Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Timetable Tuesday #29: Tending towards atrophy - The 600 922 & 923 bus mess

If ever there was a reason why Timetable Tuesday is needed, the 600 922 923 combination is it. Those three routes were priorities to fix when it came to simplifying the St Kilda - Sandringham network, as attempted last month.

It didn't used to be that way. At one time bus routes like the 600 were simpler, ran more frequently and were probably better used.  Like we're trying to get back to in the Useful Network series.  Then, in a series of 'death by a thousand cuts' changes routes in the area got amalgamated, made less frequent and had time of day variations added. Overall that meant more route numbers but less service on each one.   

The most recent substantial network change happened just under 20 years ago. Back then there was just Route 600, operating at about double today's frequency between Sandringham and Southland. 922 and 923 didn't exist. But Route 822 and 823 were longer. 822 used to extend from Sandringham to North Brighton. And 823 once extended from Southland down to Beaumaris. Fragments of these became the 922 and 923, formed by reducing 600's frequency.

Route 600/922/923 has been run by Transdev Melbourne since 2013. Before that it was Melbourne Bus Link. MBL won franchises to operate some Met Bus routes in the 1990s. Route 600 was only a government bus route because of its railway past.

How so?

Part of what is now 600 operated as Route 901 between Sandringham and Beaumaris. The 900-series numbers were then used to denote buses run under the Victorian Railways - either to replace closed lines or as precursors to future rail extensions such as Broadmeadows - Coolaroo. In 901's case the closure was a VR-operated tramway between Sandringham and Beaumaris. 901 got extended to Southland when that opened in 1968.

What of the original 600? In 1986 the 600 just ran between St Kilda and Middle Brighton every 15 minutes (covering another closed tramway). Then it was extended to Brighton Beach in 1989, dropping to every 20 minutes. Then in the early '90s to Southland, every 30 minutes, incorporating the old 901. Each extension generally resulted in reduced frequency until about 1995 when 600 was boosted to run every 15 min between Sandringham and Southland. It was this increase that (inadvertently) sowed the seeds for the later 922/923 nonsense. Some old timetables and maps are on Krustylink. Also BCSV.

Route description

Maps for the three routes are presented together below. Notice how similar they appear to one another. Although that can be misleading, as you'll see later.

On-paper all three routes start at St Kilda and share a common path to Elwood, overlapping much of the more recently extended Route 606. Route 922 splits away near North Brighton before rejoining, splitting from and then rejoining the other routes later near Sandringham. Patronage in this section is low, with other services like Sandringham line trains and bus 216 nearby.

From Sandringham the routes are together through Black Rock until Beaumaris. All three go their own way before merging just before Cheltenham for the last leg to Southland.

The PTV route map shows all three routes. This is helpful as routes are so similar. Timetables appear on the website by individual route with a combined multi-route version also available. Unfortunately this is incomplete, omitting Route 922 in one direction. The template for stop timetables used by PTV also poorly communicates the high frequency available at stops served by multiple routes (ie most of them for this route). Poor legibility may be one of the reasons why 600/922/923's patronage does not fully reflect the generally high bus per hour service level offered.

Below is a summary of timetables by route:

Route 600

This is the original and main route. Well, sort of. For some areas. At some times of the day.

The first thing that's striking is the weekday timetable. There's a six hour gap on weekdays between St Kilda and Sandringham. No trips at all. If you want to use these routes to get from St Kilda on a weekday at that time you'll need to use 922 or 923. But don't bother with PTV's combined timetable as it's not all there.

There's a few trips from St Kilda before that gap, at 30 or 60 min spacing. After the gap it's about a 40 minute frequency with a higher frequency around 7-8pm. Sandringham doesn't have that big gap in service. Frequency is normally about 30 min, tending to increase in the pm peak. But there's some big irregularities, eg a 5 min gap followed by a 25 min gap. 600's late weeknight 40 minute frequency meshes evenly with Sandringham's 20 minute evening train frequency.  Evening service is better and more consistent than during the day, with the last departure from St Kilda around midnight.

The first trip from Southland leaves after 8am on a weekday. That's over an hour later than the first Saturday trip. And even half an hour later than the first Sunday trip. This is because a lot of early 600 trips start from Cheltenham. There's unlikely to be few people boarding at Southland, but there are some routes that end there and the inconsistency lessens legibility. As with the other direction where they start, Route 600's weekday daytime interpeak trips from Southland finish at Sandringham.

Ex-Southland trips after about 2pm keep going to St Kilda, but only some of them. There are 90 - 100 minute gaps around 3pm, and again around 8pm. However 40 to 60 minute intervals are more representative.

