Monday, April 28, 2008

Why fast interchange matters

a response to a Railpage discussion about Box Hill and the importance of minimising bus-train interchange time

There's worse interchanges than Box Hill, but best practice is that train to bus interchange should be maybe 30 - 60 seconds via just one ramp, steps or escalators (eg Werribee, Boronia or newer Perth suburban stations).

And it should not be possible to exit any suburban railway station without almost bumping into a bus timetable or information - something that is denied to Box Hill passengers.

Every minute longer in bus-train access times lengthens bus standing times by 2 minutes, assuming a co-ordinated pulse timetable system. This reduces the capacity of bus interchange and is poor efficiency. Where stations are midway along a bus route (and not at the end like Box Hill) long bus dwell times can also increase journey time for through passengers.

Two 'perfect connection' examples, both assuming a 4 minute buffer to allow for late trains/buses.

* 1 minute station - bus access time (ie good design)

Bus arrives: 9:55am
Access time: 1 min
Wait time: 4 min
Train Arrives/Departs 10:00am
Access time: 1 min
Wait time: 4 min
Bus departs 10:05am

(min bus dwell time 10 min)

* 3 minute station - bus access time (ie poor design)

Bus arrives: 9:53am
Access time: 3 min
Wait time: 4 min
Train Arrives/Departs 10:00am
Access time: 3 min
Wait time: 4 min
Bus departs 10:07am

(min bus dwell time 14 min)

The general concept is better explained in the diagram below:

Time is money. Multiply that extra 4 minutes by the number of bus movements per day, and then per year. It's big bikkies! Or try to economise by skimping on connections, but since that may add 30 minutes to passenger travel times it's a false economy as they'll drive instead.

In short, each second counts, and no effort should be spared in improving interchange, whether the delays be caused by poor initial design (Box Hill), a botched redevelopment (Melbourne Central) or placing car ahead of pedestrian access (most places - Caulfield example below).

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Service standards for buses

When people front up to a bus stop, they don't know what to expect.

For a start (unlike a tram stop or railway station) it might not have a timetable.

But assuming it does, the timetable can show a big variations in services. For instance, it may run frequently on weekdays but not at all on Sundays. Some services operate weeknights but not on Sundays, while other go Sundays but not weeknights. Regular routes may provide a superior service to SmartBuses on some days but not others. Public holidays and reduced December/January timetables are other causes of confusion as there are no network-wide standards.

Since the service levels of some bus routes can be low, it is easy to tar all with the same poor brush. And this is understandable given that even a single route can be simultaneously good or poor depending on the day of the week and time of the year.

The SmartBus program provides a premium and visible level of service on five routes. Currently they are all in Melbourne's east but eventually they will extend around the northern and western suburbs via proposed orbital routes. Except possibly for peak times, SmartBus provides a consistent level of service on weekdays. However weekends and evening SmartBus services still have a way to go, with some regular non-SmartBus routes offering superior service.

At the local level there are the minimum standards improvements which will give local routes at least a basic hourly service until 9pm and standard public holiday service arrangements. Over 200 of Melbourne's 300 bus routes are to be upgraded, and we are currently just under half way through.

When minimum standard upgrades are finished, it will be possible to talk about a minimum service standard of a bus at least every hour until 9pm. And given the 90%/400 metre rule, we could add it would be within a 5 minute walk of most homes as well.

Left out of this is a big body of busyish routes that are neither SmartBuses nor quiet local routes. They may serve shopping centres, universities or a major corridor. They may be highly patronised routes, such as the 200-series out to Sunshine or 250/251 to Northland/Latrobe University. Or they might be the only direct link for some suburbs missed by trains or trams (eg various City-Doncaster routes). Many of these already operate to quite high service standards, and even, as noted before, run more frequently and later than SmartBuses.

