Friday, August 07, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 56: SmartBus turns 18!

A quick note to celebrate the 18th anniversary of SmartBus in Melbourne. It represents the largest single upgrade to Melbourne's useful bus network in at least the last 50 years. Instead of people having to take a train towards the city and out again to make cross-suburban trips, they could instead hop on a circumferential SmartBus. Over 200 million people have been carried in the 18 years since, making it Melbourne's biggest 'big bus' initiative. As you can see on the maps, Melbourne's Useful Network would be vastly smaller if SmartBus didn't exist. 

It's worth taking ourselves back to what Melbourne's buses were like 18 years ago. They were close to the worst in any Australian capital city. Operating hours were short. Cuts in 1990-91 left few routes with service much after 7pm or on Sunday. The survivors were mostly ex-government bus routes which in some cases replaced some marginal tram routes shut down in the 1950s and 60s.

The old VicTrip website was basically unusable and information at stops was either missing, wrong or out of date. Even outer suburbs of cities like Adelaide or Canberra got better buses than what ran in most of Melbourne. Never was the gap between what our city needed and what the run-down bus system provided greater than in early 2002.

A scheme called SmartBus was conceived. Initially this was infrastructure heavy but service light. Instead of a concerted program to improve operating hours and frequency, passengers would get nicer stops and electronic signs saying that the next bus was hours away. For this reason PTUA initially opposed the SmartBus program saying it did not deliver worthwhile service benefits for passengers despite potential technological smarts including priority at traffic lights.

703 and 888/889 SmartBus trial

SmartBus started as a trial on two route corridors in Melbourne's east on August 5, 2002. These were Springvale Rd, served by 888 and 889, and Blackburn Rd, served by half of the L-shaped 703. They linked key stations and destinations including Nunawading, Glen Waverley, Springvale, Chelsea, Blackburn, Syndal, Monash University and Clayton. Frequencies were improved to every 15 minutes on weekdays with longer hours. Minimum weekend frequencies were improved to roughly every 40-45 minutes and 7 day service commenced where it did not previously operate (888/889). Weekend operating hours were also extended.

Check this link for more background: The first 703 SmartBus timetable is here. An early 888/889 SmartBus schedule is here

SmartBus wasn't all smooth sailing. As proved with Metcard, and later with myki, transport IT projects have troubled successive governments. In SmartBuses' case the fancy 'next bus' signs at stops were either out of service or inaccurate. Eventually the hardware was removed and replaced with something that did work (most of the time).

Despite the bad look, the IT hiccups were a sideshow. The substance, which made SmartBus genuinely useful, was the increased service. And passengers flocked to them. On their first anniversary Minister Peter Batchelor said that patronage on the two pilot routes was up 25 per cent.

SmartBus aided the government's political prospects, with the minority Bracks government being returned as a majority government in the November 2002 election landslide. Many eastern suburb seats served by the new SmartBuses recorded double digit swings - higher than the state average. The government knew SmartBus was a winner even earlier with a Route 700 SmartBus upgrade promised during the campaign.

What happened to these trial SmartBus routes? The 888/889 were merged to become part of the 902 orbital in 2010 with full SmartBus service. 703 continued in a sort of limbo-land, neither scrapped nor upgraded to the standards of the other SmartBuses. It remains thus today, though in 2016 it got some weekend upgrades and resumed  The Centre Rd portion had limited hours and, for a while, no Sunday trips at the Brighton end. Sunday buses resumed in 2016. It's grown but despite its age, the 703 is not yet an adult, being still grounded at night, especially on weekends.

700 Box Hill - Mordialloc

2003 and 2004 proved lean years for bus improvements after 2002's pre-election goodies. The drought was broken on 14 June 2005 with the upgraded 700 SmartBus starting service. Even before the upgrade the busy 700 was the closest thing eastern Melbourne had to a SmartBus, with it surviving the 1990 cuts with its long operating hours close to intact. This was just as well given major destinations including Box Hill, Holmesglen, Chadstone, Oakleigh, Mentone and Mordialloc via Warrigal Rd. Key improvements were a boost from 20 to 15 min on weekdays, 60 to 30 minutes on Sundays and improved evening service.

