Thursday, January 13, 2011

Taming Melbourne’s summer timetables

Transit authorities can choose between running the same timeable all year or introducing special summer or holiday period timetables.

All-year timetables are simplest for passengers and save on printing. However, especially during peak periods, cost recovery drops as the same schedules are running for fewer commuters over summer.

Reduced summer timetables allow service to more closely match demand and may save running costs. However they lessen legibility and inconvenience passengers. The extent of this inconvenience ranges from small to large, depending on how they are implemented.

And this is the key. A system with well-planned summer timetables doesn’t disadvantage passengers nearly as much as a system where they are a mess. While there is an elegant simplicity about networks where no summer timetables apply (eg Perth), the biggest gains in legibility relative to cost are likely to come from keeping summer timetables but overhauling their application.

Such reforms might include a reasoned selection of routes for which summer timetables would apply, a common network-wide effectiveness period of no more than two weeks (with minor exceptions for university routes) and schedules that withdraw only selected peak trips, known in advance.

Here I examine the use of summer timetables in Melbourne, their legibility for passengers and the extent to which they reflect rational service planning. This is done by asking a series of questions and listing the key findings. There will be two main conclusions; firstly that the shift away from summer timetables has benefited passengers, and secondly that the illegibility of those that remain reflects the generally higher priority of contract management and infrastructure over service planning and network integration.

How many Melbourne bus routes have summer timetables in 2010 - 2011?

Source: Summer timetables for metropolitan bus routes (note that 788 is excluded as this was a trial increased summer service).

The chart shows that more than five in six bus routes run the same service all year round. Therefore summer timetables are the exception than the rule.

Following charts will look at how their prevalence has changed, the type of routes they tend to be used on and some other facts about them.

How many Melbourne bus routes had summer timetables five years ago?

(Data courtesy Craig Halsall)

The chart shows that summer timetables were more common five years ago. The proportion of routes with them has more than halved as many bus operators switched to running a full service all year. It’s a similar story with trains; their summer timetables also ended a few years ago.

Even after this fall, Melbourne uses summer timetables more than other Australian capitals, where their use is rare. However it is understood that seasonal timetables are more common overseas.

What service changes helped the swing away from summer timetables?

This graph indicates a large gain in the number of routes with an all-year timetable. Half of this gain came from new routes, none of which have summer timetables. The other half came from upgrades to routes that had summer timetables but since dropped them. The latter were previously limited service routes that received minimum standards upgrades from the State Government.

How long do the summer reductions last?

The chart shows that most (59%) of summer service reductions last for about a fortnight. Note though that the dates shown indicate a lesser span because of public holidays on December 27 and 28 due to the weekend occurrence of Christmas and Boxing Day in 2010.

The other sizable proportion of routes (32%) go for about four weeks. The slight differences are because the operators coloured green only run summer timetables on weekdays, while MBL, coloured orange, applies summer timetables on Saturdays as well.

Although the prevalence of summer timetables has fallen, having six different summer timetable effectiveness periods across the network makes catching buses chancy at this time of year. They also reflect past fragmented service planning, whose results still confuse and strand passengers today.

Is there anything special about operators with reduced summer timetables?

The chart above shows that over two-thirds of routes with summer timetables are run by just two operators. Both companies were formed when the government franchised its Met bus services in the 1990s.

Whether a bus routes is ex-government or not has a large bearing on whether it is likely to have a summer timetable. Fewer than one-quarter of our 323 routes are ex-government. But if it is then it is over three times more likely to have summer timetables than routes that have always been privately run.

As well as introducing Sunday, early evening and public holiday services to many suburbs, another benefit of the 2006 – 2010 ‘minimum standards’ service increases has been more routes with all-year timetables.

Less than ten per cent of bus routes that have always been privately-run now have summer timetables. The gain is particularly pronounced in the northern suburbs, where operators such as Reservoir, Broadmeadows, Dysons, Moreland, Ivanhoe, Tullamarine and Ryans adopted all-year timetables as their services were improved.

There has been less movement in ex-government routes, which now form the majority of routes with summer timetables. This is entirely an issue affecting older routes. For example NBC’s Doncaster area SmartBus routes (905, 906, 907, 908) do not reduce service over summer, despite their frequent peak service (7 – 10 minutes). Similarly MBL’s relatively new Route 460 also runs an all-year timetable.

How important are the routes subject to summer timetables?

Given that only 14% of Melbourne bus routes now run summer timetables, is it such a big deal that they do, or that their effectiveness periods are not standardised?

The question is best answered by checking how important the affected routes are to the network as a whole. To do this I checked which routes (or combinations of routes) with summer timetables normally run at least every 15 minutes on weekdays, ie the same as SmartBus.

These are the following: 200/203, 201/202/302, 216/219, 220, 223, 246, 250/251/253, 270/271, 279 and 600/922/923.

Their summer timetables reduce their off-peak and/or evening frequencies except for Routes 600/922/923, where the only impact is peak-only. As the chart below shows, 19 out of the 46 routes with summer timetables (or 43%) are these high service trunk routes.

This is a high proportion compared to all routes, which mostly run at 20 to 60 minute weekday frequencies. Less than 43% of our 323 routes would be part of a significant high-service corridor, and the bulk would be quieter than the major corridors cited above.

