Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Timetable Tuesday #43 - Around the hills on the 695 and 695F


Do you want someone to take you through the hills but don't wish to stump up for a Puffing Billy fare? Bus route 695 from Belgrave to Gembrook via Emerald and Cockatoo will do the job. However it and its variants have more tricks up its sleeve as you'll find out later. 

Route 695 serves what you could call a peri-urban area east of Belgrave. It is basically an east-west string linking historic rail-based rural communities. Unlike fringe areas to the north and west it is not a growth corridor. 

Community services and facilities, including bus services, are long-established. And, unlike the flat plains in other directions, the landscape and tree cover makes the area popular amongst weekend visitors. Access is particularly convenient from Melbourne's established and affluent eastern suburbs. 


So far I've described the main 695. But there are variants, one of which, rare for Mebourne, has earned a letter after the route number. I'm talking about the 695F which you can see as a blue dotted blue line above. 

The 695F has an on again off again relationship with the main 695. From Gembrook the 695F follows the main route until Cockatoo. Then it splits only to reunite at Emerald. However this meeting is only fleeting before it darts all the way south to Fountain Gate Shopping Centre. 695F's claim to fame is that it's Melbourne's only bus route that operates three days per week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday). 

695's other variation runs on Tuesdays only from Emerald to Dandenong Market. It's shown as an orange dashed line on both the area map above and the route map below. It includes express running as per the route description given later. Express running is also rare for buses in Melbourne. 


The complexity of 695 can be seen in the set of route descriptions below.


Timetable

It is a battle finding all 695's timetables on the PTV website. The older website is better than the newer one but both have inconsistencies compared to the map. While the Tuesday Dandenong Market variation is labelled (and coloured) as 695 on the map, the trip does not appear in the 695 timetable. Instead it appears in the 695F timetable. Examples like these illustrate that the more complex a route becomes the more difficult it is to explain it - even on the part of PTV whose job it is. 



So what services does the 695 offer? Since we've just been talking about it, we'll start with the Tuesday Dandenong Market special. This weekly bus leaves Emerald at 9:30am, arriving at Dandenong Market at 10:00 am. The afternoon return trip, shown in the schedule above, takes a little longer, leaving the market at 1:40pm. 

Timetables for the regular route are below. It's a 7 day service that almost but not quite complies with minimum standards with regards to span. What is most extraordinary is its service frequency. Despite the semi-rural catchment, weekday buses operate every 30 minutes during both peak and off-peak periods. 

Why is 695's 30 minute frequency extraordinary in this context? 

One word. Catchment. 

The 695's midday frequency matches that of some of eastern Melbourne's busiest bus routes like the 733, 737 and 767. Their catchments and passenger demographics couldn't be more different to the 695; all  serve dense main road corridors, including major railway stations, shopping centres and universities. Routes more similar to 695's peri-urban catchment, such as the 683 from Lilydale to Warburton, operate hourly.   A curious feature is a late evening Friday-only trip towards Belgrave; unlike any other comparable area, where services finish earlier, one can catch a bus to a station arriving after 11pm.  

Timetables are below. Click them for a better view.  



Weekend service on the 695 is every 40 to 60 minutes, with sometimes inconsistent intervals. Sunday span is the 12 hours of the minimum standards. However start and finish times are too late. There are more people wanting to travel on buses at 9am on a Sunday than there are at 9pm. However one cannot catch a 695 bus arriving before 10:30am at Belgrave. Add in train travel time and one cannot reach events in the city much before noon. It is possible that the timetable has been optimised to minimise dead-running (there is an earlier trip ex-Belgrave) but starting and finishing everything 60 - 90 min earlier would be closer to the 9am - 9pm minimum standard and be better for most passengers as well. 

Finally there's the 695F. This is very much a shopper route for Fountain Gate. The route does not even extend the short extra distance to Narre Warren Station to provide a train feeder. It has the distinction of being Melbourne's only three day per week bus route. Although that's over-selling it; it's more properly 2.3 days as it starts after school on Friday and runs on Saturdays and Sundays. The last trip on weekends is significantly later than what you'd expect a daytime shopper service to run, especially on Sundays. However the frequency is erratic, with gaps of between approximately 100 and 180 minutes. 



Service and patronage productivity

As mentioned before 695 is very frequent given its catchment. And, unlike areas that have densified (such as along the Route 800 Princes Hwy corridor) there's been a large increase in service on the route.  You can compare it with 30 years ago via Krustylink. Back then the Dandenong Market service ran but not the 695F.

