Saturday, April 09, 2005

Summary 4-8 April

OK, so here's the first week's summary...


I've given them a green if the train that I wanted to catch departs within two minutes of the scheduled time and I've given them an orange if they are "on time" according to Connex - seem fair? After the first week, my perception and reality match pretty closely I think!

Friday, April 08, 2005

Fri 8 April - Not too bad...

We're not ending the week too badly. The 07:14 runs. And it's pretty much on time.

Aim for the 17:38. At 17:32 the sign at the station entrance is still showing the 17:27 and the 17:38 as the next two trains. Onto the platform, the monitor still shows the next train as 17:27 but the platform is almost empty. Within another minute or so the monitor updates to show the 17:38 - all good. The train rolls in just after 17:38 and we depart about three minutes late. So another "on time" success for Connex.

This was undoubtedly the best day of the week... for me!

Shaz has a different story - she goes for the 18:12. I managed to obtain a transcript of the train controller and the driver talking over their radios

Train Controller (TC): These people look like they've had a bad week, let's see if we can just tip them over the edge

Train Driver (TD): OK, can you switch me over to platform 13, they hate that

TC: No worries, but we'll leave the monitor on platform 8 showing the 18:12

TD: Brilliant! ... just pulling in now

TC: OK, we've got about a minute to go, I'll just blank out the monitors... keep 'em guessing

TD: Damn, a few people seem to have figured it out and they're getting on the train

TC: Yeah, sorry about that, the apprentice put it on the monitors

TD: No probs, it's only a few

TC: OK, it's 18:12, I'll announce it now, I'll let you know when the first ones get to platform 13

TD: Righty-oh, got my finger on the button

TC: Ladies and gentlemen the 6:12 Sandringham train will depart from platform 13

Passengers: You're kidding, it's 6:12 now, let's run

[Swarms of passengers gallop up the stairs and escalators]

TC: Here they come... first one is just coming down the stairs now

TD: Thanks mate, just hit the button now... he he he

TC: Good one mate, you should see their faces... ha ha ha... Hang on a minute, has that guy got an AK-47?

I should just mention that today I put in a complaint form about my not being able to print information on the back of the complaint form. Needless to say, I put it in without my propaganda on the back!

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Thu 7 April - 50-50...

At 06:26 we receive an SMS to say that the 06:59 is cancelled. So the 07:14 is now doubled up and is also running about five minutes late. As usual, not enough time to catch the earlier train.

This is the bit that Connex doesn't seem to comprehend - sure it's helpful to know the train you might've been aiming to catch is not running. But many people would prefer to catch an earlier train than the cancelled one if possible, since then they won't be jammed into a train that has double the normal load. It seems so obvious, yet we rarely receive enough notice to do so. I'm sending an email to the guy in Connex who manages this to let him know that the service is still not really working for us.

Meanwhile back at the station, those who have been waiting since before 07:00 are looking less than happy – probably because they know we will be fairly packed in now. Somehow we manage to lose another five minutes along the way so arrive at Flinders Street about 10 minutes late. That's one that makes it into the stats as not being "on time"!

Leaving a bit early as we were going out this evening. I aim for the 17:27 and it runs on time. That's the second on time (as opposed to "on time") train this week and it's only Thursday.

As well as this blog, I've been running a bit of a campaign to encourage people to complain about the many problems on the Sandringham line. Why? Because a woman in the Stationmaster's office told Shaz and me that "nobody's complaining". My conclusion was that they don't exactly make it easy to complain! So let's see what we can do to help. I put a page on my website - - and I put a copy of the Connex complaint form on the site. I also printed out a wodge of complaint forms and put a copy of the details from my web page on the back.

It seems that this approach has niggled Connex a little, so when I go down today to hand in a few more complaint forms a guy called Joel tells me they can't accept any more forms with my information on the back. I'm trying to understand the rationale behind this, but all Joel can tell me is that it somehow invalidates the form. Sam, who appears to be a supervisor, confirms that my propaganda is unacceptable and invalidates the form. For the life of me I can't see how it interferes one iota with their complaints handling procedure, but Sam helpfully explains that if I put something on the back of a police form it would invalidate that too. I am still not clear what's acceptable - I think it's OK if my children draw pictures on the back, I can probably write something about my website, but not have all the information I currently have.

The root of the problem seems to be that I suggest to people that they hand in their forms to the Stationmaster's office. Joel, Sam and the unnamed supervisor who made this decision seem to think that I should be explaining that there are "premium" stations around the network and that I should be directing people to these. Yes, I travel between Ripponlea and Flinders Street, I could guess that well over 50% of Sandringham line commuters simailarly travel between a non-premium station and Flinders Street. But we're all happy to go out of our way to go visit a premium station just so Joel, Sam and the "nobody's complaining" woman can go back to not hearing any complaints.

