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
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.