Monday, 21 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: MELBOURNE Trains

Melbourne appeared to me as a great city from the beginning, and even a week later I think it is quite a good place to live, not only because of its extensive and mostly well-functioning urban rail system. This consists of two types, the world's largest tram system, which I will deal with in a separate post, and the also rather large suburban rail system, now branded the „Metro“.

But before getting on the train, one has to buy a ticket, of course, and for me, Melbourne has one of the best fare systems I have seen. The greater Melbourne metropolitan area (and this also includes regions outside the built-up area like Stony Point, which is served by a diesel train) is divided into only two fare zones, which overlap, so that passengers travelling a short distance from one zone to the other don't have to buy a 2-zone ticket. A weekly ticket for the two zones is available at 49.60 AUD (more or less the same in USD, and some 37 EUR), so for a little bit more than 5 EUR a day I was able to explore the entire network. And Melbourne only has one fare system, i.e. all tickets are valid on trains, trams and buses, even „single“ tickets are in fact 2-hour unlimited passes, these are rather expensive though, with 3.70 for the inner zone. A short trip in the city centre with a City Saver costs 2.80. At 109.60 AUD, a monthly ticket for zone 1 only is also quite beyond a typical monthly pass in any European city. But the system is very successful as trams and trains are busy at all times, not just during peak hours, even on Sundays. At present, tickets are sold in two different ways, the more traditional “Metcard”, a magnetic strip card, and the new “Myki” smartcard which requires touch-on and touch-off. Only metro stations in the centre and some others have full ticket barriers, at most suburban stations you just walk in, but there are occasional ticket inspections on the train!

While the general appearance of the stations is quite good, all clean and tidy, and most with usable toilets, I was often annoyed by the bad accessibility. Probably thought to create a properly separated paid area, most platforms are enclosed by fences, so one often has to walk a long way to the actual entrance when an opening at the other end of the platform would be easy to make and save passengers a lot of time. Therefore I didn't understand either why they don't put proper ticket gates, if the access is channelled through a small slot anyway. At many stations with side platforms, the two platforms are not really connected, but one has to walk to a nearby level crossing to get to the other side (well, I have to admit, that being used to right-hand operation, I sometimes mistook the platform until I realised....).

There are basically three different types of trains, although some of the older Hitachi trains are still in service during peak, but I only spotted a few and never got a chance to actually ride them. The second-oldest are probably the largest number, those are the refurbished Comeng trains. They are quite pleasant, except for their peculiar door handles. Unlike on the newer trains, which have a normal button to open the doors, these have a knob, and you have to manually slide the doors open, which can be quite hard, especially if you carry things in your hands.

The other two are of the same age but due to the divided system when it was first transferred to private operation, each of the two operators purchased their own trains. Visually, I prefer the Alstom train, which like the Comeng has a wider waist, or a belly, whereas the Siemens cars have completely straight sides, a bit boring. When it comes to riding the train, I might prefer the Siemens, which seemed to offer a smoother ride, but this may also be due to the track, as on some sections I even noticed with my own eyes when waiting for a train, that the track is not in the best condition. When standing on a bridge, you can also observe that the cars move a lot from side to side. On all three types, you can walk from carriage to carriage within a three-car set, on the Comeng by walking outside like on the NYC Subway, on the Alstom trains, there are glass doors between carriages, and the Siemens trains are of the proper walk-through type. All trains are usually made of two 3-car sets, thus reaching a length of some 150 m. But there was one thing that stroke me most about the Siemens trains: they are extremely dirty inside! The other trains also have some window scratching (made me feel like home in Berlin...), but the Siemens trains have dirty and sometimes even destroyed seats, while on the other two types I did not observe anything like that. This may have two reasons – the areas where these trains are used (the southern and the western lines) have a different type of passenger (they say the western districts are more problematic), or, the seats call for aggression, because the fabric used, its colour and pattern, is so horrible that one feels the need to destroy it, very weird. It is probably hard to show that on a photo, because it is too subtle – anyway, on some of the Siemens trains I have already seen an upholstering similar to the other trains and it is much more pleasant. Theoretically all trains have a visual station announcements which works fine, but the accoustic is rather at random, i.e. some trains have it, others don't. The Siemens trains have only two doors on each side, whereas the others have three.