Anyway, I guess I'll be printing off separate forms and information sheets and wasting twice as much paper just so Connex can handle our complaint forms unaffected by my propaganda.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Wed 6 April - Better? Nope...

The 07:14 is cancelled again. Have I mentioned I'm very set in my ways of catching this train? OK, thought so. Anyway, I'm not happy as I got the notification at 06:40. I would've had enough time to catch the 06:59, were it not for the fact that I'd left the car at the station because I got a taxi last night! Oh well get the 07:49 and it's pretty much on time.

Home again, going for the 17:38. Haven't had any SMS alerts, but the sign at the entrance says the next trains are the 17:49 and 18:01. So it fairly strongly suggests the 17:38 is not running. Stroll up to platform 8 and sure enough the monitor is not showing 17:38 to Sandringham. At 17:37 they announce that the 17:38 is running after all, but from platform 10. A quick sprint over there and I make it with a little time to spare. So it leaves about three minutes late and, not surprisingly, it's fairly empty. Presumably because several people went off and did something else to wait for the 17:49 as scheduled, or just didn't get enough warning to pick up the platform change. The little kicker for them is that at 17:45 they sent an SMS to advise that the 17:49 was cancelled. Bet they were happy!

This is a great example of the lack of information, or worse, complete misinformation to passengers. You get there, you believe the sign that your train is not running so you take a stroll - maybe even make the fruitless search for a staff member who can tell you what's going on. You amble up to platform 8 and the monitors confirm that your train is not running. You idly look over at platform 10 just as your train pulls out. Spewing! So the monitor shows you that the 17:49 is on its way and you relax a little. Then a few minutes before it's due you're told it's not running... where's that AK-47 when you need it?

How hard would it have been for Connex to have managed this better? For example, get the sign at the entrance right... yeah that's a challenge. Make it display that the 17:38 is running and that it's going from platform 10. Have a staff member at both entrances to platform 8 and tell people that their train is on platform 10, waiting to whisk them home in comfort. If I can figure out what's required, why can't Connex?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Tue 5 April - Getting worse...

Connex advise the industrial dispute is resolved (sort of) so we can assume SMS alerts are working again. And there's the 07:14 just about on time. Maybe things aren't so bad.

But you knew it was going to get worse, didn't you? SMS is working again, so I receive an alert at 17:18 advising that the 17:38 is cancelled... great! This doesn't allow enough time to pack up and get down for the 17:27, so that's not much help. On the basis that the 17:49 will have double its normal load I make the fatal mistake of deciding to let the 17:49 go and catch the 18:01 instead. As I'm leaving the office I comment to a fellow Sandringham line commuter that I have a bad feeling about it. Sure enough there's the SMS confirming the 18:01 is cancelled. So now I can catch the 18:12, which will be doubled up too, or wait for the 18:24. Hmmm, what's the likelihood of the 18:24 not running? So I pay $25 for a cab and get home without further aggravation. Thanks Connex.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Mon 4 April - So we begin...

And how could I know the very first trip being blogged would be cancelled? Does this provide an omen for the rest of the week?

Apparently there's an industrial dispute that's stopped Connex sending SMS alerts to advise of cancellations. So I head to the station with some apprehension. Sure enough the 07:14 has been cancelled – a great start to the working week. No choice but to wait for the 07:29, which arrives pretty much on time and is fairly crowded. Not great, but could've been worse - at least I had an episode of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to distract me.

Home time and I'll go for the 17:38. It pulls in at about 17:36, so that's promising. They decide to leave about two minutes late, so officially "on time". "On time", according to Connex and our pusillanimous state government, means getting to the destination within five minutes and 59 seconds of the scheduled time. So even if it leaves 10 minutes late, and I get home 10 minutes late, if the driver can make up four minutes and two seconds he'll be "on time". Guys, it's a timetable. You're either leaving at the scheduled time or you're not. Despite this very generous description of "on time", 314 trains during the last reported period were late or cancelled!

It was this or get an AK-47...

While some may argue that having a whingeing blog is probably worse than what might happen if I ran amok at Flinders Street Station, this just might keep me out of jail.

So what's this all about? Glad you asked, let me explain...

Connex is the company that runs Melbourne's metropolitan rail services. My especial target is the Sandringham line, usually the worst performer of the 15 or so lines that make up the network.

"Perception is reality" was one of the many glib phrases my ex-boss used to regularly use. Well my reality is that I have never had a full week of the train that I want to catch running on time. Let me rephrase that somewhat inelegant sentence - I don't believe that of the ten scheduled trains that I would wish to catch in any given week, all ten have ever run as scheduled. Ever. In over four years of commuting on the Sandringham line, my perception is that at least one train per week is either delayed or cancelled.

