Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Transport lessons from the Bracks and Brumby governments (via Catch & Kill)

I've just finished reading Catch and Kill: The politics of power by Joel Deane. It's an account of the 1999 - 2010 Bracks and Brumby state Labor governments mainly based on interviews with participants. 

Against most expectations Labor won enough seats to form a minority government after the 1999 election. The previous Kennett Coalition government was praised for having reduced state debt but its asset sales and spending cuts in health, education and (to a lesser extent) transport had hurt. When the economy revived the benefits were seen as flowing to Melbourne rather than being spread across the state. Labor tapped into this sentiment with the famous 'two taps' advertisement.   

The result was a large swing in seats around large regional centres like Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong. This was enough to deliver government with the help of regional independents who were upset with the Kennett government. 

Transport was intertwined with this. The Kennett government had famously closed several regional rail lines. In 1999 Labor promising a revival program, involving reopenings and 'Regional Fast Rail' to the major centres. It was politically popular and helped win regional seats.

The Bracks government was re-elected with a large swing to it in 2002. This allowed it to hold office in its own right. It retained power in 2006 with a reduced but still comfortable margin. 

However the regional rail program's cost blowouts, a view on what was considered fiscally responsible, surging population growth and poor advice from the Department of Transport sowed the seeds for a metropolitan public transport crisis that the (now) Brumby government was ill prepared for. 

Warning signs were in Track Record statistics as early as 2004. Metropolitan trains were getting less reliable and more crowded each year with no end in sight. However train performance issues were ignored year after year in budget after budget. 'Blame the private operators' was the line.   

This was partly due to a 'hands-off' franchise mentality that started under Kennett and solidified as conventional practice in the early Bracks years. Despite the frequent rebranding of trains and trams, a key aim of rail franchising, ie to allow the government to shirk responsibility of ensuring a reliable service, was never fully accepted by increasingly grumpy passengers. 

When the Brumby government did decide to act it was too little and too late. Promises of grand infrastructure did not address the reality of lateness for work, missed appointments and childcare penalty fees caused by increasingly frequent rail network meltdowns. 

Taxpayer-funded advertising campaigns only added insult to injury. Hence in 2010 marginal seats (particularly along the Frankston line) swung towards Ted Baillieu's Liberal-National Coalition to end eleven years of Labor rule. 

That's the broad sweep. For the details of who thought what when, here's a summary of the transport aspects of Catch and Kill. 

P157: Linking regional Victoria to rail went against the ‘natural inclinations of the bureaucracy’

P158: Bracks staffer who commuted from Ballarat (Dan O’Brien) gave Bracks idea for Regional Fast Rail. Rationale was spreading benefits of growth outside Melbourne. 

P158: RFR costs kept rising. 

P176: Treasury opposed putting significant transport goals into Melbourne 2030

P176: Assumption that people would blame Kennett’s privatisation for train problems when it was seen as a public service. 

P176: Peter Batchelor said that govt’s fundamental error was underestimating patronage growth.  

P177: John Brumby said that cost blowouts on RFR slowed metropolitan rail upgrades. 

P177: Bracks said that there weren’t many parts of govt where they got inaccurate advice but PT was one. Treasury consistently underestimated population & jobs growth.

P178: Bureaucracy and political staffers dismissed PT’s political importance as they thought only 10% of people used it. A pervading view that roads more important than rail. 

P181: Overarching theme of financial responsibility, balancing the budget and not being captive to Canberra (strong finances allowed Victoria to fund some things alone eg the Synchrotron). 

This limited spending on things that needed it – eg metropolitan train services – until too late. 

P181: DoT very road focused. Did not believe PT patronage would go up. 

P181: Opinion polling (GAMS) led Labor to a false sense of security. PT not seen as top priority and Labor were thoughts better managers of this than Coalition. PT not seen as vote changer. 

P192: Discusses National Express walkout. Had to find $400m. That took the entire spare amount Treasurer Brumby had set aside for other areas. Hence breaking a promise and building Eastlink as a toll road. 

P205: 2003 budget did not buy new trains. But it allocated $11m to bus services. Brumby said they put a lot of money into buses. But saw no political dividend – “not sure if people associate buses with the state govt” Note: at the time buses had private operator liveries, not Metlink as it could have been then nor PTV as it is now. 

 P283: Lynne Kosky was good minister but had bad fortune due to rail meltdowns and myki (which was high risk being an IT project).

P283: John Brumby said that core of myki problem was DoT gave wrong advice on awarding tender (KAMCO who had no experience). Regretted not challenging this. 

P283: Sharon McCrohan was critical of Rob Hulls for not seeking a more challenging/tougher portfolio like public transport. 

