Monday, August 30, 2010

A bumper crop of transport announcements

All long-standing projects about to come to fruition.

901 Yellow Orbital extended from September 26

A SmartBus service across the outer northern and eastern suburbs, including the first substantial standard fare service to Melbourne Airport.

Doncaster Area Rapid Transit starts October 4

Four new SmartBus routes for Manningham - Melbourne's only municipality without trains or trams.

New train timetable from October 10

Some extra peak trains on the northern group, but the big winner are users of the Frankston line. Weekday off-peak train frequency boosted from 15 to 10 minutes. Weekday evening frequency up from 30 to 20 minutes until after 10pm.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

2010 state election - they're off and running

With the Federal election passed (albeit with some current uncertainty due to the hung result), focus will now shift to state politics, with the Victorian poll less than three months away.

Transport is likely to be a prominent election issue.

Melbourne is fast growing in population and needs a transport system that can cope. Scarce space in our cities and national resource security require alternatives to building roads and driving everywhere. Our rail system is fragile, with infrastructure maintenance and service levels lagging modern expectations. Increased traffic levels are slowing trams while legibility and connectivity remain challenges for our bus network. And our ageing population will require improved access to services, especially in regional areas.

The incumbent Labor Party will go to the people with parts of the Victorian Transport Plan coming to fruition (eg the Green Orbital SmartBus which started earlier this year). Labor has also promised additional staffed stations. Expect a flurry of other Ministerial announcements in coming days, weeks or months. Labor has not updated its website since the 2006 election, and their Linking Victoria transport policy from then is still available.

The main opposition Liberal Party has made public announcements on security staffing at railway stations and a feasability study into a rail extension to Rowville. However like Labor they do not yet have a publicly available transport policy for the 2010 election. As coalition partners The Nationals support the Liberal's station security initiatives and revoke Labor's inner-suburban clearway rules.

Bouyed by its strong federal result, including is first lower house win at a general election, the Greens are demanding the transport ministry should there be a hung parliament. Its leader, Greg Barber, has been a vocal member of the Legislative Council Select Committee on Train Services and supports an independent public transport authority to plan services. The policy tab on the Victorian Greens website takes the reader to their national website and policies, with nothing specific for Victoria.

Hence none of the parties yet have a coherent published transport policy for the people's consideration in November. The best we can do to date is to study their announcements and examine any past records in government (which The Greens do not yet have).

If the past is anything to go by, the next few months will be an exciting time for public transport. Transport is so tied to the political cycle so major things happen around election time. For example late 2006/early 2007 saw upgraded regional rail, the start of extended bus operating hours across Melbourne, a new SmartBus route, Zone 3 abolished and fares integrated across regional and NightRider services.

As in 2006 some of the earliest advised changes have been to fares; this time we have seen Zone 1 extended to the ends of the longest tram routes and free weekend travel for Seniors myki users from January 1, 2011. Next will be bus changes. We have already seen upgrades for Melton and some for the Mt Dandenong area will start on Monday.

Most interest though will be on the proposed 'big ticket' bus improvements of DART (four new SmartBus routes for the Doncaster area) and bus upgrades for Casey-Cardinia (large outer suburban areas currently with somewhat limited service). More trains are being delivered and a new train timetable is expected later this year on some lines.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Frequent service Map 1: Melbourne's south-east

Via Jarrett Walker is advice that Vancouver’s TransLink is seeking ideas from the public for a frequent network map, to highlight high service routes and corridors.

We have never had such a map for the Melboune network. More than any other Australian city frequency here has been a function of mode. Trams are most frequent, offering ‘turn up and go’ service every 5 to 15 minutes, at least during the day. Trains are next, on 15 to 30 minute frequencies. Buses were last, typically operating every 20 to 60 minutes, with varying spans and operating days.

Although there were exceptions, if you wanted frequent travel and an assurance of being able to travel on Sunday or get home at night you would almost never catch a bus. Hence train and tram system maps (normally mode rather than area-based) were our de-facto frequent network maps.