This time the PTUA was supportive and advocated higher frequencies than proposed. Again the upgraded 700 SmartBus was a success. BCSV's write-up on the 700 is here. The 700 eventually became the 903 with its occasional Mordialloc - Chelsea shopper extension becoming the 706.

900 Caulfield - Stud Park

The pace of bus upgrades was quickening again with an election looming in late 2006. Meeting Our Transport Challenges came out in May. Local routes got longer hours and Sunday service. The prize for SmartBus was the new Route 900 from Caulfield to Rowville via Chadstone, Oakleigh and Monash University. Despite 900's alignment overlapping other routes, it was politically necessary given the expectations raised with regard to  a Monash University/Rowville rail line. The bus would have to do for now. 

The 900 had some firsts. For instance it was a new route rather than an upgraded old one. Secondly it had new 'SmartBus standard' operating hours and frequencies. That is Monday to Saturday service until midnight (Sundays was a 9pm finish) and a 30 minute maximum wait on evenings and weekends (other SmartBuses had 40 or even 60 min gaps). Weekdays enjoyed a 15 minute service until 9pm. Thirdly there was the use of the 900-series route numbers, something that would distinguish future SmartBuses from the rest of the network. Fourthly it's limited stop, speeding travel times.  My write-up on the timetable here

The 900 been extremely successful, no doubt to it serving major hubs including Caulfield, Chadstone, Oakleigh and Monash University. It got a peak upgrade (from every 15 to 10 minutes) a few years back. However its 30 minute weekend service groans under heavy shopper loadings around Chadstone. With over 80 boardings per service hour on both Saturday and Sunday, the 900 is by far Melbourne's most productive route on weekends. To put this into context, the next busiest SmartBuses, the 903 and 907 register a still high 40 - 50 weekend boardings per bus service hour. More on why very high productivity can be bad for a bus route here.

901 Yellow Orbital

The next SmartBus development came in March 2008 with the commencement of the 901 between Frankston and Ringwood via Dandenong. This replaced the 830/831 between Frankston and Dandenong and the 665 between Dandenong and Ringwood. Other key destinations on the route were Stud Park and Knox City. Service levels were similar to the 900, that is every 15 minutes until approximately 9pm and every 30 minutes at night and on weekends.

Although some of the catchment it open fields or industrial, the route proved a good patronage performer due to the size of the centres linked, the importance of the rail lines connected and a significant low income catchment.

The 901 (or yellow orbital) was extended to Melbourne Airport in late 2010, providing a connection to Broadmeadows station and places north and east. The 901 was the first serious public transport route to serve Melbourne Airport; before passengers either had long waits for occasional services to Airport West or Broadmeadows (478, 479, 500) or pay expensive Skybus fares. With its long operating hours the 901 opened a new option for budget travellers, though waits at Broadmeadows still vary due to mismatched SmartBus and train frequencies, especially on weekends.

In the north the 901 provides a worthwhile connection across from Broadmeadows to South Morang via Epping. It's a useful connector of jobs and people (often on modest incomes).

Further east, between South Morang, Greensborough and The Pines 901 usage is low due to a combination of semi-rural catchment, low residential densities, it duplicating other routes and unfavourable demographics for buses. Also, despite significant duplication, no SmartBus directly connects the north-east's two biggest centres, namely Greensborough and Doncaster Shoppingtown. 

Unlike most other SmartBus segments, 901's north-east quadrant cannot be considered a success relative to the service resources expended. Its quietness here depresses 901's weekend productivity to a below-average 15 to 17 passenger boardings per bus service hour. At some point the beauty and simplicity of the orbitals must be weighed against the need to distribute service where it is more needed. I discuss some cost effective opportunities here and here

903 Red Orbital

903, sometimes known as the red orbital, replaced the 700 SmartBus in April 2009 but was much longer. It extended beyond its Box Hill terminus to Heidelberg via Doncaster (replacing the 291), Northland, Preston, Coburg, Essendon and Sunshine to finish at Altona.

The combined route is Melbourne's busiest on a raw patronage basis. It is also very popular on a boardings per kilometre basis on all seven days between about Oakleigh South and Doncaster. It hits major destinations with few overlaps between Mentone and Northland. The large number of railway lines in the east and tram routes in the north it intersects is an advantage.