That's probably a pretty bold call, so to turn my perception into reality, I plan to keep a diary for a while and we'll see how often Connex can deliver me a full week of reliable services. Yes, I know that's a little self-centred, but isn't that the whole point of blogging?

I very regularly catch the 07:14 from Ripponlea to the city - Flinders Street. It's generally not too bad. Getting home is where the real problems are. I like to get home in time to have dinner with my family, so I aim to catch the 17:38 unless something keeps me back at work. Unfortunately, Connex does not seem as keen on getting people home as it does getting them to work! The Sandringham line trains during evening peak hour are a complete lottery. Everything about them seems to be random. What platform? Will it run this evening? How late will it be? Will they tell us what's going on? Will the prior train have been cancelled so we're all jammed in?

Perhaps I should give some context for those who are unfamiliar with Melbourne trains. People from large cities may not recognise that we have timetables, they would be more used to the notion of regular trains every few minutes - you just turn up and wait for the next one. Melbourne's metropolitan network is more akin to a national network - fewer trains and a set timetable. The main problem with this arrangement is that during peak hours each train is generally pretty full, even if there are reasonably frequent trains. The Sandringham line has a train every ten minutes or so during peak times. So you'd think that if one is cancelled it's not long to wait until the next one arrives. True. Except you may not be able to get on board. Even worse, if it ends up being just a few minutes late, you get some of the passengers showing up for the next train who'd like to get on too! So a not uncommon occurrence is to cancel the 17:27 then the 17:38 runs about five minutes late, so you get end up with all the frustrated 17:27 passengers, all the 17:38 passengers having to share their train with these infiltrators and then half the passengers who would've otherwise been catching the 17:49, all trying to jam into one train. And very few are prepared to say "no worries I'll just wait for the 17:49" because they have no confidence whatsoever that it will arrive!

Now do you see why we're getting annoyed? Well I'm not finished yet - perhaps you should grab yourself a coffee?

By now you've probably concluded that Connex would have trouble organising some hanky-panky in a bordello (thought I'd better clean that one up) and you'd be right. But this inability to simply run trains according to a timetable, however outdated that notion might seem, is only part of the story. It's the lack of communication that is really annoying. How hard is it to tell us what's happening with our trains? Surely there's a bloke in a control room somewhere who has a pretty good idea where all the trains and drivers are at any given moment. Well mate, if the 17:38 to Sandringham is still at South Yarra at 17:35, guess what? It ain't departing Flinders Street at 17:38. So why, why, why won't you just give us this information? I can't even begin to contemplate that they don't know where their trains are, so the only logical inference is that they are deliberately choosing not to tell us.

To support this conclusion, here's another piece of information. At many stations they have some nice 1970s technology - TV monitors on the platforms. These tell you the next scheduled departure from that platform, the destination and which stations the train is stopping at. At most of these stations, with the exception of Flinders Street, they have two pieces of timing information - "Scheduled" and "Departing". So the train is due at 10:43 and it's departing in three minutes. How good is that?! But Flinders Street station management choose not to provide the "Departing" information. Why? Because they don't know? No, I can't accept that they don't know, so we have to conclude they're deliberately not telling us.

For further support of the proposition that they don't want us to know what's going on, have a look around for some station staff to ask. Flinders Street is arguably the centre of the Melbourne rail network. A huge old building with thousands of people constantly passing through. Yet there is no information centre to ask about the trains. There are a few staff at the ticket barriers who rarely have any clue about what's happening. There are a few people selling tickets who are equally ill-informed and that's about all you'll see. How on earth a visitor is meant to find out anything about getting around the Melbourne train network I don't know. Certainly not from the central railway station.

Hidden away behind an anonymous door over in one corner of the main station entrance is the door to the Stationmaster's office. Not something you'd stumble across. You open the door and there's an equally anonymous set of stairs around the corner. If you venture up these stairs you find there is a "customer service" area. It's usually empty because nobody knows it's there. Unfortunately these people seem to be mainly interested in something other than customer service. I'm not sure if I've figured out what their primary role is, but it doesn't seem to be anything to do with running the rail network, since they're generally not very well informed about anything that I ask them.

Is that enough background? Chances are that if you've read this far you're a like-minded disgruntled commuter so you already knew all this, in which case you've probably skipped it too!

Enough of the background. I'll try to add some more insight into Connex along the way – for example the SMS timetable where you can pay for them to provide you information about how badly your trains are running; the compensation scheme whereby if their network performs even more abysmally than usual, a person paying $1,939 a year is given a rebate of a daily fare ($12.40); how "on time" is defined by these Orwellian people as arriving at the destination within five minutes and 59 seconds of the scheduled time; how they adopt bully-boy tactics to try to silence legitimate protest from disgruntled passengers. OK, OK, I'll stop there!