In the last five years we have seen the extension of many bus services to 7 days and the commencement of SmartBus services, which, at least on weekdays, operate at or better than train frequencies. The generalisation that buses run less often than trains remains valid but decreasingly so. However because our network maps treat all bus routes as being equal (just like if a street directory showed local streets as thick as freeways and distributors) the higher service on the better routes and corridors is uncommunicated to passengers.

The solution is a multimode frequent service map to highlight the high-service parts of the network that can reasonably be navigated without a timetable (at least on weekdays). It would be in a simple schematic form, showing only the high-service corridors, interchange points and major trip generators. At major interchanges it would supplement but not replace metro-wide single mode network schematic maps and local multimode geographically-based street-level maps.

A possible frequent service map for the south-east suburbs of Melbourne is shown below. Interstate or international readers should note it's approximately one-third of the metropolitan area and excludes the CBD (beyond the top left of the map). The areas covered are approximately 4 to 40 kilometres from the city centre.

This map is an attempt to simplify a fairly complex network that has diverse service levels and operating spans. I have set a cut-off related to SmartBus service levels, ie a 15 minute frequency on weekdays and 30 minutes on nights and weekends. Less frequent individual routes are not shown unless they parallel other routes to form a high combined frequency along a corridor.

Line thickness is related to service frequencies for individual routes or route families, with two levels used; thick for 15 minutes or better, and thin for inferior to this. Routes or corridors with 'full-time' operating hours, ie daily service until 11pm (9pm Sunday) got solid lines. Routes offering lesser spans got dashed lines. Hence a thick dashed line would be a frequent weekday service with limited or no service at other times. Conversely a thin solid line would indicate lower frequency but wide span (like outer suburban trains). A thin dashed coloured line would typically be a 'minimum standards' route, with 7-day hourly service until 9pm. Routes offering less than this (only drawn if they added frequency to a corridor) are shown with a grey line.

Melbourne typically colours its train information blue, tram information green and bus information orange. The map above adopts these colours for train and tram lines. However because there are more bus routes legibility requires the use of several colours. The orbital SmartBus routes were identified by colour in the planning stage (eg red orbital, green orbital, yellow orbital) so I have used these colours on these routes.

Some frequent service maps concentrate on daytime frequency and offer little assistance to passengers travelling at other times. However to provide assurance that night travellers won’t get stranded, it's desirable for maps to show approximate operating spans as well (especially finish times), in an unobtrusive form. I believe this map succeeds at both, without introducing too much clutter.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Three Ms of high modal share

A previous post covered capability, choice and capacity, the three Cs of successful public transport.

Since that was written public transport patronage and mode share has grown. However data from the last year indicates that the pace of growth has slowed.

There are three passenger demographic groups, all beginning with M, that must be won over to increase transit’s modal share. These are as follows:

Middle Suburban

These are the suburbs, approximately 8 to 30 km from the Melbourne CBD, that house the majority of the population. They are typically beyond the tram network but are usually within 5 kilometres of a railway station and may be served by a SmartBus or orbital route.

Planned (and often established) by the 1920s, they often have a grid network of roads intersecting railway lines, particularly in the south and east. Detached housing dominates, though the closer in areas also have flats, townhouses and villas. Retail areas comprise strip centres around stations, factory outlets in light industrial areas and Melbourne’s largest drive-in shopping centres. These middle suburbs are also home to a more diverse range of universities, hospitals and business parks than is found in outer areas.

In Melbourne public transport’s mode share is highest in the inner suburbs and falls away with distance from the CBD. Those residents of middle ring suburbs who work in the CBD often commute by train but driving is dominant for non-CBD work and other trips, which are generally less well served by transit. However the success of SmartBus has shown that patronage growth is possible in these areas, even for non-city trips. The density of activty around the large universities and shopping centres along with grid streets, which are efficient for tangential rail feeder buses, also indicate potential for patronage growth.

That is not to say that patronage cannot also be grown on the fringes, but these areas are handicapped by bad street layouts, less walkable neighbourhoods and a lower base from which to expand service levels compared to middle suburbs that also tend to have more trip generators.

Middle Age

Public transport in cities with low modal share disproportionately carry non-drivers; typically the young and the old. They are often referred to as ‘captive passengers’ since they have few other choices. These groups will be described in turn.