While there are still key destinations west of Northland, the 903 (at every 15 minutes) is challenged by large sections of other routes (eg 527, 465, 232 and 411) operating every 20 minutes most of the way. Its industrial catchment in the west also isn't conducive to high evening and weekend usage. Nevertheless 903's extreme strength in the east and to some extent the north keeps its patronage productivity at a consistent 30 plus on weekdays and 40 plus on weekends passenger boardings per hour. The higher weekend productivity illustrates 903's importance as a connector to shopping centres (which are often busiest on weekends) combined with its reduced frequency on those days. If you didn't see it before my notes on why high productivity can be bad for bus routes may be useful.

Despite its good productivity, one could query whether 903's current alignment is the best possible.

While it links the big shopping centres in the east and north, it veers away from Highpoint. This is possibly because Highpoint was to be served by a Blue Orbital that never happened. With the Blue Orbital off the table it might be time to consider whether 903 should run via Highpoint such as discussed here.

La Trobe University currently has no SmartBus service. 903 runs to Heidelberg but veers west instead of north. There may be a case to route 903 to La Trobe to replicate the proposed Suburban Rail Loop as discussed here. This would require splitting the 903. Something would need to be done to retain a SmartBus on the 903's alignment west of Heidelberg (which has high patronage potential). It might be possible to cheaply pick up the 903 west from Heidelberg with another SmartBus route, potentially upgraded from every 15 to every 10 minutes thanks to consolidation with another route.

Finally one might question the efficiency of running a SmartBus until midnight through the Brooklyn industrial area with limited demand or residential catchment. More on cost-effective alternatives that could run SmartBuses along more popular desire lines and bring SmartBus service to Kingsville/West Footscray/Footscray here.

My account of 903's first day is here.

902 Green Orbital

The 902 replaced the 888/889 on Springvale Rd but, again like the 903, was much more. The 902 'green orbital', extended in April 2010, finished at Airport West after going via Doncaster, Eltham, Greenborough and Broadmeadows. The new route 858 in the Chelsea area provided local coverage while allowing the SmartBus to be made more direct. There were also local network changes at Nunawading.

The intention was to extend the 902 to Werribee via Watergardens and Deer Park, but this never happened. While there is locally high demand for buses in the Werribee area there would likely be a large low density area where usage would be low. The Deer Park to Watergardens section was later picked up by the new Route 420 from Sunshine introduced as part of the 2014 Brimbank network.

902 is massively successful between about Springvale South and Nunawading. There is also worthwhile usage at a lower level between Chelsea and Doncaster. The Springvale/Glen Waverley area has excellent demographics for buses, including high numbers of students and low income earners. Existing local routes may only run hourly and not on Sundays. Like parts of the 903 this section of the 902 probably justifies roughly double its existing frequency.

902 overlaps 907 along Doncaster Rd. However this is a good corridor for buses. 902 usage weakens north of Shoppingtown due partially to its overlap with other routes (including for a while the 901) and its indirect Doncaster - Greensborough connection via Eltham. However it gets steady usage along its straight, partly industrial, partly residential alignment to Broadmeadows and then Airport West. There may be scope to strengthen 902 by swapping it with 901 between Templestowe and Greensborough so it provides the most direct possible connection between the biggest centres (ie Greensborough and Doncaster Shoppingtown). One could also argue the merits of a 901/902 swap at the Broadmeadows end as it would improve directness for travel to areas east of the airport. 

My account of 902's first day is here.

905, 906, 907, 908 DART

This is a series of four freeway express routes (905, 906, 907, 908) between the CBD and Doncaster. They form the closest that Melbourne has to a Bus Rapid Transit system and carry very high peak loads. Route 907, in particular, along Doncaster Rd, also has high all-day/all-week usage, with 905 and 906 a little above average.

Like the 900 the four DART routes are the government's answer to proposals for train and tram extensions to the City of Manningham. Compared with trains DART has lower capital costs and permits one-seat rides from more areas into the CBD, including as far east as Warrandyte. Its main weakness is bus bunching due to its corridor not being isolated from other traffic. DART service started in October 2010, just before that year's state election.

