Melburnians – enjoy the world’s best liveability while it lasts

traffic jam

Gridlock: where Melbourne is heading

Melburnians love to crow about Melbourne’s long-running status as the world’s most liveable city.

Melbourne has ranked top city in the world for the last four years in a row according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability survey – with Sydney a lowly seventh.

Melburnians rightly love to lord it over Sydneysiders and other global city dwellers, but I’m afraid our world’s best status is fading fast.

I could point to a hundred different articles (try this one on urbanisation by Fairfax economics writer Ross Gittins) or extensive research data to explain that we are building upwards at such a rate but without the necessary investment in transport infrastructure to get everyone to and from work, schools and the shops. 

My own daily commute into work is a good case study of the looming chaos that awaits. It begins with a short 15 minute bicycle ride from my home in Niddrie in the northern burbs to Essendon Station, where the Craigieburn line stutters along towards the city, 15 kilometres away.

What a year ago was a pleasant cycle down a quiet backstreet, where I could drift off into my own thoughts, is now a busy road packed with frustrated people-movers, utes, sedans and station wagons, who weave past me in desperation to avoid the gridlock on the main thoroughfare, Keilor Road.

Even this far out from the city, any vacant lot, deserted car yard or decrepid office building is giving way to an apartment block with dozens of units crammed on top. On the quieter streets, old houses have been bulldozed and replaced with three townhouses. 

 More people, more cars, same roads, same frequency of trains and trams. 

At Essendon Station, Rose Street is most days clogged with cars and buses while the train platform is just as crowded, heaving with already weary-looking fellow commuters.

melbourne platform

Flinders Station, Melbourne

There’s a collective groan as the citybound train pulls in and commuter’s faces stare back from inside carriages, pressed against the glass.

And that’s on a good day when there isn’t a dreary announcement about a train cancellation forcing two sets of commuters onto the same train, resulting in carriages packed so tightly you fear getting an itch you could never scratch.

Finally, twenty minutes later we pull into Southern Cross station. I extract my head from under a stranger’s armpit, apologise for inadvertently rubbing my backside against a pensioner’s bald head (hey, at least they got a seat), exhale, and make my way towards the escalators and the exit. Here a gang of transport Gestapo (train police) are usually standing by ready to spear tackle the elderly, children, mothers with babies and minority groups, should they have forgotten to swipe their Myki card.

Lucky for me I fit none of those categories.

queen liz

Fit for a queen? I think not!

Yet more fun awaits me later in the day when I hop onto a tram on Collins or Bourke Street for a meeting uptown – the geniuses who came up with the idea of free CBD trams seemingly did not factor in that every man, woman, child, homeless bum and confused tourist now chooses to take a tram rather than walk a city block.  Tempers flare as we all contort ourselves into weird shapes and postures. The tram driver, oblivious to the gang of drunk vagabonds that have boarded the train with shopping trolleys, four large dogs and a spicey pepperoni aroma, yells out that he won’t close the doors until we get off the steps.

Cursing under my breath, I decide to walk back to the office from my meeting…

Liveability my ass.

Melbourne’s crown is slipping as the city grinds towards eventual gridlock.

Anyone who takes a bus, train or tram – or is crazy enough to drive into work – can surely see that for themselves. The old cliched saying of “what goes up, must come down” applies when “up” means high rise apartments and “down” means liveability without investment in public transport

Of trains, trams and tiny apartments: Melbourne’s collapsing public transport network

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year's time?

Could this be a Melbourne train in a couple of year’s time? Source: http://sachinkhosla.com/fun/pakistan-train-bizarre

Those, like me, who suffer the daily train commute into Melbourne will know of the train driver who enjoys performing his stand-up comedy material.

One of his favourite lines, when the train is overcrowded, is to remind squashed passengers that “a packed train is better than no train at all”.

This, I suspect, may reflect more the prevailing Metro Trains’ attitude towards its service, than an attempt at lightening the mood.

The truth is that Melbourne’s transport network is no joke, unless you like your humour black and enjoyed from underneath a stranger’s armpit.

The city seems to be grinding towards eventual standstill and gridlock: train and tram cancellations and delays are daily occurrences; timetables have become objects of hope and derision rather than of any practical use.

Train stations have become places of confusion and chaos; on board, commuters endure sardine-like conditions, the sighs and grunts of frustrated fellow commuters, and worst of all, bad jokes from train drivers. None of this is helped by the disinterested, robot-like announcements of platform announcers, who deliver the unwelcome news with the indifference of someone reading the daily shipping report.

About the only good thing about a packed train is the lack of room for authorised officers (transport police) to patrol the carriages sniffing out fare evaders, though I wouldn’t put it past them to try.

But these problems are only the tip of the iceberg.  Rapid urbanisation and a desire to embrace Manhattan-style apartment living is bringing more and more people streaming into inner-ring suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In just one example, Melbourne’s Yarra City Council says it expects half a dozen new apartment developments to spring up along the Victorian-era streetscape of Smith Street, each adding dozens (sometimes hundreds) of new residents who will need to catch the train, tram or bus to the city.