The closure or amalgamation of government schools and the shift to private schooling has increased the average distance school students travel. Parental concerns about ‘stranger danger’ and mounting road traffic has also contributed to the sharp decline in walking and cycling. Hence ‘Mum’s Taxi’ and public transport (where available) are dominant modes for primary and secondary student travel. And the growth of universities (due to both local and international students) has increased the number of older students travelling. Unlike the USA, Australia has less of a tradition of suburban students moving away to study so local students will often remain at and commute from home.

Senior passengers include those who never learned to drive (often housewives in then-dominant single-car households after WWII) and those too blind or frail to drive. In addition, local shopping strips, cheap seniors fares and frequent service (especially during weekday interpeak times when many seniors travel) make car ownership unnecessary for many seniors.

There is however change within the senior passenger population. Population ageing is increasing the number of those who have had to give up driving but is reducing the number of seniors who have never driven. The majority of seniors remain mobile, especially with the spread of low-floor buses. However a growing proportion (often over 80) have difficulty accessing conventional route services and use community buses operated by a local seniors group or council.

Public transport usage is weakest amongst middle aged working people (especially for the majority who work outside the CBD). Due to their number public transport will need to attract a growing proportion of them for it to increase modal share. To some extent this has happened in recent years, largely due to the employment strength of the CBD. However because market share is now high amongst CBD workers, continued increases in modal share will need to come from those who work elsewhere.

Middle Class

Public transport has strong usage by those on low incomes, particularly if it is their only motorised transport option. Those on moderate to high incomes who work in the CBD dominate peak-period public transport. Inner-suburban gentrification has made the average incomes and house values of suburbs served by tram higher than many outer areas served by bus or train only. Nevertheless the middle class appear to be under-represented on much non-CBD off-peak and weekend public transport services.

Nevertheless when designing services and facilities to attract modal share, one must have middle class tastes (including their fears and prejudices) in mind when designing and marketing services. This might include developing frequent networks serving places where the middle class go (for instance large shopping centres on the weekends), addressing concerns about travelling at night and spreading the message it is used by ‘people like us’.

Legibility is another concern; the suburban middle class are unlikely to give up driving, but could be attracted to public transport for some trips if routes are more direct and understandable. Even not being able to see through windows due to all-over advertising on trams and buses would discourage some passengers due to safety and navigability concerns.

Summary

Middle Suburban, Middle Aged and Middle Class. These are the groups that abandoned public transport for the car during the 1950-1980 period of falling patronage. Conversely it is these people who need to be attracted back to deliver further modal share increases. Public transport service design and marketing could do worse than target these potential passengers in its work, particularly in areas where services can be cheaply improved, made legible and promoted.

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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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Monday, August 16, 2010

Metro's Caulfield - Camberwell shuttle: the bigger picture

Today's Herald Sun carries an article about a proposal from Metro Trains for a north-south bus route between Caulfield and Camberwell.

Metro's motivation may well be to relieve loading on two of Melbourne's busiest rail corridors. Nevertheless from a total network perspective it has a lot going for it, but only if planned in conjunction with existing nearby routes, which have just been reviewed.

Maps


View Larger Map

Also see Metlink local area map for local network

Notes about the area and transport services

- Approximately 10km from Melbourne CBD.
- Major universities adjacent to Caulfield (Monash) and Glenferrie (Swinburne) stations.
- A high international student population (who are heavy users of public transport - day and night).
- A major activity centre at Camberwell. Caulfield has similar potential if its underutilised racecourse is redeveloped.
- Both Caulfield and Camberwell are major junctions on Melbourne's busiest railway lines. All passing trains stop at these stations. Trains run approximately every 3 minutes during weekday peak, 7.5 to 15 minutes during off-peak and 15 to 30 minutes evening.
- No strong north-south public transport links for the six kilometre stretch between Glenferrie Rd and Warrigal Rd in the area south of the Glen Waverley railway (trains and trams are all east-west). In contrast the suburbs to the east (around Warrigal, Blackburn and Springvale Roads) have partial or full north-south SmartBus routes that are amongst Melbourne's busiest.

