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.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Cross River Rail: Score Card Q2 2020

Cross River Rail - a tunnel between 2 bottlenecks
This is the second of BrizCommuter's scorecards looking at the progress of Cross River Rail (CRR).  This score card looks at whether the proposed am peak service frequencies will be achievable when CRR opens in 2024, or more realistically in 2025. These proposed am peak service frequencies are based on the information provided in the "Check Mate" section of CRR's website, which appears to be modified from the Changed Project Indicative Service Plan. Possible scores are No Improvement, Achievable, Concerning, and Critical.

Gold Coast Line 12tph - CONCERNING - requires the Kuraby to Beenleigh track upgrade (or slowing down of Gold Coast services). 8tph more likely. Will become critical if planning does not start soon.

Beenleigh Line 4-6tph - NO IMPROVEMENT to train services due to there being no plans for 4 tracks on the shared Gold Coast/Beenleigh Line corridor.

Salisbury (future Beaudesert) Line 7tph - CONCERNING - requires suitable turn back facilities and a grade-seperated junction at Salisbury. There will be scheduling concerns due to an out-of-sync frequency with interacting lines. Limited possibility of service improvements after Beaudesert Line opens as the lack of a 4th track from Dutton Park to Salisbury will limit counter-peak and off-peak services. Will become critical if (re-)planning does not start soon.

Ipswich and Springfield Lines 12tph (each) - CONCERNING - requires European Train Control Signalling (ETCS) from Darra to CBD, and ideally 4th electrified track and platform through Oxley. Not dependant on CRR.

Ferny Grove Line 8tph - NO IMPROVEMENT - ETCS would improve reliability on the core section, and evening peak service should be increased from 6-8tph - see sufficient trains section! 

Caboolture and Redcliffe Lines 12tph (each) - CONCERNING - dependent on ETCS from Northgate to CBD, and improved track layout at Kippa-Ring. Not dependent on CRR. 4tph on Sunshine Coast Line.

Shorncliffe Line 6-8tph - CONCERNING - 6tph requires duplication between Sandgate and Shorncliffe (or erratic and unreliable scheduling). 8tph from Northgate to CBD is no improvement, though ETCS would improve core system reliability. Shorncliffe Line will be the test line for ETCS in 2022. Will become critical if planning does not start soon.

Airport Line 4tph - NO IMPROVEMENT - ETCS would improve reliability on core system. Airport Line needs an extended 4tph off-peak service.

Doomben Line 2tph - NO IMPROVEMENT - to not extend to Hamilton Northshore is a absolute disgrace.

Cleveland Line 11tph - CONCERNING - 11tph from Manly to CBD would require a 3rd platform at Manly or Lota, and possibly a partial duplication. Will become critical if planning does not start soon.

15 minute off-peak services - CONCERNING - off-peak service proposals are not even published by CRR, and running 4tph throughout the suburban network would be constrained by multiple infrastructure limitations including lack of 4th track between Dutton Park and Kuraby.

Sufficient Trains - CONCERNING - approximately 40 new trains are required to optimise peak services on the existing train network (e.g. pm peak frequencies to match am peak) and for additional peak services for CRR. These have yet to be ordered. Will become critical if the train order is not placed soon, especially as the NGR fleet rectification will take many years as well.

Sufficient Train Crew - CONCERNING - sustained driver recruitment and forward planning is required.

Tunnel stubs for linking to future NWTC / Trouts Road Line - CRITICAL - not in current plans. To attach these tunnels would require a closure of CRR for many months, or an indirect routing of NWTC tunnels. NWTC is the optimal way of improving journey times and capacity from the North.

To conclude, other than lines where there will no service improvements from Cross River Rail, all other lines are currently in the CONCERNING category as they require either:
  • New track infrastructure that has not started construction.
  • New ETCS signalling - testing won't occur until 2022.
  • More trains that have yet to be ordered.
  • Train crew that have yet to be employed. 
CRR's expected opening may be 4 to 5 years away, but the clock is ticking and none of these are quick fixes. Many of these scores may change to CRITICAL if there is no action by the end of 2020. An additional concern is that the temporary patronage decline due to COVID-19 may be an excuse for authorities to do the "do nothing" option on projects that are required for CRR to not be a $5.4b White Elephant. BrizCommuter is currently predicting that CRR is unlikely to be able to meet the proposed am peak service frequencies at opening, and that Cross River Rail Fail is looming.