Sunday, November 27, 2022

2022 Victorian state election wrap-up

Labor was returned at yesterday's state election for a third term. There were big drops in its primary vote, particular in Melbourne's west, north and, less consistently, south-east. However as these were confined to its 'safe' seats and the Liberals rarely had significant swings to it, Labor retains a large majority with minor changes. Thus predictions of a hung parliament or a substantially reduced majority came to nothing. 

The low primary vote does however mean that Labor has to negotiate with more minor party or independent MLCs to get legislation through. Also it provides less of a buffer for future election or by-election swings. 

There were high and low lights in this campaign. Highlights included the realisation by parties that service is important. For instance the Coalition's policy on improved buses and Labor's on V/Line weekend timetables. The Greens had some train, tram and vaguely bus services upgrades that could make an even bigger difference if implemented. The Coalition promised some interesting train and tram extensions. Labor stuck with its tested formula of level crossing removals and pressing on with the Suburban Rail Loop.

Lowlights include the political bidding war over fares during a cost of living crisis where the most urgent need was service that was useful rather than merely cheap. 'Free' or very cheap public transport has greatest effect in locations (often inner) where services are abundant and also for reducing active transport rather than driving trips. Whereas affordable fares with higher quality service is useful to more people in more places more often and offers an alternative to higher cost car and taxi travel. I have always advocated the latter, even though there are some imperfections in the fare system that do result in some trips being too dear or poorly priced relative to other trips. 

Some parties could have been more detailed in their policies. For instance The Greens could have been specific about their bus improvements. The Coalition could also have pushed its bus message harder in some seats as promotion seemed disorganised and patchy. Also, over the last four years in opposition they could have been much stronger in holding Labor to account on matters such as inadequate bus services and V/Line reliability (which has fallen over the last few years). Oppositions do have a role in ensuring good government and opportunities have been missed by this one in recent years (which could also have been politically beneficial for itself). 

Some more observations in these brief threads.

More about Route 800 on the Fix800Bus Facebook page here.

Many existing MPs chose not to contest this election. Thus there are many newcomers to both the Legislative Assembly and Council. Some have transport experience. From the Labor side these include Luba Grigorovitch (Kororoit) and John Berger (Southern Metropolitan MLC). Michael Galea (South-East Metropolitan MLC) also has experience in successful transport advocacy. 

I spent several months speaking to many MPs, candidates and political staff before the election about transport opportunities and priorities for their area. Congratulations to those who were successful on Saturday. I look forward to being able to write about your advocacy and results in getting transport improvements in your area in a future blog post.  

Comments on the election, especially the implications for transport services, are welcome and can be left below. 

Thursday, November 24, 2022

2022 Victorian state election: A service scorecard

It's just two days before the Victorian state election. A record number of people have already voted. 

I'm going to take a punt that all major policies and promises have been released by now. 

The Public Transport Users Association has a scorecard for both transport infrastructure and service promises here. That's more comprehensive than what I'll cover below. 

Still I wanted to do a scorecard specifically for public transport service. That's basically timetable matters eg operating hours and frequencies but also network coverage and accessibility. 

This is important for three reasons. 

Firstly service is a must. It makes all the difference between whether you're waiting 10 minutes or 60 minutes for a train or if your bus even runs on the Sunday you need to catch it. And it needs to be accessible otherwise people can't catch it at all. Cheap fares are no good if no service runs when you need to travel. PT is most popular where there are affordable fares and good service rather than cheap fares and sparse (or no) service. Hence, unless fares are very high, it's best to fix service first. 

Secondly while you need a minimum amount of infrastructure to provide a service, there is no guarantee that if infrastructure is upgraded you will necessarily get a significant increase in or reform of service. Unlike infrastructure, service has historically not come naturally to this government. Instead it must be advocated, and what better than to highlight service issues during an election campaign?   

Thirdly good transport is like a three legged stool with infrastructure, pricing and service being the legs. All three are essential. Take out one and it collapses. We've heard more about the first two than the third in this campaign. Even those who should know better, like the Grattan Institute, short-change service. For example this shoddy write-up moans about the poor quality of transport promises in this campaign yet ignores some (very good) promises on aspects of service from major parties. 

Anyway, here's the comparison table, by public transport mode and party: 

This table is inevitably an over-simplification compiled with limited information. I stress again that it's entirely service based, omitting infrastructure upgrades that nevertheless can benefit network connectivity. See the PTUA comparison for an evaluation that includes both infrastructure and service. 

Here's a run-through each mode so you get why the parties were rated as they were:

V/Line: Increasingly an outer suburban transit operator these days, serving areas like Tarneit and Melton. Needs a service to match, and to be fair there have been substantial weekday timetable upgrades on the Geelong and Ballarat lines. Reliability however is inferior to Metro and has been in a pattern of deterioration since 2016.