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The Victorian facades of Smith Street, Melbourne

The council claims there are no “glaring deficiencies” in transport services on Smith Street but that it is monitoring the situation and “understands” there are improved tram services planned. Hardly reassuring, when local residents claim you can’t get on a tram that runs up and down the street as it is. This scenario is being replicated in dozens of inner-city suburbs in Melbourne and Sydney, where transport infrastructure is at breaking point.

RMIT professor Michael Buxton, a renowned authority on urbanisation and planning, expects a proliferation of six-to-nine-storey apartment blocks along all Melbourne’s Victorian retailing streetscapes in the next few years with little restriction on height, the number of apartments or their sizes, allowing developers to chase maximum profits. Last year, a developer called Sixth Lieutenant received approval for 28 apartments, some as small as 33 square metres (about four Toyota minivans lined up side by side), on a tiny 142-square-metre site on Smith Street, Fitzroy.

Plan Melbourne, the Victorian government’s so-called blueprint for development of the city to 2050 when the population is forecast to reach 6.5 million, acknowledges the increased congestion on roads and public transport and talks loftily about a long-term plan of developing a more efficient, faster “metro train service” that does not share train lines with regional services.

It’s an admirable vision, but many, many years away, if it happens at all.

The truth is that the Victorian government’s transport plans are lagging far behind huge demographic changes favouring inner-city living, when they should be leading them or at the very least, keeping pace.

In Mexico City, the best functioning megacity I’ve yet visited, a subway train comes every two or three minutes, and end-to end-journeys cost three pesos – about 25 Australian cents. In New York, an extensive, efficient and usually reliable subway network removes the need for cars.

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York's subway system

The Mexico City Metro is the second biggest in the Americas after New York’s subway system

But in supposedly the world’s most liveable city, we find ourselves cursing as the train announcer drones on about another delayed or cancelled service. I wonder just how long it will be until those scenes of Japanese passengers being prodded and shoved into trains by uniformed platform officials become part of the daily commute here. It can surely only be a matter of time.

(This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.)

The travails of Melbourne travel (part 2): Q&A with Melbourne Metro on Craigieburn delays

Melbourne's famous Metro Trains.Earlier this week I blogged about my month of “travails” on the Craigieburn Line from Oak Park to the CBD and back again.

I documenting the delays, cancellations, the great ‘bat’ fiasco and other frustrations that have become part of my daily train commute.

I also put some questions to Melbourne Metro, who kindly responded via senior media liason officer Larisa Tait.

It appears that much of the delays have to do with the “Regional rail link” a major new project aimed at adding 90 kilometres of tracks to the existing rail network (plus new stations, rail bridges etc) and “alleviating major bottlenecks in Victoria’s rail network”.

Sadly, it’s not due for completion until 2016 and whilst under construction, it appears to be creating a bottleneck of its own for the ‘Northern group’ of Metro train lines, which include Craigieburn.

These are my questions and respones from Metro:

Why does the 7.35 train get stuck outside outside North Melbourne so frequently?

Metro: This train is the first of three Craigieburn line trains each day that run direct to Flinders Street Station and not through the City Loop.  These three services were altered as a result of a timetable change in November 2012 which saw more services introduced on the Northern Group (Upfield, Craigieburn and Sunbury) following the opening of the Sunbury line. The reason for the change is due to the fact that only 20 trains can run through the Loop per hour and currently the Loop is at maximum capacity.

These three direct Flinders St trains run over a section of track known as the Broadmeadows Flyover, which is just outside North Melbourne Station. It is this specific section of track where Werribee, Williamstown and Geelong services all merge onto platform 5 at North Melbourne Station.

The timetable is designed to allow this to occur each peak while still running to schedule. However, if there are any delays on any service going through this merge point, it will be these three services that are held outside North Melbourne, awaiting a clear path to the platform and then into Southern Cross and Flinders St.

This is the reason for regular delays at the same section of the line each day.

What causes a train to be defective?

Metro: There are many things that can cause a train to be defective and there are hundreds of types of train faults: vandalism, faulty air-conditioning, graffiti in or near the driver’s cabin, sticking brakes and faulty doors, to name a few. We do however have more trains in service than ever before and only defective trains with a categorised critical fault are removed from service immediately. The remainder of trains with faults continue running and are maintained at the next available opportunity.

Is Metro satisfied with the current performance levels?

No, we are not satisfied with our current performance levels and are working every day to improve it. We will not be satisfied until our performance is near perfect.

 Can you tell me what the performance rating would be for on-time service if a train was considered on time if it arrived within two minutes of its scheduled arrival? (Currently overall on-time performance on the Craigieburn line is around 92% – but on-time is deemed to be a train less than 5 minutes late).

Metro: I can’t give you what our performance would be if we only had a two minute allowance for on time.

However, below is the Craigieburn line on time running for last 28 days: February 6 to March 6 2013:

0 min – 58.9% (ie. up to 59 secs late)

1 min – 69.8% (ie. up to 1:59 secs late…etc)

2 min – 78.1%

3 min – 84.8%

4 min – 89.5%

Will train fares being go up this year?

Fares are not determined by Metro. Direct this question to Public Transport Victoria.