In other words summer timetables disproportionately apply to some of our busiest trunk routes and probably affect more passengers than the ‘only 14%’ figure might indicate.

What type of service changes do the summer timetables entail?

So far I haven’t talked much about what the summer timetables are actually like and their likely impact.

Two routes (605 and 733) apply summer timetables in the most legible fashion possible. A year-round timetable applies for all but a handful of peak services, which do not run over the summer period. As these services are identified in printed and stop timetables, customers know about them in advance and there are no additional printing or bus stop maintenance costs.

Other routes (eg 293 and 295) do not withdraw services over summer. Instead times are altered slightly to reflect quieter road conditions, reduce excessive dwell times and possibly save a bus or two. As with the previous example, there are no span or frequency changes. However legibilty is somewhat reduced due to different times applying.

Then there are routes that, like the first example, reduce peak frequency. However it’s not simply about deleting trips and running the rest of the timetable as usual. Instead earlier and later services are adjusted to provide a more even but lower frequency. This approach has the advantage of avoiding ‘holes’ in the timetable. The trade-off is lower legibility and higher publicity and printing costs to advise passengers of the changes. Routes 309 and 476 (whose peak frequencies fall from 20 to 30 minutes over summer) are examples.

Next we come to routes whose summer timetables mean more than a lower peak service. Service frequencies may be lowered during weekdays, evenings and sometimes Saturday as well. 25 to 50% frequency reductions are typical but spans are generally maintained. Bus routes in this group are amongst Melbourne’s busiest and their summer timetables affects more passengers than those for other routes.

Typical examples are: 216/219, 220 & 223 (weekday interpeak 15 to 20 min, evening 15-20 to 30 min, Saturday reduced to 20 min), 246 (weekday interpeak 10 to 15 min), 279 (weekday interpeak 15 to 20 min), 367 (weekday interpeak 30 to 60 min) and 501 (weekday interpeak 40 to 45 min). 279 though contains an anomaly in that the Templestowe variation of its route actually gains frequency, from 60 to 40 min, interleaving with the 40 min frequency from Doncaster.

Summer times for other routes sometimes combine reduced frequency with shorter span. As an example Routes 270/271 fall from 30 to 60 min interpeak and have all weekday evening services deleted. Route 366 has a similar frequency drop but only has its ex-Croydon evening trips deleted.

Route 509 is different again; it preserves its 20 minute frequency but shortens span. In this case there is a slightly later start and an earlier finish. But not all the time; on Fridays the last few trips (around 7pm) keep running throughout.

There is now only one route that doesn’t run at all while summer timetables are effective. This is the peak-only Route 205, whose passengers have other routes available.

This list of variations illustrates the point that, similar to effectiveness periods, summer timetable practice vary greatly. These range from not running nominated services advised well in advance, retaining service levels but altering timetables, rescheduling peak services, reducing off-peak frequencies and shortening spans. Some routes may involve a combination.


1. There has been major success in reducing the number of Melbourne bus routes with summer timetables, with the proportion more than halved in five years. This has increased legibility.

2. Different operators have different start and finish dates for their summer timetables and no standardisation applies across the network. This lessens legibility.

3. Different operators take different approaches to reducing summer service. Again no standardisation applies across the network. Summer timetables may cut weekday peak services only, off-peak trips, weekend service, operating hours or a combination.

4. Objective service planning criteria, such as a route’s importance to the network or passenger needs, have less bearing than historical accident (eg past government operation) when it comes to determining whether its services are cut over summer. Hence summer timetables disproportionately apply to some of the network’s busiest established routes and may affect passengers more than assumed.

5. Summer timetables inevitably reduce network legibility. However their method of implementation determines whether this loss is slight or great. In Melbourne the legibility loss is particularly severe for the reasons set out in 2 – 4 above.


Our look at summer bus timetables in Melbourne has identified both achievement and opportunity.

The main achievement has been the large rise in the number of routes with all-year timetables. This change, largely under the State Government’s Meeting our Transport Challenges program of 2006, has increased bus network legibility and usability.

The opportunity comes from the illegibility of current summer timetable arrangements.

Suggested reforms might include using rational criteria to select routes that warrant summer timetables, a common network-wide effectiveness period and confining reductions to weekday peak services only.

Assuming no extra funding, some routes without summer timetables would need to get them to allow their removal from off-peak services and busy routes. However routes proposed for summer timetables would be objectively chosen and not face reduced off-peak times, frequencies and spans, so the overall impact should be fairly small.

While service planning has historically been a low priority in transport administration, it is crucial to building a usable system. Renewed attention to it by tackling summer timetables would lessen passenger inconvenience, improve legibility and allow buses to function as a true network rather than the plethora of fragmented, independently-planned routes as they appear to be at this time of year.

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Blogger gxh said...

Just from the very narrow perspective of the 605 route - as you say, the summer timetable does indeed leave a couple of "holes" in the am service into the city which I found annoying when I was travelling at the affected times. But on balance, perhaps this is preferable than trying to adjust the remaining services?
Only one pm service is affected, but for travellers from the city this is to some extent compensated for by better punctuality. During busy times of the year, the 605 route is notoriously unpunctual outbound, because of traffic delays (especially no right hand turn arrow from Lonsdale into Exhibition St, and long delays in Alexandra Av approaching Chapel St).

10:36 pm  

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