It’s still a snail

October 17, 2009 at 1:53 am 13 comments

Perhaps I should wait a little longer. Perhaps I should wait to see if the wheels come off next week when the school holidays are over. But I’ve had enough already, so time for this blog post.

Regular ThinkingShift readers would know I travel about 4 hours per day (round trip) to work, on a train that is called the Newcastle Flyer, which travels from Newcastle (north of Sydney) to Sydney Central station – a distance of around 170km (105 miles). I’ve travelled on this train daily for 8 years now and I’ve not known it to “fly” anywhere – commuters refer to it as the Newcastle Snail. I hasten to add I live in Australia – a developed country that should be able to transport people around in trains that are sleek, fast and modern. No wait: that’s Portugal. Last year, I travelled from Lisbon to Porto by train, which takes around 3 hours and covers roughly 300km (200 miles).  Porto is in the north of Portugal – an agricultural region – and many of us would think that Portugal is not as developed as Australia. But this rapid Portuguese train had the following:

  • decent, comfortable, adjustable seats. Passengers can sit two together, with another two passengers facing opposite you. In between, is a table to put your laptop on or whatever;
  • catering staff who would go up and down the aisles of the train selling coffee, snacks and…if you were really hungry, you could order from a menu and food would be delivered to your seat. My husband had baked fish followed by a chocolate dessert of some sort;
  • clean, roomy toilets with hand-washing gel;
  • a carriage at the front of the train with a mini-cafe. If you wanted to stretch your legs, you could walk there and get a coffee and snack;
  • a computerised screen telling you how fast the train was going and how long until the next stop (from memory, there were four stops);
  • a TV screen in each carriage;
  • a ton of room to stow your luggage. The luggage area was a special section at the front of each carriage;
  • a neat, tidy train –  no graffiti; no nasty smells;
  • a constant, fast speed – no slowing down for “all stations ahead” trains;
  • it’s a “tilting” train so it bends into curves, making for a non-jarring ride.

Here’s a photo of this train, known as the Alfa Pendular High Speed train:


Now, in comparison, this is what passengers on the Newcastle Flyer get (and remember the journey is comparable: Newcastle to Sydney is nearly 3 hours – my train departs Newcastle at 6.12 am and gets into Sydney Central station at 8.48am if you’re lucky) – granted the distance travelled is less than the Lisbon-Porto train:

  • no catering; no part of any carriage where passengers can buy a coffee or snack – basically, you bring your own;
  • carriages and seats that have seen better days;
  • no special area for luggage – unless you count the small overhead shelves in one part of the carriage and you wouldn’t be able to heft a heavy suitcase up there and it probably wouldn’t fit anyway (I know, I’ve tried on many occasions);
  • teeny weensy toilets – frankly, you would rather hold on than go in there. They stink. The last time I entered one, the floor had urine on it, there was no toilet paper and you’d search in vain for any hand-washing gel. I turned right around and hung on;
  • no computerised screen to tell passengers how fast the train is going or what the next stop is. If you’re unfamiliar with the train stops, you have to rely on some disembodied voice announcing stops (and half the time you either can’t understand what the train guard is saying, the volume is too low so you can’t hear or the microphone is crackling);
  • no tables for passengers;
  • a train that goes reasonably fast from say Morisset to Gosford but then winds its way slooooowly between Gosford and Hornsby (and if the Flyer is late for some reason and you’re stuck behind an all-stations train, then it’s reeeeeeally slow). True that sections of the track are winding.
  • a train that has graffiti – I was in a carriage only recently that was festooned with graffiti on the outside;
  • no TV screens.

Here’s a picture of the train I catch:

Mmmmmm….must have been taken by a good photographer because a train I caught last week didn’t look half that good. I think these trains are known as Goninan sets and were constructed around 1985 (hello? that is over 20 years ago CityRail).And for the privilege of catching this train, I pay AU$66.00 for a weekly ticket. True, the Portuguese train cost me about US$93.00 but I don’t mind paying more for quality, service and comfort.

Now, I could probably put up with some of this (as I have done for 8 years) but on October 11, 2009, CityRail decided to change its timetable and has boasted about how the new timetable will provide additional peak services and additional carriages to increase capacity. Clearly, they forgot to include the Newcastle & Central Coast line when they were working out the additional peak services.

Why do I say this?  My train, the so-called Express Flyer, now leaves 8 minutes earlier in the morning and has an extra three stops: Wyong, Tuggerah and Epping. Yes, folks: AN EXTRA THREE STOPS. The train now arrives at 8.48am instead of 8.53am, so CityRail would argue that we get into Sydney earlier. But an extra three stops means that CityRail has actually added about 10 mins to my daily journey for a round trip and it certainly feels like a longer journey. And why the hell are we stopping for people from Epping? They can catch a Hornsby to Central train that goes through Epping surely?

