Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Timetable Tuesday #24: Route 460 - the Caroline Springs main road bus route with the 75 minute wait

When I posted last month about the Caroline Springs Useful Network I nominated Route 460 as the first and most important addition. After all, its service already operates at the required three trips per hour. It only fails to qualify due to its uneven timetables. Had the intervals between trips been even it would have made it on to the 20 minute frequency layer of the Melbourne public transport  frequent service map and thus form part of the existing Useful Network.  


Today we'll look at Route 460 in more detail. First I'll give some background. Then I'll discuss the timetable and coordination with trains at the new Caroline Springs station.

Historical background

Route 460 is the main north-south route through Caroline Springs, about 25km west of Melbourne. It runs from Watergardens Station to Caroline Springs Station. Although the latter only started when the station opened in January 2017. 

Caroline Springs itself started growing rapidly in the 1990s. At the time it constituted leapfrog development. St Albans and a small pocket in Deer Park were developed decades before around train stations. That was followed by road oriented subdivisions, like Albanvale, Delahey and the various Keilors and Taylors (apart from the original Keilor which dates from the gold rush).

There were (and are) few direct road connections between these suburbs and areas immediately to the west (ie what we now call Caroline Springs) as it was thought it would never be developed.  The requirement for people to go onto the busy Western Highway for short local local trips continues to affect access to schooling and services in the area today. The divide is also sharply seen in average incomes and other measures of social disadvantage, with the eastern (St Albans) side being worse off.

Burnside, remote from all the others but convenient to the Western Highway, started growing from  the 1990s. Several routes were extended to the area including 215, 456 and then 216. Being an original Met Bus route, the 216's extension gave Burnside a 7 day  service until midnight, something that was (and remains) rare in Melbourne. Route 216 was often described as operating to Caroline Springs but never connected to the fast-growing town centre. That was served by the shopper-based Route 215 to Highpoint and, for a while, the occasional 218 to Albion Station. 

Many areas lacked a regular service to their nearest station. And even if they did there would have only been infrequent country trains at Deer Park and Sydenham.  Road access was considerably better and it is this that drove Caroline Springs development. Caroline Springs was closer to the city than similar new estates to the south-east and there ended up being more (and, some would argue, 'better') schools than closer in areas like Sunshine and St Albans.

Rail electrification

Rail electrification in 2002 delivered more frequent trains to Watergardens (the renamed and shifted Sydenham) and a new station at Keilor Plains on Taylors Rd.  It took a while for buses to catch up.   Upgrades included an extension of Route 418 along Taylors Rd to Caroline Springs Town Centre (2006) and the new routes 460 and 461 in 2007. Both connected areas north or east of the town centre to Watergardens Station.  

Bus services in the area were uneven with newer routes operating less frequently than old routes. For example the historic Route 476 operated every 20 minutes during peak periods along Melton Hwy. In contrast Route 460 ran a flat hourly service (even in peaks). Parts of both routes had indirect and direct portions for many years.  This changed with the 2014 Brimbank revamp. Route 460 was made the direct route (along the Melton Hwy) while Route 476 was run through residential streets of Hillside. 

Since then Route 460 has had a series of service upgrades and extensions. 

In 2014 extra peak services were added to provide a 30 minute frequency. Then, in 2017, when Caroline Spring Station opened the route was kept on the main road through Caroline Springs and extended south to the station. This provided a direct connection to the Caroline Springs Town Centre that had previously not been available. The map of the extended Route 460 is below. The dotted line is a school deviation to connect Hillside with schools in Caroline Springs. It reflects how all trips of Route 460 ran before the 2014 network reform.  In addition frequencies were increased to approximately every 20 minutes on weekdays and 30 minutes on weekends.  You'll read later how approximate that is today.


The map below shows the network around Caroline Springs. 460's directness and centrality to development in the area can plainly be seen.



Timetables

Below are weekday timetables for Route 460. Operating hours are slightly better than minimum standards, especially in the evenings. As has become common on some main routes in Melbourne's west, there is an additional late trip on Friday evenings. 

Some trips start or finish at Caroline Springs Library. This is the main stop in the Caroline Springs Town Centre. Also making the stop busy are nearby schools. It is at school times that trips deviate off Melton Hwy to connect residential areas of Hillside with schools in Caroline Springs. 

