Faster train journeys – some low-hanging fruit.

The state government is prepared to make big investments to make train travel easier and faster. So they should. They are contemplating a $9 billion tunnel that will make journeys faster and more reliable.

But what if I told you there was a much much cheaper way to improve travel times of the rail system, while making people’s journeys to work more comfortable?

The solution requires thinking outside the box. This is not about putting faster motors on the trains. Not about improving signalling or driver training or anything to do with the train system itself. It’s about cutting walking times to the station.

Let’s look at my local station, Clifton Hill.

Clifton HIl station entrances and exits.
Yellow dots mark the entrances

There are just three entrances, all clustered up the northern end of the station.

The last 100 metres.
Placing the entrance at the northern end means passengers walking from the south have to walk an additional 120 metres to get on the platform. (I reckon 2 minutes is an overestimate by our friends at Google Maps.)

This is not a passenger-centric design, but an operator-centric design.

Where new station entrances should be
Where new station entrances should be (blue dots)

Walking times are some of the most important parts of a train journey. A meta-analysis of the subject cites research that found ten minutes of walking was equivalent to 20 minutes of riding in the vehicle. In other words, the walking section of the journey is an important place to focus improvements.

I’ve made a model for the benefits at Clifton Hill station. Clifton Hill Station got 3,009 boardings per weekday in the 2011-12.

I model it like this: 25 per cent of the users who walk to the station live in line with the platform, so moving entrances to the end is of no benefit, while 75 per cent of users currently walk past the end of the platform to get to the entrance. An amazing isochrone map app I found shows that my model is probably conservative, because of the local geography.

Those inside the yellow circle and not between the red lines can be assumed to benefit from new platform entrances.
Those inside the yellow circle and not between the red lines can be assumed to benefit from new platform entrances.
How far can you get in 12 minutes?
12-minute walking map. Source: Cartoo

There are 90 car parks at Clifton Hill Station, and it is served by buses. There are trams not so far away. I estimate two-thirds of people walk to the station. (2000 users a day.) Let’s say 1500 of them could potentially access the station via the new gates I propose.

But smart public transport users know not all carriages are equally useful. Depending on what station you get off at, and where you’re headed, your train exit may be speeded up most by being at the front, back, or middle of the train.

If you come to Clifton Hill Station from the south, but you want to board the southbound train’s last carriages (and you’re not running late) it provides you no advantage to have an extra gate at the south end of the station.

But if you’re coming from the south and you want to be in the front carriages of that southbound train, you need to walk that distance twice. Once along the street outside the station, and then back again along the platform.

Putting an entrance at each end of the platform, replacing a northern-end entrance
WALKING DISTANCE SAVED (m)
Southerners Middlers Northerners
front carriage riders 150 0 0
mid train riders 75 0 0
last carriage riders 0 0 0

12 per cent of the 2000 walkers will save a conservatively estimated 150 metres, or 90 seconds. 12 per cent of them will save an estimated 75 metres, or 45 seconds. That adds up to 563 minutes on access to the station. That makes 9.4 hours. If the same effect is present when they return home, it’s worth 18.8 hours.

The model does not assign any benefit to all the trains that may now *just* be caught when before they were just missed.

Assuming a value of time of $30 an hour, the value of the additional exits would be $146,000 a year, just measuring weekday trips. For a gap in the fence, a bit of concrete paving and some extra Myki machines, which I estimate to cost perhaps $500,000, it would pay itself off within a few years, yielding a positive rate of return.

You may think a minute here or there is not important, but there is no single change that can cut a train journey’s duration in half. If we want improvements to service we need the operators to accumulate small easy changes like this across the network.

Clifton Hill Station is not even the worst offender. Camberwell station has the entrance to two of its three platforms about 100 metres away from the main road it serves.

Camberwell station served 6,571 passengers each weekday in 2011-12
Camberwell station served 6,571 passengers each weekday in 2011-12.

Why haven’t they thought of these fixes already?

There will be a perceived trade-off with safety. I don’t doubt the ex-post rationalisers are currently saying “but having one entrance allows for surveillance!” But a single entrance also funnels station users past a single choke point. In the same way a narrow alley feels dangerous at night, so can a single station entrance with no alternatives.

