Number of standard weekly train services by timeband, 2004 vs 2015, Melbourne (source data: budget papers)

I noted recently that private modes of transport account for 90% of all motorised travel in Australia’s capital cities (see Can we have a mature discussion about the future of urban transport?). The reality that policy-makers must confront is public transport’s mode share’s been stuck at just 10% for the last ten years; that’s only a little better than thirty years ago when it was 9%.

A common explanation for this flat performance is governments haven’t done enough to make public transport an attractive option. For example, I often hear the claim there’s been no substantial new rail infrastructure built in Melbourne since the City Loop was commissioned in the early 1980s. The usual call is for new rail lines to be constructed to Doncaster, Rowville and Melbourne Airport.

But if they haven’t built many new rail lines in recent decades, what have governments done to make public transport an attractive option for travellers?

This is a big question so I’ve limited my focus to Melbourne and to rail (i.e. trains). Melbourne’s an interesting choice because it had the biggest increase in public transport use of all capitals in recent years. It’s mode share increased from 8% of motorised travel in 1999 to 11% now (i.e. private transport’s share dropped from 92% to 89%), but it’s been stuck there since 2008/09. Rail is the largest public transport mode by far in Melbourne and accounts for the lion’s share of the recent increase in public transport’s mode share.

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So, what’s been done over the last twenty years with the intention of making trains more attractive?

  • The number of standard weekly train services provided in the morning peak across the metropolitan network increased by 36% (see exhibit). Frequencies increased in other periods too e.g. 10-minute frequencies on the Dandenong and Frankston lines in the inter-peak period.
  • Kilometres of timetabled train services increased by 32% between 1999/00 and 2014/15.
  • Fleet size increased from 151 trains in 1999 to 211 in 2015.
  • Protective Services Officers provided at all stations on evenings.
  • 23 level crossings removed from 1999 to 2016.
  • Regional Rail Link constructed (2015).
  • Extensions of the metropolitan (electrified) rail network: Dandenong to Cranbourne (1995), St Albans to Watergardens (2002), Broadmeadows to Craigieburn (2007), Epping to South Morang (2011), Watergardens to Sunbury (2012).
  • Track duplications: Clifton Hill to Westgarth (2009), Keon Park to Epping (2011).
  • Spencer Street station redeveloped (2006). New stations opened at Coolaroo (2010), Lynbrook (2012), Cardinia Road (2012), Williams Landing (2013). New stations at Wydhamvale and Tarneit provided as part of Regional Rail Link (2015)
  • myki smartcard system replaced the Metcard ticketing system (2008).
  • Journey planning improved by apps, websites, open data sources and Passenger Information Display Systems (PIDS). Real-time information available for all modes on PTV app (2016).
  • Zone 3 abolished (2007) and Zone 1+2 tickets cost no more than a Zone 1 ticket (2015).
  • Night Network trial (2016).
  • 3G mobile coverage in City Loop (2015); Flagstaff Station opened on weekends (2016); Bicycle Parkiteer cages provided at 69 metropolitan stations.
  • Operations outsourced to private manager in 1999 (see Should public transport be returned to the people?).

My focus is on actions, but it’s useful to be aware in assessing the attractiveness of rail services that the state Auditor-General reports that train punctuality improved over 2011 – 2016 and train reliability remained above the mandated threshold level. Customer satisfaction improved over 2010 – 2016 and met the agreed performance targets.

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Does all that make for a good, reasonable or dismal effort? Opinions will vary, but there are some issues to note:

  • The Andrews government clearly thinks it’s not enough and much more needs to be done. Projects it got underway after it took office in 2014 include Melbourne Metro, Dandenong rail line upgrade, Mernda rail extension, Hurstbridge line upgrade, removal of 50 level crossings, and various further rolling stock upgrades and expansions.
  • Building new rail lines to expand the network isn’t as pressing a priority in Melbourne as it is in cities like Perth and Brisbane with a sparser legacy network. Melbourne inherited an expansive system from the nineteenth century which was electrified by the 1930s. There are some gaps, but the case to fill them with costly proposals like Doncaster rail and Rowville rail isn’t very compelling because they’d service areas that are already built-out and have limited redevelopment potential.
  • The priority for Melbourne is to make the legacy system of rails (and roads) work harder. The focus should be on higher train frequencies and better coordination with other modes like buses and trams in order to provide a metropolitan-wide ‘grid’ of fast, frequent services that enable ‘anywhere to anywhere’ travel (see How can public transport work better in cities?).The $10 Billion Melbourne Metro tunnel fits this objective because its purpose is to increase capacity in the city centre and improve system-wide reliability. Similarly, level crossing removals permit higher train frequencies in peak periods.
  • The big increase in train patronage in Melbourne over 2005/06 to 2008/09 happened despite no major new rail lines being built. It wasn’t due to the various improvements listed above either (they were reactive). It was mostly due to Victoria’s exceptional economic performance at the time and consequent strong jobs growth in the city centre after decades of decline. A really big increase in public transport mode share at the metropolitan level will only eventuate if the relative competitiveness of private vehicles is reduced in some way.
  • Money not spent on public transport over the last 20 years wasn’t wasted; it was spent on other government activities like health, education and, yes, roads. The Andrews government’s big transport program necessarily means there’ll be less money for other government activities over the next ten years.

I hope to look at tram and bus services another time. For now, note that kilometres of timetabled bus services increased 62% in Melbourne between 1999/00 and 2014/15 while tram services increased by only 6%.

I’ve relied on advice from the Department of Economic Development and other sources to make up my list, but I expect there will still be gaps and perhaps the odd error. Hopefully others will help improve the list.