Sunday, 3 April 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: PERTH

The best for the end – after having seen all Australian urban rail systems, I daresay that Perth boasts the best of all. Although there is always something to improve and criticise, I think that other cities, notably Adelaide, should have a look at the Perth rail system to see what can be achieved in an acceptable period of time.

Until around 1990, the Perth rail system looked a bit like the current Adelaide system, old-fashioned lines with diesel-powered trains. Then the existing three lines that radiated from Perth were electrified, and eventually two completely new lines were built, the ridership of which exceeded expectations by far.

The present system consists in fact of two cross-city lines plus one radial line with two branches, although officially the network is shown with five radial lines. In normal operation however, the Joondalup and Mandurah Lines, as well as the Fremantle and Midland Lines, form a single line, although there is a buffer of a few minutes built into the timetable at Perth station. Unfortunately this way of presenting the lines can be rather confusing especially for occasional travellers who want to continue their journey beyond the city centre on the same line and find out only once they arrive at Perth station that the train they are on actually continues to their destination anyway. On the Joondalup/Mandurah Line, the lines are shown as overlapping between Perth Underground and Esplanade and announcements inside the train in fact tell people that the train goes to Clarkson or Mandurah, respectively, but I have not observed anything like that on the Fremantle/Midland Line. So my proposal is to rename these lines officially as “Fremantle & Midland Line” and “Joondalup & Mandurah Line”. The fifth line is shown as Armadale/Thornlie Line, with the Thornlie Line operating as 'Local' on the share section (except Beckenham, which is served by Armadale trains). All lines are identified by colours, which are also used on station signs.

What makes me classify the Perth rail system as the best in Australia are the following factors:

  • its travel speed, both real (on the Mandurah Line trains reach a maximum speed of 130 km/h!) and perceived (short station dwelling time)

  • short intervals with a train every 15 minutes at all stations during off-peak daytime hours and extra trains during peak

  • stopping patterns (mostly for peak-hour service) are well illustrated on the platforms and in printed timetables, and the train's destination display also includes this as a letter code

  • pleasant rolling stock offering a very smooth ride

  • multi-access stations, mostly with entrances at either end of the platform to avoid long detours

  • full accessibility via lifts or ramps

  • operationally three clearly segregated lines

  • fully integrated fare system

To increase capacity on the older lines, the A-series rolling stock was refurbished with longitudinal seating throughout, which gives them a rather metro-like feel. Due to limited platform lengths, only 4-car trains can operate on these lines, whereas on the new north-south route the newer and faster B-series trains are used which run either as 3-car or as 6-car compounds.

Most stations on the older lines look pretty simple, which makes the system appear more like a high-floor light rail system. On these lines there a several level crossings, although fewer than for example in Melbourne. The Joondalup & Mandurah Line, however, is completely grade-separated and all stations boast a substantial structure, although there seems to be a theme running through them (the use of corrugated sheet-metal, traditionally used for construction in the region), which makes them look a bit shabby especially at the stations located in the median of a freeway (both the Joondalup and Mandurah Line were built largely in the median of a freeway), but generally they offer a pleasant atmosphere.

While the north-south route is completely separate from the other lines (there are track links west of Perth station), even the Armadale/Thornlie Line is separate from the Fremantle & Midland Line, with the section between Perth station and Claisebrook (also the location of the older depot) is four-track. On the Midland branch, a few passenger trains can be seen, the daily Prospector to/from Kalgoorlie and the twice-weekly Indian Pacific to/from Sydney and Adelaide. As these trains run on standard gauge and the Transperth system is narrow gauge (1067 mm), the section between the long-distance terminal at East Perth and Midland has 3-rail tracks. Freight traffic, however, is diverted towards Fremantle on a southern bypass route and only interferes with Transperth services on the bridge across the Swan River in Fremantle.

The biggest criticism I would make about the Perth rail system is the excessive station distance on the new north-south line, both on the slightly older Joondalup Line and on the recent Mandurah Line. With many stations located in the median of a freeway and huge car parks adjacent to them, there is hardly anyone who lives within an acceptable walking distance. Except for Joondalup station, which is next to a large shopping mall, all stations are in the middle of nowhere, although most have good bus connections. Even the Mandurah terminus is a long way from what is Mandurah “city” centre (nothing much of a centre there really...). Rockingham station was relocated rather a long way from the town centre to save costs, while instead the line was built on a more direct route towards the Perth city centre (initially it was planned to run from Thornlie towards Cockburn along the freight line corridor. So what you gain by a fast train you may lose again by a connecting bus ride to take you home.

The rail system is publicly operated by Transperth and fully integrated with bus services (and one ferry line). The metropolitan area is divided into 9 circular fare zones, which extend more than 100 km north-south. A dayrider ticket is available at AUD 9.00 for travel after 9:00 am, and valid in all zones. Similar to Brisbane, most people travel with a Smartrider smartcard, but single tickets and day tickets are sold as paper tickets; there are ticket barriers at busy stations, but to check paper tickets at least one gate needs to be manned. Transit officers (and there are more of them visible in Perth than anywhere else in Australia!) carry out tickets inspections on trains, too.

Buses, like everywhere in Australia, are abundant and hard to understand as once again no maps are available, just a printed timetable for each line. Quite useful for visitors, but also busy with locals, are the CAT buses, these are three free bus routes in the central area of Perth, plus one in Fremantle. Surprisingly, there are maps with proper stop information for these lines, even next-bus indicators at stops, whereas for regular bus routes, often a one meter high post with only the bus stop number seems sufficient! So, in this field, Perth unfortunately is not much better than any other Australian city.

All in all, Perth has proved that if you provide a good rail service, it will be successful, but no doubt it has required a high investment, first to electrify the old system and then double the network's length by building two state-of-the-art routes.