It is these intermediate/'nonSmart' routes that are currently getting a bad deal. They don't get the promotion or infrastructure of SmartBus services. Neither have they had the public holiday standardisation of local routes. Where these services comprise two or three similar routes, timetables may not always be in composite form, so Joe Public can't readily see the higher service level offered. Unlike SmartBuses or local routes they don't have documented service standards. To the passenger it's just another route number, and study of a timetable is needed before knowing whether the route is hourly until 7pm or every 20 minutes until midnight. These good but 'non-smart' routes will never reach their potential until this is addressed and their superior service is highlighted.

The solution to all this is contained in a media release quoting Bob Cameron, the Member for Bendigo West, when announcing upgraded local bus services in Bendigo.

The salient sentence is this:

"There will be services at least every 30 minutes on prime routes and every hour on secondary routes,” Mr Cameron said.

Since the hourly 9pm 'minimum standards' are just that - minimums - we can label all those routes that conform as 'secondary', just as Mr Cameron did for Bendigo's quieter routes.

SmartBuses are usually better than that, so it's logical that they are 'primary'. Ditto for the 'nonSmart' routes if their service level is high enough. Document these primary standards, make some minor improvements to ensure adherence and standardise public holiday arrangements and we've effectively doubled the SmartBus network for very little cost. After all, who really cares if a bus is 'smart' or otherwise if it's like Route 220 and runs every 15 minutes until after 11pm?

The few routes that conform to neither primary or secondary status (perhaps because they are peak-hour only or serve semi-rural areas), can be labelled 'tertiary'.

Once we have a proper primary/secondary/tertiary standard, it can be explained easily to passengers; just as the MP did in his one-liner. We can say things like: Primary routes have a bus at least every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes until midnight and secondary routes are at least hourly until 9pm. This exercise now is impossible since current timetables have dozens of variations and requires hundreds of words to explain.

Primary service can be promoted at stops, in timetables and on websites similar to what Adelaide does with its 'Go Zones'. Local public transport maps at all railway stations and bus interchanges would show the primary routes as thicker lines. The remaining secondary and tertiary routes would be thinner lines.

By differentiating primary and secondary routes, and heavily promoting the former, we've created a quite different, more versatile and more usable bus network. And this should translate into higher bus patronage overall, with the potential of upgrading popular secondary routes to primary status.

And we've met the challenge set at the beginning, which was to ensure that passengers know what service to expect, just as they do now with trains and trams.

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Using a Metcard ticket vending machine

A short video explaining how to use the Metcard ticket vending machines found at Melbourne railway stations. Versions of the smaller coin-only machine pictured are also used on trams.

Metcard machines will be with us until Myki smartcards start in about two years.


Monday, April 07, 2008

Professional versus political in service planning

The interplay between professional opinion and politics and the resultant services we get is always worth watching. The priorities that prevail are particularly noticeable during times of significant growth, such as we're currently seeing with Melbourne's bus network.

I count the operators, industry associations, private consultants, transport academics and (marginally on this topic) Metlink as the 'professionals' who pride themselves on their expertise. The 'politicians' comprise community groups, local governments, MPs, ministerial staff and the Minister herself who are 'generalists' but know what they want from a transport system. In the middle of this interplay is the Department of Infrastructure which has professional and political elements and must reconcile both.

Objectives naturally differ between the two main groups, which is why their priorities will vary. Despite what one group may say, both are necessary. Decisions and funding come from the politicial while expertise comes from the professional. Professionals need to humour the political process and the occasional publicity tricks, while politicans must acknowledge that networks aimed to please everyone end up pleasing no one.


A bus network designed by professionals to maximise patronage would probably comprise frequent buses running along a grid of main roads with bus priority. Not only would it have the highest patronage, but such a network would also have the highest farebox recovery ratio, the highest boardings per kilometre, the highest average bus loading and the lowest greenhouse emissions per passenger.

This means a more legible network with fewer but more frequent and longer running routes. Poorly used routes might be withdrawn if it can be demonstrated that higher patronage is possible by improving services elsewhere. Hence passengers may need to walk further to their nearest bus stop. Key performance measures would include direct routes, wide service hours and high frequencies.


