Weekday boardings, Hurstbridge & Epping lines

The President of the Public Transport Users Association, Daniel Bowen, posted some “unofficial” stats last week on boardings at Melbourne’s railway stations in 2008-09. I’ve used these numbers to put together the accompanying exhibit showing the number of weekday boardings on the Epping and Hurstbridge lines. These two lines join into one at Clifton Hill so I’ve shown the section from there to Jolimont separately (too much effort to do any other lines!).

Daniel emphasises these numbers come with no warranty as to their accuracy but they did come from a “good source” in the Department of Transport. He reckons inflating the numbers by 11.4% will give a fair estimate of 2010-11 boardings.

I want to make a number of essentially speculative observations prompted by these numbers (for the purposes of this discussion I’ll leave the numbers as they are).

First, there seems to be no statistically significant relationship between the number of boardings and distance from the city centre i.e. from Jolimont to both Epping and Hurstbridge (admittedly my measure of “distance” is rank order of stations not kilometres, but I don’t think that matters). So while the proportion of the population resident around each station that uses the train generally declines with distance from the centre, the absolute number of boardings isn’t correlated with distance.

This may seem surprising because stations close to the centre are more proximate to the CBD’s many and various attractions and might be thought to enjoy higher dwelling densities than more distant stations. However it appears that other variables, such as the accessibility of a station to the surrounding population, are a more important determinant of the number of boardings.

Second, location on a junction of the rail network is not a guarantee of a large volume of boardings and nor does the absence of a junction mean a station will only ever have a minor role. Clifton Hill is the only station on this line that’s on a junction and has a reasonably large number of boardings, but not as many as Ivanhoe, Heidelberg or Reservoir.

Clifton Hill only ranks 36th in patronage of all stations (excluding the five loop stations) but that’s better than two other “junction” stations, Burnley (48th) and North Melbourne (90th). Eight of the 20 largest (non-loop) stations happen to be on junctions but twelve aren’t — my interpretation is being on a junction was a distinct advantage in the early days of rail and gave those eight a head start. Nowadays however the broader characteristics of centres appear to be more important drivers of boardings. For example, Ivanhoe is not a large activity centre in terms of jobs, but its station serves two large private schools and is an important pick-up point for buses serving schools in Kew. Heidelberg also has a school but more importantly has a large number of jobs in and around the Austin Hospital and has the local courthouse. Clifton Hill is disconnected from the nearby retail strip, has little nearby space for commercial or more intensive housing development, and is “in competition” with the No. 86 tram.

Third, some stations have relatively low patronage. There are thirteen with fewer than 1,000 boardings per weekday and five with around 600 or less. As discussed here (see comments), there’s probably little to gain from ceasing to serve stations like Wattle Glen (278), Rushall (478) and Darebin (530) because the extra time involved in stopping is small (the cost equation might change as the Government’s plan to staff each station at night with security officers is rolled out). There could however be a better case for servicing Hurstbridge, Wattle Glen and Diamond Creek by bus from Eltham rather than rail, although the savings would have to be pretty large to see off the ugly politics that “closure” would bring on!

Weekday boardings at stations (excludes loop stations) in descending order

An alternative interpretation is to wonder why a station like Darebin – my local – is languishing with just 530 daily boardings. There’s a wide strip of land between the station and Heidelberg Rd with some large land parcels used for low value uses (e.g. a car yard), but not much in the way of medium density housing going up. Two storey town houses are currently being constructed on one lot, but this is a location which would easily take more intensive development.

Fourth, it’s useful to put the boardings in context. Upstream from Clifton Hill, the two lines have combined daily boardings of 53,243. Tony Morton (who’s also from the PTUA) estimates that this equates to around 15-20% of the 1,320,000 weekday trips taken by residents of the four municipalities served by these lines i.e. Banyule, Darebin, Nillumbik and Whittlesea (boardings and trips aren’t strictly comparable but it’s the order of magnitude I’m wanting to convey). As Tony says, that’s a pretty healthy contribution to the total travel task of the region, yet it’s only a minority of trips and underlines why it’s important to think about all modes when planning how to improve transport as a whole.

Nevertheless, rail performs the vital task of delivering a large number of people (mainly workers and students) to an extremely small location (the loop stations) within a very small period of time (the AM peak). Then it takes them back again. It’s hard to see how the CBD – which is vitally important to the metropolitan area as a whole – could be supported in its current form in any way other than by rail.

The second exhibit shows all 201 Melbourne rail stations (excluding the five loop stations) in descending order of boardings. That very tightly fitting curve is Logarithmic (with the loop stations included, the best fit is a Power curve (R^2=0.813)).

Update: how’s this for serendipity? Not long after I put up this post, Daniel Bowen posted a map of boardings by all stations prepared by one of his readers, Brendan Durward.