Friday, June 21, 2019

What real network reform looks like: Regional Rail Link turns four

Today is an important anniversary. Four years since the commencement of services on the Regional Rail Link. The official opening was actually a week prior but today is the more significant anniversary.

Regional Rail Link routed Geelong trains on new tracks away from Werribee via Sunshine. This allowed trains to service the fast growth areas of Wyndham Vale and Tarneit (which never had trains before). And it freed up line capacity for more trains between Werribee and the CBD.

As for Geelong, although the line on the map appears less direct, the faster running of the trains  on its own tracks meant similar travel times to before. And off-peak weekday frequencies increased from every 60 minutes to every 20 minutes. This is a major improvement that made trains more useful for more trips including business travel. It's just a shame that the City Loop's convoluted operations (including the midday reversal) still makes getting to Geelong a lottery from the northern and eastern CBD.

Transport today would not cope without the Regional Rail Link. Although 'Regional' is in its title, the big growth in passenger numbers has come from outer suburban Wyndham Vale and Tarneit.

Five years ago Tarneit Station didn't exist. Now it's the busiest V'Line station outside Southern Cross. It and Wyndham Vale's car parks are amongst the biggest on the rail system. And well-used direct buses run from the new stations to established Werribee line stations.  This is like the pattern in the middle-eastern suburbs (eg around Mt Waverley), where north-south buses serve train lines that run east-west, providing a grid style network where both buses and trains attract good patronage numbers. When you do the same thing you tend to get similar successful results.  

More to do

The RRL remains an unfinished project in some ways. Three road-rail grade separations at Deer Park and Sunshine West (Robinsons, Station and Fitzgerald roads) that should have happened were not done. Although we think of V/Line trains as being infrequent, these crossing are so busy at peak times that more trains pass through them than those on some Metro lines.

Timetables on both the Geelong and Werribee lines now don't meet today's demand. For example Tarneit (the busiest station mentioned before) has almost a half-hour gap in departures around 5pm. Cancelling just one critical trip would cause there to be no trains for nearly 50 minutes. And the 40 minute weekend gaps are at least twice what they should be.   

The Werribee line's peak timetable is other unfinished business. The peak timetable on it and related lines (including Laverton and Williamstown) currently have an awkward 11 and 22 minute pattern. Also Werribee's peak timetable does not fully exploit the capacity freed by rerouting Geelong trains. This was mentioned by the Auditor-General who found that benefits from RRL have yet to be fully realised.   

New bus networks

Less heralded than the RRL infrastructure and associated train services, are the bus network improvements that also started on this day in 2015. These were not mere tinkerings. Instead, almost every bus route in Greater Geelong and Wyndham (incorporating Wyndham Vale, Tarneit, Hoppers Crossing and Werribee) got a new alignment, a new number and a new timetable. A complete redesign from a blank slate. Historically significant and quite rare.

The multimode network diagram below, though not quite accurate, showed how the more frequent services in Geelong and Melbourne's western suburbs fitted together. I did it at the time as an experiment and it never went anywhere.

You can compare sections of a reformed network (central Wyndham) with an unreformed network (central Melton) below. Notice how Wyndham has direct routes that stay on its main roads with local routes serving areas in between. Whereas Melton's routes are all half and half - a mix of main road and local street running. Its basic network structure hasn't changed for years. Like Wyndham, Melton is an outer growth area and there are large areas without service.   

The big differences aren't evident on the map. Frequency. Wyndham's bus network is two-tier. Its main road routes operate every 20 minutes during peak periods. The most important of these also run every 20 minutes off-peak. And sometimes even on weekends as well (eg 170 and 180).  Local street routes in Wyndham are typically every 40 minutes - their main purpose is to provide coverage to areas distant from the main roads. Both types of routes attract good patronage, with peak usage so high that extra trips on some will start next month.

In contrast Melton's routes are (at best) every 30 minutes on weekdays (even in peaks) and hourly on weekends. Melton's mix of unreliable V/Line trains and infrequent local bus routes makes using them unattractive for commuters seeking an alternative to parking at the station. 

Geelong also got a new bus network. It was not uncontroversial. However the only people who liked the old network were existing users. This can skew results when people are asked about network changes intended to attract new riders. Like in Wyndham, many of Geelong's routes were made more direct and upgraded to operate every 20 minutes off-peak on weekdays, harmonising with train frequencies. This is summarised in the hypothetical advertisement below.

Both revised networks represent the two biggest examples of comprehensive bus network reform we've seen for years. Despite continued strong population growth and networks that need reform, nothing bigger has been implemented since.  And where bus reforms have occurred, it's mostly been in conjunction with rail extensions such as in the lead up to and again when Mernda's line opened.

