Trains are working better but seating not guaranteed

The Age: Trains are working better but seating not guaranteed. November 9, 2014, Adam Carey Transport Reporter for The Age

Forced to stand: Claire Denby makes her way from West Footscray to North Melbourne by train. Photo: Joe Armao

Ben Kerlin is well placed to comment on whether or not the journey has improved for commuters on the Frankston line. Each morning the Commonwealth public servant rides a busy peak-hour train to work in the CBD, then another home again to Bonbeach in the evening, a return trip of 70 kilometres and about two hours.

It’s a journey that has been a feature of his working life for the past four years. His verdict: “I think it has got better,” he says. “When things go wrong they go spectacularly wrong but mostly it works OK.”

A new timetable introduced in 2011 made a big difference, he says. With it came new limited express services every 10 minutes and an improvement in punctuality, although this was achieved by adding several minutes to the timetable.

“Most of the time it runs pretty close to the timetable, with variations of five to 10 minutes,” Kerlin says.

Ralph Melkonian, a less frequent traveller on the Frankston line, also believes service standards have improved and nominates the introduction of Protective Services Officers as the most welcome initiative.

“It feels much safer – as much as some people have resistance to them, call them pseudo cops – especially on weekend nights when people can act up on the trains,” he says.

The inadequacies of the rail system are a perennial complaint among Melburnians, turning to anger whenever there is a meltdown.

But passenger surveys, conducted every three months, indicate there has been a slight softening in public sentiment towards the trains.

The most recent PTV “customer satisfaction monitor”, for April to June, reported a satisfaction score of 69.7 points out of 100 regarding metropolitan trains, more than seven points higher than it was in 2009-10.

“This also reflects a steady trend of improvement over the past four years,” the monitor noted.

Survey results are gathered each quarter in a phone poll of 850 train users, both frequent and occasional.

But if some feel the commute to work is getting easier, many have also been dismayed by the Napthine government’s decision to prioritise the East West Link ahead of the next major expansion of the rail network.

Melbourne University researcher Claire Denby commutes on the Sunbury line each day, beginning at West Footscray, and says train overcrowding is chronic.

“I rarely get a seat in the morning and I rarely get a seat coming home either,” Denby says. “And if one service is cancelled in the morning and I have to catch the next available train, sometimes I won’t even be able to get on.”

The government was warned by its transport department more than two years ago that an overcrowding crisis is looming, and by 2020 passengers at inner city stations would be unable to board peak-hour trains.

Yet it deferred and ultimately ditched the department’s planned solution, the Melbourne Metro tunnel, releasing plans this year for its own alternate rail link via Fishermans Bend. The line is scheduled to open in 2026.

Denby says it is time for Victorian governments of all persuasions to stop prioritising new roads over rail investment.

“If you make it easy to catch public transport then people will catch public transport. It’s where the government puts their priorities because the population is growing too much and there’s just not enough room for everybody to drive.”

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