Existing services

Current options for travel between Caulfield and Glenferrie/Camberwell include:

- Train via a transfer at Richmond. Involves some backtracking but may be faster than the direct options that involve tram or infrequent bus.
- Route 72 tram between Toorak, Gardiner and Camberwell. Also involves some backtracking if coming from Caulfield as the line turns west instead of continuing south. Only a minority of daytime trains on the Caulfield group stop at Toorak, forcing an extra transfer at Caulfield.
- Route 16 tram between Malvern, Kooyong and Glenferrie. Provides a direct link to Swinburne University but can be slow. Not all trains stop at Malvern.
- Route 624 bus between Caulfield, Tooronga and Auburn. Serves the quieter station in between Glenferrie and Camberwell which is not served by all trains. The route is direct but its 30 minute frequency is less attractive than train or tram.

Overall

A Caulfield - Camberwell bus route that is more attractive than existing options could make a lot of sense. It would fill a major gap and be at least as well used as portions of some SmartBus routes.

Strong circumfrencial bus links can ensure that those who don't need to enter the CBD are not forced to do so. This frees up space for those who must (eg instead of staying on until Richmond, passengers at Caulfield may opt to change to a bus to Swinburne or Camberwell instead). And it's good economics too; the marginal costs of carrying passengers increase in congested areas, so frequent cross-suburban buses could pay for themselves in rail infrastructure not needed, and attract patronage in their own right.

My only proviso is that if implemented the route would not become an example of grafted-on planning which is inefficient and detracts from the capacity to fund local bus review recommendations. A way to avoid this is not to evaluate the proposal in isolation, but to considering adjacent existing bus routes (eg 624), especially if these could be modified to more economically form the new service.

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

They mean well, but...

Today's Herald Sun has an article about a personal safety campaign targeted at international students travelling at night on public transport. Possibly a response to student safety concerns, it is supported by major universities (and other bodies) in Sydney and Melbourne. Transport departments, industry bodies or operators appear not to be involved.

Campaigns such as Think before you travel must be designed very carefully or they can do more harm than good. It's a fine line between encouraging modified behaviour (which may lower an individual's risk) and fuelling the perception that 'public transport is unsafe'.

If too many take the latter to heart, it becomes a self-fulfilling spiral - even fewer travel, the perception of safety declines further, causing even fewer to travel until a point is reached that only trouble-makers and the desperate are travelling.

Unfortunately I believe that elements of 'Think before you travel' do risk being counter-productive.

My first worry is the name of the campaign - 'Think before you travel'. Though milder than 'Think whether to travel', there is still a message that people should voluntarily restrict their liberty and not travel (as it's a big bad world out there). Or if they do travel, drive instead of take public transport (given ads and tips focus on or near public transport, as if that's the only place where bad things happen).

In contrast, a 'Think when you travel' message, although it's a change of just one word, would be more positive, not discourage transit use and support freedom to travel as a right in a civilised society. Any such campaign should also cover driving as well as public transport to fairly reflect risk.

The point about liberty is important, especially for people from societies less free than ours. Travelling alone is not a crime. People should not be chided as being somehow reckless or irresponsible for doing so. And accounts of assaults should not blame the victim for exercising this right.

The idea that people should restrict their freedom, though apparently desirable for safety, is an acquiescence to tyranny, or the fear of it (albeit committed by criminals rather than governments). We should not accept this as satisfactory; it diminishes us all if the exercise of a significant freedom is discouraged as part of a (well-meaning) taxpayer-funded campaign.

This is particularly if campaigns discourage the exercise of liberty that is socially beneficial, which I will explain below.

There are some liberties that we accept even if (inappropriately exercised) the consequences to others range from discomfort (eg clipping nails in public) to mild harm (eg passive smoking out of doors). People are legally free to do these sorts of things but there is reliance on civil society concepts of consideration to minimise detriment to others. A polity that seeks to prohibit everything runs out of police and prisons to enforce all infractions.

However there is also a virtuous group of liberties which if exercised by one person improve things for everyone else. Walking and travelling on public transport at night is one such example due to 'safety in numbers'. Campaigns that even only slightly lessen the propensity for people to exercise such 'virtuous liberties' are counter-productive and ought not run.

