Have trains gotten faster?Posted: May 24, 2011 | |
Passengers on Melbourne’s beleaguered rail system may suffer overcrowding, unreliable services and even threats to personal security. But at least improvements in technology mean commuter trains are much faster today than they used to be. Aren’t they?
Actually, no. We take technological improvements for granted in almost everything, but the speed of rail in Melbourne seems to be an exception. If my local rail line is representative of the rest of the system, then travel times today aren’t significantly faster than they were three generations ago!
I compared the 1939 train timetable for the trip from Heidelberg Station to Flinders St Station on the Hurstbridge line with today’s timetable. I started with the first train to leave Heidelberg on a weekday morning in both years and finished with the last departure prior to 10 am (see exhibit).
The number of stations is the same (although back then Flinders St was called Princes Bridge) so I was astonished to see the trip is only slightly faster now than it was 72 years ago. The only substantial savings in trip time have been achieved at the cost of by-passing some stations i.e. by increasing the number of express services.
The average duration of the 17 all-stop services offered in 1939 was 25 minutes, just one minute slower than the average for the 12 all-stoppers available today. The slowest trip time in 1939 was 27 minutes and the fastest, which by-passed some stations, was 20 minutes. In 2011, the slowest time is 26 minutes and the fastest – which by-passes more stations than the 1939 expresses – is 19 minutes. So after 72 years of progress, the trip from Heidelberg to Flinders St is one minute faster!
Modern commuters are nevertheless better off than their predecessors in two key ways, both of which are essentially a consequence of suburbanisation. First, whereas in 1939 there were 19 services from Heidelberg to the city up until 10 am, today there are 27. Second, today’s commuters have a greater choice of express services than the mere two that were available to pre-war residents (the shading in the exhibit indicates express services).
And the increased number of expresses doesn’t come at the expense of by-passed stations. For example, Alphington is by-passed by some services, but still gets 23 in-bound services in the morning. Most of the gains from expresses come from by-passing Victoria Park, Collingwood, North Richmond and West Richmond stations – who still do OK because they are also served by the Epping line (not that these stations generate much patronage).
These welcome and important improvements derive from operational decisions rather than from technological improvements. I’m puzzled why, given advances in technology, modern trains on this line aren’t appreciably faster than they were in earlier years. The speed of cars, planes and communications has gone up enormously since 1939 so why haven’t trains, which have the advantage of operating in a dedicated alignment, similarly gotten dramatically quicker?
This got me thinking about whether technological advances have made urban train travel significantly better in any other respects over the period. I’d guess that labour costs are lower today and energy efficiency is higher. There’ve been some design changes like wider doors and more standing room to increase performance. But my real interest is in how technology has changed things for the better from the customer’s perspective.
Air conditioning is definitely a valuable improvement and I’ll guess that train travel is also safer today in terms of the risk of major accidents like derailments and minor ones like falls while boarding (although maybe the latter’s compromised by our more litigious society). Carriages are presumably better lit at night so passengers can spend their time more comfortably. There’s better real-time information about whether a service is running late and I don’t imagine there were in-carriage announcements about the next station back in 1939. But I don’t see evidence of the sort of major leap forward we’ve come to take for granted in other areas. After all, 72 years is a long time. If trains had progressed at the same pace as (say) planes, a commute would cost a fraction of what it was in 1939 and take only half as long.
The reason might be that urban rail was already a relatively mature technology in 1939 compared to cars, planes and communications. The exponential gains in train performance were made in the nineteenth century. The last big advance was electrification but that had already been implemented from Princes Bridge to Heidelberg in 1921. After that there were diminishing returns – the gains from affordable technologies were modest.
The overland telegraph wires and Morse code that were contemporary with early rail were superseded in short order by newer technologies like radio, optic fibre and digitisation. Our suburban rail lines however are still doing duty with much the same level of technology as they had 72 years ago. The reason Hurstbridge trains aren’t any faster today might well be that the infrastructure is still 1930s standard and is constrained to 1930s speeds.
It seems that improving urban rail in Melbourne will come down to old fashioned strategies like more investment and better management.