Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Metro's Caulfield - Camberwell shuttle: the bigger picture - Part II

Yesterday I mentioned the Metro proposal for a Caulfield - Camberwell bus shuttle between major rail hubs. I felt that it filled a gap in the network. And given the high patronage of similar north-south routes further east (903, 703, 902) even in car-dominated postwar suburbia, its chance of success would be high.

A 72 tram extension might be desirable long-term, but a lot can be done with buses. And there have been recent examples of strengtened shuttles between major trip generators, especially universities.

Exisisting shuttles

The earliest was Route 401, a new route running every 3 to 6 minutes between North Melbourne Station and Melbourne University. This was followed by additional services between Huntingdale Station and Monash University, firstly the 900 SmartBus and then additional short services on Route 630. Deakin University was next, with the extended 281 and new 768 routes supplemeting the existing well-used Route 767.

The extra capacity of these routes has been welcome. In some cases the use of multiple stops and unharmonised timetables do not necessarily exploit combined frequencies and patronage potential. Also there are risks of 'grafting on' inefficiencies when a new route is added without reviewing others nearby.

Nevertheless the principle of a frequent shuttle between major nodes has been tried, politically accepted and found successful. If more such routes were to be added, Caulfield to the Camberwell (or Glenferrie) appears to be a prime candidate, especially given that beneficiaries would be spread far and wide, as far out as Dandenong or Frankston.

A dedicated high-frequency limited stop shuttle could well work, just like 401 did. Especially if marketed well which is helped by good service design (eg a Route 401 every three minutes is easier to sell than three different routes each every 15-20 minutes serving different stops).

New route or enhanced existing?

However the proposal for a stand-alone route would be dearer than trying to form something out of the existing local network. Such a low-cost approach could be a useful early test of the shuttle concept. Enhancements such as additional services and express running could be added later if successful.

What to do with the 624?

The centrepiece of this thinking is Route 624, currently a complex route serving destinations as diverse as Chadstone, Oakleigh, Caulfield, Auburn and Kew, with a split in the middle. Its Auburn station stop is within easy walking distance of the Swinburne campus, and only slightly further to Camberwell.

The Route 624 timetable shows considerable peak/off-peak variations. Off-peak the trip from Caulfield to Auburn takes 15 minutes. During peak this can extend to over 30 minutes. Hence this route saves most time for off-peak travel (which universities can attract).

Current service frequency is 30 minutes, ie too low to be a reliable train connector in a busy and dense area. The aim will be to try to increase this to 15 minutes, though as Route 401 has shown higher would be even more attractive.

It is here that some shears are needed. Like a garden a bus network needs periodic tending, and undergrowth can get in the way of or inhibit the growth of strong branches. And Route 624 is an excellent candidate for this since it tries to do too many things in too many areas.

The eastern part of the route, which takes 25 minutes, runs between Oakleigh and Chadstone. It serves a low income postwar housing commission area as its local service. This part should be kept, with two buses maintaining the current frequency.

The central part (Chadstone - Caulfield) comprises of a frayed section with differnet sections of the route diverging and meeting again. Weekday buses alternate between the Carnegie and East Malvern sections, though on weekends and evenings only the Carnegie portion is served. Travel time between Caulfield and Chadstone ranges from 15 to 25 minutes.

The Murrumbeena/Carnegie portion of Route 624 shouldn't be too hard to delete. All that is needed is switching Route 623 from Dandenong Road to Neerim Road (as recommended in the recent local bus review). A rerouted 623 would serve existing Route 624 stops at doubled weekday frequency. Dandenong Road remains served by the Route 900 SmartBus, a service that did not exist when the current local network was planned.

Dealing with the East Malvern portion of the 624 is harder. Most parts are within the 800 metre pedshed of railway stations and tram routes. However two some parts are not and changes to adjacent routes would be needed to preserve coverage if this portion of 624 is deleted.

One possibility is to deviate Route 612 via Waverley Rd and part of Darling Rd to provide some substitute coverage (and a new link between the No 3 tram and Chadstone). This introduces a kink in an already circuitous local route. However the 'greater good' test is worth applying; if the change allows a more frequent high-patronage route to run nearby the overall benefit may indicate it is still worth doing. And in any event Route 612 has doubled frequency (30 minutes) and Saturday running so the trade-off would probably be accepted by residents.

Deleting 624 east of Caulfield Station would also mean no service on Burke and Wattletree Roads. A possible substitute, recommended in the Bus Review, was to extend Route 734 southwards from Glen Iris to Caulfield. This would generate patronage on the 734 (Caulfield being a stronger trip generator than Glen Iris), provide a handy link to the Alamein line and provide more frequent 7-day buses in this part of East Malvern. As 734's running time is not much less than 30 minutes for its 30 minute off-peak frequency, at least one if not two more buses would be required.

Options for an enhanced 624 between Caulfield and Auburn/Camberwell

This leaves the remaining western portion of 624, the boosting of which was the main object of the above trimming. As mentioned before, off-peak travel time between Caulfield and Auburn is 15 minutes, a figure that allows zero layover and driver break time if a 30 minute service is run between the existing trips (providing a combined 15 minute schedule to Auburn). Hence if the above pruning has released enough resources to run short services between Caulfield and Auburn it will be very tight, and not be conducive to reliability. The fact that the main route extends to Kew adds further challenges compared to if all buses terminated at Auburn.

A possibility could be to truncate all Route 624s at Camberwell instead of Kew. This would provide the requested Caulfield to Camberwell link but at the cost of poorer access to Swinburne University. However it isolates the Camberwell - Caulfield route, which could present operational and marketing advantages. If run via Tooronga Rd (instead of Burke Rd) the route would be slightly less direct but cheaper to implement as it retains 624's current coverage, so requires no substitute route to be funded.

There is then the problem with what to do with the remaining portion of the 624 to Kew if it was terminated at Camberwell. Again our friend the 612 could come to the rescue. If the 612 was split at Camberwell the portion from Chadstone could be extended to Kew via (say) Camberwell Rd, Auburn Road and the current 624 route. The benefit of this is that Kew residents get a direct bus to the major centre of Camberwell rather than just Auburn.

Like all ideas there are trade-offs and in this case these include forced transfers at Camberwell for 612 passengers (including many students attending schools around Canterbury) and the extra running time caused by the diverting routes through Camberwell (instead of the current straight running via Auburn).

Straight or bent grid network?

The latter raises a valid question about what our network should look like. A pure grid would treat all stations as equal interchange points. However in practice some nodes (eg Camberwell or Glenferrie) are bigger than others (eg Auburn) and even have webs of their own. Hence there is a temptation to use the gravitational pull of these larger centres to pull routes in, much like you see around Box Hill or Bentleigh (buses don't serve Laburnum or Patterson stations for instance). The benefit of this is reduced transfers for those going to the larger centres, but at the cost of slighly less directness and some increased running times for other passengers.

Conclusion

As many questions as answers have been raised as any option chosen will have disadvantages. However as the bus reviews have found our current network is not necessarily optimum. Network thinking along the above lines, although applied to a small area in response to an operator's suggestion for a new route, could be helpful in trying to design a network more attractive to passenges.

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