The travails of Melbourne trains: Diary of a bad travel month

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Melbourne’s train network appears to be slowly breaking down.

The timetable appears to be nothing more than a ‘rough guide’ as to when the train ‘might arrive’.

It is more common for the 7.35 train to come at 7.39 or 7.41 or not at all then to arrive at 7.35.

Announcements are often made without apology and often without explanation through the public address system by someone in a voice so full of boredom and apathy one wonders why they bother at all.

Something like:

“Attention customers on the Craigieburn Line (my line). Attention customers on the Craigiburn Line. The 7.35 train has been cancelled. Your next train will be at 7.41. This train is running five minutes late.”

Combined with the poor service, customers are constantly reminded that if they fare-evade they will  be caught and face a hefty fine.

Try explaining to the authorised officers (train police) that you aren’t paying your fare out of protest at train delays and the non-running of trains and see how far that gets you.

Growing increasingly exasperated at the almost daily delays, late arrival of trains and cancelled services, I kept a diary for a month documenting my travels or as I like to refer to them, ‘my travails’ of travelling the Craigieburn line from Oak Park to Southern Cross station and back every week day:

Thursday, 10 January: Train arrives on time. But then stuck betweeen Moonee Ponds and Newmarket for long periods. Driver silent as a church mouse. Passengers grumble. We eventually arrive at Southern Cross 10 minutes late.

Tuesday, 15 January: Train stuck outside North Melbourne due to V-Line train. I curse the V-Line train and our “country cousins”. Arrive at Southern Cross 10 minutes late.

Wednesday, 16 January: Crawl along from Strathmore to Oak Park due to signal failure. Driver must be a deaf mute. No word. We arrive 10 minutes late.

Thursday, 17 January: 5.39 train cancelled due to defective train. While I am cursing what ever is possibly wrong with the train, I am told in an irritated voice over the loudspeaker that the next train at 5.47 will be arriving late. It duly does.

Monday, 21 January: Train stuck outside North Melbourne due to congestion. Arrives 8 minutes late at Southern Cross station.

Wednesday, 23 January: Train delayed outside North Melbourne due to V-Line train taking our spot on the platform and “congestion”. Why do country bumpkins get preference over hard-working suburbanites?” I ask myself as we stand motionless on the tracks. Arrive at Southern Cross station 6 minutes late.

The 5.39 train homeward bound is 6 minutes late. The symmetry of the day’s commute does not impress me.

Thursday, 24 January: Train arrives late. Then we are stuck outside North Melbourne due to  another cursed V-Line train. Arrived 6 minutes late at Southern Cross Station.

Homeward bound train arrives 10 minutes late as we are stuck in the loop. Emergency stop required. No warning given of emergency stop. Everyone gasps as we lurch towards the edge of our seats. I curse.

Friday, 25 January: Chaos on the way home. Craigieburn line delayed indefinitely due to “bat on overhead line”. Metro trains thinks its all a big joke and merrily tweets about the so-called bat now no longer with us.

(Click to enlarge)

bat2

Take train to North Melbourne to chaotic scene. People crowded together waiting for replacement buses. Station announcer appears to taunt those waiting by telling them they are waiting at the wrong spot and won’t be catching any buses from there. I dispense with the queue forming at the correct bus stop and shove pensioners aside to get on the bus.

Bus driver, a middle-age lady, complains to passengers it is her day off. Then drops a bombshell. She doesn’t know the way to Essendon. “Tut-tutting” passengers direct bus driver to the freeway. Surprisingly we end up in Essendon instead of St Kilda.

Tuesday, 29 January: Train delayed outside North Melbourne. Stuck waiting due to sick person on train. Get off train when told delay could be indefinite. Walk across  to another platform. Train I just got off departs. I curse sick person.

Wednesday, 30 January: We are packed like sardines due to delayed train arriving when previous train was meant to arrive. I have a seat and read my book and decide not to curse.

Thursday, 31 January: Train delayed at North Melbourne. Arrive 6 minutes late.

Friday, 1 February: The 7.35 train does not arrive. Catch the next train which is packed as a result. Confusion for passengers as train is now the 7.41 train and going through the loop instead of direct to Southern Cross. Here lots of cursing.

Monday, 4 February: Train arrives 5 minutes late at Southern Cross due to delays en route. Train packed as a result of delays. Immersed in good book.

Tuesday, 5 February:  The 7.35 train does not arrive again. No annoucement. The next train is packed. Goes through the loop instead of direct to Southern Cross. Train driver tries to explain new route. More cursing and grumbling from fellow passengers. Lots of frowing and mutterings under breath too.

Wednesday, 6 February: 5.47 train homeward bound cancelled due to defective train. I wonder if they ever fix these trains.

Friday, 8 February: Fiasco! Craigieburn-bound train moved to platform 9 instead of usual platform 4 or 5. I race down ramp, through tunnel and up ramp. Jump on train and scramble for seat. Then told the train is not taking passengers due to there being “no qualified driver” available. We are told to go back to platform 4 or 5 to catch 5.53 train.

Arrive home late muttering about “how hard can it be to drive a friggin train?”.

Consider taking train driver course.

Change mind. Passenger rage too stressful.