DART was part of the franchised bundle of routes won by Transdev in 2013. Shortly afterwards 908 got pruned to run only from Doncaster Park and Ride to The Pines most times to reduce overlap with the 907. Weekday DART service is of a similar span of hours and frequency to trains while weekend service is a little less, with less frequency and shorter operating hours (especially the 9pm Sunday finish). The routes have generally enjoyed high patronage with peak services added a few years ago to match demand.

My account of DART's first day is here.

904 Blue Orbital

This was the orbital that never was, and possibly never should be, although some parts of it would have improved things. It was an inner orbital operating from Sandringham to Williamstown. Both extremities paralleled (rather than fed) rail lines, didn't serve trip generators of metropolitan importance and had unfavourable demographics for buses. A sketch is here. Parts of the orbital, like the 246 on Punt Rd, already had service at or better than SmartBus standard. A major route across the north might have done well, though it could have been more direct to Fooscray (eg via the Route 404 alignment), with Highpoint served by a rerouted Red Orbital instead.

Also on this day

SmartBus upgrades weren't the only bus improvements to happen on 5 August, 2002. Some bus routes, especially in outer suburbs, gained much-needed Sunday service. This was either for the first time ever or the first time after the 1990 cuts. It was a precursor to the more comprehensive minimum standards changes that were to benefit over 100 bus routes after 2006 with 7 day service every hour or better until 9pm under Meeting Our Transport Challenges.


SmartBus grew rapidly in its first eight years. It has been a success and it would be difficult to conceive of Melbourne public transport without SmartBus. Some routes went on to be upgraded. Examples include 907 and 908 getting an improvement to every 20 minutes on weekends. 900 got a peak upgrade while 703 has had weekend improvements  (to every 30 minutes) and Sunday service added to the entire route.

While a big step forward at the time, we have seen some limitations with SmartBus as our city has grown and traffic increased. Every 15 minutes is not quite turn-up-and-go, and the 30 minute weekend frequency isn't something a big city should aspire to. It is also out of kilter with Rail Network Development Plan concepts of a tiered network based on 10 and 20 minute frequencies across all modes. SmartBus should generally move towards a 10/20 minute pattern to suit. However not along all parts; even 30 minute frequencies are generous on quieter sections of some orbitals.

It's worth rethinking whether the orbital concept is best. Shorter routes would  assist in adjusting frequencies to better meet demand and harmonise with trains, cutting waits. There risk some objections from the minority who make long trips on the orbitals but overall there should be a greater frequency and connectivity gain. More on splitting the orbitals here.

SmartBus routes can be quite slow for medium distance trips. The need to transfer, wait and board a bus stuck in traffic remains a reason why driving can still be twice as fast as public transport, especially for non-CBD trips. Frequency and coordination, as discussed before, are big influencers of overall travel time. Following that is in-bus travel time. Measures to improve this range from spacing stops wider and bus priority all the way up to massive rail projects like the Suburban Rail Loop. Even where the former applies (eg Route 900) the design of our shopping centres and interchanges often slow bus access, with needless backtracking and turning.

While Melbourne adding a million or more people in the last 10 years we've added no new SmartBus routes. On the other hand opportunities exist to cheaply add about ten more. These sometimes involve little more than a few extra trips to the timetable. Top 10 picks here.

PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.

You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics

Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit Steven Higashide 

The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees Gleeson & Beza

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, Institutions (Access Quintet Book 4) David Levinson

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives Jarrett Walker

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #85: Blackburn North's busy bus 270

We haven't had a regular Timetable Tuesday for a while. Today though we return to normal programming by taking a look at the 270 between Box Hill and Mitcham. The 270 is the main north of the railway bus serving Blackburn North. The area is typical 1950s and 60s eastern suburbs Melbourne middle class suburbia. It is in the marginal Labor seats of Box Hill (Paul Hamer MP) and Ringwood (Dustin Halse MP). 

The 270 is a long-established route though it's had changes over the years. As you can see from the map below it's not quite a straight line, veering off Springfield Rd (whose western section has no or limited buses). 

The area map below shows the 270 in relation to surrounding routes. Not a lot has unique coverage but it's the dominant route in the area. This is helped by it running to Box Hill, which is the area's largest centre. 


