Friday, November 15, 2019

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 28: The 904 Murray Rd Megabus we can have for almost nothing

Melbourne's inner to middle northern suburbs is fertile ground for buses. Car ownership is lower than average, they're becoming denser, the area is quite walkable and there's an excellent road grid. However there is significant competition for parking and the number of cars is increasing (knock down a house with 1.5 cars, replace with 4 townhouses with 6 cars). And not as many people can lead a low-car lifestyle as they would like.

Part of the reason for this is that the north's public transport network is incomplete, despite closely-spaced lines. Trams are frequent 7 days, trains are semi-frequent 7 days while bus service levels vary widely by day. Because only buses go east-west and these are often infrequent, transit works for trips to the city but not to many other places including local trips. 

Trips involving a connection require careful planning to avoid waits that may be longer than the entire trip might take if driving. That applies even for trips involving our top tier/premium orbital "SmartBus" services, such as the 903 between Coburg, Preston, Northland and Heidelberg. It is this corridor I'll discuss here.

The problem: A tangled network (it's the 903's fault)

Things were fairly simple until the 903 SmartBus came along about 10 years ago. 

Route 527 was (mostly) Murray Rd. 513 was Bell St. Main problems were limited operating hours, infrequent weekend service and the lack of a Northland to Heidelberg connection.  

The 903 orbital SmartBus helped a bit. However it does not consistently connect with trains and is infrequent on weekends. Being run over existing unchanged routes made the network more complex with two routes now between Coburg and Northland.  Was much unique coverage added? No. Almost all of the 903 overlaps other routes as per the map below.

As the 903 pushed west it overlapped more than just the 513 and 527. Firstly the 465 on Buckley St Essendon (see Useful Network 6). Secondly the 428 and  new 429 in Sunshine South. And thirdly Millers Rd Altona North with 232 and 411  (see Useful Network Part 5). Some of the 903's catchment is good but the overlaps hobble its patronage. Apart from McIntyre Rd Sunshine North, the main places where 903 has no overlap are either freeway sections (with no stops) or industrial areas (with low patronage). 

It's different in the east where the 903 is popular because its catchment was cleared of duplicative  routes beforehand (291 and 700). That's the correct approach, especially if you want the simplest network, best frequency and highest patronage for the least money.

What about timetables for the 513, 527 and 903 serving the Coburg - Preston - Northland - Heidelberg corridor? They're a mess. Historical patterns have meant that the most and least frequent services are different on different days of the week. For example:

* On weekdays the 903 is the most frequent at every 15 minutes. The others are every 20 minutes.
* On Saturdays the 527 is best, with a 20 minute service. The 'premium' 903 is only half-hourly. As a trade-off the 903 offers longer operating hours.
* On Sundays the 903 wins though its 30 minute frequency does not mesh with trains. Despite its more frequent Saturday service the 527 is the least frequent on Sunday, with an irregular 40 to 60 minute headway. Even 513 is better, with a regular 40 minute service.

There is no one route that provides consistently high frequency and long operating hours seven days per week. And where routes overlap incompatible frequencies like 15 and 20 minutes provide many buses per hour but an uneven service with long waits on a corridor.

A tidier less duplicative network could fix these problems with buses every 10 minutes on key corridors like Coburg - Preston - Northland - Heidelberg. And it can be done for next to nothing. Keep reading to learn more.

Untangling the network (3 to 2 routes with better frequency)

An untangled network in the north would have two rather than three routes east from Coburg. One would be predominantly on Bell St with the other on Murray Rd. Despite an overlap both would run to Heidelberg since it's a major employment hub with TAFE and hospitals on Bell St. 

As the Bell St route the 513 can remain as is, at least between Coburg and Rosanna. A separate reform (Useful Network 23) could tackle 513's confusing eastern end. Another could look at the Glenroy end (some eight year old thoughts are set down here).    

Murray Rd is harder. Route 527 is the route that most overlaps the 903 along it. Key decisions include:

(i) whether to or whether not to split the 903.
(ii) What to do with the 527 or the resources from it if it is split (eg at Coburg).

The aim should be a simple and frequent route along Murray Rd that connects well with trains and offers a shorter maximum wait time seven days a week than now. A 10 minute daytime frequency between Coburg, Preston, Northland and Heidelberg satisfies this condition. Ideally this would apply seven days per week. But if it doesn't weekend daytime service along this section should never be worse than 20 minutes.

When you look at this the choice becomes clear. The 903 does need to be split (at Heidelberg) with a new route operating to the west. And resources will be needed from a shortened 527 to fund the desired ten minute frequency from Heidelberg to Coburg.

Introducing the 904 Murray Rd Megabus

What would a split Route 903 orbital SmartBus at Heidelberg look like?

The 903 between Mordialloc and Heidelberg would remain at the current 15/30 minute service levels.

The western portion could become the 904 from Heidelberg to Altona.