A well-known motivational quote from Norman Vincent Peale is: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”

In the context of Melbourne public transport, this could be rewritten to say "Advocate for a train. Even if you miss you'll get a better bus network". The record shows you'll probably have more success than asking for buses directly. Whether it's trains to Doncaster, Rowville, Cranbourne East or South Morang (initially) or trams to Knox City, advocates have shamed governments into providing  improved bus services at a higher standard than almost anywhere else.

That's more than seems to have been achieved by those advocating directly for buses since about 2011. Despite a strong case, advocates for bus services haven't done very well with this government. The only bright spots have been universities (with new or improved shuttle routes) and local MPs in formerly marginal seats (who have gained local routes layered over existing unchanged dysfunctional networks). Real network change has been minimal despite the opportunities presented by road-rail grade separations to renew bus networks based on improved traffic flow and easier interchange to the rebuilt stations. 

I've veered off-topic, haven't I? But they illustrate the historical significance of today's anniversary. A day, four years ago, when real train and bus network reform was delivered with substantial community benefit. May we have many more future days like it. 

For now though, enjoy the videos I made at the time. 

Regional Rail Link Open Day

RRL construction (day)

RRL construction (early morning)


The RRL (and its associated bus network changes) have been great successes. Maybe even too successful, with services currently straining under patronage pressure. However it paved the way for bigger and even more transformative rail projects that are now under construction. 

Note: This post appears in place of Building Melbourne's Useful Network. That's back next Friday. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Timetable Tuesday #27: The Two Followers - 627 and 822 from Chadstone

Bus route 822 has been running for years. It starts at Chadstone then goes south via Murrumbeena Station, Murrumbeena Rd, Southland, Cheltenham then Sandringham.

Its map is below. 

Bus route 627 (reviving an old number - but that's another story) started two days ago. It also commences at Chadstone (thoughtfully from the same interchange bay as 822), then goes south via Murrumbeena Station then Murrumbeena Rd. It then goes straight south via East Boundary Rd then a few local streets before terminating at Moorabbin Station. Pictures from its first day below.

In other words 627 duplicates the 822 for a bit before staying on the main road. But there'd still be common catchment for those living between the two routes. That's particularly handy if you're coming home from somewhere and have the choice of both routes at Chadstone or Murrumbeena Station. Hold that thought for later. 

627's map is below. 

The maps above are not to scale. You can see the relationship between the two routes on the Glen Eira network map below: 

This is 822's timetable (from Chadstone/Murrumbeena). Click for a larger view.  

This is 627's timetable (from Chadstone/Murrumbeena). Click for a larger view. 

I'll leave you to compare the timetables. But I do wish to draw attention to one thing. Look at afternoon departure times from Chadstone (and Murrumbeena Station a few minutes later).

Weekday ex Chadstone

Route 822: 1:34 2:04 2:34 3:04 3:34 4:05 4:34 5:08 5:38 6:09 6:36 7:06 7:40 8:36 9:29 10:39
Route 627: 2:14 2:44 3:16 3:47 4:17 4:48 5:18 5:49 6:19 6:48 7:21 7:51 8:21 8:57 9:21 9:57

Saturday ex Chadstone  

Route 822: 1:49 2:29 3:09 3:51 4:31 5:11 6:11 7:11 8:04 9:00 10:00
Route 627: 1:31 2:11 2:51 3:31 4:51 5:31 6:11 6:51 7:31 8:06 8:36 9:06 9:36

Sunday ex Chadstone

Route 822: 1:08 2:08 3:08 4:08 5:08 6:08 7:08 8:00 9:00 10:00
Route 627: 1:31 2:11 2:51 3:31 4:11 4:51 5:31 6:11 6:51  7:31 8:06 9:01

The ones in red are where departures on both routes are within a few minutes of one another. On weekdays both routes run every 30 minutes. They are roughly 10 to 20 minutes apart. This isn't an even 15 minute combined service. However it harmonises with the 10 minute daytime train frequency at Murrumbeena. Weeknight frequencies diverge. 822 drops to roughly hourly while 627 retains its roughly half hourly service all day. On only one occasion (after 9pm) are there two bus departures within 10 minutes of one another.  However if you miss that it's nearly 30 minutes until the next service.

During the day on Saturday both routes operate every 40 minutes. Departures are almost perfectly staggered, providing a combined 20 minute service. That is until about 5:31pm. By then 822 has dropped back to hourly. 627 retains its 40 minute frequency until about 8pm before going up to 30 minutes after then. Presumably this is possible with the daytime number of buses due to quieter roads and faster run times.  The uneven and then clashing frequencies mean that two buses go the same way for quite a bit within a few minutes of one another after 6pm. By about 8pm Saturday trains on the Dandenong line have dropped back to 30 minutes. Hence you would have two buses often departing at once unless you altered one route never to properly connect with the train. Or it might have been possible to operate a cheaper timetable and drop 627 to only hourly at night, offsetting with 822 to meet different trains.