The 'politicians' network emphasises route coverage - even to areas that could never sustain a well-used bus service. This produces impressive network maps, but generally low service levels. Network legibility suffers as routes are split and occasional deviations are introduced in response to lobbying from constituency groups. Politicans' preference of coverage over frequency is not recent; recall the railway 'Octopus Acts' of the 1880s which proposed miles of unviable rail lines and others that only saw weekly trains.

In its defence, the politicians' network gives priority to social need over maximising patronage, efficiency or environment. And of the socially needy, the organised might receive preference over the casual passenger by scoring a deviation that lengthens the latter's trip.

A high route coverage standard is generally provided, but at the expense of other important patronage attractors such as directness, operating span and frequency. This has meant that the politician's network mainly provides a social service for people without cars and has a low potential to grow patronage or further environmental goals. An example politicians performance measure might be something like '90% of the population is within 400 metres of a service', with little concern over whether the service is every ten minutes or twice a day.

What is our current network like?

The existing local bus network is more like the politician's network than the professionals network. In some ways this is understandable given that perhaps 80% of bus operating costs come from the taxpayer (not the farebox) and thus must pass through political hands. The routes that approximate nearest the professional's network (ie direct and frequent) are the SmartBus routes and some inner-suburban routes that have retained tram-like service levels.

Recent and proposed changes

Elements of both the political and the professional can be seen in recent and proposed changes.

Case study: Gowanbrae and Route 490

A recent triumph of the political (and hence, in a way, democracy) is the proposed Route 490 to Gowanbrae. This is an enclave isolated by freeways, railway and a river. It has no shops, services or public transport. Its roads are too narrow for standard buses and there is only one way into the suburb, making an efficient service to the nearest railway station impossible to provide.

No sane urban planner would have recommended Gowanbrae be developed in its current inaccessible form. And this error having been made, no efficiency-minded transport professional would recommend a bus since other areas have greater merit. Transport-wise Gowanbrae is a basketcase, and perhaps the only efficient public transport project possible would be a high quality cycleway to Glenroy Station!

Socially there is a case to provide transport to an area currently distant from it. And politically, active residents and council have lobbied for years. Their patience was rewarded; last week the Minister for Transport announced that Gowanbrae would soon get a bus service. Everyone was happy and no one has yet been impolite enough to mutter phrases like 'opportunity cost'.


SmartBuses are at the other end of the spectrum. Direct, fast (if provided with priority), frequent and (ideally) connected with trains, they make the public transport network far more versatile and not just a feeder for CBD workers. As existing SmartBuses have shown, this is exactly what is needed to boost patronage. Hence all in the 'professional' camp support SmartBuses, even if some have reservations about orbital routes.

Local routes

Local routes are somewhere in between. The main changes to them at the moment are the 'minimum standards' upgrades. These will upgrade most local routes to at least an hourly service until 9pm seven days a week. This compares to the 7pm finish/6 day running that was normal until 2006.

Is this mainly 'political' or 'professional'? My answer is a bit of both.

There is no doubt that minimum standards were needed. No professional or politican who supported improved buses could oppose them. So I call that a consensus. Even though the light evening patronage on some might make the professionals wince and prefer a more intensive service on the popular routes.

However the order in which services were upgraded cannot be the making of a transport planning professional. As an example the lightly used Route 701 was one of the first to benefit. On the other hand popular nework-strategic routes like 665 and 737 had to wait until 2007 or 2008. Though this doesn't matter much anymore (since many important routes have now been upgraded) the order that it was done does give some insight to the process; criteria other than network utility or patronage potential must have been key.

Bus reviews and current service planning

With a few exceptions, the minimum standards program represents an upgrade to existing routes. The bus review process reaches further, promising revised local networks.

The interplay between professionals, politicans and the public has been fascinating during the reviews currently underway. The results of these are yet to be seen, though much of what is said (and public sentiment) has favoured the 'professional' aims of directness, operating hours and frequency over the political. However the politcal has not been completely absent, since there have been calls from groups or councils for deviations, extensions or improved coverage, especially in newer areas.

