Friday, July 21, 2006

Service increases: Liberal and Labor styles

Since the Kennett Liberal and Bracks Labor governments have been of roughly equal durations, enough time has elapsed to compare the different philosophies between them when it comes to public transport service increases.

Although people often claim that 'both parties are the same', this is not correct when it comes to public transport services, at least in Melbourne. As will be explained below, the differing emphases between the parties is stark.


The previous post cited the Liberals' strengthening of the core train and tram network through off-peak service increases. In true Kennett style it was big and bold. It also changed minds and behaviour.

The mindset change was the way people viewed public transport; from being merely a weekday commuter service into something that could be used seven days a week and around the clock (with Nightrider buses).

The economics of off-peak service improvements are especially good with rail modes given their huge fixed costs. Why have a good service just 4 hours of the day (peak periods only) when for very little more you can have it for 18 hours a day? And there wasn't any doubt that patronage wouldn't increase since train and tram routes were already established corridors with known demand.

In contrsat, buses were largely neglected during the Kennett era except as things to be privatised or as substitutes for closed down country rail lines. However credit should be given for hatching the 'Smartbus' idea, ie frequent direct buses between major trip generators and transport interchanges.


Messrs Bracks and Batchelor have taken quite different approaches to service increases.

Part of this is regional versus city; the current government is very keen to avoid being seen as 'Melbourne-centric' and is upgrading country rail and regional city bus networks.

Leaving this aside, what is most interesting is the approach to planning Melbourne services. In the last seven years we saw none of the uniform network-wide train and tram upgrades obtained under Kennett. Instead most service upgrades have been confined to the odd extra peak train, or buses; either Smartbus or minor local routes. The latter have generally seen an extra service or two added. Hence their average finishing time is now a little after 7pm weekdays instead of a little before. Also the proportion of routes with Sunday service is now nearer to 30 percent than 20 percent, although their frequencies typically remain in the 60 to 90 minute range.

The recent 'Meeting Our Transport Challenges' document proposes more of the same but bigger. Sunday service will become the norm rather than the exception. The 7pm average finish could extend to 9pm or later. However services will be stretched thinly; as discussed in an earlier post about service capabilities, the capability of hourly services is low. Hence buses will remain chiefly a 'charity' service for those without other transport.


Jeff Kennett's extra services only helped the minority of the population within walking distance of the train and tram networks. However they strengthened the role of the dominant two PT modes in Melbourne. The increased service frequency made PT practical for many more trips and improved its position relative to the private car; an important consideration in gentrifying inner suburbs.

The economics are good as well, and it is not only due to high fixed costs of rail. Attracting choice passengers should cause average revenue per passenger to rise even more than patronage, with an increased percentage of full fare payers. This is because upgraded service levels (20 and particularly 15 minutes) have the potential to be considered by car drivers as an alternative. Lower service frequencies do not have this same patronage, revenue or modal share potential, and relegate public transport as a 'mode of last resort' for those with no alternative.

Assuming it meets its MOTC promises, Labor has concentrated on providing everyone (especially the 60% beyond train and tram networks) some sort of service seven days a week. However the hourly service levels are unlikely to be frequent enough to entice 'choice travellers' to switch. Patronage on these extra services will thus be confined to 'captive passengers' paying concession fares. As such they will play a useful social role, though local routes running every 30 to 60 minutes until 9pm still isn't the stuff that that 20% modal shares are made of (as Adelaide demonstrates).

I agree with Melbourne 2030 in that achieving mode share increase is critical. The current approach of adding many routes with infrequent service, though socially necessary, won't get us there by itself. Instead it is a recipe for an incomplete network, poor revenue, limited patronage growth and stagnant modal share.

Both Liberal and Labor have tried approaches that we can learn from. A mix of the two is probably optimum. Additional train and tram service improvements plus a network of connecting primary bus routes operating at train service frequencies have better modal share, patronage and financial prospects, while having the additional advantage of extending high-capability service to disadvantaged suburbs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The point does need to be made that Bracks and Batchelor have had seven years to instigate minimum service standards on the bus networks.

While I do appreciate the need to ensure that the bus dependent parts of Melbourne has access to public transport the fact is the minimum service levels do not provide a level of service that will attract people onto public transport.

In 2003 the DOI's Bus Plan clearly indicated that 15 minute service levels seven days a week to midnight were required for all buses along main roads. The Transport and Liveability fails to provide this.

While Kennett did admittedly favour the train and tram network above bus services the SmartBus was initially a Kennett project. Trials for SmartBus were supposed to begin in 2000, they were delayed until 2002 under Bracks.

Alex Makin