The Siemens trains have only 2+2 seating, whereas the others have mostly 2+3, but this seems to be changing for 2+2. With 2+3 the remaining corridor is too narrow, so noone wants to stand in there, but the capacity is needed during peak hours, so the 2+2 seats provide more room for standees, while 2+2 is enough seating during off-peak anyway.

While the trains run fairly punctual during off-peak hours, delays seem to be quite the norm during peak hours. Inbound trains normally show “Flinders Street” as their destination, sometimes with the add-on “via City Loop”, but I was not always sure whether the train would go around the loop or not. Flinders Street is the big problem of the system. Although it has some nine through tracks (plus some stubs or divided platform sections, it is still a bottleneck. In the 1970s, when the loop was built, the planners were extremely far-sighted to build a separate track for each of the four line groups, so these don't interfere with each other, and in fact, trains coming for example from the south or east in the morning enter the loop directly towards Parliament, and it feels like a proper metro until Southern Cross, but between Southern Cross and Flinders Street all trains I have been on crawl, although there are six tracks between these two main stations. But these are shared by several regional trains, as well as some peak trains which run west directly from Flinders Street. On other occasions I took a Frankston train at Southern Cross, which was then stopping at Flinders Street for 10 minutes. Also, while the panels in the station showed Frankston, inside the train the destination remains Flinders Street until the train leaves from there, so passengers boarding a train on the loop cannot really check inside the train whether it continues or terminates at Flinders Street (which many trains do after peak service, which adds to the congestion, as these trains are taken out of service and brought to the depot). An accoustic announcement following “Now arriving at Flinders Street” like “This train continues to Frankston” would be helpful.

Generally all trains run around the loop, except for the Sandringham line, which shuttles from and to Flinders Street. The Alamein and Williamstown lines only reach the downtown area during peak hours, at other times shuttles operate from Camberwell and Newport, respectively, with only 3-car trains. The frequency varies according to the line, the Frankston line being the busiest with trains every 10 minutes during off-peak daytime hours, while outer areas are served every 30 minutes (only the Hurstbridge line beyond Eltham, which runs through open countryside, is served every 40 minutes. On the Werribee line, express trains run every 20 minutes directly from Flinders Street and bypassing the single-track Altona loop. Also on other lines, certain trains skip certain stations, so one always has to check the timetable. It would be interesting to see a map that actually depicts service patterns.

Printed timetables are readily available at stations and information points. These also include a network map (which is not distributed just as a map), but the map has some flaws, and I would prefer a Sydney-type map with colour-coded lines. While it is difficult to depict the direction the trains take around the loop (this changes at lunchtime for most trains), the area around North Melbourne station is quite misleading. It appears that trains from Upfield continue west to Footscray! Otherwise, Melbourne, and Victoria as a whole, has one of the best signage systems I have ever seen. All stations are marked clearly by large blue signs, and transfer options are signposted perfectly, even the meters that separate the station from a tram stop are indicated. All tram-related signs are green, and for buses orange. V/Line, the regional train network, has been assigned purple. Generally all signs are in very good condition.

I know that Anglo-Saxon countries don't like it, but I think it would be easier to introduce line numbers. In this case, I would suggest something like E1, E2, E3, E4 for the four eastern branches, internally the Burnley lines, the S1-S4 for the Caulfield lines (includes Sandringham), W1-W5 for what are now part of the Northern Lines (Williamstown, Werribee, Watergardens), and finally N1-N4 for the two lines of the Northern Lines that actually go north (Craigieburn and Upfield) and the two Clifton Hills lines.

The Sydenham Line is the only one which is not named directly after its terminus station, which in this case is called Watergardens (apparently a case of purchased naming rights of an adjacent shopping mall), but electrification is underway further out and this line will then become the Sunbury Line (the regional trains on this section can now also be used with a metropolitan ticket). A completely new extension is under construction from Epping to South Morang, so this line will change its name too. Two infill stations are under construction in the outer areas of the Pakenham and Cranbourne lines. The section of the Ballarat railway line, which branches off at Sunshine, is planned to be electrified up to Melton, so this would add a new branch to the Metro system. Already launched is the construction of dedicated regional rail tracks between Sunshine and Southern Cross, as these services are getting more and more busy, too. A new link will also bring trains from Geelong onto these new tracks. The Craigieburn and the Pakenham lines are also shared by some regional DMU services.