In fact, more exits and entrances should mean fewer people spending time at stations, increasing the visibility of anyone loitering with malicious intent and decreasing their opportunities.

I contend the reason this sort of station design is not widespread is institutional. The Public Transport Victoria guidelines for station design seem to support this kind of solution:

“Many aspects of the local context and surrounding urban design will influence the station entry configuration. A thorough study of the station catchment area is required to determine the most appropriate placement of the entry or entries in order to attract patronage by:
a) Encouraging the use of the station by simplifying connections with existing and future urban design;
b) Providing accessibility, convenience, clarity and quality of arrival to and from the station;
c) Providing safe and attractive public spaces that contribute positively to the local identity;”

But in fact, station access runs second to concerns over train boarding patterns. PTV tries to alternate whether station entrances are at one end of the train or the other, to prevent any one carriage getting too full. Their conception of their job focuses on the trains, not the passengers.

But building more station entrances should be a priority. It won’t help just walkers. At the margin, making walking distances to train stations shorter will encourage more people to walk, and free up scarce car parking spots for people who live even further away.

As well as institutional bias from the departments, there is a ribbon-cutting bias in public transport investment. Politicians want grand visions. The Premier can’t imagine himself showing up to the construction of a new station entrance, so he doesn’t push for it to get done. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the best idea.

Published by

thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

19 thoughts on “Faster train journeys – some low-hanging fruit.”

  1. The real problem with public transport, particularly trains is that successive governments have seen it as part of the welfare system (a cost to be managed and reduced) and one that they hoped and expected would ultimately die as everyone would drive. It’s probably been more than 40 years since any significant energy was put into understanding it or improving it. Now that they have woken up to the fact that they can’t get rid of it they are still dicking around at the margins while the system groans under the increased demand.
    Train stations occupy prime land – or what could be prime land if they weren’t perceived as places that are deliberately made unsafe by design and lack of staff. It’s time there was a re-think about what other uses and businesses could operate from the premises, particularly outside peak hours when train stations are often empty – and not just coffee kiosks for the morning rush. Train stations even in peak hours can be the site of some pretty appalling social behaviour – I’m not sure why this is tolerated by the vast majority of commuters who are trying to get home and mind their own business.

    The pedestrian experience around Clifton Hill station is pretty poor and has been made that way by the needs of cars – it’s also one of the worst places to try and cycle through. It’s time to shutdown vicroads and the transport department and start again from scratch.

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    1. I didn’t see those walking numbers, but I was discussing the number of people who seem to change trains there just the other day. I do see people who get on at Victoria Park, Collingwood and west richmond who then want to change to the line that expresses those stations (South Morang?) Another theory is that people hop off, touch off their myki, then hop back on to travel to a zone 2 station.

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  2. Oh, but to reply to your central point: yes, pedestrian access at a lot of stations can be improved. The limited entrances are a throwback to the days when a staff member would check all tickets of exiting passengers. This only happens these days with teams of AOs, so extra entrances could be added (and in fact have been at some locations to cope with large numbers of exiting passengers – see https://www.flickr.com/photos/ptua/6909911926 )

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    1. Yes, Clifton Hill recently got an extra exit to cope with the crush. But it’s 10 metres from the old one! Cuts a very meagre amount from my walk home…

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  3. I was not secretly hoping when reading the title and very first lines of your post to see moving-walkway-like solution to reduce walking time to station. I was hoping for a futuristic view of modern habitat. But more gates is also a valid point.
    Because of a walking time 50% longer to the train station than to the tram stop and a lower frequency creating uncertainty – even though train would almost always take me to the CBD faster- tram is almost always my preferred option (only when bike is off the realm of possibility).

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  4. I think this is a hard one for politicians. They’ll get little credit for improving overall journey time via (say) better pedestrian access because the public focusses on the vehicle component of the trip. The politician’s preferred strategy is to increase walking time if it improves vehicle time, even if overall journey time is longer (some reckon this is what the tram super stops are about).

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  5. Are you saying that people don’t use public transport because they have to walk another 50metres to enter the stations?