On Thursday October 15, the Flyer’s second carriage was locked for some reason so passengers couldn’t sit in it. This resulted in a train that was chockers, packed. Why on earth CityRail would allow this train to leave Newcastle is beyond me – do they not think that workers travel to Sydney from Newcastle?  Do they not know that if a whole carriage is out of commission it will result in congestion?

CityRail has added additional services to the Western, South, Northern and lower North Shore lines and is very clearly trying to integrate the new Epping to Chatswood rail link. But what about Newcastle/Central Coast passengers? Do we get an extra early morning peak commuter train?? Nooooooooooooo…we get THREE ADDITIONAL STOPS.

Dudes: why can’t you get this right? There are MANY people who travel to work everyday from as far afield as Newcastle and Morisset. Yes, there are people who also travel from Wyong and Tuggerah. But surely you could have given us an additional fast-speed train, so that people getting on at say Morisset don’t have to endure three extra stops.

Supposedly, I live in a developed country and in a State that should be able to boast a modern, sleek rail network. But I’m sorry CityRail, all you’re providing me with are old, rattling, slow trains and making my rail experience less than pleasant.  CityRail has a customer charter – let me remind them of it:

 On time trains
 Manage overcrowding
 Fast, accurate useful information
 Secure and safe travel
 Clean trains and stations
 Fast ticket sales
 Quick and fair complaints handling

CityRail spends most of its time boasting about “on time trains” – on time running is at 95.4% for this financial year.  This is just propaganda as far as I’m concerned. There is FAR MORE to running a rail network than punctuality.  I don’t care about “fast, accurate, useful information” or “quick and fair complaints handling” (because I can complain here, on my own blog or on Twitter, which will be my next step). I care about getting a train that is fast, sleek, modern and focuses on accommodating the needs of Newcastle/Central Coast passengers. I don’t want the embarrassment of travelling in a train that a Thai visitor recently asked of me (as the train came into the station) – “where is the train for passengers?” (because she thought the train arriving was for animals).

It seems I’m not the only one whingeing. See here and here for reactions to CityRail’s new timetable.

UPDATE: there’s a whole lot of people moaning about CityRail on Twitter. I like the name of the group – CityFail. I’ll be joining them.


Entry filed under: Australia. Tags: , , , .

APF: WTF? Social media revolution

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Adeline  |  October 17, 2009 at 5:54 am

    I’m lucky to live in Waverton and walk to work in North Sydney, so the only time I encounter trains is for recreational purposes (off peak).

    However, the amount of grizzling going on about the new timetable has prompted me to realise how little research Cityrail has done on their commuters ie where they come from, when they travel, why they travel, the need for smooth connections, the need for express services and the need for certain facilities (toilets, refreshments etc).

    The number of people who have been royally screwed over by this new timetable outnumbers the number of people who have benefited by about 8:1.

    It seems Cityrail is actively trying to discourage commuters to reduce crowding, a stupid tactic as most people would rather eat their right arm than travel by rail but have no other choice. Cityfail indeed.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  October 17, 2009 at 6:01 am

    Couldn’t have said it better Adeline. I’m sure that CityRail will trot out masses of consumer research they say will have been done. I’d like to know if any of them actually travel on my line day in day out and now have to put up with the 3 extra stops (along with everything else I have mentioned in the post).

  • 3. irene  |  October 18, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    I understand her annoyance (although I understand why it stops at Epping, so it is easy to get to Macquarie Uni).

    While she sits in the Newcastle Flyer feeling justifiably dissatisfied let me say that for different reasons I too have a problem with thattrain. When it runs a few minutes late they delay or ditch my train that travels some of the same route. What this means is that the Newcastle train does in fact get priority over other trains.

    It seems then that noone is satisfied. If that train ran on time then so would mine! And if mine ran properley they wouldn’t have to hijack that train to stop at my station on occasions to drop or pick up people. Thinkshift and fellow passengers hate it when they stop at my station and you can see why. But these trains shares lines and they just can’t get it right. And we could be waiting for an hour between trains within the Sydney region.

    More often than not we are all delayed by really really long goods trains that chug on the same lines at peak periods.

    The whole organisation needs reconsidering from the ground up so we are all happy and not battling each other.

  • 4. thinkingshift  |  October 19, 2009 at 4:17 am

    Irene, I think the issue is also our rail system was mapped out yonks ago and isn’t suitable for a city with so many millions of people. But very clearly a whole rethink needs to take place. I’ve never known the Flyer to get priority – they only ever tell us “sorry folks, we’re behind the all stations to Hornsby” etc etc. Maybe they don’t boast about it if the Flyer actually does get priority!! I think we’re all having a tough time with CityRail these days!!