All in all, riding the Melbourne Metro trains through the inner suburbs, where stations are very closely spaced, reminded me a bit of the London District or Metropolitan Lines, although with modern trains, or even the Green Line on the Stockholm Tunnelbana. But none of these has level crossings, which in Melbourne are a standard feature. These work fairly well, but make the system appear more like a light rail with heavy and long trains. But generally trains move at a decent speed, and above all, they get moving quickly, no time-consuming dispatching like we have on the Berlin S-Bahn, instead doors open, people get in and out, and the driver closes them quickly (there is a soft warning sound...) and off we go, not even a “stand clear the doors”. During peak hours the underground platforms are generally staffed and those people do some dispatching if necessary. The trains also have a good air-conditioning system, not too cold either, and at termini, where trains stay longer, doors close automatically after a while to keep already boarded passengers cool. All stations have modern next-train indicators and you can press a green button and then hear the next arrivals.

The design of the three underground stations is quite European, in fact they could be S-Bahn stations in German cities like Frankfurt, Stuttgart or Munich or even Hamburg, which were built at the same time. There is another covered station at Box Hill (with a shopping mall on top), but this is very basic and not really appealing. Many of the surface stations preserve a nice old station building.

To conclude, an overall very modern system (in fact, much more up-to-date than I expected) which suffers some problems due to the Flinders Street bottleneck and maybe some other infrastructure issues. But the bottleneck is just another sign that this rail system is extremely successful and I could not imagine this city without it. By the way, car drivers have to pay toll to use the motorways in the inner area > so Melbourne is on good track!

UrbanRail.Net > Melbourne

Metro Trains Melbourne

Metlink (Overall Transport Authority)

Melbourne Trains at Wikipedia


  1. Fascinating post: it's always interesting to get a fresh view on a system I thought I knew well -- you spotted lots of things in a week that I hadn't noticed in a year!

    For service patterns around the Loop, take a look at this:

    Like the page says (with only a bit of exaggeration), "YOU CAN NEVER UNDERSTAND IT", but it's not too hard to figure out the basic pattern for the lines you usually use. Eg. the Werribee line is counterclockwise all the time except weekday mornings.

  2. The issue with the Siemens cleanliness comes down a lot to do with the maintenance arrangements for these trains, which is done at one central depot run by Siemens located in the western suburbs. For example, at the Westall Depot in the south-east, the other trains are also serviced there, whereas the Siemens are just parked there between runs.

    It also doesn't help the recent moves to run full-length consists all the time (starting in the south-east in 2007), and not just on weekdays during peak hours as was done previously. As a result, the 11pm departure to the City leaving the end of the line is a very easy target for vandals.

    I've noticed the Metropolitan Line trains in London also cop a lot of vandalism, possibly for a similar reason. Interesting to see an outsider's view on the system however.

  3. The ill-fated project of a metro-line to Doncaster still is a fascinating thing. When building the city-loop this line was still an actual project and I think they wanted to introduce this line with a single-track tunnel at Parliament-station. Do they have build any stub-tunnels for this line? If it will ever be build I suppose they would merge it with the other lines further east.

  4. melbourne system worst in the world, I know because I use it every day. compare it to a proper metro like santiago in chile and you will see what I mean . . . . .

  5. Hi Robert,

    excellent observations across all of "Down Under": from Perth to Wellington & Auckland.

    Re: Melbourne: Williamstown trains now run through to Frankston via the city, off-peak.

    Trains hold up on the viaduct into Flinders St. because they're dispatched from there: they're waiting for a platform on track to runinto.

    You said 9 through lines, & can't be right: last time I went to town I lined up to get out one side, & then the other, and we ended up on on a middle track, rather than one of the 10 main platforms!

    Flinders St. formerly had 14 through tracks (I recall), & 11 platforms west of the bridge plus 5 east of it: we now have 14, but no. 11 is missing.

    Re. level crossings: there aren't many in innner Melbourne (but heaps beyond!). Compared to Sydney, this is a consequence of terrain (we're flatter), and what we did with stimulus spending during the Great Depression.

    Excellent Overview!

  6. Melbourne is quite a good place to live. Nice write-up. Thanks for sharing the information.

    Air Tickets to Melbourne


Tell us your experience of this transport system!