One new train a month not enough to stem V/Line's overcrowding woes

Crowded V Line train heading West. 19th April 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO Photo: Joe Armao
Crowded V Line train heading West. 19th April 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAO Photo: Joe Armao

Kathryn Bordonaro has begun to play a game with her fellow commuters on the station platform in the morning.

As the V/Line train to Melbourne pulls in, she jockeys for the perfect spot so she can be first through the door.

It's the only way she can be sure to get a seat and avoid having to stand in the aisle all the way to the city.

"You're in this country town and most people nod politely at each other on the platform," says Ms Bordonaro, a finance broker and member of the advisory council to Victoria's small business minister.

"But there's this 30 seconds where everybody turns it into an Olympic event of who is getting in that door first and who is getting their seat."

It's not hard to understand why Ms Bordonaro and her fellow commuters are so anxious to secure a seat.

They live in Warragul in west Gippsland, an hour and a half by train from central Melbourne. It's a long time to stand on a moving train.

Kathryn Bordonaro, V/Line commuter from Warragul. Overcrowding is on the rise, including on the Gippsland line. 6th April 2017 Fairfax Media The Age news Picture by Joe Armao

Kathryn Bordonaro rides a V/Line train from Warragul. Photo: Joe Armao.

Victoria's regional rail operator V/Line has an overcrowding problem, and the statistics show it is not going away, even as it adds 16 extra three-carriage trains to its fleet.

James Pinder, V/Line's CEO, admitted in state parliament on Thursday that as quickly as its manufacturer Bombardier builds a new VLocity train, new passengers fill it.

"We're adding one train a month, one train every six weeks to our fleet, but that capacity gets absorbed very quickly," Mr Pinder said.

V/Line publishes new figures each month that show which of its peak-hour services are at 100 per cent capacity or more. March's numbers reveal standing room-only has become the new normal for many commuters.

On the Geelong line, V/Line's busiest, 12 of 16 morning peak trains are more than 100 per cent full well before they reach Southern Cross Station.

This includes the first train of the day, the 4.32am from Waurn Ponds, which is standing room only by the time it departs Tarneit station in Melbourne's outer west at 5.19am.

The figure is similar in the evening, when nine of 13 trains that depart Southern Cross Station between 4pm and 6pm are overloaded.

Passengers on the Ballarat line, V/Line's next busiest, fare little better.

Seven of 13 morning peak trains are at 100 per cent capacity, sometimes from as far afield as Bacchus Marsh, and seven of 11 afternoon peak trains are standing room only.

The Gippsland line has four trains that reach Melbourne before 9am, two of which were at 100 per cent capacity last month, and three trains that depart Melbourne for Traralgon between 4pm and 6pm, two of which were standing room only for much of the journey.

The Andrews government allocated three new carriages to two peak-hour Gippsland services this month to address the problem.

Crowding on Bendigo and Seymour line trains is less problematic, V/Line figures show.

At the parliamentary inquiry, Mr Pinder suggested crowded carriages were less a growth phase than a permanent change in character from regional to commuter belt service for V/Line's busiest lines.

"Standing on V/Line trains is not something that Victorians are used to," he said.

"Our railway and our region and our state is changing. More and more people are coming to live in Victoria, our network is carrying more and more people and we are on a transformational journey.

"Do we like the fact that on some of our trains on some stations within that corridor, people have to stand for 20 minutes? No, but ... we are in some ways victims of our own success."

Jeroen Weimar, Public Transport Victoria's chief executive, told the inquiry regional rail patronage was growing faster than any other mode in the state, including trams and metropolitan trains.

"We are seeing a level of ridership on the network that we really have not seen before," Mr Weimar said.

Meanwhile, Ms Bordonaro has taken to heading across the CBD to Southern Cross Station for a Gippsland-bound train in the evening, to ensure she gets a seat and doesn't have to stand all the way to Pakenham. Sometimes all seats are occupied before the train reaches Flinders Street Station.

Having to stand all the way to Gippsland means much more than tired feet, she says. It is a drain on productivity and even quality of life.

"There's this idyllic dream that is sold to a lot of people; move to a regional area and you could commute in an hour and work or read while you travel, but it's really hard to work on your laptop if you're standing."

This story One new train a month not enough to stem V/Line's overcrowding woes first appeared on The Age.