What about Saturdays? Unlike weekdays, most trips run the full route. But not all. St Kilda has a 100 minute gap in departures around 5:30 - 6pm. There is a trip in that slot but it doesn't start until Sandringham. Earlier in the day frequency is about hourly. Later? It's 40 minutes. Route 600 is an unusual route with better service at night than during the day.

Plan to rely on the 600 for Saturday night travel to St Kilda? Sorry, but you're out of luck. There are no departures for a 4 hour period between about 4 and 8pm. Think it might be one of those combined routes when the related similar route is numbered one up or one down (eg 250/251, 411/412, 811/812 etc) that is listed nearby when scrolling the PTV website timetable list or looking at signage? No such luck. Instead of going for vacant numbers in the 600-series (601, 602, 603, 604 were all vacant then) they picked the apparently random 922 and 923 to illustrate their descent from the now forgotten longer 822 and 823. All the other 920s are local buses in far-off Pakenham.

Intervals on the more evenly served Southland - Sandringham portion are about hourly in the middle of the day with some 80 minute gaps about when some might be starting or finishing work. Night service is better though, with a 40 minute frequency until services finish at 11pm.

Sundays during the day is like a two tier service for most of the day. From and to St Kilda it's an 80 minute service. Whereas Sandringham to Southland sees buses every 40 minutes.  Like on Saturday, the night service is better, with a 40 minute frequency applying until the last trips after 10pm. In both directions there are nasty 80 minute gaps around 6pm. There is also unevenness, with a 20 minute spacing from Southland before that gap.  However, the 4 hour St Kilda gap mentioned for Saturday does not exist on Sunday.

Route 922

A daytime only route with short operating hours. Operates roughly hourly on weekdays, hourly on Saturdays and every 80 - 100 minutes on Sunday.

Weekday trip spacing is very uneven, ranging from less than 20 minutes to around 90 minutes. Weekday short workings mean that the first trip does not leave Southland until after 9:30 am, even though earlier trips depart on Saturdays and Sundays. The last weekday trip from St Kilda (just after 6pm) leaves about an hour earlier than the last Saturday trip from St Kilda. Sunday finishes a little earlier than weekdays with 100 minute gaps between the last two trips.

Route 923

A daytime only route with even shorter operating hours than 922. Operates roughly hourly on weekdays, hourly on Saturdays and every 80 - 100 minutes on Sunday. Last service leaves St Kilda around 5:30pm on weekdays and Sundays and before 5pm on Saturday.  There are 100 minute gaps on Sunday afternoons, with the last departure from Southland before 5pm (a time when shops are still trading). 

Combined timetable

Get an overview by looking at the combined timetable to check for even spacing. View it on the new PTV website here.  Or on the old (classic) PTV site here. (I prefer the old PTV site's PDF as there's fewer clicks to it and its more manageable as it only shows the main stops).

Consider the big gaps we mentioned before. Like the six hour gap from St Kilda in the middle of the day Monday - Friday. Looking at it towards Southland these gaps are reduced to hourly, with 923 plugging up the gaps. Going the other way the intervals are half-hourly. The reason is the omission of Route 922 from the southbound combined timetable as mentioned before.

And the four hour Saturday gap on trips to St Kilda? The combined timetable shows the gaps reducing as 922 and 923 trips fill in the 600's gaps. However spacing is poor. That's not confined to the afternoon. Long gaps also exist in the morning as you can see from the combined timetable extract below.

It is quite evident that no care was taken to evenly space services when these routes were scheduled.  The result is a mixture of long waits and excessive service. The existing timetable should be torn up and a fresh start made.


Route 600, 922 and 923 is an extraordinary mess. 922 and 923 operate limited  hours while the 600, the strongest of the bunch, only sometimes runs its entire length. What should be a useful evenly spaced service operating every 15 or 20 minutes has gaps of almost an hour, even on its combined sections. At other times trips almost follow one other, carting fresh seaside air but wasting driver hours.

Confusion is exacerbated by factors including (i) poor route numbering, (ii) inconsistent scheduling, (iii) PTV's difficulties with communicating service along multi-route corridors at stops and on its website, and (iv) PTV's difficulties with presenting complete and accurate timetable data on its website.

All are fixable if there existed a will to do so. It should be possible to have a simpler and much easier to use service without extra operating costs.

What do you think should happen? Should we go back 20 years ago and just have a simple Route 600 operating at higher frequency? Or would two routes instead of one do? Should services split at Sandringham as they used to? And does the Brighton area need what it has given the low patronage and parallel overlapping routes?

Read my thoughts last month about the northern part of these routes and have a think about the Sandringham - Southland section. Comments welcome below! 

You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics

Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit Steven Higashide NEW!

The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees Gleeson & Beza

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, Institutions (Access Quintet Book 4) David Levinson

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives Jarrett Walker

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees

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