695's annual patronage in 2016-17 was 115 000. A lot of buses are needed to get this number because it's a long route. To put this into context, the short single-bus Route 844 carried similar numbers (112 000) despite having some catchment overlapping with other routes and vastly shorter operating hours. 695 works out as being barely one-third as productive as the 844.

Another measure is boardings per bus operating hour. In some ways this is a skewed metric as it favours routes that carry a lot of passengers short distances over those that carry fewer passengers long distances. While the routes may do the same work (expressed in passenger kilometres) the shorter route with more boardings rates higher. On the other hand, since bus drivers are paid by the hour, this metric is more aligned with the actual cost of providing the service than alternative measures (like passenger boardings/kilometre).

It is very common for suburban bus routes to get approximately 1 passenger boarding per kilometre. Where buses operate at 22 km/h (a typical speed in suburbia) that equates to 22 boardings per hour.  Infrastructure Victoria's Five Year Focus regards 20 boardings per hour as the point where a bus route becomes viable. It found that 40% of Melbourne bus routes were below this threshold. Network reform to achieve higher productivity is essential to get the most from our bus fleet.

Why is this necessary? Page 37 of that report shows how far buses lag behind other modes. Trains and trams account for 30% of service kilometres but attract 82% of passenger kilometres. Conversely buses account for 70% of service kilometres but get only 18% of passenger kilometres. While some of this can be explained by train trips being longer (on average) than bus trips, the non-bus average would be brought down by the large number of short tram trips. The low comparative productivity of buses is despite the majority of Melbourne's population having them as their closest public transport.

How does the 695 measure up? Boardings per hour statistics obtained from the Department of Transport indicate that 695 got 13 boardings per hour on weekdays and much less on weekends. These numbers are well short of IV's 20 boardings per hour standard.

What about other routes, that like the 695, operate with 30 minute weekday frequencies off-peak? The 844 mentioned before has 28 boardings per hour on weekdays, ie more than double 695's performance. And, despite having indirect or duplicative portions, 737 and 733 attract 43 and 64 boardings per hour respectively.

If you value public transport with a good geographical reach, you must accept that semi rural routes will have fewer boardings per service hour than urban routes. However 695's 30 minute off-peak service seems generous. Planning that reflected demand would likely drop 695's off-peak frequency to hourly, leave 844's at 30 minutes and boost 733 and 737 to every 15 minutes on their busier sections. Any patronage fall on the 695 due to the lower frequency would be minor (as it would be coming off a low base) while the busy 733 and 737 would likely gain hundreds of thousands more passenger boardings per year.

Sundays are even starker. 695, 828 and 733 are all roughly hourly. 695 attracts just 8 boardings per hour versus the 828's 28 and an extraordinary 62 for the 733. Again the 695 looks overserved. In contrast the grossly underserved 733 could easily be boosted three-fold to every 20 minutes.

Such an upgrade would drop 733's boardings per hour from its stratospheric number assuming less than 100% patronage elasticity for service added. However confining the frequency upgrade to its busiest section and factoring conservative elasticity for the better service (40% gain per 100% increase) should still give an excellent 30 to 40 boardings per hour on Sunday. Part of the funding for this could come from dropping very quiet peri-urban routes eg 578, 579 and 695 (but not the good performing 683, 685 or 788) to 120 minute headways on weekends.

Conclusion

What would you do with the 695? Should the 695F be a separate number, run 7 days and start from (say) Belgrave? Is there a need for a separate weekly Dandenong Market service, or should this trip be possible via a change from the upgraded 7-day Fountain Gate service? After all Dandenong Market opens on more days than just Tuesdays. And is 695's service level appropriate given the route's peri-urban low density catchment? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below. 

1 comment:

Tom said...

Another reason to end the 695`s half-hourly frequency is would be increasing the frequency of Belgrave trains to 20 minutes (with the same increase on the Lilydale line giving a 10 minute frequency between the city and Ringwood on Weekdays), something that is long overdue.

A combined Dandenong and Foutain Gate 7 days a week service is a good idea. It should have services that can carry workers to Dandenong, given the major employment precincts thereabouts.

To be fair to the bus system, carrying the number of passengers that the rail or tram networks carry would require many more buses than trains or trams, especially without introducing higher capacity buses (bendy and/or double decker).