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.


  1. Perth actually has the lowest public transport usage out of the five Australian cities. I'm a big fan of Perth's rail network but it only carries a fraction of the amount of passengers as Melbourne and Sydney.

  2. Yes, this is true, but would be unfair comparison because it is IMPROVING on what was a terrible service.

    Are you arguing that it should have just done nothing and it would be even more car dependent and worse than what it is now???

  3. For anybody who recognised my name from above - that wasn't me posting but rather someone trying to imitate me. I hadn't even seen this blog post until today when I stumbled onto it.

  4. >>>Perth actually has the lowest public transport usage out of the five Australian cities. I'm a big fan of Perth's rail network but it only carries a fraction of the amount of passengers as Melbourne and Sydney.<<<
    Of course, it has only about a third of the population of these cities, but I would think that it carries more than Adelaide and probably even Brisbane.

  5. Most bus stops (i.e. >50%) do have timetables. The CAT plinths look good on face value but are horrendously unreliable - I've lost count of the number of times the thing has not been working or has said the next one is due in 30 minutes when they are meant to be running at a 15min frequency!

    Bus maps could definitely be improved - they are available on the website but are monocoloured which makes it very difficult to work out the best routes.

    The stop spacing on the freeway trains are not an issue - that is what makes them time competetive with long sections (on the Mandurah Line) at 130km/h+. Unfortunately the development of Perth meant that the locations of these lines are a necessary evil. Hopefully greenfield extensions towards Yanchep, and other new lines, will be built on TOD principles.

    The multiple access points at most stations is fantastic - excecpt for the Perth Station which is terrible, especially if trying to transfer from Armadale/Thornlie trains to Midland/Freo trains and vice versa.

  6. Also the CATs stop running way too early - the yellow CAT is the only bus service for the large medium density residential area of East Perth but it stops running around 7pm on weekdays - what a joke!

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

    This is not true. I've been at stations in Perth during off peak daytime hours and the wait has been 30min. The 15min wait is not standard by any means.

    I have to agree with any time gained by travelling on the train is often lost when catching a connecting bus.

  8. All daytime off-peak services are 15 minutes (lor less)and this has been the situation for many years. These are timetabled. Anything longer would have been a temporary delay. I am very familiar with this and a regular user. On patronage, Perth has just passed Brisbane (which has a population of over 2million, compared to Perth's 1.7million)for daily rail use. (See Public Transit Authority website), and exceeds Adelaide by 4-5 times.

  9. This is absolutely gold. I was not expecting that I'd get so much out of reading your write up! You've just earned yourself a returning visit.

  10. The city center is quite small when compared to other cities in Australia such as Sydney or Melbourne. The city has four major streets running east to west - St George's Terrace, Hay Street, Murray Street, and Wellington Street.

    Its great Infrastructure you can spend you Holiday with Cheap Tickets to Perth.

  11. we are thinking of moving to perth and are looking at a school for our kids in Diannella, could anybody advise us on the best train line relevant to Diannella, so that we can consider areas either close to beach or rural to reside?
    your response will be greatly appreciated.

  12. There aren't any train lines close to Dianella, unfortunately. There is decent bus service connecting to trains or to the city (Circle Route, and the Alexander Dr-Fitzgerald St route respectively), and long-term discussions of light rail in the northern suburbs, but no rail nearby. And that's one of the problems with the system right now - it completely misses the northern non-coastal suburbs.

  13. Thanks Eddie for your response regarding Dianella. Perhaps you would make a suggestion about what suburb or area we should further investigate to reside in. Our criteria is that our children may be attending school in Dianella and we would like to be walking distance to parks and be able to either walk to the beach or at least access the beach easily by public transport and car. Perhaps anyone following your blog could further comment. Sorry if i am exceeding the scope of your column.
    thanks again

  14. Hello, I live in Taichung, Taiwan, my English is not very good.But, I am very interested in the subway.I want to tell you, the Taichung MRT construction! Hope you can look at the Taichung MRT. ^ _ ^

    A child from Taiwan remain

  15. I agree with you about the Perth Trains being great. The train serving the airport is great too! I have travelled by train extensively but not so much lately. My most memorable trip would have to be the Western Endevour - the forerunner of the Indian Pacific. I will put it on my list of possible blog posts for me to write about!

  16. Perth is a rather conflicted place as regards transport. The mode share of the Perth system is fourth in Australia, behind Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. But it's rate of improvement is the best in the country. This improvement is, however, quarantined to the suburban train system. Despite integrating the buses into the train system (by converting all the buses to feeders), bus ridership has at best remained steady (in absolute terms) for the last 30 years.

    Since most train lines are not located within walking distance of population centres, and since bus ridership is going down, it is fair to say that Perth works by encouraging people to drive to the station and then catch a train to the city. The conclusion is that Perth are a great example of how to make a suburban rail system wildly popular. But as an example of an integrated system, the Perth system seems to by instrumental in further cementing car dependence in the lifestyle of the average West Australian.

  17. ^^^Bus patronage had a big spike (8million per annum or around 12%) around the opening of the Mandurah line, and has started to pick up again now with the major service improvements lately... (second half 2012 was up around 6% from the corresponding period of 2011.)

  18. Transperth's bus service can at times seem an embarrassment to the city, however perth has done reasonably well in designing and engineering a transit network that services what is the city with the third lowest population density/among the largest population densities on earth. We might have trains that go up to 130km/h, however our Mandurah and Clarkson lines are unique in that they straddle the usually rigid boundaries between metro, suburban rail and regional rail. The stations on said lines are not entirely in the middle of nowhere; it just appears that way because much of the land surrounding the line is undeveloped. Most - if not all - stations are located within a short bus ride to shops, universities and other facilities, however the connecting bus ride home is what makes for a commute as lengthy as living at, say, the end of the 86 tram route in Melbourne (an hour or more). Really, town planning is very poor here in that the developer's greed for increasing property prices takes precedence over providing public housing near railway stations for those who need it most (some say this makes the line safer - to which I say bullpies - the social issues will exist regardless and in no greater extent). Moreover, the dependence on the motor vehicle means that many Perth residents who are forced to use public transport face quite a compromised quality of life. In areas such as Canning Vale or the northern reaches of Ellenbrook, essential services are often more than over 2km away (and this can include bus stops). There is more than meets the eye about Perth and particularly its public transport network.

  19. Pardon me, the above comment meant to state "third lowest population densities/among the largest population distribution" on earth.

  20. The bus system must have had huge improvement since 2011 judging by my recent experience. Everything is very legible if you use the journey planner and the coverage is dense and often quite fast. The system is based on interchange with regular close headways and in some places there are bus interchange stations with electronic information to facilitate this. Bus stops have heaps of information on them including timetables. I found no problem with the CAT buses, which also sensibly have all-door loading which is a rare feature in Australia.

    They have introduced several so-called high-frequency and limited stop routes. One of these, the 950, is the busiest bus route in Australia, moving as many people as the Gold Coast light rail. If you look at the statistics (even in 2011), the Perth bus system has had the greatest patronage growth of any in Australia, some 50% since 1970. Over the same period, the bus systems in Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart have had negative growth (lost patronage), while those in Melbourne and Brisbane have only grown patronage about 10 or 15%, none of them anywhere near keeping up with population growth. The Perth bus system is very much a success story like the train system. I think it is up with some of the best in Europe.

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