Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Improving off-peak train services - 5 myths busted

Melbourne - more frequent trains than Brisbane
Despite the forthcoming addition of the "pork-barrelled" 15 minute off-peak services on the Ferny Grove Line, Brisbane's off-peak train service is mainly based around a 30 minute schedule, well behind other Australian cities such as Melbourne, Perth, and to a lesser extent Sydney. There seems to be many myths and excuses as to why off-peak frequencies cannot be improved in SE Queensland. BrizCommuter busts a few of these myths.

Myth 1 - Not enough track capacity through the CBD

There are two tracks in each direction through Brisbane's CBD. Each track can handle approximately 20 trains per hour (tph), that's a train every 3 minutes. An inner-suburban 15 minute off-peak timetable would use 5tph on the main tracks (2tph Ipswich Line to Caboolture Line, 2tph Richlands/Springfield Line to Petrie/Kippa-Ring Line, 1tph CBD to Sunshine Coast Line) leaving 15tph of free train paths between Petrie and Darra for freight services, or future off-peak service improvements to Springfield and Ipswich. On the suburban tracks, 14tph would need to be used (4tph Ferny Grove Line to Beenleigh Line, 4tph Shorncliffe Line to Cleveland Line, 4tph Airport Line to CBD/Gold Coast Line, 2tph Doomben Line), leaving 6tph (18 minutes) of free train paths. Despite 14tph frequency being significantly higher than the current off-peak service, it is still considerably less frequent than some suburban rail systems such as Munich S-Bahn. Of course, plenty of other service scenarios are possible.

Myth 2 - Not enough track capacity outside of the CBD

On the Cleveland Line, 4tph could be run as far as Manly or Lota depending on the timing of track slots through the CBD. Once the Sandgate upgrade is complete in 2013, 4tph is possible to Shorncliffe. 4tph is possible to Airport and has been operated in the past. 4tph to Petrie is inevitable when when the Moreton Bay Rail Link (MBRL) opens in 2016, so is assumed to be possible.

The Beenleigh and Gold Coast Line is a bit more complex. 4tph trains could easily be run to Yeerongpilly, maybe Coopers Plains, but Kuraby would involve slowing down Gold Coast trains by a few minutes with limited operating margin for delays. Interestingly, the Rail Service and Infrastructure Requirements Study (2007) modelled the possibility of 4tph serving all Beenleigh and Gold Coast Line stations using 3 layered service patterns, with a few stations even getting a 6tph service!

Doomben Line cannot manage a 4tph off-peak service, but could just about cope with 3tph. In fact, most of SE Queensland's passenger rail network could cope with a 3tph / 20 minute off-peak service. Unfortunately 20 minute frequencies are far less attractive than 15 minute frequencies which is the absolute minimum for a "turn up and go" timetable.

Myth 3 - Not enough trains

There are far more trains running in the peaks that are required for a 15 minute inner-suburban service. Most of these trains sit idle in sidings during the off-peak. There does need to be more train crew to run these services though - see Myth 5.

Myth 4 - Not enough population

Perth runs 15 minute off-peak services on weekdays and weekends. Perth has a lower population, and population density than Brisbane.

Adelaide is planning on running 15 minute off-peak services on the 36km Seaford Line from 2013, and already runs 15 minute weekday off-peak service to selected stations on the Gawler Line.

Melbourne runs 10-20 minute off-peak services on weekdays and weekends depending on the line. Whilst Melbourne has a larger population than Brisbane, even smaller branch lines still get a good service. For example, the short branch line to Williamstown has a 20 minute off-peak service, the short Alamein shuttle runs every 15-20 minutes off-peak, and the short single track Newport to Laverton shuttle service even runs every 20 minutes off-peak.

Myth 5 - Not enough money

Based on the Ferny Grove 15 minute off-peak service costing an extra $9m per year, BrizCommuter expects that an inner-suburban 15 minute off-peak service to Petrie, Ferny Grove Darra, Manly/Lota, Kuraby would cost around $50m a year, and $70m if extended to weekend daytime. Whilst this seems like a lot of money, in the grand scheme of transport spending, it isn't that much (less than 10% of QR's current budget). It should be remembered that running an extensive 15 minute off-peak service would considerably increase rail patronage, providing increased income from fares. Other benefits may include making Brisbane more-liveable, making Brisbane more popular with tourists and businesses, increased CBD consumer spending, limiting off-peak road congestion, road-trauma, and pollution.

BrizCommuter believes that the above figures could easily be saved by making Queenland Rail more efficient. The most notable efficiency would be removal of guards, and training suitable guards to become drivers instead. Melbourne, and Perth (as well as many other rail systems around the world) do not have guards. There would of course be initial infrastructure costs of platform end mirrors and CCTV required for driver only operation.

Maybe even privatisation of Queensland Rail should be on the cards to push performance? Melbourne's private operator "Metro Trains Melbourne" is in the process of moving from 15-20 minutes off peak to 10 minutes off-peak, with 10 minute off-peak services already running on the entire 43km Frankston Line. 10 minute off-peak services are even run on weekends as far out as Dandenong (31km), and Ringwood (24km). Brisbane is still and long long way behind!


  1. Most of these myths are annually dis-proven during the Ekka, when they suddenly are magically able to provide a free service every 10 minutes.

  2. In your analysis, did you consider the need for freight trains to the North on the North Coast/Caboolture line? These freight trains need to run through the city thus use up some of the track capacity in the off peak.

  3. Anonymous - yes, please read the 2nd paragraph. There are 15 track slots per hour for non-passenger and Traveltrain services on the mains.


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