Friday, June 24, 2022

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

TT #168: The freeway express Route 350 - Do we need it any more?


Most bus routes have at least a section of road where they're provide unique coverage. That is if the route was taken away there would be areas left without bus service. However there are a few special routes that completely overlap others. Instead of providing coverage, their rationale may be that they provide convenient one-bus connectivity to important destinations that would otherwise require backtracking and/or changing buses. In other cases they provide capacity relief for high usage along a popular corridor.  

Route 350, between Melbourne CBD and La Trobe University Bundoora via the Eastern Freeway is one of these special routes wtih basically no unique coverage. Its map is below:  


Its relationship with the rest of the network is better seen on the PTV network map below. 


They are a bit hard to seen but the key overlaps are with Route 250 La Trobe University - Fairfield and numerous Doncaster area express routes between the Eastern Freeway and the CBD. The 350 also overlaps the very occasional 609 on a 500 metre section of Chandler Hwy. This area does however include the dense Alphington paper mill development which is testament to Melbourne's ability to place high-rise development on sites where some of its worst bus services run (Port Melbourne and M-City Clayton are other examples). 

Pretty much the only place where the 350 overlaps with nothing is on about a 500 metre section of Grange Rd in Fairfield. All parts of this are near more frequent 7 days routes including 250, 508 and 510. Also the abovementioned occasional 609 terminates in a back street about 100-200 metres away. 

The Route 350 on Grange Rd crosses the Hurstbridge rail line between Fairfield and Alphington stations. However its distance from either hobbles its potential secondary role as an efficient rail feeder. Moving Alphington station a few hundred metres west is one of those local network enhancement things unlikely to happen, despite connectivity benefits of aligning with perpendicular roads and bus routes.  

Timetable

It's unusual. Route 350's timetable is somewhere between a peak direction only freeway service and a regular all-day service. 

The route runs between about 7am and 6pm on Monday to Friday only. Morning and afternoon services run in both directions. But there's a 4 hour midday gap (about 10am - 2pm) where nothing operates. Frequency when it does run is about 20 minutes. This is fairly constant across the route's 3 hour morning span and its 4 hour afternoon span. The intent of the timetable is basically to provide a daytime commuter service both to La Trobe University and the CBD. Last buses leave both ends a little after 6pm. 

There is no weekend or public holiday service. This includes public holidays that are university teaching days. Other university bus routes typically run a service on these days. 

End-to-end travel time on the 350 varies from a bit over 50 minutes (shoulder peaks) to around 70 minutes (peak of peaks) with scheduling obviously reflecting traffic conditions. At least 7 buses would be needed to run the service. This makes the 350 an expensive route to run despite its lack of weekend or midday service. Is this justified? Keep reading!

Usage

At 23 passenger boardings per hour (late 2018 numbers) Route 350 is pretty close to average for a bus route in Melbourne. On non-school days it drops to 20 boardings per hour. 

Most other bus routes have interpeak, weekend and some evening service whereas the 350 does not.  You would expect these times to be quieter than the peaks for a bus route. Viewed in this context, the  largely peak 350 is underperforming, even though its numbers (just) exceed what Infrastructure Victoria regards as a productive bus route. 

Route 350's achievement of this threshold does not imply that it nor the area's wider network is performing at its potential. And where a route does not contribute to unique coverage there is room to be firmer in calculating its opportunity cost (ie whether something better can be done with what the 350 costs to run). This is particularly where (a) a route uses a large number of buses, (b) the buses used are idle for most of the week, and (c) usage is not particularly high. Route 350 stands out on all three counts and is thus ripe for review in a broader network reappraisal. More on that later.  

History

The 350 has had much chopping and changing over the years, including both to route numbers and timetables.  Much of this is due to having a varying purpose with potentially better alternatives emerging. 

For example is it a CBD commuter route? Maybe it's the fastest way to reach the transport-starved La Trobe University. Or maybe its high bus-using Heidelberg West catchment makes it useful for non-peak trips too. 

Before we discuss 350's history it's worth looking at transport to La Trobe University, especially from the CBD. What we now know as the 86 tram was only extended there in 1985. Before then it was just buses, with a change from the tram terminus at East Preston. Alternatively you could have got Tramways Board bus 256. Network maps show that this stopped a few hundred metres south of the campus in 1971 with an extension into the campus appearing on the 1972 map. We know this route today as the 250. 

Both the 250 and 86 are slow routes with many intermediate stops. Hence there would have been a desire for a faster way to the expanding La Trobe University campus. The 350 (and predecessors) could have been a response to this. 

The Eastern Freeway has long been the preferred corridor for buses to the Doncaster area (where there are no trains). It was less needed for buses to the north and north east as these had the Hurstbridge and (then) Epping railway lines. 