Current service planning appears to be driven by the following standards:

* 90% of the metropolitan population within 400 metres of transport (high target)
* Most routes running until 9pm, 7 days a week (moderate target)
* A 'safety net' 60 minute service frequency for local services (low target)

Both political and professional influences are apparent. If there is a skew it it towards the political, as seen by the high coverage target. The main effect of such a high target is that with a given level of resourcing it is harder to make more local routes run every 15 or 20 minutes instead of 40 or 60 minutes.

A slacker coverage target eg '80% within 800 metres' combined with a tougher hours/frequency target eg 'at least every 15 min day/30 minutes night' is likely to be favoured by professionals and deliver better patronage outcomes. However this will leave large areas (not just Gowanbrae) without service, so these need some modification since the political calculus is adverse (removing service from 100 people is 'courageous' even if 1000 people benfit from an improved service nearby).

Thus we might end up with a compromise approach where we have a breakdown of (say) 40% primary routes (every 15 min to better than minimum hours), 40% secondary routes (every 30 min to minimum hours) and tertiary routes (say every 60 min). This mix would greatly lift the status of the sub-smartbus but direct local routes and provide a far better network than SmartBus + trains alone. If the bus reviews can result in the implementation of that sort of service, then it should be possile to reasonably satisfy both professional and political tendencies.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

A gunzel's guide to transport work

So you've been riding trains, trams and buses for half your life and you want to make it your career?

Whether you're 14, 21 or 61, it's not too early (or late) to prepare.

This article has some tips to get you on your way.

Do you really want to?

The first thing is to ask yourself whether it's better to have work that's related to your hobby or to keep them separate.

Many gunzels keep transport as an interest – not as work. Some wouldn't have it any other way - they'd lose interest in the hobby if transport was work. Transport jobs might also include hours and rosters that aren't helpful for that once-in-a-lifetime train movement you wish to photograph.

Others find that their hobby increases interest in their work (and vice versa). For them a job in transport is ideal and they'd work nowhere else.

Think about what you want. If you still want to work in transport, keep reading!

Dos and Don'ts

Even if you're at school and won't be applying for anything for a few years, there is one golden rule when going about your gunzelling:

Don't be a jerk!

Chances are you'll want to get with a train, tram or bus operating company. There's not many of them and you might already know who you want to work for. It's not cool to piss them off as they'll never forget when you go for a job. 'Haven't I seen you before?!'.

Dumb behaviour includes walking where you shouldn't (eg sidings or depots), pinching stuff, rudeness or blocking doorways. Ditto for not having a valid ticket or concession; if you don't pay how can you expect them to pay you? Whinging loudly about trivial stuff no one can change (eg bus livery) says more about you than what you're on about, and none of it's good.

Don't let mates pressure you into stupidity even if you think you're alone. You might still be seen by a signaller or someone on a passing train. Some transport employees are also gunzels - with cameras – and you wouldn't want to be the latest show on Vicsig or YouTube. Saying no to your group is hard but just think about the transport job you'd be missing out on. Walk away if in doubt – go be a bus gunzel and admire the stop.

When talking to bus drivers and station staff respect that their first responsibility (and why they're paid) is to run the service and help customers. Most are not gunzels and don't need to be. So respect the fact that not all will be interested in you seeing 317M, especially if there's others waiting. There's other stuff that isn't exactly wrong – eg asking for 20 copies of the one timetable – but don't do it. And don't crap on about gunzel politics and whose bitching about whom to drivers, OK?

Same applies to internet forums, even if you use a fake screen name. The nastier you are online, the more others will find your real name and/or gossip behind your back. Apart from being civil to other users, good forum etiquette includes not going off-topic, searching before asking questions, not making false claims or laying on the blame after accidents. Passing off other people's photos or websites as your own work is also a no no.

Even if they hardly post, many transport professionals do read the forums and know what's going on. Even guys who are shy in person can be real pricks on the keyboard – it's like they have a split personality. Don't be one of them and wreck your job chances.