P308: Premier’s speech in late 2008 announced major rail infrastructure projects (but too late)

A continuing theme was that the government was (or thought it was) poorly served by advice from  the transport bureaucracy. Notable examples include its tepidness regarding regional rail, the underestimation of train patronage growth and of course myki (where, in retrospect, it is hard to argue that the contract wasn't wrongly awarded). 

This patchy record makes premier Daniel Andrews’ use of external advisers to develop the Suburban Rail Loop instead of the Department of Transport more understandable, despite the internal toes it trod on. The same might apply to any minister wishing to pursue radical projects where existing processes are wanting or incumbents may hold unhelpful or obstructive views. 

As an example Jeff Kennett's rail splitting and franchising was implemented by a 'Transport Reform Unit' in the Department of Treasury and Finance. As opposed to the department which could carry attitudes and people from the previous Cain and Kirner years including limitation on what might be possible due to union power and labour movement factionalism (which brought down the premierships of both John Cains). 

One could argue (as the state Auditor-general did) that the Transport Reform Unit achieved its objectives of cutting costs and even improving some aspects of performance. However The TRU's  failure to see the network as a whole led to a wilful fragmentation of the network that subsequent governments had to waste time bringing back together.  

If Minister Carroll wants more than glacial progress on bus reform, he will need to oversee massive increases in the capability to deliver. Currently bus reform is run as a slow moving small scale 'cottage industry', with reforms to only a few of Melbourne's 350 bus routes per year. Unreformed bus networks operate in about two-thirds of Melbourne's suburbs and some neighbourhoods have been without even hourly 'minimum standard' buses for 30 or more years. 

Transport internal processes are so borked that it takes about as long to add a new bus route as to do a major capital works project like grade separate a level crossing. Even timetable upgrades that merely work the existing bus fleet harder on an unchanged existing route take much longer than they should. 

Accelerated delivery could either be through a dedicated LXRP-style unit (good for focus but carries a risk of fragmentation) or a massive increase in the  DoT's ability to deliver. There is currently a process of recruiting more people to the part of the Department dealing with bus reform. Internal process improvements and possibly redirecting resources from other areas could further augment capacity.  

Anyway that's straying off today's topic. What doesn't the book mention? I'd have liked the book to cover various promises, schemes and expectations that were raised in 1999 but did not happen. For example we still don't have passenger trains to Leongatha or Mildura. We didn't get a tram extension to Knox (only half-way). Expectations of rail to Rowville were raised but not met.  Ditto for a third track to Dandenong for express trains.

I assume that these projects did not happen due to a wish to be seen as fiscally responsible in order to exorcise the ghosts of the Cain and Kirner era. Public transport would likely have been considered a money sink, particularly due to project cost blowouts and the abovementioned National Express walk-out

In contrast the policy context had changed by 2014, where expansive (and expensive) 'big build' infrastructure programs were back in fashion with the 2010 coalition government seen as doing too little. The Coalition still used the 'financially incompetent' line to bash Labor but it was tied to specific projects (eg myki and the desalination plant) rather than more generally. Also, by 2014 hostile voter memories of Cain / Kirner had dissipated compared to more recent memories of Bracks (who was either liked or generated no serious revulsion even amongst opposition voters).  

If you have any interest in Victorian politics then you should definitely buy Catch and Kill. If your interest is more narrowly transport policy then it's still worth reading as it gives you the reasons for some key decisions being made (or not being made).

You can get Catch and Kill via various websites including Amazon. Using this link supports Melbourne on Transit (at no extra cost to you).  

Friday, September 24, 2021

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 106 - Point Cook and Sanctuary Lakes network refresh

Melbourne has many local bus network that are just layers and layers of confusing routes and deviations. They exist due to the slow pace of bus reform. The silver lining though is I rarely run out of things to talk about on Fridays with revamped networks often proposed. 

I'm taking a different tack today. Today's topic is Point Cook in Melbourne's south-west. Unlike most established suburbs in the north, east and south it has had a lot of recent network reform. Point Cook's bus routes and timetables thus lack many of the legacy problems like indirectness, confusing deviations, wasteful overlaps, lack of Sunday service, non-standard public holiday timetables, etc that continue to dog unreformed bus networks in much of Melbourne today. 

That's not to say that Point Cook's bus network is perfect. It isn't. Continued suburban growth, high car traffic volumes and the paucity of routes in and out of the suburb has exacerbated issues. So much so that the community has on occasions banded together to run services the state apparatus has not seen fit to do. More on that later. 