904's Heidelberg - Northland - Preston - Coburg portion would operate every 10 minutes, preferably 7 days per week. This is better than a SmartBus so I've called it a Megabus.

Every second 904 trip would extend beyond Coburg to Sunshine/Altona. This 10/20 minute pattern is a better match for 20 minute trains and other key bus routes. It could also enable a higher weekend service (903 is currently only every 30 minutes).

It would be self-funding with resources freed by shortening Route 527 at Coburg to reduce overlap.

The 904 Megabus map below shows how it fits in with major destinations and the 513. 

 No one along the Coburg to Northland part of the 527 would be disadvantaged. This is because the new 904 runs along the 527 alignment via more of Murray Rd. They lose the direct bus to Gowrie (hardly a bustling destination!) but gain a better bus to Heidelberg and its hospitals.

Running 904 down Elizabeth St retains the connection between Route 1 tram and Northland that the 527 currently provides with improved frequency. However if this connection is considered unimportant an option exists to route the 904 through the Pentridge development to lessen overlap with the 513 on Bell St.

Local demographics and catchment

Those familiar with northern suburb politics know about the 'Tofu Curtain' or the 'hipster proof fence'. To the south are younger high-income godless bike-riding degreed childless gourmet-eating Green voting professionals. To the north are older lower income, less degreed, Labor voting blue collar workers who are often southern European or Middle-eastern migrants or descendants of same. A fair number of the latter may be retired, unemployed or otherwise not in the labour force. Some draw the line roughly at Bell St. 

The map below shows how the 904 fits relative to soico-economic class. It serves a lot of low to lower middle areas. This is generally good for bus patronage. People may not own cars. People may also have a lower propensity to ride taxis/rideshare as they can't afford it. And if they are not in the labour force they are more likely to travel during off-peak times for shopping, medical and social purposes. 

As you can see from the map below, Route 904 is central to a lot of this catchment. The ten minute all-day frequency would provide a simple and attractive service that many would use. And because it goes to so many useful places and intersects with numerous train and tram lines it would improve connectivity even for some outside its catchment. 

Objections to splitting the orbitals (long!)

Some may object to splitting orbital SmartBus routes like the 903.

There's history and politics behind this.

Five years ago Transdev Melbourne tried it as part of their ill-fated 2015 "Greenfields" network . That took buses from the west and north to give to the east and south because they thought that the latter had higher patronage potential (and their franchise contract rewarded patronage growth).  

Transdev presented its plans to affected local governments. A few got an inkling of them by reading the minutes of a Glen Eira Council meeting (no longer online but a summary of an earlier network concept is here). Eight months later there was an online survey and public information sessions. However there was the sense that the new network was a done deal and the sessions were just window-dressing.

People in Melbourne's west were particularly upset. While it is true that some cuts were to poorly used routes not all were. And there were instances of quiet routes in the east that went unreformed. The whole thing looked like a grab from the west to provide buses for the east. A better approach would have been to keep buses in the west for nearby routes that needed a boost (eg as per Useful Network Part 5).

Another problem was that the changes were to Transdev's network only. Some changes might have made sense only if there were compensatory changes to other companies' routes in the area. Confining the changes to Transdev routes meant that some areas got a raw deal while others were left overserviced or with overlaps.

The 2014 state election was in the middle of all this. Labor gained office with a slim majority. The incoming minister (Jacinta Allan) vetoed the Transdev network proposal so it didn't go ahead. (One can only speculate how this affected business since they would have been banking on approval. It can't have been good since corner-cutting caused a major fleet maintenance crisis in 2017).

In April 2015, when the new network was due to start, the minister promised a 'more balanced' Transdev proposal with better public consultation. Clear answers were not forthcoming when asked about it in September. There appeared no progress when a similar vague answer was given in parliament in November. Like Transdev, Metro Trains suffered a similar knock-back, with its 2015 timetable proposal for higher frequencies not proceeding.

Ms Allan probably made the right decision to veto, at least with Transdev. Dragging the chain on alternative reform seems less defensible, especially since some was possible in the south and east without affecting services in the north and west. In fact changes starting this weekend go further, sensibly transferring service from overserved eastern routes to the underserved western routes.  

With hindsight one could mark the two big refusals (Metro and Transdev) as the end of ministerial support for the network reform drive that had been gathering steam since about 2011 within transport agencies. While there was much more to do, this short but productive burst delivered successful bus networks in Geelong, Werribee, Tarneit, Point Cook, Fishermans Bend, Epping North and Sunshine along with ten minute service on some train lines.

Disallowing even low or no cost network upgrades has coloured the government's record on transport. The Andrews government has proved a lion on infrastructure but a mouse on networks and services. While Sydney raced ahead with 15 minute all-day 7-day train frequencies in 2017 and promised thousands of new bus services, most of suburban Melbourne remains stuck with 20 to 60 minute train services and non-connecting, meandering and duplicative bus routes. As Melbourne grows public transport networks and services could loom as a problem for the Andrews government, just as it tripped John Brumby in 2010.

