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Passengers on Melbourne’s beleaguered rail system may suffer overcrowding, unreliable services and even threats to personal security. I compared the 1939 train timetable for the trip from Heidelberg Station to Flinders St Station on the Hurstbridge line with today’s timetable.
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 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. Modern commuters are nevertheless better off than their predecessors in two key ways, both of which are essentially a consequence of suburbanisation. These welcome and important improvements derive from operational decisions rather than from technological improvements.
This got me thinking about whether technological advances have made urban train travel significantly better in any other respects over the period.
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). The reason might be that urban rail was already a relatively mature technology in 1939 compared to cars, planes and communications.
The overland telegraph wires and Morse code that were contemporary with early rail were superseded in short order by newer technologies like radio, optic fibre and digitisation. It seems that improving urban rail in Melbourne will come down to old fashioned strategies like more investment and better management. The Urbanist is edited by Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consulting. Leave a comment Cancel replyYou must be logged in to post a comment.Not already subscribed? There are many places on the eastern lines, few elsewhere, where curves would cap line speed at 70-80kph on present standards.
I believe there are about 200 stations in Melbourne with 300km of track giving an average station spacing of 1.5km. Putting this figure into a calculator yields a maximum acceleration time in our 750m of about 30 seconds. Or to put it another way, a maximum speed system would keep accelerating until the reaching the top speed of the train or half way along the line (plus safety margin). It’s true that aviation has made bigger leaps in the last century than rail, but at least when it comes to speed, gains have been quite modest.
What has changed radically, as you note, is the cost of air travel, something I think we can put down largely to regulatory changes, specifially the gradual opening up of domestic and international markets. Even if the speed is the same, if the number of passengers increases, then the mobility has I proved.
I read somewhere that cars are actually slowing down in Melbourne on aveage due to congestion. Sometime mes the trains still stop at princess bridge, and everyone has to walk along a very narrow platform to exit at the front of the train. Alan, a few points, have cars actually increased in speed since 1939 inside the urban area (which is the comparison being made here). Regarding your question, on a single track with one-way traffic, expresses are limited by the speed of the train in front of them, so the maximum possible express saving is the time between services (which is smaller in 2011 – 6-10 minutes?) minus twice the gap between trains (1 minute?). You could try to have more expresses, but this lowers the capacity of the line (as you don’t want the express caught behind the all stopper in front of it).
So while in vehicle time might not have change, the frequency of service certainly has (Like Frankston line 10 minutes all day), and therefore I would suggest that overall journey times have decreased somewhat even though the trains themselves may not have sped up.
Alan, if the end goal is to improve mobility, comparing in-train travel speeds is interesting but not very useful. Unless it’s already reasonably high (true for peak time but not other times at Heidelberg) random arrival end-to-end travel time is more influenced by frequency than in-train travel speeds.
The superiority of increased frequency over express running in cutting end-to-end travel speed is especially marked for trips involving a bus transfer and shorter local trips.
Expressing or in-train travel speed is hardly worth worrying about (unless you’re at a critical number of minutes where it could allow a frequency increase with the same amount of rolling stock). Individually the above steps might cut by 1 to 15 minutes each (train and bus frequencies have the highest gains), but add several and the trip is considerably shorter. Entrances off Haig Street (off Clarendon Street), Clarke Street (off City Road), and off Kings Way (city bound). Taxi ranks are located at the doors to the Melbourne Exhibition Centre as well as all major hotels, Crown Entertainment Complex (across the road from the Melbourne Exhibition Centre) and Southern Cross (formerly Spencer Street Station) and Flinders Street Stations.