The pre-Williams Landing Station network

Before Williams Landing Station opened the nearest stations to Point Cook were Aircraft and Hoppers Crossing. Both the area's two bus routes ran on roughly east-west indirect routes between them. Services were infrequent, delays were rife and huge new subdivisions to the south were being built with no nearby bus service. 

The first Williams Landing Station network

The two-route network had a major redesign in 2013 when Point Cook's new nearest station at Williams Landing opened.  413 and 416 were discarded. In their place were five new routes (493, 494, 495, 496, 497). Four (494, 495, 496, 497) were largely north-south routes. All five but the 496 fed into Williams Landing Station. Peak frequency on most increased to 22 minutes, chosen to meet Werribee line trains (typically every 11 minutes). A map from the Star Weekly article is below. 

This was almost exclusively a commuter network intended to get people to the new station. It did this very well, subject to delays caused by car traffic. Williams Landing has one of the highest proportion of commuters arriving by bus with the number being about that who drove to the station. This is an amazing result for Melbourne, a city that has traditionally been poor at planning efficient coordinated rail feeder bus services. 

The new network however wasn't so good for local trips. These are largely east-west involving destinations such as Hoppers Crossing (including Mercy Hospital and Suzanne Cory High School), Werribee and Werribee Plaza. The shops near Aircraft Station were also difficult to reach with buses removed and a treacherous roundabout preventing easy walking access. 

Williams Landing, where most buses went, was then a station without a town centre so it was a place where you'd get the train rather than being a useful destination in its own right. 493 (orange in the map above) provided some east-west travel but was distant from Point Cook South. It also had a dead-end terminus and forced people going to Suzanne Corey to 'go the long way around' with an inconvenient change. Also the design of the 496 cut Seabrook residents off from everywhere but Central Square Altona Meadows. It didn't even run to their nearest large shops at Point Cook Town Centre. 

Even though the new routes carried more people than the old ones ever did there were local calls to bring back the old network. Local MP Jill Hennessy (then in opposition) put out this release and the video below. 

There was enough momentum for change to amend the Point Cook bus network as part of wider Wyndham area network reform in 2015 (again linked to a rail upgrade - this time the Regional Rail Link via Tarneit). 

These changes kept the integrity of the commuter-friendly 2013 network while adding elements that improved local travel. The two key changes included (i) Extending 496 to cover Sanctuary Lakes (a low density golf course based development and (ii) replacing the 493 with the new 498. Map below. 

The 498 provided a simple east-west route that the 2013 network didn't do well. Benefits included: (i) restoring two routes to Seabrook, a direct new connection to the Point Cook Town Centre and a restored Hoppers Crossing link, (ii) more direct access to Suzanne Cory High School from more areas, and (iii) new coverage for the new and dense western Point Cook area. Even though it initially ran only every 40 minutes in the peak the 498 was well used to the point of being unable to pick up more passengers.   

Continuing issues

Point Cook was still growing. Train passengers were catered for with improved peak frequencies on routes like the abovementioned 498 and the popular 495 to Williams Landing. However there were many areas in the south that the 498 to Hoppers Crossing didn't help very much. 

Parents in the area were particularly concerned about continued poor access to Suzanne Cory while others would have wanted bus access to Hoppers Crossing. Not just to connect with the train but also to reach local jobs and shopping at places like Werribee Plaza. 

Just before the 2018 election the government announced a 'Pick My Project' scheme where people could nominate and vote on community-enhancing initiatives. One of the winners was Wynbus. This was a Point Cook community-led initiative to run mini-bus services in areas that the existing network was lacking. 

Two of its first three routes connected the area of Point Cook around Sneydes Rd to Hoppers Lane (though not Hoppers Crossing Station). Read my write-up on Wynbus here. Wynbus has since moved to other projects. But the demonstration indicated that others saw the gap in east-west travel from southern Point Cook. Especially when a road that could have supported a direct route existed. The high productivity of fixed routes in areas like Point Cook indicate that improving these rather than flexible routes is the path to patronage success, particularly on main roads. 

A refreshed network

What might an upgraded Point Cook and Sanctuary Lakes bus network look like? Here is one that continues the evolution of it from being largely a commuter-oriented train feeder network to a more comprehensive and more broadly useful grid. It involves changes to one existing route (496) and the creation of one new route; no route changes for others like 494, 495 and 497 are proposed.

Idea 1: Sneydes Rd bus. The big change is a second east-west link to serve central and southern Point Cook. This is achieved by creating a new Laverton - Hoppers Crossing route via Sneydes Rd. I've labelled it as the 499. It would run as per the existing 496 alignment from Laverton to Sanctuary Lakes Shopping Centre then westward via Sneydes Rd to Hoppers Crossing. It could even potentially continue to Werribee Plaza. 