A couple of the safety tips are doubtful or don't apply in all areas. One display a wariness about public transport interchanges. For example: "Avoid long waits on platforms and around Public Transport hubs. If you do have a long wait stay in well lit areas or near open shops." In Melbourne a railway station large enough to be called 'a public transport hub' will be a premium stations, with a staff presence and often enclosed waiting areas. Some car parks aren't the most savoury of places either, and I'm not sure that hanging around an open liquor store or hotel car park is necessarily safer than a station platform.

The suggestion about the guards compartment does not apply nation-wide. And that such warnings apply 'outside of peak times' as well as at night seem over-cautious. Besides being impractical if everyone did it given the good patronage of many off-peak trains in Melbourne. These points underlie the hazards of trying to apply a Sydney campaign to other cities without making changes for local conditions.

The clip ends with a message 'Are you feeling lucky - think before you travel'. Which again conveys the perception of risk or travel being a safety lottery.

The best way to increase safety on public transport is to encourage more people to use it. This means making it more attractive for people to use. For example reduced waits through frequency and co-ordination, better urban design, staffing and so forth. Carriages should be numbered inside for easier identification by people dialling 000. While a role exists in passenger education, it is extremely important that it encourages rather than discourages patronage, as may be the risk with aspects of this campaign.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Real-time information: need for, reliability and management

Real-time information has been a growth area for Melbourne’s trains, trams and major bus routes. Although less important than the service basics of coverage, span and frequency, it is still appreciated by passengers.

Available and accurate real-time information can mitigate the effects of service disruptions, particuarly on the rail network. Some passengers may choose to change or defer their trip, reducing loadings on scarce train replacement buses. And where services are delayed, reliable information allows passengers to make better use of their time, especially if the station or stop is near a shopping area. Advising of services just ahead eases crowding by spreading loadings across several trains (especially if just after a cancellation) or improving the efficiency of transfers at major stations. Hence good real-time information potentially offers substantial operational and customer service benefits.

Real-time information can vary from manual staff announcements to automated position reporting systems that transmit their data to information displays on station platforms or mobile phones. As staff rely heavily on automated systems, this item will concentrate on these.


Printed timetables are simple and reliable

Need

The need for real-time information varies across the network. I believe there are three factors (reliability, urgency and trust) that determine whether real-time information is justified or not.

Consider a suburban bus route that caters mainly for local shoppers. Passengers may not need to connect with another service or be particularly time-sensitive. Buses are almost always on time and cancellations are rare. Printed timetables fairly reflect actual times and are trusted by passengers. Low urgency, high reliability and high trust make real-time displays a frill rather than a necessity, and in any case the per passenger cost is high if installed at quiet stops.

Suburban railways are quite different. More passengers are time-sensitive, expecially those who need to change to a bus or have fixed work times. Even a ten minute train delay can increase end-to-end travel time by 30 or 40 minutes if a bus is missed.

Even allowing for measurement changes, rail delays approximately trebled since 2003. Punctuality declined from 96-97% to around 85% network-wide. It is lower again during peak periods and on long lines served by the troubled Siemens trains (around 75%). Customer satisfaction also fell as patronage rose faster than service levels, causing crowding and delays. High urgency, lower reliability and falling trust all make real-time information a high priority on the train system, second only to network strenghtening measures that increase capacity, frequency and reliability.

In between are the major bus and tram routes. Here heavy traffic and long routes can increase variability. The city-bound routes have a large commuter function, while the orbital routes feed passengers to railway stations and major trip generators. Again real-time information is desirable, providing extra assurance, especially on orbital routes where the bus might be starting its run 60 kilometres away.

The installation of real-time information in Melbourne has generally followed the above priorities. About the only exception is the busier bus corridors that offer above-SmartBus span and frequencies but provide only fixed timetables at stops.


Unreliable information can reflect poorly on a network

Reliability The extent to which an information system is worthwhile depends on whether its content is useful, provided when the passenger needs it, and can be relied on.