Sundays present buses following one another during the day as well as at night. This is because Route 822 runs every hour versus Route 627 every 40 minutes (30 min at night). This means that buses follow one another on every second Route 822 trip. From 8pm, because both buses drop to hourly and there's no staggering of times, two buses arrive pretty much at once followed by an hour wait until the next two.  What's the bet that all those trips will be carrying a lot of fresh air then?

Over to you. Would spacing evening departures provide a better overall service? Should Route 822's Sunday timetable be upgraded to provide a more even service like Saturday's. Or would that be just tinkering and would it be better to put Route 627's resources towards wider network reform with higher frequency routes? 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A look at the recent VISTA travel survey

Exactly one month ago today randomly selected volunteers were filling in forms to document their day's travel. A few days prior they downloaded a mobile phone app. That would track their movements for a week. At the end of each day they'd review gathered positions, make any corrections and input the mode and purpose for each journey, leg by leg. 

All this was in aid of VISTA - the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity. Data from everyone's responses helps build a picture of where, when and how people travel. It feeds into the models that transport planners use when assessing future transport needs and evaluating projects.

Data provides evidence of usage. And, to some extent, demand. Although there's limitations here as one can't measure the demand of a service that doesn't exist. However we can make a pretty good estimate by looking at demographically similar areas where they do.

What happens with the mountain of analysis done? In theory there would be public transport network strategies  developed with input from sources like VISTA. However public evidence of these existing is scant. For instance we haven't seen a substantive Victorian Transport Plan for over a decade despite it being required by the Transport Integration Act 2010.

How much is our network is shaped by evidence as opposed to running what we've always run? The answer is not much. Population growth continues but network reform has stalled. For example our train timetables can reflect 1970s service cuts more than today's needs. As opposed to Sydney's  network where a 2017 service upgrade delivered fifteen minute frequencies to most stations at nearly all times - day and night.

Ditto for dead-end bus termini and timetables that persist with relics like midday Saturday shop closings. Crowding on some routes leaves people behind while others, unreviewed for years, carry fresh air through affluent suburbs.

One could conclude, that, based on recent service reform, (ie very little happening) history is king.

And because so little is done with it, data is uninfluential and therefore unimportant.  

Except when it is.

At certain times bus services have become a political issue, thanks to community, industry and academic advocacy. Governments may be galvanised into action, as occurred for a few years from 2006 when most areas got 7 day bus service and orbital SmartBuses linked the suburbs.

Sometimes effort can be wasted on matters of marginal passenger benefit, such as operator franchising, multiple rebrandings, vanity architecture (eg Southern Cross Station) and ticketing systems that no one asked for. The late 1990s and early 2000s era was notorious for that.

Meanwhile maintenance is deferred, infrastructure is failing, patronage is building and needed services aren't being added. Once that became part of a credible story about government mismanaging growth and being unable to run basic services its interest swung from buses to trains, with major timetable improvements on lines like Frankston and Dandenong. These had large benefits with train reliability rebounding from about 2011-12.   

There may be calls for a new line to relieve a clogged system. Politicians may warm to it. But evidence is needed for support to broaden, especially if it means deferring other projects or taking money earmarked for other portfolios. There's a flurry and everything is wanted yesterday.

Then data, unloved and unused for years, may be core to making a strong case when drafting and comparing alternatives. In which case it, based on what people wrote in their VISTA forms, becomes an unsung hero.

Back to the VISTA survey.

What do survey participants have to do and what data is collected?

Participants get a pack delivered to their home. It looks like this.

It's delivered by people from Ipsos, the opinion pollster and social research company contracted to conduct the survey. They'll tell you a bit about it if you're at home. 

The first thing they ask is to download a mobile phone app called rMove. Then for the next week or so take your phone with you wherever you go. This tracks where you go in conjunction with GPS data. After each day you are asked to review data accuracy and enter why you went places and how you travelled. This includes modes and connections for public transport trips and intermediate locations if you made stops during a trip. That's the first part of the survey.

The second part of the survey is paper-based.

You complete a detailed diary of your movements on a nominated day.

The survey is household based. Thus you need to complete details not only for yourself but any others living with you. You get asked demographic information such as age, income and vehicle ownership. 

Then there's details about your travel. An example page is below. It's quite a thick book. It needs to be since you're asked about every stage of your trip and you might make several of those per day. Questions asked include its purpose, where you went and whether you travelled with others. Public transport passengers and car users had their own special questions relevant to their mode. 

You can read more about VISTA on the Department of Transport's website here.

Publications making use of the data collected can be found here.

If you ever get a travel survey like this, do participate. And complete it well. Every trip counts.