Thursday, December 22, 2005

Merry Christmas, and good luck catching the bus!

If you need to catch public transport in Perth on a public holiday or over the December - January period, it's simple. With few exceptions trains and buses run Sunday timetables on public holidays, so services connect as they would on a normal Sunday.

Transperth has consistent service arrangements between trains and buses, and across all bus companies. This is a key advantage of having a consciously-planned integrated network, with co-ordinated routes and timetables.

Melbourne's system has a degree of integration through thanks to the unified Metcard ticketing and (now) Metlink signage, advertising and websites. However beneath the gloss, it is still correct that is 'the system' is still best described as a loose grouping of seperate self-contained fiefdoms, each of which do their own thing.

Since the departure of National Express, the biggest fiefdom is the partially reintegrated train network. This is followed by our world-reknowned tram system. Then there are the bus companies, large and small.

A consequence of this seperation is that timetables generally make sense from an individual operator perspective but not a network point of view. Hence it is not uncommon for buses every 20 minutes 'connecting' with trains every 15 minutes. Any connection achieved owes more to good luck than good planning. At other times duplication may cost-effectiveness and service quality may both suffer.

Never is this mess more obvious on public holidays and the Christmas-New Year period, where all combinations of service arrangements coexist.

There is a measure of conistency with on public holiday timetables for trains and buses as Saturday schedules are usually used. However differences reappear with the reduced summer weekday timetables, with trams resuming full services a week before the trains.

Buses are an even bigger dogs' breakfast. For instance, some bus routes operate on Sundays and not public holidays. Yet others run public holidays and not Sundays. To make it even more complex, some bus operators are like the trains and trams and run public holiday services to a more frequent Saturday timetable. Reduced summer timetables may apply on some routes, but again the dates for these vary. The consequence of this is that journey times may increase by up to 30 minutes or more, due to a lack of co-ordination. In extreme cases some areas may have be left with no public transport at all for several days.

The variations are so numerous that transport enthusiasts have made a sport of keeping up with it as this Bus Australia thread attests. This is full for those who enjoy that sort of thing, but is likely to be confusing for the ordinary person who wishes to get between A and B.

Given the complexity of modern travel travels and that many trips involve at least one and sometimes two connections, it makes more sense to keep the number of variations to a minimum. For instance there may only be weekday, Saturday and Sunday/Public holiday timetables. One of those timetables should apply on public holidays, with conistency across the network. This can be further simplified by having common 7-day timetables as is largely the case for trains in Perth and Melbourne's western suburbs.

Keeping variations down requires reaching a common agreement on public holiday timetables amongst all operators, be it a Saturday or Sunday service. It is also important to harmonise the dates starting and finishing date for any reduced summer timetable, so that this is uniform for all modes.

Exceptions may still be needed, on some services, but should be route rather than operator-based. A sound reason for an exception may be if a specific route has a particular travel needs. For instance routes that serve a university might operate weekday service on a public holiday if it is still a teaching day. The use of a harmonised network-wide service frequency hierachy (eg 15/30/60 minutes for all routes) can actually increase flexibility here as individual routes can be varied without throwing out major connections while minimising travel time increases.

Standardising holiday services is a small but important step towards establishing a connected transport network. To succeed, this needs to be done well in advance for staffing and leave planning reasons. Thus it is desirable that the Department and operators agree that unity is desirable and start planning now to harmonise schedules for 2006-7 and beyond.

Merry Christmas everyone, and good luck catching the bus/train/tram this festive season!

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