The 270's timetable reflects its ex-government, and later National Bus, heritage. That is a service continuing until unusually late on weeknights (after 11pm) but finishing very early on weekends (before 6 or 7pm). Early finishes were abolished on many routes in the 2006 - 2010 Meeting our Transport Challenges minimum standards upgrades. However these were rarely implemented on National Bus Company routes. This is why you still see a lot of limited hours and even sometimes two hour Sunday frequencies on Transdev services in the old National Bus area. 

On weekdays though Route 270 runs more frequently than the average Melbourne bus. Weekday peak services are every 10 to 15 minutes from the Box Hill end. The 10 minute service however drops off quite early (5:35pm) from Box Hill. After subtracting train travel time this is just before the peak of the peak in the CBD. From Mitcham the pm peak service is an even 20 minutes. The am peak is the reverse, also favouring Box Hill. Hence the timetable is best for those who work in Box Hill (or finish around 4pm in the CBD) and get the bus home. 

Interpeak service is every 20 minutes. While better than average for a local bus it does not evenly mesh with trains at Box Hill, which unlike the 10 minute frequency on upgraded lines like Dandenong and Frankston, still run to a base 15 minute frequency. However 270's interpeak frequency continues quite late; until 7:45pm from Box Hill and 8:20pm from Mitcham. Night service is also high for buses both in frequency and span, with a half-hourly service until after 11pm from Box Hill. That's almost as good as a SmartBus. 

Saturday frequency is every 30 minutes from first to last bus. However there is an early finish (7:25pm from Box Hill). Given the route's 24 minute run time it could have been possible to extend the span to 9pm for no extra cost by dropping to hour gaps in the early evening. Sunday service is a flat 60 minutes from approximately 8am to 5pm. Both finish times are earlier than the 9pm enjoyed by minimum standards local bus routes. 


Route 270 is a very well used bus route. According to 2018 DoT figures it attracted 40 passenger boardings per bus hour on school day weekdays. That's nearly double the average for buses in Melbourne. On school holidays it drops to 28, which is still above average.

Saturdays is a very high 35 while Sundays is an even higher 37. The latter indicates a high underlying weekend demand for buses. In other words having Saturday service every half hour but Sunday only hourly is a remnant from past planning practice rather than based on an analysis of modern travel needs which would specify Sunday frequencies similar to Saturday's. It is quite possible that an extension of weekend services to at least 9pm and a frequency increase on Sunday would be rewarded by strong demand given high existing established usage. 


The 200-series route number gives a clue as to its origins. It's an ex-government route that became run by National. National got bought by Ventura. However that did not stop Ventura losing their ex-National routes when the National (and MBL) franchises went to Transdev. A couple of years later 270 had some changes in the 2014 Transdev network restructure.

What we now know as the 270 was once the 290 from Box Hill. This was only a short run. The eastern portion was served by the old 287. You can see this in these 1970s - 1990s maps.  The 290 can trace its history back to about 1950. You can look up one of the last 290 timetables (December 1992) on Krustylink. Quite striking is the similarity of some of its weekday service patterns (and even evening times) to today's 270. There was no Sunday service then but Saturdays then had a 20 minute morning and 40 minute afternoon service to reflect the old Saturday morning shopping rush. There's about the same trips as now but trips have since been spread to operate at an even every 30 minutes over the day. 

By 1994 Met Bus and the 290 had gone with the new National Bus Company and the 270 in its place. It became a Box Hill to Ringwood service. It was also somewhat related (including a partial overlap at the Box Hill end) to the 271 from Box Hill to Nunawading. Mid - late 1990s timetables for these routes can be found on Krustylink. Off-peak both ran every 30 minutes for a combined 15 minute service to evenly feed trains at Box Hill. A similar arrangement initially ran on Saturdays with a combined 20 minute service. By 1997 NBC had cut Saturday service to every 30 minutes combined, removing connectivity with trains. This was not immediately made obvious as the new 1997 printed timetables removed train times. Sunday though retained the 120 minute frequency (on the 270 only) that it got in 1994. 