Required standards for the latter are high; if 99% of trains run (as is frequently attained in Melbourne) and information displays are 99% accurate then there is just as much chance of the information being wrong as the train being cancelled.

To be fit for purpose, measuring and reporting equipment (such as passenger information systems) should be sufficiently accurate to show variations in the item being measured without introducing substantial errors or uncertainties of their own. Hence in a system where 99% of services run, information systems must be operational and accurate (in this case faithfully indicating which services have been cancelled) for 99.9 to 99.99% of the time.

Information system reliability may fall during service disruptions, but should always be at least an order of magnitude better than the reliability of the underlying service. This increases trust that information is accurate (despite problems the service itself is experiencing).

In Melbourne some SmartBus displays at stops, ‘next station’ displays on the new Siemens trains and ‘next train’ displays at stations are particularly at risk of not meeting availability and reliability standards (in contrast the 1980s AVM system used for trams appears more reliable).

An inconsistent quality of information can make a transit service appear less reliable than it actually is (and undeservedly lower its reputation). And customer complaints are often as much about missing or inaccurate information as the service interruptions themselves. To lessen these risks electronic information displays must be much more reliable than the system itself, and if this cannot be attained they are best removed.

Upgraded equipment is being installed across the rail network

Management

The simplest information display systems (eg blackboard and chalk) require no special expertise to maintain. Lapses in availability (eg running out of chalk) or poor readability (due to bad writing) can be diagnosed and resolved at the local station level. The key issue here is likely to be the extent to which customer-facing staff are kept informed of short-notice service changes and disruptions.

Arrangements for managing automated real-time information are more complicated. Day to day ‘babysitting’ may be done at control desks at bus depots, operations centres or major railway stations. Faults that are beyond the control of stations and can only be fixed by centrally-deployed technically-trained personnel.

Responsibility and accountability are divided (a likelihood in any technically specialised area but accentuated through franchising) and recurring problems may be unresolved defects from two or three operators ago.

A difference between the treatment of service delivery and passenger information is that operator contracts (at least for train and tram) impose penalties for non-performance of the former each month. There is also a requirement for public reporting through ‘Track Record’ and these topics are frequently matters for media comment.

In contrast contracts specify no hard performance standards for real-time information system reliability nor the public reporting of same. While the latter is in line with other cities it does mean that (unlike service reliability) discussions of PID reliability are more anecdotal than factual.

The reliabilty of passenger information systems has a lower profile than either of the above, so is unlikely to the the topic of such special action. Nevertheless it sometimes makes the media when tested and found wanting, for instance during last Tuesday’s disruptions when it was found that the SMS alert system lacked the message sending capacity to promptly advise all subscribers.

Even if public standards existed, the extent to which a new incoming operator could or should be held liable for systems inherited from and unfixed by previous government and private operators is debatable. But in the end it boils down to contractual obligations (which the government drafts, signs, enforces and should be accountable for). Additionally the government can negotiate with the operator enhancements beyond what’s in the contract at an additional public cost (examples being the strengthening of the Comeng train air conditioners or late night services).

Conclusion

The fragmentation of responsibility, only limited accountability, the dependence on IT, the interconnection of various systems at multiple sites (of various origin and age) and use of wireless communication all increase the risk of failure.

Real-time passenger information systems are of only limited value unless they are much more reliable than the services they are intended to monitor and indicate.

If such systems are to be a beneficial part of the transit network (and passengers increasinly appear to want and expect it), increased attention will need to be paid to the management, procedures and technology that make the difference between information reliability and unreliability.

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

The new Casey/Cardinia bus network: high and low priorities

Earlier this year the new City of Wyndham bus network around Werribee and Hoppers Crossing was reviewed.

The Wyndham network, a result of that area’s bus review, commenced back in April. It features increased coverage through more routes, public holiday service and (generally) a 40 minute frequency seven days per week. Unlike other areas, which saw more gradual changes, the Wyndham changes all started on the one date. The network’s main compromises were the early finish on some routes (7pm vs the 9pm minimum standard) and the absence of combined scheduling to maximise effective frequency along major corridors where routes overlap. However the old network’s 40 minute frequency was retained which with trains every 20 minutes provided consistent connectivity.