There were also alternative ways from the inner city, such as via Westgarth St or Heidelberg Rd, for those buses that did run. Nevertheless, despite these routes crossing a rail line, the MMTB did experiment with peak-only Eastern Freeway CBD buses from West Heidelberg (257), Northland (258) and La Trobe University (259) commencing in 1979. It is the last that can be considered the 350's ancestor. 

These services continued through the 1980s. The 1991/2 Melway lists the 258 and 259. The 257 short-working had by then disappeared though it was still shown on the 1992 network map

The government-run Met Buses were franchised shortly after, with routes transferred to National Bus or Melbourne Bus Link in the '90s. Melbourne Bus Link hardly reformed its network while National Bus rerouted and renumbered almost everything. These changes included scrapping the 258  from Northland while replacing the 259 with the 350. This followed a pattern, applied to other routes too, where the 300s numbers were used for freeway express services, often running peak periods only. 

At around this time La Trobe University's 256 became the 250 and Northland's 254 became the 251. The 250 and 251 followed a common route on their inner portions with the timetable providing an even spacing. Oriel Rd in Heidelberg West had not only the 250 but also the 350 and some Route 246 trips (extended from Clifton Hill to La Trobe University).  

For a while in the 2000s there was both a Route 340 and 350. The 2006 Melway lists a 340 service operating all stops weekday interpeak. Service was roughly half-hourly. Route 350 ran express trips during peak times. Service between about 10am and 2pm was removed in the 27 July 2014 Transdev network changes with all services operating as the 350. With an emphasis on fewer but simpler and more frequent routes, these same changes increased 250 and 251 from every 30 to every 20 minutes while removing the 246 La Trobe extension.

350's future?

Early 2016 saw the introduction of more new express university shuttle services typically operating from the nearest train station. These follow the great success of the very frequent Routes 401 and 601 to Melbourne and Monash universities respectively. 

One of those introduced was the 301, operating every 10 minutes between Reservoir Station and La Trobe. Once you're on the Mernda train (every 20 min off-peak) you have a turn-up-and-go service to the campus. This has likely eaten into the 350's patronage further and weakens the route's reason for existence. Boosting the Mernda line to every 10 minutes (desirable for other purposes) would make this train/bus combination unambiguously better and further weaken 350's role. 

Macleod on the Hurstbridge line has the 561 bus but both it and the train mostly run every 20 minutes. 350's network role might drop even further if both got all-day frequency upgrades. 

Having said that, some areas served by the 350 do need better service, such as the Alphington paper mill development. And a freeway bus at the door may be more enticing than a walk to the train. It's just that apart from 9-5 commuters, the 350's weekday peak only pattern is unappealing. The route also uses a lot of buses for very average patronage productivity. That should raise the hackles of efficiency-minded planners.

Meanwhile there exists a high need for better connections to La Trobe University from the eastern suburbs and across the Yarra more generally. The bus resources the 350 uses would likely be key to achieving such as revised network economically, especially given current interest in the Eastern Express Busway project as part of North-East Link.

Network reform possibilities could include extending Route 567 north to La Trobe University and south to the Kew/Glenferrie area (also replacing 609), seven day service on Route 546 and moving Route 250 from Victoria St to Grange Rd to replace the 350 and deliver a 7 day service. The resources saved from not running Route 350 may be enough to boost 250 and 251's frequency from 20 to 15 minutes, with reform helped by all three routes all being run by Kinetic.    

What are your thoughts on the 350 and its future? Does it have a continued role? Are changes needed? Or is it more a remnant from before La Trobe got its tram or university rail shuttle feeder with better uses possible for its buses?    

See other Timetable Tuesday items here

Friday, June 17, 2022

What happened to Melbourne's bus audit?

The Victorian Auditor-General appears to have quietly dumped a planned performance audit that would have told Melburnians whether their metropolitan bus services 'integrate with the wider transport network and meet expected service demand'. 

Melbourne on Transit readers already know the answers are too often 'no' and 'no'. For instance we have convoluted bus routes every 22 to 25 minutes in areas where trains are every 20 minutes, making connections haphazard. Even many of our premium SmartBus routes are every 30 minutes on weekends, failing to frequently meet trains mostly every 20 minutes. Maps also show unproductive overlaps in places as new routes get layered over old without sufficient network reform. 

On the demand side buses in areas like Brighton and Eltham carry fresh air while busy routes (often in high social needs areas like Dandenong's Route 814) still finish midday Saturdays and not run Sundays. And main road routes may run only hourly on Sundays despite serving major shopping centres  that are busiest then. A 2020 splurge upgraded the little-used 704 bus while neglecting the nearby far busier Route 800.

