V/Line Lies: The Facts are in the Figures

Time and time again we hear V/Line apologising for terrible monthly performance reports, particularly on the Geelong line.

The above news report demonstrates that only 75.3% of all services on the Geelong line for the calendar month of March ran “on-time”.

V/Line defines a train as “late” if it arrives longer than five minutes and fifty-nine seconds from its scheduled arrival time on the timetable. Normal people – like passengers, for example – class the train as late in their own minds if its more than a minute or two late – but that is a philosophical debate for another day.

Here comes the usual excuse: “V/Line spokesman James Kelly said almost half of the late services were caused to line congestion between Werribee and Melbourne, and a permanent speed restriction placed on all trains at Footscray.”

Permanent speed restriction place on all trains at Footscray – okay, if it is PERMANENT, adjust the timetable(s) to suit. Since it’s permanent and all.

Here, however, is the kicker – “caused to line congestion between Werribee and Melbourne”. Interesting – certainly that has an effect – a hold up in the suburban network undoubtedly has an effect on the on-time running of the service. Granted.

However, what V/Line lies about – or at very least – does not care to mention, is the hold up to trains on the Geelong line between Corio and Werribee, where the suburban network has no influence.

Between 2003 and 2006, Geelong commuters put up with extended periods of time – (up to a month in some instances) – while the line was closed for upgrades for the Regional Fast Rail project. This project saw the entire line upgraded to Class A track – (single piece rails, all concrete sleepers, capability to run at 160km/h) – and the introduction of the V’Locity 160 trains to take advantage of the speed rating of the new tracks. The same was done for the Ballarat, Bendigo, and Traralgon lines. The entire project cost Victorians in the vicinity of one billion dollars.

We were told that for the short term pain of being crammed into road coaches and putting up with the peak-hour traffic leading into and out of Melbourne, that we’d have trains that would run at 160km/h, and that travel times would be slashed. “Get home to your families faster” we were told.

On the Geelong line however, the trains are only able to travel at 160km/h between Corio and Werribee. Not a very long distance. I’ll come to that in a minute.

Throughout the month of March – the same period covering this most recent V/Line performance report – I was taking samples of the time taken for V’Locity 160 trains to travel the 160km/h section between Corio and Werribee.

According to the Vicsig website, Corio is 63.944 kilometres from Flinders Street, and Werribee is 31.697 kilometres from Flinders Street. Simple maths says that Corio and Werribee are 32.247 kilometres apart, and that at an average speed of 160km/h, that distance should be covered in twelve minutes and five seconds.

Here is my sample of the time taken by fifteen V’Locity operated services, to travel between Corio and Werribee, heading towards Melbourne in the month of March:

  1. 04/03/2010 – 14 mins, 5 secs, 137.38km/h, 2 mins, 0 secs lost.
  2. 05/03/2010 – 14 mins, 48 secs, 130.73km/h, 2 mins, 43 secs lost.
  3. 09/03/2010 – 14 mins, 40 secs, 131.92km/h, 2 mins, 35 secs lost.
  4. 10/03/2010 – 16 mins, 0 secs, 120.93km/h, 3 mins, 55 secs lost.
  5. 11/03/2010 – 16 mins, 36 secs, 116.56km/h, 4 mins, 31 secs lost.
  6. 12/03/2010 – 15 mins, 10 secs, 127.57km/h, 3 mins, 5 secs lost.
  7. 15/03/2010 – 14 mins, 38 secs, 132.22km/h, 2 mins, 33 secs lost.
  8. 16/03/2010 – 14 mins, 10 secs, 136.58km/h, 2 mins, 5 secs lost.
  9. 17/03/2010 – 13 mins, 38 secs, 141.92km/h, 1 min, 33 secs lost.
  10. 19/03/2010 – 12 mins, 35 secs, 153.76km/h, 0 mins, 30 secs lost.
  11. 22/03/2010 – 12 mins, 50 secs, 150.77km/h, 0 mins, 45 secs lost.
  12. 23/03/2010 - 13 mins, 40 secs, 141.57km/h, 1 min, 35 secs lost.
  13. 24/03/2010 – 13 mins, 50 secs, 139.87km/h, 1 min, 45 secs lost.
  14. 25/03/2010 – 14 mins, 43 secs, 131.47km/h, 2 mins, 38 secs lost.
  15. 26/03/2010 – 16 mins, 13 secs, 119.31km/h, 4 mins, 8 secs lost.

There are some reasonable results there. There are some excellent ones there. There are a lot of bloody terrible ones there.

Going back to the definition of what is – or is not – a late train, of the fifteen samples above, there were only TWO examples of what I would call reasonable on-time performance. The other thirteen were at least five minutes late arriving at Southern Cross.

Which were the two good ones? Sample number ten, and sample number eleven. Sample eleven arrived two minutes after the scheduled timetable time. How did sample ten go? Sample ten arrived at Southern Cross an entire one minute EARLY! Yes, it arrived EARLY!

In every other instance, the on-time performance was unacceptable. So what was different between samples ten and eleven, and all the other samples? Those trains actually ran acceptably close to the supposed operational speed of 160km/h.

So, the ones that ran close to 160km/h arrived at or very close the scheduled time. The others did not get close. Across the fifteen samples, the average time taken to cover the Corio to Werribee distance was fourteen minutes and thirty seconds, which equates to an average speed of 133.44km/h, a full 26.56km/h below the promised speed. This accounts for two minutes and twenty-five seconds of lost time, on average, before the train reaches the metropolitan network.

There’s nothing in front of the trains to hold them up – there’s a leeway in the timetable ahead of them to allow them to travel at full speed. So why can’t we go at the 160km/h we were promised for our one billion dollars?

Here’s what I think happens. When the train averages 150km/h or above, it gets in front of one more train on the suburban network, which allows it to shuffle along inside the metropolitan network in the slot that it is supposed to shuffle along in. At below 150km/h, it misses that single slot, and shuffles along inside the metropolitan network a slot behind the one it is supposed to run in.

On average, these trains are running two minutes and twenty five seconds slower to Werribee than they should be running. It seems from this anecdotal evidence, that that is enough time for the train to miss its correct operational slot within the metropolitan timetable, which given there will always be a metropolitan stopping all stations train ahead of the V/Line train, makes up the rest of the five minutes and fifty-nine seconds to allow V/Line to officially declare the train late.

When a train makes its correct slot, it appears to arrive at Southern Cross on time. It is difficult to be really certain, given that only two trains from the sample appeared to travel fast enough to meet that goal. It is not a big enough sample size – but that is the problem, the trains are running so badly, that I could not possibly get a big enough sample size!

So – an explanation is needed. Why did we pay all that money, and put up with all that time crammed into road coaches, and now have to put up with an even poorer performing service than we did before? I believe V/Line has now failed to meet its performance target on the Geelong line for forty-three consecutive months. That’s right – FORTY-THREE MONTHS!

It is easy for V/Line to use the “metropolitan congestion” excuse, because everyone notices the train going slower, and stopping for short periods between stations while it waits for metropolitan trains to clear platforms.

Notice to V/Line – people are noticing how slow you go before you reach the metropolitan network! The month of May will see me performing an even more extensive study as to the performance of these trains!