  • 5. Tim  |  October 19, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Were you paying US$93 one way, return or per week?


  • 6. thinkingshift  |  October 19, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    return/round trip. I don’t think that Lisbon to Porto is achievable for daily commuters, so in a sense it’s not comparable. But Australians have to travel further distances as our country is vast. I don’t mind paying $66 a week or even $100 a week IF the service is good. But it’s not & the new timetable has made it worse.

    • 7. Tim  |  October 20, 2009 at 12:01 am

      OK. So to travel on that kind of train you would be looking at a weekly ticket of about $150 even with the generous subsidies weekly commuters from Newcastle/Central Coast get. Not sure if you would be happy paying that.

      It wouldn’t be so bad if that could make the trains they have run faster, but they can’t because they haven’t made the improvements they need for a network.

      Nothing in this state works very well.


  • 8. irene  |  October 19, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    I have lived where I do for over 20 years. Whenever we have had a change of government or the political party in power is in trouble and wants to look like it is working for the people it rejigs the rail timetable. This is not an exaggeration.

    And in my experience this has ALWAYS meant reducing the number of services at my station and increasing the number of stops/scheduling trains to sit at one particular station for several minutes. This *invariably* happens. I get fewer services into the city and those fewer services are running slower than in 1986.

    The only reason the trains worked in the olympics was because:
    * they sent the school kids on holidays
    * they ran a highly successful scare campaign of office workers telling them that the city would be so crowded and it would be difficult to get lunch et and it would be better if they took leave. This was an extra ordinarily well run scare campaign. I was at a public relations dinner when this campaign won first prize for the best PR campaign of the year.

    They ran a survey one time about what commuters wanted from their trains. There was no option to tick to say trains running on time. This is a true story.

    • 9. Tim  |  October 20, 2009 at 2:55 am

      Yes you are so on the money here.

      On time running has been improved significantly in the last 3 years by range of measures, the most important of which was (of course)

      Redefining a train 5 minutes late as being ontime!!

      I think we could improve the system even more if we increased it to 7.!!

      Seriously everythning you say is true.

      My favorite experience is waiting at a “through” station, and watching the “express” crawl to a halt just before the station. It sits there for 2 or 3 minutes. Then the signals change and it goes through the station at 20-30 km/h.

      The best version of this was once waiting for a train at Westmead, This time the driver didn’t notice the signals were red at the end of the platform, so he pulled in and THEN had to stop.

      So we are waiting for he doors to open. Nothing happens. I ask the guard what is going on.

      “This train doesnt stop here”
      “umm but it HAS stopped here”
      “Doesn’t matter , cant let you on”

      Its great to have your faith in the ridiculous restored.


  • 10. thinkingshift  |  October 20, 2009 at 2:49 am

    you know what Tim, I think I’d cough it up IF the train was like the Portuguese beauty. I do travel a loooooooooong distance each day, up and down the rail line – so I would be prepared to cough up more $$ for a better service. Remember the good old days when things in NSW actually worked well and services were good? getting to be a very distant memory that’s for sure.

  • 11. thinkingshift  |  October 20, 2009 at 2:52 am

    I totally believe you Irene. I used to live up your way, so I know what you’re saying. And yep, the Olympics was the time when CityRail had its act together because it didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of international visitors. But the truth is out there with the new timetable. Passengers deserve better than what we’re getting. The last 2 days, the Flyer has stopped at Epping (one of our 3 new stops) – and what happened? No-one getting on could get a seat as the train was already overcrowded.
    Then at Central going to Town Hall, totally packed in like sardines and the guard makes an announcement “sorry for the overcrowding. Thanks for putting up with us”.
    Well you know what CityRail: we’re not putting up with you, the new timetable SUCKS, do something about it. Speak to your customer base; give up the propaganda of saying your trains are on time. Listen to what we’re saying, check out the Twitter stream #cityfail

  • 12. thinkingshift  |  October 20, 2009 at 8:43 am

    LOL Tim! great example of the ridiculousness we all have to put up with. Today was a shocker, first day back from school holidays in NSW. The trains at Central this morning going to Town Hall – they had us in there like sardines.

    Now my train in the afternoon leaves from Platform 4 instead of 8 – just a little change – but one that makes it harder for me. I often make the train at the last minute (hey CityRail, passengers work you know!) and I now have to hotfoot it four platforms further to make the train. And if my train into Central is stuck or slow in the tunnel (which is often) – I run the risk of missing this train.

  • 13. Richard (Rail Fanatic)  |  July 13, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    The Lisbon-Oporto tilting train now takes 2:35 hours. The rail tracks are being upgraded. The goal is to achieve 2:20 – 2:15 in a few years.

    The same system could be used in Australia: “tilting trains” can use “normal” tracks. Yes, they need to be upgraded, but its far less expensive than TGV system.


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