Even bigger than the Wyndham bus changes is the new network for Casey-Cardinia. Despite being at opposite ends of Melbourne both areas have much in common – outer fringe suburbs, new housing, fast growth, young families and areas with low incomes and high transit need.

However more so than Wyndham, public transport service levels in Casey/Cardinia lagged development. Daytime trains run at half metropolitan frequencies (30 – 40 minutes typical) and the area contains only limited bus services. A combination of non-connecting street layouts and low train frequencies (particularly on weekends) make planning efficient bus routes and timetables a particular challenge in Casey/Cardinia.

Timetables for the new network are not yet available, so a full analysis is not provided here. However some information about routes and service levels are contained in a release from the Minister. From this it is possible to discern some priorities that have shaped the new network.

High priorities

Coverage

The first priority, probably deservedly so in a fast-growing area, is local coverage. This is in line with the Department of Transport’s strict coverage requirements (90% of residents within 400 metres of a route). Six new routes have been added and others have been extended. This is at least comparable to Wyndham as the biggest addition of new routes in recent times.

Span

The close second priority is longer operating spans in accordance with minimum standards. In many areas this means Sunday and early evening service for the first time. It will be possible to leave the city as late as 7:30 - 8pm yet be able to make the last bus, unlike now where many local buses finish before the pm peak has ended.

Simpler routes

The third priority is some route simplification. Full assessment of this will have to await release of network maps and timetables. However it looks as if the new network will remove some of the confusing peak and off-peak service variations that now exist.

Low priorities

Three areas appear to have received low priority when planning the Casey/Cardinia network. These are as follows:

Connectivity with trains

The first is connectivity with trains. Unlike Werribee and Hoppers Crossing, buses at Pakenham and Cranbourne are often not frequency harmonised with trains (see below).

Bus/train connectivity is an area that a bus review could address, and indeed consultants' reports from all areas have highlighted this as an area for improvement.

However the new (higher) frequencies announced so far have tended to reduce maximum waiting times but do not always provide for even connectivity with trains. Three examples are below:

Route 847 (replacing 839): Weekdays frequency increase from 40 to 30 minutes (harmonised), weekends increase from 80 to 60 minutes (not harmonised).

Route 894: Weekday frequency increase from 75 to 45 minutes (not harmonised) and Saturday frequency increase from 75 to 60 minutes (not harmonised).

Route 895: Weekday frequency increase from 75 to 45 minutes (not harmonised) and Saturday frequency increase from 75 to 60 minutes (not harmonised).

This continuation of non-harmonised headways appear to indicate either (a) a view that bus frequency should be maximised, even if this compromises connectivity through the use of incompatible headways (eg going for 45 minute rather than 60 minute headways to connect with weekday trains every 30 minutes), (b) a view that buses are for local school and shopper trips only and connectivity with trains or other buses is unimportant, or (c) a view that trains are insufficiently reliable to connect to.

Established areas

The second area of low or no priority has been in services to established areas, even those with low incomes and high transport needs, such as much of the City of Greater Dandenong. While many of these areas already have a Sunday service, there remain other needs such as the upgrade of local routes in Endeavour Hills to full minimum standards and a link to Fountain Gate Shopping Centre. On the latter, the current Route 842 operates only thrice daily (Monday – Friday), whereas other areas in Cardinia such as the semi-rural Emerald and Gembrook are better served.

Direct routes

Thirdly the development of frequent and direct routes (as potential SmartBus corridors in the future) have not been emphasised in the release, though some straightening of existing routes may indicate some progress towards this. Examples could include stronger links between Cranbourne and Berwick, Fountain Gate, Endeavour Hills and Frankston, as well as between Casey and the Dandenong South Industrial Area. These routes could either be stand-alone services, or, as suggested for Wyndham a combination of two local routes providing a higher combined frequency.

Conclusion

The new network promises an upgrade of buses in Casey and Cardinia to the span and frequency now general in most of the rest of Melbourne. The changes to commence shortly are likely to be the biggest single service upgrade these suburbs have received since they were first developed. However unless there is a substantial effort to improve connectivity through integrated timetabling, these services will be most useful for local travel only.

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