Not much seemed to happen for many years. Then Transdev came along with its 2014 network restructure that affected the 270. A detailed BCSV article on this is here. The route was changed to finish at Mitcham with the new 370 to Ringwood. This is likely why the map presented before shows both the 270 and the 370. Also there were some service increases on the 270 to compensate for the removal of the overlapping 271 in the area. These included an off-peak increase from every 30 to 20 minutes and Sunday service improving to hourly. 


What are your thoughts with regards to the 270? Is there scope for network reform in the area? Are upgrades to hours and frequencies justified? Please leave comments below if you have any thoughts.

You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics

Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit Steven Higashide 

The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees Gleeson & Beza

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, Institutions (Access Quintet Book 4) David Levinson

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives Jarrett Walker

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)

Friday, July 31, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 55: How good plans can endure - A look at 1988's MetPlan

Planners (especially in public transport!) can get demoralised that what they work on may not get implemented or even published.  

Plans may be for 10, 20 or more years. However political and economic conditions change faster than that. It's not uncommon for a plan to look like it's been dropped if political fashions change. An example is 2013's Rail Network Development Plan whose emphasis on quickly delivering frequent service proved unattractive to an infrastructure-focused government. 

However planners can take comfort that their best work is based on universal truths. They address enduring matters that are important if we want a functioning system in a growing city. Fashions may change but a good plan lives on. 

An old plan may appear dead only to later be revived. It's not just in transport we see this; look at the history of policies such as Medibank/Medicare and the Goods and Services Tax. Ideas might be mooted 10 or 20 years before becoming 'part of the furniture'. Meanwhile the radical has become not the person who wishes to implement a policy but the one who wishes to repeal it.  

Getting back to transport, the most well known plan would be the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan. That was basically a big freeway plan with some scraps thrown to public transport (apart from the City Loop though even that project's benefits can be debated).

Freeways, particularly in inner suburbs, became unfashionable from the 1970s due to their urban displacement, pollution, noise and cost. And, for a while, Melbourne's population stopped growing as fast as envisaged. However traffic engineers, politically and institutionally supported by RACV and Vicroads, kept the faith and were ready when pro-mega road 1990s and 2000s governments dusted off old plans. Whatever your view on big roads you cannot deny that the 1969 plan remains extremely influential, with it still shaping road construction in the 2020s. 

One of the most interesting plans for public transport was 1988's MetPlan. Cost control wasn't very good and militant unions were sabotaging reliability. But there were some infrastructure and service improvements in the mid-1980s. And good patronage gains, lifting usage from 1981/82's historical lows. Hence there was an air of optimism about the future as you can see from this MetPlan extract below.

The 15-year plan, written at the height of this revival, proved the pride before the fall. Within three years city streets were clogged with striking trams, thousands of trips were stripped from bus timetables and riders rode what wasn't cancelled without paying thanks to the disastrous scratch tickets. Victorians left in record numbers for sunnier and more prosperous states. The atmosphere of decay was back, with usage per capita falling to near record lows. Joan Kirner and her Cain-era cronies were bundled out of office in the 1992 landslide. Her side's MetPlan appeared dead. 

Whatever the short-term politics underlying change continued. Melbourne continued growing, although somewhat slower than 1960s forecasts. We continued to suburbanise beyond and between existing train lines. Jobs that handled things moved outwards while those that dealt with ideas moved inwards. Investment returned to the CBD while the inner ring gentrified with city workers. Our use of time was also changing with working hours spreading and weekends becoming commercialised. Even if public transport was just to retain existing modal share its services would have to adapt to cater for these shifts.

MetPlan was a good plan that came at an inopportune time. Had it been released in (say) 1984 more of it might have been achieved. (Mis?)management of day to day issues such as industrial relations, bus contracts and ticketing soon overshadowed it. Along with the wider economic and budgetary malaise that was soon to affect all government-funded activities, including public transport. More favourable economic circumstances may explain why although the Bracks and Brumby Labor governments had their own cost blowouts (eg Regional Fast Rail and myki) they were able to absorb these without cutting services or suffering a long-term hit to their electability.

The reason why I say MetPlan was a good plan is that it contains enduring truths that responded to the sustained changes mentioned before. For example it had suburban rail electrifications, tram extensions into growth areas, frequency standards for trains and buses and a network of orbital routes that would permit easy cross-suburban travel.