With the nasties done, what about the good stuff?

It's pretty much what they tell you at school. You've got to be nice to people, present well and string a sentence together. Good writing is every bit as important as copying down that train consist right and is a must if you want a senior job.

As for school marks, the higher they are the broader the choice. Doing really well will allow you pick more uni courses. If it's something like engineering this can lead to much interesting railway work.

Education and work experience

Education requirements vary widely between 'white collar' and 'blue collar' jobs and between employers.

I do not know of anyone in DOI who doesn't have a university degree. Some have postgraduate qualifications as well.

In contrast there are Year 12 leavers who've risen to senior positions in Connex by age 21 while their student mates are doing the dishes with HECS debt on the side. So generally speaking if it's 'operational' or 'specialist' you don't need a degree (as training is in-house) but if it's more general, policy or marketing (eg operator head offices, DOI or Metlink) then you will probably need a degree.

Any previous work experience will be better than none. If it even vaguely relates to what you're applying for, so much the better. For instance if you want a station host job (which is all about customer service) and you've got some retail experience then you're half way in. Bus drivers will need a clean driving record and again good customer service skills. If you can somehow get a casual job in the industry (eg doing passenger counts) then that also helps.

Promotion may be through internal or external advertising and may follow a period of secondment. The large operators have their own training arrangements. If you're the right person, promotion can be quick; I've seen people get from base level to middle level in two to four years.

What sort of jobs?

The more junior roles are at the 'coal face' serving customers. For example barrier staff, station host or station officer.

Conductors work in V/Line while both Connex and Yarra Trams employ Authorised officers who have to be accredited by the Department of Infrastructure.

Then there are the driving jobs, which in order of training are bus, tram and train. V/Line conductors.

Station officers can progress to become qualified in safeworking and signalling. They either get more senior at stations or can move to jobs elsewhere, such as at timetabling or train control.

There are maintenance jobs at tram/bus depots & Mainco, who does maintenance work for Connex. Engineers are also sought after for infrastructure projects.

Office jobs include marketing and public relations at the operators, Metlink or DOI. DOI also has jobs in policy areas open to graduates.

Because there is a small number of large employers and vacancies are advertised internally, the best approach is to start at a base job, master it and then apply for other positions.

How do you find out about jobs going?

All the usual stuff like newspaper advertisements and websites. There might be notices up at stations, trams or buses advertising vacancies.

Companies may also use recruiting agencies or websites (eg Hoban for Connex or Seek for Metlink).

Another thing you could do is (when they're not busy) ask existing staff (especially if they're younger) what they did to get in and how they like their job.

Is being a gunzel a disadvantage?

Being seen to display an intelligent interest is a benefit. If portrayed the right way your interviewer will see this and will consider your application favourably.

If the interest is seen as either too narrow or too obsessive then it's a turn-off and there is definitely a gunzel stereotype that some will not warm to. Luckily you have control over how you present yourself, and if you have other experience (eg retail) you should push that to make your application stronger.

While there's a few similarities between (say) model railways and the job you're going for, there are more differences when you're dealing with real people and real trains. It's OK to mention a transport interest at the interview. But don't then reach for your photo album and give the interviewer a lecture on Siemens vs X-traps!

Rather you should be more sensitive than normal to conversation flow, answering the question and interpreting cues from the interviewer so you know when to stop. If in doubt mention the interest very briefly and say that you can elaborate if desired.

Know yourself

This is all the standard stuff they (should) teach at school about knowing your strengths, weaknesses and trying to marry them with the job requirements and what they will be asking at the interview.

Some people prefer for their job not to be their hobby, so think about that angle before you decide for sure.

However some special comments apply to gunzels. Some are shy and/or have Aspergers tendencies. If this is part of your personality you need to develop skills in areas such as recognising non-verbal cues from interviewers, refraining from lecturing, knowing when to stop and being tolerably articulate on what they really asked about.


Don't be a jerk

Learn about roles and talk to people

Know yourself

© 2008