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.