State budget papers reveal a $1.4 billion annual spend on bus services (BP3, p333). It is in the public interest that we get maximum value from this. Such value can only be assured by delivering services efficiently (through appropriate contracting arrangements) AND delivering the right services (which depends on planning and monitoring with regards to routes, operating hours and frequencies). 

An audit here would have answered many of these questions. Findings from the Auditor-General carry much more weight than blog posts here. Most notably it would have forced the Department of Transport to respond. And encourage accountability with regards to how we plan public transport services. That's important because it's often seen as a secret art with little oversight nor discernible rationale for bus routes and timetables being what they are. 


Past VAGO bus audits

What's been the Victorian Auditor General's history in this area? In 2015 they looked at the tendering for Melbourne's Bus Franchise. This was the package of routes previously run by Melbourne Bus Link and National Bus in the Sunshine, Brighton, Heidelberg and Doncaster areas along with the three orbital SmartBuses. They were put out to franchise by the Baillieu government. The package included about 30% of Melbourne's bus routes including most of our busiest.

VAGO found that $33m cost savings were achieved in 2013-2014 but that the government hadn't got full value due to unreliable data and, related to this, their inability to withhold payments when performance was poor. The report was also critical of the (by then) Labor government for not extending the franchise model to more routes. 

Maybe they were constrained by limited scope, but one cannot help thinking the auditors' insight would have broadened if they walked a few hundred metres from their office and boarded one of the Transdev buses passing by. 

They would have likely found filthy buses that would have challenged whether the cost savings were real, ie not at the expense of quality. And apparently they missed looking at the conditions that gave rise to the biggest bus fleet safety crisis in recent memory when numerous Transdev buses were put off the road. While Transdev Melbourne lifted its game later, the government apparently remembered and awarded the franchise to Kinetic instead. More on that and better contracting here.

VAGO annual audit plans 

Annual Plans tell us what investigations VAGO is planning in the next few years. You can browse 15 years' worth of annual plans here. They come out before 30 June each year and are tabled in state parliament. 

Plans can be flexible and responsive, meaning that work might be shuffled around a bit. About 3 or 4 performance audits are on the go in the transport portfolio at any one time. 

Bus audit first mooted in 2019-20

The 2019-20 Annual Plan is the first recent one that mentions planning bus services. It had an audit planned for 2020-21 called planning and management of metropolitan bus services.


The audit aimed to determine whether metropolitan bus services were reliable, regular and integrated with other forms of public transport. It noted an Infrastructure Victoria finding that 40 percent of this network was underperforming (based on routes having less than 20 passenger boardings per bus hour). Also that buses were important to serving growing outer suburbs, new bus contracts had started, and that past VAGO audits (like mentioned above) had found poor performance management mechanisms. DoT's role included 'leading the development of an integrated transport plan' (which, in a separate audit tabled in 2021, VAGO found didn't really happen).  


2020-21 plan defers bus service audit

A year later the 2020-21 Annual Plan came out. The audit for bus service was still there but was deferred to 2021-2022. The reason for the audit was similar to above except that the number of routes had risen from 342 to 350. The audit objective had been slightly reworded with the words 'reliable, regular' removed, however 'reliable' still appears as an issue. 

2021-22 deferred again

2021-22 Annual Plan is here. The bus service audit this time appears as part of work proposed for 2022-23. 


The wording is similar to previous plans. 


As late as today, clicking on VAGO's website Annual Work Plan tab still takes us to the 2021-22 plan, with a page for the bus audit here

2022-23 plan - no buses!

The 2022-23 annual plan, tabled in parliament earlier this month has the bus audit dropping off the 2022-23 program. That leaves a thin agenda with just two audits. It's not even deferred to 2023-24. And unlike some previous years we don't have indications of 2024-25 planned audits. Maybe they're waiting until the election in case there are major programs announced that could be worth auditing then. 


While the Auditor General has repeatedly deferred and now apparently abandoned looking at bus services, this inertia has not been matched elsewhere in government. We saw the release of Victoria's Bus Plan in 2021, a little more kindness for buses in 2022's state budget and announcements regarding the electrification of the bus fleet with several depots undergoing conversion. 

It would have been good to have had the audit done before the Bus Plan came out. That could have  given reason for it to be a bit sharper and more specific than it was. An audit report out at a somewhat later time could have contributed to the Bus Reform Implementation Plans currently being developed. A still later release date could have enabled a look at some network reforms being done with lessons for those that follow. 

If VAGO ever does get around to auditing bus service planning, I have just one message. 

GOTB. 

Get On The Bus. 

As demonstrated by the salutary 2015 experience, your report will be 10 times better if you do!