Friday, May 22, 2020

Social Distancing on Trains

COVID-19 has caused a massive reduction in public transport patronage in Brisbane, as with most other cities around the world. BrizCommuter commends TransLink and Queensland Rail on continuing to run a full train service during and after the lockdown period, which allowed commuters to continue safe social distancing.

Now that patronage is slowly returning, it is time to think about how COVID-19 and its fallout may affect public transport and services. It is likely that due to the slow recovery from high unemployment, a permanent shift to working from home for some workers, and fear of catching viruses on public transport, that patronage will not recover to pre-COVID levels for many years. However, BrizCommuter doesn't think that now is the time for authorities to see this as an excuse to do nothing. In fact, now may be a good time to optimise the train services on the existing train network, not only to make using public transport for attractive to commuters, but also make some services less crowded to increase consumer confidence. Due to social distancing becoming the new normal, the goal posts have moved on what is deemed a "too busy" train service by the general public. It's impossible to cost effectively run public transport whilst achieving "safe" levels of social distancing, however public transport systems should making the most efficient use of their resources to reduce crowding. So what needs to be done to optimise the existing train network?
  • Improve pm peak frequencies - whilst most lines generally have a good am peak service, the pm peak service is still unattractive to many commuters. For example the Ipswich, Springfield, Redcliffe, and Caboolture lines have up to 6 min frequencies in the am peak, but generally 12 min frequencies in the pm peak, with the "peak of the peak" services being overcrowded. Likewise the Ferny Grove Line has 7.5min frequencies in the am peak, but has 15 min gaps in the pm peak, including at the busiest part of the pm peak. The Cleveland Line's express service finishes too early in the pm peak, resulting in crowded services and slower journey times. Improving pm peak services should be approached on a case by case basis, with an aim to ultimately have similar service frequencies in the am and pm peaks.
  • Improve counter and off-peak frequencies - counter peak services should be improved to 15 minute frequency network wide (where possible) to encourage use of public transport to suburban employment and education centres. 15 minute off-peak frequencies should be extended to most of the suburban rail network where infrastructure permits to encourage the use of flexible working hours.
  • Improve shoulder frequency services - there are a few shoulder peak services which are busier than optimal, and peak service frequency periods should be extended on a case by case basis on a few lines. Again, this may help encourage the use of flexible working hours.
So how can the existing rail network be optimised?
  • More train crew - lack of train crew is still a limitation to improving train services in SE QLD, and driver recruitment needs to be sustained.
  • More trains - whilst an enhanced off-peak service can be run with the existing rolling-stock, most of the above peak period improvements will require more trains. To fully optimise the existing (pre-CRR) train network - approximately 7 more 6-car trains are required. The NGR rectification works, and ageing EMU trains do not help this situation. 
The sad reality though is that the  COVID-19 situation is more likely to result in inaction  on improving public transport, increasing the risk of Brisbane's rail network falling further behind other Australian and New Zealand cities, and increasing the likelihood of Cross River Rail Fail.


  1. Will AM/PM peak ever truly match? My understanding is that the AM peak tends to always be more intensive because people all start work/school at a similar time, but in the PM people just sort of filter home and school kids finish a couple of hours before office workers.

  2. Please get Translink to put more bus services in Peak. My first bus (the 385) is so crowded that people will awkwardly pack into the aisles (standing shoulder-to-shoulder together) because they don't want to sit next to someone.

    My other bus (the 66, 330, 333 and 340) is no better. QUT Kelvin Grove and the Inner Northern Busway are badly-serviced. Infrequent, slow and overcrowded buses mean that school students get left behind for 10+ minutes at QUT and Normanby (especially the latter). Social distancing gets thrown out the window when travelling towards QUT in AM peak or away in PM peak / from 3:10-3:20.


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