Myth: ‘Super expresses’ will encourage more public transport use

Myth: ‘Super expresses’ will encourage more public transport use
Fact: Of those who currently do not use public transport but might if it were better, the vast majority are not central-city commuters. Greater use should be made of limited express runs – especially outside peak hour – but ‘super expresses’ (such as Dandenong to the city non-stop) are not only useless to the majority of travellers, but also undermine the efficient use of our rail infrastructure.

Prior to the recent boom in train patronage, the government regularly floated the idea of enticing travellers with ‘super expresses’ or ‘flyer trains’ from the outer suburbs all the way into the city. The idea is intuitively appealing, at least for those of us who live a long way out of town but work in the CBD.

The problem is that making such a ‘super express’ work is not as easy as just adding an extra train to the timetable. Rail lines work most efficiently, carrying the maximum number of people, when all trains have the same stopping pattern. But the more stops a train skips, the greater the ‘dead time’ that must be allowed between it and a previous stopping train, in order that it not catch up and be slowed down by it.

This does not pose much of a problem with the ‘short’ express runs used at present (such as Richmond to Glenferrie or Caulfield to Cheltenham). But with a ‘super express’ the dead time becomes significant, and one must choose between reducing the service frequency, or building extra tracks for the express trains. The former option is counterproductive, while the latter diverts resources that might be used for health or education or other transport improvements.

For example, a third track between Caulfield and Dandenong to cater for super-express trains on that line is projected to cost $1 billion, which is enough to build a rail extension to Rowville via Monash University and to upgrade dozens of suburban bus routes to tram-like service levels. Either of these alternative projects is likely to bring thousands of new users to public transport; in order to take priority over these, super-express trains would need to show an even greater benefit.

Unfortunately, the potential of super-express trains to attract new passengers is severely limited by the fact that they’re only of help to those travelling all the way into the city. Most people who currently use public transport do go all the way into the city, making it easy to overestimate the potential of services aimed specifically at this population. The former Transport Minister was no exception:

The needs of the people say in Cranbourne is for a fast train that stops at few stations getting into the centre quickly, which is different to the needs of people who are living in the inner suburbs….who need to stop at every station to pick up the passengers.

—Transport Minister Peter Batchelor, ABC News, 7 November 2005

But while central-city commuters are a majority among current public transport users, they are only a minority of all travellers. Public transport has already captured a high ‘market share’ among central-city commuters, and if it is to gain many more patrons it will need to look to those who don’t go all the way into the city – precisely those for whom super-expresses are useless. As an example, consider the commuter population in the suburbs from Dandenong out to Pakenham and Cranbourne, who might benefit from a Dandenong-to-city super-express train. Figures from the Census on where these Melburnians work allow us to determine how many would go all the way into the city, and how many to intermediate destinations, in the hypothetical situation where all used public transport. (Thus, we assume that a proper network is in place, with good cross-suburban and feeder buses, unlike in Melbourne at present!)

Work destination Commuters
Would remain within South East region
Dandenong 15,770
Casey / Cardinia 32,479
Total 48,249
Would take a train to a city station
Melbourne CBD, Southbank, Docklands 4,562
St Kilda Rd, North Melb, Carlton 2,322
Western and Northern suburbs 1,740
Geelong region 33
Total 8,657
Would alight at an intermediate destination
City of Yarra (Richmond catchment) 1,152
Port Phillip, Prahran, Toorak 2,212
Boroondara (via Richmond or cross country by tram) 1,404
Bayside (via South Yarra or cross country by bus) 1,033
Malvern, Armadale 1,023
City of Glen Eira 1,648
Oakleigh / Monash Uni 5,242
Remainder of City of Monash 6,531
Kingston North (Moorabbin, Dingley) 8,478
Springvale region 9,827
Total 38,550
Would not use the Dandenong line
North Eastern suburbs 435
City of Knox 5,172
Maroondah, Dandenongs 2,184
City of Whitehorse 2,254
Kingston South (Chelsea) 430
Frankston / Peninsula 4,076
Total 14,551
Other
Outside Melbourne / Geelong 2,178
No fixed workplace 6,046
Not specified 6,492
Total working population 124,723

(Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001 Census journey-to-work matrices. The population comprises the municipalities of Casey and Cardinia and the former City of Dandenong.)

Of the 110,007 workers with a stated destination within Melbourne, 47,207 or 43 per cent would use trains between Dandenong and the city. But of these potential train users only 8,657 or 18 per cent would go all the way to the city – less than one in five. They would be exceeded by the number alighting at just three intermediate stations – Oakleigh, Huntingdale and Clayton. As a proportion of the total workforce, these 8,657 central-city commuters make up less than 7 per cent. And this proportion is declining as more people move into the area: in the 1996 census, 7.5% of workers were in this category, compared with 6.9% in the 2001 census. It’s not entirely a coincidence that public transport’s share of trips in Melbourne is also about 7 per cent.

(It is also seen from the above table that more than 40 per cent of journeys to work are ‘local’ – within the same region, usually to a neighbouring suburb at most – while ‘circumferential’ journeys comprise only about 13 per cent. It is from evidence of this kind that we conclude on another page that the vast majority of journeys are local or radial in nature.)

The conclusion then is that if trains from beyond Dandenong to the city are to cater for a representative cross-section of the workforce, then for every city commuter there will be two people going to Dandenong, and four people alighting between Dandenong and Caulfield. It is not clear, to say the least, that the urgent issue for this line is how to run lots of super-express services from Dandenong to the city.

As it turns out, between 2005 and 2008 patronage on Melbourne’s trains grew by some 35 per cent – an increase without precedent in recent times, and achieved wholly without super-express trains. Whether due to this or to fears about track capacity, the government appears to have lost enthusiasm for the idea: the 2008 Victorian Transport Plan makes no mention of flyer trains.

Super-expresses are an example of the ‘commuter‘ model of public transport, which is based on the outdated notion that public transport is specifically for nine-to-five commuters to the city centre. Experience in cities like Vancouver shows that the alternative ‘urban’ model, based on a full-time network of frequent services, is much more successful both at attracting passengers and recovering its costs.

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Last modified: 2 January 2009