Monday, February 27, 2012

Inner Northern Busway - Still can't cope!

The Inner Northern Busway is a basket case at the best of times. For example full buses can often be experienced around midday even out of university semester time, and route 66 buses can fill to capacity at the first stop (RBWH) after 4pm. As previously mentioned in this blog, most of BrizCommuter's work colleagues who previously used the Inner Northern Busway have gone back to driving instead, forced away by high bus fares, and full bus followed by full bus followed by full bus. Many students also reportedly give up using public transport within a few weeks of starting university due to massive queues to board buses at QUT Kelvin Grove.

On the 20th February 2012, and February 27th 2012, TransLink have introduced a raft of bus services changes across the network. So how did the Inner Northern Busway fair? The route 66 received only 8 extra services from 1pm, meaning that there is no improvement in the am peak, around midday, and early pm peak when overcrowding can be most severe. The route 66 has also received higher capacity vehicles, but it is usually operated with higher capacity buses anyway. There have been zero improvements to other Inner Northern Busway services such as the 330, 333, 340, and the neutered 393 "air mover".

So what was the result of the Inner Northern Busway "improvements"? BrizCommuter observed QUT Kelvin Grove for 15 minutes from 3:50pm to 4:05pm on Monday 27/02/2012. Of the 7 buses that passed through, 6 filled up to capacity. Between 10-30 passengers were left behind by each bus. The exception was "Brisbane's most pointless bus" the 393. Take a look at the photos.
Platform fills up with more than an estimated 80 passengers within a couple of minutes.
A route 66 turns up, but demand exceeds supply.
Another route 66 turns up, but demand still exceeds supply.
That bus is full, run to other bus, oh dear, that one is full as well.
As per previous years, it won't be long until many of students give up public transport and drive instead. QUT Kelvin Grove busway station was not as busy as the first day of term last year, when an estimated 160 students were stranded on the platform by full bus after full bus. Maybe Brisbane having the world's second highest bus fares has scared off some students even before the start of term?

Solutions are simple, more bus services are required:
  • Run more route 66s (TransLink, it is possible to run buses more frequently than every 5 minutes!)
  • Run another frequent bus route along the Inner Northern Busway
  • Extend the 393 "air mover" from Normanby to Roma Street or King George Square
  • Run more out of service counter-peak buses in service along the Inner Northern Busway
A few other observations. Despite TransLink claiming that high capacity buses are being utilised on the route 66 and other busy routes, quite a few lower capacity buses were seen operating on the route 66. Also, if anyone wants to experience something akin to an army assault course, try alighting from a full route 66 bus at Normanby! 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Yarrabilba - more unsustainable urban sprawl?

The Urban Land Development Authority (ULDA) was set up by the Queensland Government in 2007 as part of the Queensland Housing Affordability Strategy. The ULDA is claimed to "deliver commercially viable developments that include diverse, affordable, sustainable housing, and use best practise urban design principles". Really? Cities in Europe such as London, realised that urban sprawl had to be restrained nearly 100 years ago in favour of increasing population density along transport corridors. Unfortunately, development in SE Queensland is continuing in the environmentally unsustainable fashion of building large low density developments in the middle of nowhere. Just to make matters worse, the public transport provision provided to these new developments is generally mediocre to poor. The resulting increased reliance on car use for relatively long distance journeys to work is environmentally unsustainable, and would have serious implications for family living costs if a peak oil crisis was to occur. Considering that the ULDAs developments are to facilitate "the provision of ongoing availability of affordable housing options for low to moderate income households", this virtually forced reliance on car use for lower income families is quite perverse.

One of the ULDAs pending developments is Yarrabilba, located 40km South East of Brisbane's CBD,  and 35km from the Gold Coast beaches. Despite claims by developers Lend Lease of being within "Easy reach of the Brisbane CBD, the Gold Coast" the development is still 15 minutes (drive) from the congested M1 Motorway and possibly further to access train services on the overcrowded Gold Coast and Beenleigh train lines. As many residents of North Lakes have found to their cost after being attracted by low property and land prices, it is a very painful commute if you live a long way from your place of work!

The development is planned to reach 50,000 population, with developments by Lend Lease starting to be advertised in the press. So what are the public transport provisions for this development? As mentioned above, the nearest train stations are outer Beenleigh Line stations, including Beenleigh itself which is also on the Gold Coast Line. Even if a half-decent feeder bus network was provided to a station served by Gold Coast express services, it would take at least 70 minutes to travel from Yarrabilba to Central by public transport. Whilst an abandoned train line which branches off the Beenleigh Line at Bethania runs close to Yarrabilba, there are no plans to utilise or modify this train line. There is also currently insufficient inner-city rail capacity to cope with extra train services from the South East corridor which includes the nearby urban sprawl development of Flagstone.

What about buses? The ULDAs map shows an "ExpressLink" branded bus running past Yarrabilba with a spur to Yarrabilba's core, but does not directly serve the vast majority of Yarrabilba's population. An "UrbanLink" bus, supposedly running every 15 minutes (according to the government's "Connecting 2031" spin document) will serve some parts of Yarrabilba, but again does not directly serve the most of Yarrabilba's population. It is also unclear as to where outside of Yarrabilba this bus would serve, and as to whether this would actually be useful to provide access to major employment, commercial, and education centres for Yarrabilba's population. The other main roads in Yarrabilba show "Indicative Local Bus Services" on ULDAs map. If the rest of SE Queensland's urban sprawl is anything to go by, this could be interpreted as an infrequent and limited hours local bus service.

