2013 timetable re-write (part 1): The context

Posted: February 15, 2013 in Transport
Tags: , ,

Note: This post was starting to get a bit long, so I’ve split it up into 3 parts. Here is part 1.

A new Cityrail timetable is released each year, and while usually this means adding a couple of extra services or moving some trains a few minutes either way, this year’s will be the most dramatic change since the 2005 timetable.

“a brand-new rail timetable is being written from scratch, and will be released this year to provide more express trains, quicker travel times and ultimately improve the customer journey”Gladys Berejiklian, Transport Minister (15 January 2013)

Writing a timetable is a balancing act involving trade offs. One way of looking at it is by breaking it down to 3 different variables, and a decision that needs to be made on which of these 3 to prioritise. Given the problem of limited resources, you need to pick two of those three and forget about the third. If you try to get all three, then you might end up with only one. Those variables are:

  1. Capacity – the number of trains that can be run on a particular track of rail line per hour
  2. Flexibility – the ability to get from A to B without having to transfer to another train (generally this means being able to get from anywhere to the CBD, and vice versa, on a single train)
  3. Reliability – how well trains run to timetable (rather than being delayed or cancelled)

Take the 2005 timetable as an example. Cityrail had become notorious for its unreliability. On time running data shows that in 2003, 80%-90% of trains ran within 4 minutes of the timetabled time. But in 2004, this figure had dropped to 50%-60%, and remained that way until mid 2005 when 2 things happened. First, on 1 July 2005, on time running was redefined from being within 4 minutes of the timetable, to within 5 minutes of the timetable. This resulted in an immediate statistical, though not actual, improvement to reliability (from 65% in June, to 77% in July). Then in September a new timetable was introduced, cutting 1,350 weekly services and slowing down the remaining services. The government had decided to cut capacity in order to improve reliability, while maintaining flexibility. And it worked, with on time running improving right away (from 78% in August, to 94% in September). It then stabilised in the low 90% range. While many complained about the longer journeys and lower frequency of trains, the 2005 timetable did finally return Cityrail to a reliable service.

2013-01-17 On time running 2005

Fast forward to today, and on time running is again on the decline. This time it has been caused by overcrowding on trains, leading to higher dwell times on major stations. This overcrowding is in turn due to rising demand for public transport, and also a lack of capacity to deal with the higher demand. Ironically, one of the biggest constraints on capacity was the timetable changes from 2005. Clearly, the 2005 timetable has run its course and needs to be revised again. Whereas last time the government chose flexibility and reliability over capacity, this time it looks to be opting for more capacity at the expense of flexibility in the hope of reverting to improved reliability.

These problems are not exclusive to Sydney. Melbourne has seen similar problems, and has also been tackling it via a more simplified, albeit less flexible, rail network. The video below outlines these problems and the solutions to these problems from Melbourne’s perspective.

Note: You can also get additional capacity by building new infrastructure. But the problem of limited resources and the trade off mentioned earlier still exists. The difference is you now have more resources to allocate between those 3 priorities, but a choice will still need to be made on how to allocate them.

  1. kypros1992 says:

    “2005 timetable did finally return Cityrail to a reliable service”
    Not really, overcrowding became a major issue afterwards due to the massive amounts of cuts especially for off-peak services

  2. Simon says:

    You’re too kind. Good to see the data – I didn’t know there was a period of the old timetable and new standards.

    All of the improvement in on time running comes from lowering the standards of course, and the service cuts, some of which have persisted to this day (notably the Cumberland line) have been annoying.

    I think this 2013 timetable is make or break for Glady’s or at least my opinion of her.

  3. You’re right about overcrowding becoming more of a problem, particularly for off-peak services as you mentioned. However, reliability refers to on time running, which definitely did improve (and has only dropped below 90% for one month since then – June 2007). The government of the day effectively traded away capacity (leading to overcrowding) in order to improve reliability (measured in terms of on time running).


  4. I’d add integrated fares to the 2013 timetable. Doing both well will require making sacrifices in other areas and frustrating certain commuter groups, but doing so could result in huge network wide benefits.

  5. Simon says:

    I’d agree with that. Indications so far aren’t very promising for integrated fares. e.g. “Fares under opal will be distance based”, silence on the issue, IPART.

  6. […] 2013 timetable re-write (part 1): The context […]

  7. […] maximum number of trains that can pass through those stations during peak hour. This, ironically, further reduces total capacity, which makes the problem even […]

  8. […] 2013 timetable re-write (part 1): The context […]

  9. […] 2013 timetable re-write (part 1): The context […]

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