Also notable is the irregularity of service in both directions. 

Interpeak service averages three trips per hour. However their unevenness causes there to be intervals ranging between 12 and 28 minutes for trips from Watergardens (timetable below). Gaps in that direction increase to approximately 40 minutes either side of the morning peak south of the Caroline Springs Library as some trips terminate short. 



Larger gaps exist in the direction towards Watergardens. This includes one of nearly 50 minutes in the morning. That gap immediately follows a 14 minute period in which two buses appear. The afternoon has a gap of over 50 minutes for those south of the town centre. Because a critical trip does not run on school holidays, the gap is 75 minutes then. Again there are uneven intervals, with two trips later in the afternoon just 11 minutes apart. 


460's intervals mean that it is not a 'memory timetable'. People need to plan their trips carefully to avoid waits close to or even exceeding an hour. 

Weekend timetables are below. There are two trips per hour during the day. Operating hours are  wider than minimum standards. This is particularly so on Saturdays where the last trip leaves Watergardens after 11pm. This long span applies on public holidays where a Saturday timetable applies. 460's superior span on public holidays is different to some other routes where a Saturday timetable applies except for 10 and 11pm trips that do not operate. 



Connections with trains 

What about train connections? Except for Sunday mornings trains are rarely over 30 minutes apart at Watergardens. Outside peaks Watergardens train frequencies are a regular 20 minutes during the day and 30 minutes at night.  Whereas regional train timetables can be irregular with long gaps. This makes good bus scheduling both more important and more difficult. However extreme waits can be avoided if one or the other services is moderately frequent and there are no large gaps.  

Below are weekday V/Line Caroline Springs train timetables. I've added bus times. The timetable below shows bus to train connections for travel towards the city for the first half of the day.  They are presented this way because this is likely to be the main direction of passenger flow. Some connection times are a little uneven. There is also an instance in the afternoon where the bus arrives at the same time the train departs.  Click it for a clearer view.

This is the timetable for the opposite direction, ie train from city to bus. It only shows afternoon and evening service to reflect peak passenger flows. You can see the effect of the missing trips around 3pm. In both cases they result in arriving trains not having a bus. That's particularly important as Caroline Springs station is isolated with nothing within walking distance.


How much time should you allow for a train to bus connection? Part of it depends on how long it takes to walk from the station to the bus stop (something Melbourne, unlike Perth, isn't good at minimising when building stations).  Service frequency is another factor. If buses and/or trains are at 'turn up and go' frequencies then careful coordination is unnecessary. But it's vital when frequencies are low.

Thirdly there is reliability. Caroline Springs is served by V/Line trains on the Ballarat line. V/Line is faster but less reliable (and usually less frequent) than Metro services. You can compare recent performance statistics below.  

V/Line train performance


Metro train performance


To put things in perspective for train to bus commuters, an 80% punctuality means that you will probably miss your bus connection one day per week. That's especially likely if buses leave only 5 minutes after trains are scheduled to arrive. However on most other days when trains are punctual the 460 timetable above has you waiting up to 16 or 17 minutes in the early part of the commuter peak. That appears excessive and makes the bus choice unattractive. 

Route 460 has two trips that run on Friday evenings. Friday nights are busier than other weeknights so the extra services are potentially useful. However they both depart 9 or 10 minutes before trains arrive. This causes waits of up to 50 minutes at one of Melbourne's most isolated stations. Departing these trips 15 or 20 minutes later would have made them much more useful. 


Conclusion


Route 460 has all the things that make a bus route successful. It is direct. It serves two train stations that will only grow in importance. It serves two town centres, smaller shopping centres and schools. Its catchment is continuously settled with demographics that have high school and workforce participation. And there is little overlap from other routes.

At first glance its timetable is appropriate for the route's importance. For example three buses per hour is about twice the frequency that is typical for buses in a Melbourne outer suburb. However the more you inspect it the more 'holes' you see. These include irregular times, hour-long gaps and some poor scheduled connections.

Public Transport Victoria is meant to review and approve bus timetables for connectivity with trains.  It is appreciated that often scheduling trade-offs need to be made. However it is difficult not to conclude that a better effort could have been made with Route 460, particularly given its regional importance and the low frequency of trains it is supposed to connect with. 

What do you think about 460's timetable? Please comment below if you have a view. 

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