Road, rail, and busway in Runcorn, UK  Source: Google Maps
This poor public transport planning is in stark contrast to excellent public transport planning in some of the UK's new towns such as Runcorn in the 1970s. Runcorn has a low cost busway loop which is free of car traffic (although it occasionally crosses roads a light controlled junctions). This busway serves the majority of the new towns population. New developments in the Thames Gateway area also have a new low cost busway (called FastTrack) linking housing, commercial, hospital, and employment areas, as well as connecting with commuter train services. Is this idea too smart for the smart state?

There is sadly no hope for SE Queensland to have environmentally sustainable transport policies when urban planning includes urban sprawl developments with poor consideration for public transport. It is not just Yarrabilba, but Greater Flagstone, Ripley Valley, and Caloundra South that may also be built with minimal public transport provision. The well established Springfield has only just received the addition of a (infrequent and limited hours) bus linking it with SE Queensland's rail network. Greater Flagstone's train line cannot happen without more inner-city rail capacity. Ripley Valley and Caloundra South's rail services are looking like they won't be seen for at least 15 years. It's time for SE Queensland to build up, not out!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Go card fare gate fail!

Jail bait?
This morning 09/02/2012 BrizCommuter was making his way through fare gates at Fortitude Valley train station. The station was very busy with queues to get through the fare gates. As BrizCommuter passed through a gate, he noticed that the gate did not close behind the person in front, and the display was not displaying the correct fare and balance. Caught in the crowd, BrizCommuter passed through the gate anyway, and checked his go card balance at a ticket machine. As suspected, the faulty gate had allowed BrizCommuter to pass through (and possibly hundreds of other commuters), but had not registered a swipe off. BrizCommuter immediately informed QR staff who blocked off the gate, and allowed BrizCommuter to pass through another gate to register a swipe off.

This brings up two big issues. Firstly, it is thus clear that it is possible to unknowingly pass through a faulty fare gate and it not register a swipe on or off. In fact, this is the third time this has happened to BrizCommuter in the last 6 months. This fault could scarily expose commuters to potentially incurring a fine or criminal record if they are stopped by Transit Officers during their journey. Secondly, hundreds of commuters could have occurred $10 fix fares from this single incident. Is there anyway that TransLink can automatically refund these passengers? How much profit will TransLink make from unclaimed fixed fares from this incident?

It is quite clear that fare gates cannot always be trusted to ensure a swipe on or off. Lets hope that this taken into account before courts of law in alleged fare evasion cases, and also by TransLink when correcting fixed fares. BrizCommuter would also like to see TransLink follow Transport for London's path in automatically correcting fixed fares based on the location of next swipe on.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Is SE Queensland's rail system an accident waiting to happen?

Unlike many other commuter rail systems around the world, Brisbane's suburban rail network has no Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system. ATP comes in many forms. Sydney and Melbourne have an outdated, intermittent, and rudimentary form of ATP called train stops. More modern ATP systems continuously monitor a train's location and feedback to a train its maximum permitted speed, braking curve, and limit of movement authority (i.e. the point where it has to stop before it reaches a hazard). This forces a train to brake or stop completely if it is travelling too fast around sharp curve, approaching a dead end terminus too quickly, and on approach to a red signal due to a preceding train or junction. It has to remembered that ATP will not prevent all train accidents such as level crossing collisions. Brisbane's suburban network does have a train protection system called Automatic Warning System (AWS), but this outdated system can only differentiate between green and not green signals, provides no speed limit adherence, and can be overridden by the driver. AWS has not prevented many fatal accidents in the UK since it was invented in the 1930s.

There are a few locations on Brisbane's rail network where there are dead end terminus platforms - Cleveland, Domestic Airport, the under construction Ferny Grove station, and the planned Kippa-Ring station. Whilst there have been no known recent incidents in Brisbane, dead end termini around the world have a poor safety record. For example the 1975 crash at Moorgate in London killed 43 passengers - this was even with red lights, speed limits, and a dead-mans handle. A dead end terminus accident that injured hundreds allegedly occurred at South Brisbane in 1957. Continuous ATP would prevent the vast majority of causes of dead end termini accidents.

There is also nothing to prevent speeding around the many sharp curves which plague Brisbane's rail network. This was the cause of Brisbane's worst train accident at Camp Mountain crash near Samford in 1947 which killed 16 passengers. Speeding around a sharp corner was the cause of Japan's terrible Amagasaki train crash in 2005 which killed 106 passengers. The Waterfall train accident in NSW in 2003, and Tilt Train accident in 2004 were also caused by trains speeding around a curve too fast. Queensland's narrow "cape gauge" also increases the risk of derailment on sharp curves compared to standard or wide gauge track.

Despite lacking ATP, SE Queensland's rail network has had a very good safety record since electrification. This is likely to be due to QRs high safety standards, culture, and training. Brisbane's infrequent train services and little bit of luck may also be a factor. A recent review by Queensland Department of Main Roads and Transport showed that the most suitable ATP system for SE Queensland would be European Train Control System (ETCS) - Level 2. This is a radio based signalling system with continuous ATP based on widely adopted European standards. The time frame of the implementation of this system is unfortunately unknown to the public. BrizCommuter would like to see installation of ATP to be an election issue. The likelihood of being killed or injured whilst travelling by train is a fraction of the risk travelling by car. However, until ATP is installed on Brisbane's commuter railway system, then SE Queensland's dead end termini, sharp bends, and many non-grade separated junctions could be an accident waiting to happen.