Back in January I carried out an extreme commuting experiment where I travelled to the furthest reaches of the Sydney commuter train network to see how feasible/exhausting/attractive those journeys were. This week I'm armed with a Myki card and repeating the experiment in Victoria — but with a few new twists.
The basic motivation for this trip is the same as last time: to see how far out of the city you can actually get, how well the services run, how good the mobile broadband coverage is, and how feasible it might be to do this on a daily basis. (You can read my detailed discussion of the extreme commuting phenomenon which kicked off the first series for more details.)
In Melbourne, the extremes of the "commuter belt" are easily defined: if you can't use a Myki card for the journey, it doesn't count. As in Sydney, there are country passenger lines which run to the edges of the state beyond those limits, but you need a specific booked ticket for those V/Line services— you can't just turn up and use them. That means there are five destinations on my list: Marshall to the west, Wendouree to the north-west, Eaglehawk to the north, Seymour to the north-east, and Traralgon to the south-east. The relevant lines are in purple on the map below:
Unlike Sydney, where I was sometimes forced to change trains in the middle of the night in order to access a once-a-day service and hence did all my testing on weekends, most of these destinations have relatively regular services. A few factors influence that. The relative flatness of the land around Melbourne makes building lines easier than in Sydney. The state itself is much smaller, and the Regional Fast Rail project has improved service on many of the lines.
Because of that, I can easily do these journeys on a working day, and so that's the challenge I've set myself: to actually complete my regular Lifehacker work while also testing out each of these lines. I'm armed with a Telstra 4G dongle (though I don't expect 4G coverage much of the way), and backup batteries and machines so I can keep working throughout. There are plans to introduce free Wi-Fi on some of these services later in the year — testing connectivity will be a good demonstration of how badly that is needed.
As with my Sydney experiment, my commuting patterns will be a little perverse: I'll be heading out of the city and then back in, which is the reverse of what most commuters do. My first destination is Seymour, some 90 kilometres to the north-east of Melbourne. (The line continues onward from there to Albury on the NSW border, though that segment of rail has a very poor reputation — I've suffered from train cancellations myself on it.)
Melbourne's Southern Cross station is divided into metropolitan and country platforms, but the early-morning 0701 Seymour service actually departs from one of the metropolitan platforms. It's only a two-car train, though we later learn that normally there would be three — a mechanical issue has caused problems. That also leads to the train departing a little late.
It might only have two carriages, but the presence of multiple toilets and a drinking fountain makes this a reasonable choice for commuters. The seats are relatively wide and comfortable, and there's plenty of room for luggage. On the way out, the train is busy, but far from full.
I have a 40-minute turnaround after arriving in Seymour at 0833, which is enough time to grab a coffee. Seymour station itself is an attractive heritage location (unlike the many smaller stations en route), though the tunnel leading into the main street is so low I'm in danger of banging my head.
The return journey is much more crowded — in large part because school holidays mean lots of passengers travelling in to the city. So now I feel like a real commuter.
My main problem with the journey in that area is coverage. Between Broadford and Wandong (a 15-minute stretch), there's no signal at all, and there are a few drop-outs elsewhere on the line. As a regular traveller, I suppose you would plan to be doing offline work at that point. Nonetheless, it's a reminder that coverage maps don't always tell the full story, and that coverage can drop off rapidly near big cities.
My favourite moment in the journey is when the conductor announces "We will not be stopping at Kilmore East due to the fact there is no platform." I suspect a natural disaster, but it turns out that the platform is being rebuilt 40 centimetres away from its current location to prevent train mirrors snagging each other when two trains pass at the station.
Could you do this commute daily?
Quite easily, I'd suggest. On a weekday, there are more than a dozen trains between Seymour and Melbourne in each direction. As long as you don't miss the last train at 2120, you'll be fine.
The big difference to a similar Sydney journey (and a theme I'll be returning to throughout the week) is cost. The quoted cost for a return journey between Melbourne and Seymour for a regular commuter is $29.60, though that assumes you'll arrive in Melbourne in morning peak hour and depart in afternoon peak hour. Because I'm doing the reverse and score off-peak rates, the trip is a bit less than half-price. Even so, that's more than double the cost I'd pay for the same journey in Sydney with a bit of planning. In this case, frequency comes at a cost.
Next stop on the extreme commuting journey? Eaglehawk, just past Bendigo. See you tomorrow!