Not much got implemented in MetPlan's term. Subsequent years were wasted obsessing over ticketing systems and franchising, even though goodness and badness can be found in both government and private operation. However many MetPlan ideas became the staples of future plans like Meeting Our Transport Challenges. A high proportion got implemented, sometimes on a larger scale than first proposed. Recommending projects of sustained usefulness rather than flash-in-a-pan fads is  another mark of a good plan. MetPlan generally succeeded here too.

What was in MetPlan?

I've tried to plot MetPlan initatives on the interactive map here or below. If you click on the map (top left) you can turn on and off initiatives by mode. Clicking on each line or point tells you a little about each project and whether it was eventually completed and when. 

There will  be inaccuracies and omissions. Some original maps and descriptions were not clear. For example it was not easy to tell the precise alignment of some of the 'Metlink' cross-suburban bus routes due to inconsistencies. Still what's there should be enough to explain the concepts.

MetPlan's enduring proposals

MetPlan contained a mix of infrastructure and service proposals. There were several rail electrification or extension projects across Melbourne's north including Sunbury, Craigieburn and South Morang/Mernda. They remained dreams until into the 2000s. However all were eventually completed, with Mernda the most recent in 2018.

Rail upgrades, including electrification, were considered for Bacchus Marsh/Melton, Geelong and Baxter. Geelong got Regional Rail Link in 2015 and today enjoys a 20 minute weekday service frequency that would have been considered extraordinary in 1988. In 2020 electrification for all remains a live option, with Melton the likely front-runner.

'Modal interchanges' and 'park and rides' were some of MetPlan's most widespread projects. Two Park and Rides were new stations at Calder Park and Moorooldale. These didn't get built but Coolaroo (also proposed) was. Moorooldale (Cave Hill) is still talked about with a new development nearby but there's nothing officially proposed.

Increasing parking at stations was an emphasis in MetPlan and in the whole period since. Even the federal government, which only occasionally gets involved in state public transport projects, has promised funding. However it is space ineffective and often ties up land that could be used for shops and housing near stations. It does not help family budgets where households need to buy an extra car largely just to commute to the station. The economics for the general community are poor with each person who gains getting a $10 000 to 20 000 windfall, none of which is clawed back by user fees. It is also not scalable for desirable future passenger growth; in 2020 walking remains the dominant way that people reach stations across the network.

There was some caginess in MetPlan about the fate of the Upfield line. This was the subject of intense local politics. Because much of it paralleled the 19 tram it was considered a 'Cinderella' service with buses replacing trains on Sundays (as also then happened on some tram routes) and speculation about closure. Though no political friends of local left-wing activists, the Kennett government upgraded infrastructure and services to assure the line's future. Activists in the union movement contributed to the downfall of the Cain/Kirner government while their gentrified Green-voting replacements in the area regularly win parliamentary seats. 

There's a few lines on service strategy. Speed was a priority with improvements to track and signalling and more express services. Lines would be operated in groups to improve reliability and opportunities for cross-platform interchanges at key stations would be investigated.

Frequency was less of a priority and I think MetPlan's main shortcoming. It proposed clockface timetables but the minimum standard proposed was weak, especially on lines through established areas. For example it proposed a minimum service every 20 minutes during the peak and 30 minutes off-peak (including weekends). This level of service was already being run or exceeded on the busiest lines. The main improvements would be on Sundays and along outer portions where lower frequencies ran.

One might explain this low minimum standard (or at least the lack of a dual standard with 10 - 15 minute off-peak frequencies closer in) by saying that many inner and middle suburbs had static populations as densification infill had not seriously taken hold. MetPlan did say that boosting off-peak patronage was important but we were apparently still too small for the concept of an all-day turn-up-and-go Metro type timetable. However not long after MetPlan came out the Sandringham line got a boost from 20 to 15 minutes off-peak. The following Kennett government went further by boosting off-peak train frequencies from 20 to 15 minutes to Frankston and Dandenong and some other upgrades. Those lines were to later get further gains (to every 10 minutes), leaving most of the north and west further behind. 