The world around us is made up of space and shape and these are very important concepts for students to understand. We have enjoyed drawing and labelling shapes, making 3D shapes with nets, counting edges, faces and vertices and playing a range of games to learn about shapes. If you would like to try some more activities about shape, you can find a collection of games on the Woodlands site here. For example, here is how you might calculate the perimeter of our current class novel, The One and Only Ivan. Yesterday in class students worked in pairs to calculate the perimeter of some objects in the classroom. Today we calculated the perimeter of some outdoor objects, including the basketball court, sandpit, rock climbing wall boundary and the new downball court.
Challenge: Measure and calculate the perimeter of something and leave your answer in your comment.
During class time we have been spending time practising different times tables and using multiplication in our problem solving. For one task, students viewed the Geelong to Melbourne VLine train timetable on their netbooks.
This is an afternoon for all the students to show a special person some of the things they have been using their netbook for in class. We have prepared a problem solving activity for our students to solve with their special person. A set of ten cards, each showing one of the digits from 0 to 9, is divided up between five envelopes so that there are two cards in each envelope.
We use addition in every day life all the time, so it is important to improve our skills in this area of maths.
Mrs Morris and Miss Jordan set up this blog at the end of 2011 in preparation for the start of the 2012 school year. In the time it has taken to reach 50,000 blog visitors we have published 122 posts and approved 4,956 comments! We thank all of the students, parents, teachers and community members who have taken the time to visit our blog.
Our World, Our NumbersCheck out our mathematical global project from Feb-May 2013, Our World, Our Numbers. But at least improvements in technology mean commuter trains are much faster today than they used to be. We take technological improvements for granted in almost everything, but the speed of rail in Melbourne seems to be an exception. 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 only substantial savings in trip time have been achieved at the cost of by-passing some stations i.e. The slowest trip time in 1939 was 27 minutes and the fastest, which by-passed some stations, was 20 minutes. First, whereas in 1939 there were 19 services from Heidelberg to the city up until 10 am, today there are 27.
For example, Alphington is by-passed by some services, but still gets 23 in-bound services in the morning. I’m puzzled why, given advances in technology, modern trains on this line aren’t appreciably faster than they were in earlier years.
Carriages are presumably better lit at night so passengers can spend their time more comfortably.
Our suburban rail lines however are still doing duty with much the same level of technology as they had 72 years ago. It would drop off at higher speed and the rate of drop off would significantly affect the calculation you have made.
In Sydney average minor stop dwell time (passenger movement time is not at issue) is probably 5-10 seconds longer than it was 30 years ago, on account of adopting plug doors and possibly more rigorous safety routines. It takes almost as much time to fly to London now as when Qantas introduced the 747 in the 1970s. Not sure about the second one, perhaps there is some fat added to take into account some kind of layover or conflict elsewhere in the system. Perth’s Mandurah line has stops spaced at around 2-3km apart, it is a system designed for motorised (bus or car) access rather than walking.
Stations are spaced much more closely (1km apart or so), it is a system designed for walking access.

The exception here is if you use something called skip-stop operation where trains skip each other at minor stations. Waiting time can be quite significant in the off peak at least- If your frequency of trains has increased then your overall journey time has gone down because you wait less for your train. In-train travel time, which comparing timetabled times measures, may only be half the trip length or less.
Or for people using it as a turn up and go service – ie demanding convenience and flexibility (rather than living lives around timetables). But if it requires extra trains and tracks to achieve there’s a whole heap of more cost-effective ways to achieve simlar mobility improvements, as outlined above. Please read our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use for information about which cookies we use and what information we collect on our site.
Regional and interstate train services use Melbourne's metropolitan train network to reach Melbourne.
They had to calculate the elapsed time for distances travelled between a variety of train stations.
We usually use maths websites on the interactive whiteboard, and sometimes on our netbooks too. We have a place value flipchart in our classroom that we change each day to show our blog visitor tally. 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! In 2011, the slowest time is 26 minutes and the fastest – which by-passes more stations than the 1939 expresses – is 19 minutes.
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). 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).
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?
There’ve been some design changes like wider doors and more standing room to increase performance.
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. The last big advance was electrification but that had already been implemented from Princes Bridge to Heidelberg in 1921. 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.
Sydney trains often seem to take an eternity between doors completely shut and starting to move.
First, close spacing of stations partly explains why in-carriage time is slowish but, since the number of stations hasn’t changed, it doesn’t fully explain why times for all-stoppers have stayed static. Are there any places in the world where all stops time has significantly decreased by say 5 minutes or more?
Each row has the same number of objects, so they represent equal groups.  Arrays can make counting and calculating easier. The students had to use their mathematical knowledge to calculate how many dots were in the arrays. So after 72 years of progress, the trip from Heidelberg to Flinders St is one minute faster!
But my real interest is in how technology has changed things for the better from the customer’s perspective. After that there were diminishing returns – the gains from affordable technologies were modest.
Second, stop spacing doesn’t explain why the fastest express in 2011 takes 19 minutes and stops at one two intermediate stations; the fastest express in 1939 took 20 minutes even though it stopped at seven intermediate stations. It was very interesting to see the many different strategies students used during this task.
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.

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