Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Timetable Tuesday #40: Route 503 - the "last mile" bus

If you're a Brunswick hipster and like doing things the inefficient old way that your parents ditched, riding the route 503 bus might appeal. And you won't need to go far to catch it. 

Linking two train lines and five tram routes, the 503 is your typical inner northern suburbs bus route. Starting at Essendon Station in the west it intersects trams 59, 58, 19 and 1 & 6 before terminating at the start of Tram 96. It also passes near Anstey Station on the Upfield line. Its catchment includes Brunswick (Tim Read MP) which has a lower than average proportion of homes with cars. The area's densifying too, with multi-storey apartments full of students and young city workers replacing houses. 

You can see its map below. Benefiting from our grid streets and the tendency to put railway stations near cross-roads (something that motorists may curse but aids public transport connectivity) the 503 follows a very direct path apart from a bulge north of Essendon.

The photo above shows the 503's catchment a mile east of Essendon and a mile west of Anstey. The 58 tram is about 600 metres east but that's slow so a good rail feeder bus has a lot of patronage potential. Especially given the population density. However, as you'll see later little has changed about the 503 in most people's living memory, despite the changing surrounding land uses. 

What's the dotted line on Fletcher St? This is an odd after 3pm Saturday deviation. It's included in the timetable on the new PTV website but for a description I went to the (superior) old PTV website.

The network map is below. The scrapped and then resurrected 509 eats into a little of its catchment to the south. As does the occasional Coonans Hill deviation on the 512 to the north. The 503 has higher frequency than both. However it misses the big activity centres like Moonee Ponds and Coburg. Essendon is helpful for connections to schools, trains and other public transport. However it isn't much of a destination in itself. Nevertheless 503 is one contributor to making Essendon station one of the busiest on the Craigieburn line, especially when it comes to people who got to the station by bus.

Going the other way the 503 neatly feeds into Anstey Station and several tram routes. That's potentially efficient, allowing bidirectional peak period patronage. The main impediment here is low peak frequencies on the Upfield line (barely better than off-peak, with a single cancellation causing a 20 minute delay). 


As is common with many northern suburb bus routes (eg 526, 538, 552, 558), 503's timetable is stuck in time. This is because, like Greater Dandenong, Melbourne's inner north largely missed out on the evening and weekend bus upgrades most other areas got. So the timetable you see in 2019 might be much the same as that of 30 years ago, when Saturday afternoon trading was new and Sunday trading only something that rebel traders did under threat of a penalty.

On weekdays Route 503 runs a constant 20 minute frequency during peak periods. Interpeak frequency is 25 minutes. Intersecting trams are normally at turn-up-and-go frequencies but intersecting trains, at every 20 minutes, are not. 503's 25 minute frequency is unharmonised with trains and is hard to remember so users need to look up a timetable and/or do a journey plan every time they travel.  Finish times, like the typical pre-2006 pattern for buses in Melbourne, is around 7pm. Also its morning start times remain later than the 6am standard. Overall there have been negligible changes to 503's timetable since at least the 1980s. Current 503 timetables are below. Click for a larger/clearer view. 

What about weekends? Again a traditional timetable applies. That is an early Saturday am start (a good thing), an intensive Saturday morning service (to cater for the old morning rush) at the same 25 minute frequency as weekday off-peak, followed by an afternoon fall-off (to 30 then 40 minutes). The finish time is very slightly earlier than the finish on weekdays.

There is no Sunday or public holiday service. Route 503 is run by Moonee Valley Buslines. With the tendency of bus operators to merge, Moonee Valley is the smallest one left. The only other route MVBL runs is the 506, which, despite its higher patronage, also operates to limited timetable.

Run times

Large bus operators analyse actual run times and use advanced software like HASTUS to optimise bus scheduling and driver rostering. Because they have so many routes and drivers even small efficiencies can result in big savings in reduced dead-running and vehicle layovers and driver slack times. Also measuring actual journey times can assist with altering trip schedule times to better suit traffic conditions and aid punctuality.

All that seems overkill for a small operator running a couple of routes. However some attempt has been made to vary 503's run times to suit traffic. For example, weekday travel times are a flat 28 minutes, except for the first and last few trips, where it's 25 or even 20 minutes. Saturday trips are slightly quicker, with more 23 and 20 minute run times.

A historical timetable

A 1986 timetable via Krustylink is below. It had a better early morning peak frequency than now. However there were hour gaps on Saturdays, presumably to account for drivers' lunch breaks.


The 503 has huge potential. Running existing buses on it for more of the day and week could make it a useful and popular bus route for diverse trips. It could support the density increases that are already happening. It's the sort of route that needs an upgrade if public transport is every to be useful for more than a small proportion of  trips.

I've already had my say on it; the 503 features in this Inner North Useful Network feature. But what do you think? Should the route be extended to a busier destination or is it just right as is? Does its timetable meet modern needs or are improvements required there as well? Should the nearby 509 be deleted to enable more 503 trips for little cost? And how important is connectivity with trains anyway? Your comments are welcome and can be left 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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Adam said...

Peter, another great analysis. The 503 is like many of the inner northern bus routes, cross-town, fairly straight forward in their routing, links multiple rail/tram lines but lacking the service frequency and operating hours.

I believe that the 503 should stay at its current route, except, as you have mentioned previously, swapping the cross over in Essendon with the 510.

I don't think the 509 will be going anywhere, anytime soon. I remember the uproar when the route was discontinued and I feel it was only re-introduced as a purely political tactic in helping Labor, at the time, retain the seat of Brunswick at the 2014 state election. I rarely advocate for the removal of public transport, but I think the 509 needs to go and the resources used to boost service on surrounding/parallel routes.


Marcus W said...

I wonder why the Saturday deviation is only after 3pm - maybe tied in with footy games back when Essendon played at Windy Hill?

Peter Parker said...

Marcus W - I think you're right!

Drew said...

Tram route 12? Isn't it 1/6?
Not that that matters wrt the bus route.

Peter Parker said...

Drew - you're right. Thanks. Corrected.