Main Platforms

Build DDA compliant platforms and apply heritage platform fittings, using replicas for any of the originals deemed impossible to restore. Platform 1 will be in approximately the same position as today’s; other platforms will be at different positions due to elimination of middle tracks and increased platform width.
  • Platform 1 (5m wide, 600m long, incorporating current Platform 14): Spare (broad gauge)
  • Platforms 2/3 (10m wide, 160m long): Clifton Hill Group and Burnley Group via City Loop
  • Platforms 4/5 (10m wide, 160m long): Northern Group via City Loop
  • Platforms 6/7 (10m wide, 160m long): Caulfield Group via City Loop; interurban services from Broadmeadows forming services via Caulfield
  • Platforms 8/9 (10m wide, 160m long): reverse of Platform 7; interurban services via Footscray forming services via Ringwood and Epping
  • Platforms 10/11 (9m wide, 160m long): reverse of Platform 9; Sandringham