    I don’t disagree that some stations have (in hindsight) poor access, but what might seem like small changes on one station would be an expensive network wide budget blow out.

    With the implimentation of MYKI, a number of stations have increased access points along the boundaries. Notably these are all at grade. The issue is in essence, below or above grade stations.

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    1. Absolutely that is what I am saying. There’s a circle around a station beyond which it is too far away for a majority of people to walk to it. Adding gates will make that circle bigger.

      I do agree that adding entrances and exits will be cheapest for at grade stations (like Clifton Hill).

      But some below grade stations like North Melbourne have easy options for extra gates (just open up the old gates) and some like Camberwell have fairly easy options (add escalators to Burke Rd.)

      Obviously adding new exits would not be worth it everywhere. You wouldn’t put them in to serve the 357 passengers who use Jacana station daily, or the 199 who use Wattle Glen.

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  6. I totally agree with this idea – passenger centric design instead of operator centric. A similar and likewise relatively low cost suggestion would be to remove those standalone Myki validators from the edges of the gates, and spread them out along the platforms. Having them at the gates adds delay to the narrow gate funnel, as everybody has to pass by slowly within arms reach to touch on or off.

    At some stations, extra validators have been added along the platform, in an attempt to ease the problem – such as Gardenvale. But the fatal mistake was leaving the existing validators at the gates. Now, people who have touched off before they reach the gates still have to queue needlessly behind those that haven’t, waiting for them to validate at the gateway.

    Seems like station design is still being driven by the manual ticket validation era. Not-yet-built stations such as those in the Rowville feasibility study have places referred to as ‘validated ticket areas’, following the gated platform model of old.

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    1. I think putting validators inside the station is a great idea – I’m not sure why we have validated ticket zones, or for that matter, why we fence stations in at all.

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  7. This is a pet peeve of mine as well. My local station is Deer Park, which effectively has 3 entrances – Northwest (attached to the carpark), Northeast and Southeast (at the level crossing of Mount Derrimut Road).

    Heaps of people, myself included, come from the new estate that’s been built over the last few years, and approach from the Southwest – but we have to walk all the way past the station to Mount Derrimut Road, then backtrack to get to the platform. An entrance at the Southwest corner would massively expand the size of the isochrone for Deer Park.

    It probably should have happened when they did a big refurb of the station in ~09 – not much was built then but they would have known it was coming. Now with Regional Rail Link works they’re putting up massive sound barriers where that entrance would go, so it’s not looking likely to happen soon.

    I did have one thought though. Would there be issues with either DDA compliance or the “No new level crossings” thing with putting in a new entrance that crossed the tracks at grade? An at-grade entrance has a chance, the whole ramp treatment is a big ask though.

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    1. Hadn’t fully thought through the idea that new entrances also require new crossings, but you are probably right in some cases.
      At Clifton Hill and my old station Tooronga there are already foot crossings of the track at the end of the platform, for road and park access respectively.
      If, because of cuttings or embankments, there is no foot crossing, then you have to put in a new one (possibly at great expense) or the pedestrians only get the benefit for one of their trips (to/from home).
      Does the government’s promise of no new level crossings apply to foot crossings? I hope not!

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  8. Look at the positive side of it – walking is good for you. Hell you could probably walk to work in the CBD from Clifton Hill

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  9. I’m glad I’m not the only person thinking about this.
    At my local station (Hughesdale) all access to the station is from Poath Rd. I walk to the station from the end which has no entries and at all times on the path I am about 5 metres from the platform, but I have to walk the whole length of the platform to the Poath Rd entry before I can gain access. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been close enough to a train to just about jump on it (if there were no fence) but I still miss it because I am over 100 metres away from the entry. It’s madness. I have no issue with walking, but it’s very annoying to repeatedly miss trains that are physically so close.

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    1. Yes! So aggravating. Not to mention the economic waste of having you sit on a suburban train station for 10 to 20 minutes when you could be productively at work!

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  10. Some outer suburban stations that j use would benefit from this. Ringwood east which has one entrance at the east end for example. Or, shifting Heathmont station to be under Canterbury Rd with entrance on either side.

    They did a good job with nunawading when they removed the level crossing adding entrances on either side of springvale Rd.

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