At the time Melbourne was no more advanced than comparable or even lower density cities. For example Perth's newly electrified system started with 15 minute off-peak service on all lines from the early 1990s, with this later being made 7-day. Melbourne's since made major frequency improvements on some lines but even in 2020 Perth (and especially Sydney, which saw large upgrades in 2017) remain with generally more frequent suburban trains. 

MetPlan proposed some new tram routes and extensions (although the fashionable term was 'light rail'). By far the biggest was a line to Doncaster. It was thought this would replace plans for heavy rail, with land reserved for this being sold off a few years prior. While trains and trams are still sometimes advocated, bus remains the officially favoured access mode to Doncaster with a dedicated busway being planned as part of the North-East Link road project.

Short extensions of the 59 tram to Airport West and (eventually) the Plenty Rd tram were delivered in the '90s. Avondale Heights, South Morang and Knox City are still waiting. However Vermont South  eventually got its extension in 2005. Nothing more has been heard of Garden City and Elwood extensions. These might have been sweeteners for earlier conversions from heavy to light rail, which was initially controversial. Light rail was slower than the train but offered superior frequency.

Buses are one of the main areas where MetPlan proved visionary. Its 'Metlink' routes look a lot like our three orbitals SmartBuses which achieved their final form in 2010. Overall SmartBus is better with a 15 minute weekday service versus Metlink's 20 minutes. Some Metlink routes did start soon after MetPlan came out but they do not resemble the generally direct routes planned. Instead they were indirect and sometimes overlapping routes in the eastern suburbs (631 and 634) set up to give Quinces work after the government's bitter bus contract dispute.

MetPlan proposed revised local bus networks with minimum service standards and better operating hours. This looks a lot like 2006's 'Meeting our Transport Challenges' agenda. There were indeed significant service improvements in 1987/88, around when MetPlan would have been written. However there were more than nullified by huge cuts in 1990/91. Most of these were not reversed until the MOTC upgrades fifteen years later, while some, like the Sunday service cuts on busy routes 536 and 800, remain with us today.

Mention is made of demand-responsive buses for use on quiet outer suburban routes or at quiet times. While still often advocated, this has been one of the big let-downs in public transport. When MetPlan was written flexible route buses were considered innovative. Invicta had started Telebuses around Croydon and later Rowville. These offered opportunities to service new estates with street layouts unsuitable for efficient bus routes. However they only work when patronage is small. When it increases travel gets too indirect and may miss connecting services. Flexible route buses are best thought of as very niche area services only suitable where fixed routes have failed. Many flexible route trials have not succeeded. In Melbourne their growth has been limited with the only significant addition in the last decade being Route 490 in hemmed-in Gowanbrae.

MetPlan had an overall patronage growth target of 20% over 15 years. Most growth would happen on heavy rail, with a 30% increase projected due to network expansions. Patronage fell rather than rose in the few years subsequent. Like with many other MetPlan initiatives the projected results were eventually achieved but over a longer period. This is due to the decline and long stagnation discussed here (written with buses in mind but also applies to trains).


If you were looking back at MetPlan from about 2003 you might regard it as an ambitious failure. Very little of what was proposed had been implemented or even yet on serious peoples' agenda. And some more recent promises along MetPlan lines like Labor made in 1999, ended up either being broken (eg South Morang trains) or scaled back (eg Knox tram). Even buses had seen relatively little progress, although there were signs of life. 

Advance to 2013 and the perspective couldn't be more different. Electric trains were running to Sunbury, Craigieburn and South Morang. A little later there would be service upgrades to Geelong with RRL followed by Mernda electrification and sods turned on the Metro Tunnel. Some Metro train lines were running every 10 minutes  all week, frequencies the planners of 1988 had not dared to countenance. Many local buses got 7 day service from 2006. And the middle suburbs would be ringed with three orbital SmartBus routes, also at higher than envisaged service levels.

From this vantage MetPlan looks prophetic - things just took ten years longer than expected. Credit should thus be given to the people who drew it up, even though they may well have retired by the time it happened. Also important is the power of plans. Even if not initially picked up good ideas can endure, shaping future plans that when they meet will and circumstance can become fate.

PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.

You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics

Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit Steven Higashide 

The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees Gleeson & Beza

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, Institutions (Access Quintet Book 4) David Levinson

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives Jarrett Walker

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)