Labor's weekend service boosts are really good and would make a huge difference in the trips the network can support due to the power of frequency. They 'only' got a B as I still think they short-changed Melton (should have got 20 min weekend frequencies) and they needed to be clearer on earlier weekend starts. V/Line and other regional coaches also need some love. The Coalition gets credit for advocating some service upgrades, eg on the Gippsland line. 

Metro train: Currently a huge east-west service divide with lines like Frankston getting twice the frequency (at most times) as also busy lines like Mernda, Craigieburn and Sunbury (to Watergardens). There is no guarantee that the Metro Tunnel will deliver all-day turn-up-and-go service to Watergardens (unlike in the east). 

The Greens are the stand-out performer here, proposing a large uplift in service frequencies, even though some of their proposals need refining. Labor's and the Coalition's quietness here have not been to their credit, given the relatively low cost of transitioning from 40 min to 20 min maximum waits across the network and even some extra 10 minute service (eg to Ringwood). Labor could also have assured people that the Sunbury line out to at least Watergardens will get a similar all-day frequency to the east when the Metro Tunnel opens in 2025. Labor's Suburban Rail Loop and the Coalition's Clyde and Baxter extensions, being infrastructure, are not counted here although their benefits are acknowledged.   

Tram: Trams are already pretty frequent most of the day. However there are still some issues eg evening and Sunday morning services where gaps are every 20 - 30 min. That's heaps better than buses but the density of many inner areas justify a turn-up-and-go service over more hours. That can largely be done with the existing fleet. DDA accessibility is another major issue with only slow progress towards mandated requirements. And excruciatingly slow travel on some corridors can be helped with some better tram priority. 

Greens again get the highest score, likely reflecting the interests of their inner suburban base. The Coalition are proposing some handy network-connecting tram extensions but again the service-only remit of the table excludes these.

Bus: Needs a huge amount of work. Major issues with coverage, operating hours and frequency. Service upgrades would vastly improve connectivity and address high cost of living in the suburbs

I'm going to credit the Coalition for being the only main party grouping to be specific about promised bus upgrades across both Melbourne and regional Victoria. The amount ($40m per year) is a decent start but still not enough with insufficient mention of higher order frequent routes, especially given their plans to shelve the SRL. This is why I've given them a B rather than A. 

Greens talk big about frequent electric buses but have not been as specific as the Coalition. Apparently they wish to leave the details to the Department of Transport and future public engagement. I've marked them down for this as voters do need specifics and the Greens presented just that in 2018. 

However both Coalition and Greens outrank Labor which, in a repeat of 2018, has so far promised nothing specific for bus services. Labor can claim to have kept its 2014 promises for buses. It also announced bus reviews for Melbourne's north and north-east. That's very worthwhile but it's a long process with nothing definite to sell yet. Meanwhile there are popular routes in Melbourne's west and outer south-east outside the review area that need better service now. These are most common in 'safe' Labor seats with low income populations and strong usage of the services they do run. Upgrades could have been promised on selected priority routes (eg Route 800 in Dandenong) but haven't been. Labor rates a fail here, given high community needs and the gains possible even if they just matched the Coalition's plan. If Labor do retain government let's hope that many of their 'safe' seats become marginal and the panic finally jolts them into action on local services like buses.  


What do you think about this comparison? Have I been fair? Have I missed anything out? Comments are welcome and can be left below. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

TT #176: The power of frequency

Add one or two extra trips to a country train or coach service that has only a few trips per day. It doesn't sound very exciting does it? Especially for city people who take more frequent service for granted. 

However it is actually very significant. It is not often enough remarked that the number of travel options increases exponentially with frequency. Here's some examples based on hypothetical regional rail timetables. 

2 trips / day trip one end

The diagram below is a train graph as often used by schedulers. 24 hour time is across the bottom (x-axis) with location being the y axis. B is a hypothetical regional city while A is the capital. Each line is a scheduled train service going in the direction shown by its arrow. Each trip takes about 3 hours. If you were able to make the train faster the line slopes would be steeper. Rail planners often refer to trains from B to A as 'up' and those from A to B as 'down'. 

This timetable is operationally elegant and quite efficient. Just one train does all trips. It's running about 75% of the time, with the 3 hour trip followed by 1 hour dwell time. The service is self-contained so any problems are isolated to it. There are also no crossing paths so the whole line can be single track the whole way. That reduces construction and maintenance costs, though there is less flexibility if a train needs to be terminated mid-way.    

Some people might be content to leave things there. This is not good enough. The timetable might be operationally efficient but is still poor if it doesn't meet community needs, eg allow convenient day trips.  