This alignment has multiple purposes including better connections to destinations in the Hoppers Crossing / Werribee area and as an alternative train feeder to Williams Landing. Access to Sanctuary Lakes Shopping Centre is improved and there is some extended coverage in the south-west Point Cook area. A discussion on an earlier version of this idea is here

The 499 is close to the same length as the existing 498, serves the same termini (Hoppers Crossing and Laverton) and would have the same service level. This gives scope to stagger its times to provide an even 20 minute off-peak and weekend frequency along the 498/499 common sections. These include the Hoppers Lane, Seabrook and Altona Meadows portions.  

Idea 2: Sanctuary Lakes direct bus to Williams Landing. :Having the 499 follow the 498 through Altona Meadows means there is no need for the 496 to Sanctuary Lakes to do that as well. Hence it can be shortened to serve Williams Landing rather than Laverton Station. Using Williams Landing station provides a quicker trip to the train at a nicer interchange station. This should make it more car-competitive for commuters. That's important as Sanctuary Lakes people do own a lot of cars. The 496 could retain its current hourly off-peak frequency. But if if was boosted to every 40 minutes an opportunity exists to offset its timetable with the 497 to provide an even 20 minute frequency between Williams Landing and Sanctuary Lakes Shopping Centre.  

Idea 3: Service upgrade for 494/495. Point Cook's two most productive bus routes are the 494 and 495. Not only that but they are also very productive on a Melbourne scale. Currently they run every 40 minutes each off-peak. Extending operating hours and boosting both to every 20 minutes would provide a much more attractive service, especially if it is combined with 10 minute off-peak train frequencies at Williams Landing. In conjunction with the coordination mentioned in Ideas 1 and 2 large parts of Point Cook would get off-peak buses every 20 minutes as opposed to the current 40 minute gaps. 

One objection to the above might be that the new 499 doesn't add a lot of extra bus coverage. Instead its main effect is to provide an alternative that may be more convenient for some trips (especially local). However it should be noted that Point Cook's north-south road grid (especially between 494 and 495) means that some midblock pockets are more than 400 metres from a bus. And the existing network performs well on patronage grounds with good responsiveness when services are increased.

The area also has significant traffic issues due to high car usage and a limited number of roads going in. Hence  better buses, including improved access to local destinations, should be considered a tool to tackle this. Lastly, even after you add the 499, the network is relatively simple with overlaps mainly in areas where they could usefully provide a more frequent service. 


Described has been an upgraded Point Cook / Sanctuary Lakes bus network. It adds one new route and amends one other for greatly improved local connectivity. Comments on it are appreciated and can be left below. 

Index to all Building Melbourne's Useful Network items here

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Timetable Tuesday #135: Night Bus 970 (a video retrospective)

A little different today. Instead of a whole lot of words it will be a video featuring the Route 970 Night Bus. Its last trip ran on Sunday departing from a terminus near home so it was too historical an occasion not to miss and document.   

Route 970, which ran from Carrum to Rosebud, with some trips finishing at Mornington, will be replaced by extended hours on regular routes as part of Night Network bus reforms. These changes bring Melbourne more into line with other cities that have regular bus routes running 24 hours on weekends, providing a simpler service overall. 

The route can trace its origins to the Frankston NightRider. This was one of the original NightRider buses of the late 1990s. It roughly followed the Nepean Hwy from the CBD with a deviation via Frankston North, Fraunkston Station then east to Karingal. Later the latter was dropped with it extending beyond Frankston to Mornington and then Rosebud. Instead of just being known as the 'Frankston NightRider', it, and other routes, got formalised numbers in the 900-series (which are rarely used for daytime buses). 

A rebranding around 2008 saw NightRider services increased from every 60 to every 30 minutes. And the higher cash fares were discontinued in favour of them being brought into the integrated Metcard (later myki) system. At this time trains and trams didn't run so buses typically all departed from the CBD (or connected with those that did). 2016 saw the launch of Night Network, incorporating hourly services on all electrified Metro train lines and half-hourly service on six tram routes. The bus network was also reformed with more routes connecting with trains rather than starting in the CBD. However usage was often low, possibly due to public confusion with different routes operating late at night versus during the day. The network that starts this weekend is an effort to overcome this with some of the 900-series Night Bus routes (including the 970) being replaced by added services on regular routes (in this case the 833 between Carrum and Frankston and a shorter version of the 788 from Frankston). 

Anyway enjoy the video. Please let me know if you'd like other 'Timetable Tuesdays' to be done in this format as it could become an occasional feature. 

Read more Timetable Tuesday items here