The above timetable works for that purpose for someone living in B wishing to spend a day in the capital A. Provided they get up early enough. In theory they could spend just an hour in A but this is unlikely given the length of the trip. Hence only one of the two scheduled return trips is useful. The same can be said for the afternoon trip to A since the choice is either stay an hour or stay overnight. Consequently for day trips from B to A only two out of four trips in the timetable are really useful. Also those in B wishing to use the train will almost certainly have to make their way to and from the station as local buses are unlikely to be still running at the time the first train departs and the last train arrives. 

How useful is the timetable for those in A travelling to B for the day? Unfortunately it's not. Whereas people in B can have a long day trip to A, those in A cannot in B. Their only option is a 1 hour visit in the middle of the day. Hence this timetable might be good for B residents but is poor for businesses in B who might otherwise benefit from their town being accessible for day trippers. 

2 trips / day trip both ends

You could fix the latter by adjusting the first down train so it departed A about 2 hours earlier, reaching B around midday. Departing the second up train 2 hours later completes the picture. Instead of an unusable 1 hour in B those from A can spend a much more useful 5 hours. If the last down train had catering then that could look after evening meal requirements. The trade-off with rescheduling these  trains is that those in B lose the ability to spend 1 hour in A but this is probably no big loss. 

The above timetable is more useful than the first but there are some operational issues. The crossing lines mean that there are two trains in the same place at the same time. Thus there needs to be dual tracks or, as a minimum, a passing loop. This needs to be about 30 minutes outside the capital for the above timetable to work. It sometimes needs explaining to country people that intelligently planned rail infrastructure near the city can benefit them. This would be a classic example with the timetable it enables being less capital-centric.

The other thing that would need to change is train scheduling - rather than a full use of one train this timetable relies on part-time use of two trains with interlining likely required. The midday 5 hour dwell at location B is another inefficiency, especially if B is a rail terminus with no other line to interline with. Accepting this means accepting poor asset utilisation and lower than possible patronage from the network.  

3 trips / more options

Shuffling earlier and later trips (and/or increasing speeds) can create a midday gap enough for a third trip each way. A graph is below. The 3 train each way Warrnambool weekend timetable is not unlike this pattern.  

Those extra midday trips make a huge difference for those living in B. A traveller from B now has the option of spending either a half or a full day in A. That half day can either be a late morning or late afternoon. The effect of adding two extra trips has meant that instead of one (long) full day option there are now three choices.   

The gains for those visiting B (eg Melburnians making day trips) is less. They retain their ability to make a day trip with a little more time. However they can't make useful half-day trips. This is because efficient train turnarounds at B mean that two out of their theoretical three options are impractically short for a day trip, although some multi-day travellers would still benefit.  

4 trips / even more options

Below shows a fourth trip added each way. The gaps between trains are uneven as I haven't shuffled the existing trips. To add it you may need extra trains and (certainly) at least an extra passing loop (about an hour from B) where trains cross if there is only one track. 

More trips means more options, and, in this case, multiplying options. Those in B no longer need to rise very early to see someone for lunch in A. They, plus those who took the first up train, get a new late afternoon departure with an arrival home just after the more respectable time of 8pm. This trip also benefits visitors from A who can finish work and reach their accommodation at a reasonable time. This could be a particular benefit on Fridays as it would permit almost a full weekend away.  

5 trips / filling the gaps

The above timetable still had some 6 hour gaps, making some trips inflexible. Just one extra trip each way cuts maximum intervals between trains to 3 hours. You are still very dependent on timetables but there is now a much greater chance of the train being suitable for a wide range of trips. 

This timetable adds a late morning trip from A to B, allowing an (almost) half-day stay. Although 2 hours is still a short time away for those making a 3 hour train trip, it still allows those in B to make a quick trip to A and be home by early afternoon. The second trip, which is formed by the last, enables those in B to make a dinner appointment in A. And if they are not too long (about 2 hours) they would be able to be home that evening on the last down train. 

6 trips / big gain for regional day trips

The above timetable is better than previous ones. Those in B visiting A have quite good flexibility of arrival and departure times. However it's still not so good for those visiting B. This is because you can't arrive much before midday, more leave after 6pm.

Adding one more trip each way transforms this. An early trip from A gives an option of an early morning arrival. And, possibly more popular, a late trip from B enables an evening meal there with an arrival at A at around midnight.  Neither may not be the most popular trip in the schedule but they add a much wider range of times that adds flexibility, again multiplying the trip combinations possible.    


I've discussed six hypothetical regional rail timetables. They show that adding trips multiplies the number of travel combinations and thus greatly increases the range of trips possible. In many cases higher frequency makes the network less Melbourne-centric as well-timed additional services can facilitate regional tourism. The best thing you can do to boost rail patronage is to do what you can to run the trains you have more frequently and thus harness the power of frequency.  

In the current state election campaign we've seen pledges for increased V/Line frequency from both major parties. These include promises from Labor for major weekend frequency upgrades and the Coalition for an extra morning service from Sale.  

Index to Timetable Tuesday items here