Time for another look

Why should we revive the idea of splitting the 903 SmartBus orbital despite the decision in 2015? Here's six reasons:

1. Reform in areas where routes overlap could deliver frequent and popular services connecting  trains, people and jobs. Route 903, in particular, overlaps many routes for most of the way between Heidelberg and Altona. Frequencies on individual routes are low but merging routes could provide higher and even turn-up-and-go service, like the Murray Rd Megabus, for little or no cost. A commitment to evaluate Melbourne's SmartBus network was a Labor promise in 2014.

2. The government is in a better political position now than before due to its strong results in the 2018 election. The tight margin that might have made the previous minister wary about network reform no longer applies. On the other hand its financial position is weaker due to a cooling property market (affecting stamp duty revenue) and cost blowouts on large projects. Bus network and service upgrades present opportunities by being lower risk, lower cost with sooner benefits.

3. A credible public engagement process (which was not done in 2015) can minimise the political risks of restructured routes. Just after an election (ie now!) is the best time to implement potentially controversial changes as there is time to modify before the next election if required.

4. Transdev's 2015 network was based on reforming only its own routes - not those of any other bus operator. This limited what could be done, especially on corridors where routes overlapped (like along the 903's western half). Integrated planning by area and corridor rather than bus operator, can deliver the best possible network, connectivity and service levels. The 904 Megabus is again an example.

5. The 2015 proposal was basically a plan to rob the west to pay the east. There is no reason why routes like Coburg to Heidelberg can't perform as well as anything in the east if service duplication is removed. Unlike in the 2015 plan, resources saved due to route changes could be reinvested locally rather than being shipped off elsewhere.

6. We could be cleverer with split locations. The section between Coburg and Heidelberg is fine grained and continuously developed. There are many intersecting train and tram lines. And trip generators, like Coburg, Preston, Northland, hospitals and Heidelberg are closely spaced. The 2015 plan to split the orbital at Northland would have made some local through trips harder. A revised approach would respect communities of interest and have split locations where there are fewer through travellers.

Paying for it (Spoiler: it's cheap!)

A good thing about the 904 Murray St Megabus is that it's basically self-funding. No more buses than now should be needed to deliver the desired ten minute frequency. And it should be possible to arrive at a version of the 904 that keeps bus kilometres and driver hours similar also.

Route 527 requires something like 7 buses to run the full route from Gowrie to Northland on its existing frequencies. Coburg, where we'd be cutting it is almost exactly half way. That frees up 3.5 (conservatively 3) buses for use on the new 904. The other 3.5 (or 4) buses allow the Gowrie - Coburg portion to retain its existing service level.

In the morning peak the 903 between Coburg and Heidelberg takes about 40-45 minutes. Peak (and interpeak) frequency is 15 minutes (or 4 buses per hour). This level of service requires 3 buses each way or a total of 6 buses, for this section.

Want a 10 minute frequency? Who doesn't? That's a lift from 4 to 6 buses per hour, or a growth of 50%. We go from 6 to 9 buses required. That's funded with the 3 buses we found before by shortening the 527.

If we simply inserted those extra two buses per hour (short Coburg - Heidelberg trips) into the existing 15 minute Route 903 schedule you'd get something like below left. The trips per hour is good but the timetable is lumpy. There are still 15 minute waits so it's not yet a turn-up-and-go service. And it doesn't harmonise with trains every 20 minutes.

On the right is the split route 904 option recommended before. This delivers a simple even 10 minute frequency between Coburg and Heidelberg. It harmonises with trains with a regular frequent service.

The main difference is that west of Coburg frequency drops from the current 15 minutes to 20 minutes. While technically a weekday frequency cut it could deliver benefits in conjunction with numerous overlapping routes.

How so? Consider that the existing 903/proposed 904 west of Coburg is almost entirely overlapped with other routes. Especially in residential areas. For example 513 and 561 on Bell St, 465 on Buckley St, and 232 on Millers Rd.

All of these routes operate every 20 minutes off-peak. Hence bus services on these corridors would change from 7 buses per hour (with the 903 every 15 minutes providing uneven spacing with the other routes) to 6 buses per hour (with the 904 every 20 minutes). The frequency harmonisation will mean more even intervals, and in some lucky cases there might be close to a 10 minute combined service.

Also, going to a 20 minute weekday frequency west of Coburg would make the 904 cheaper to run than the existing 903. You may be able to use savings to upgrade local bus networks. Or if peak usage is high you might only go down to a 20 minute service off-peak and keep peaks at every 15 minutes or close. However you would want to stagger trips to ensure that maximum waits are kept to less than 10 minutes between Coburg and Heidelberg in conjunction with the short trips.

What about weekends? 

There are several choices.

The most legible is to run the 904 west of Heidelberg every 20 minutes all the way to Altona. However this is more expensive than the current weekend service which is only every 30 minutes. It is also inefficient with likely poor patronage due to the duplication with other routes and the low usage industrial area. It might also mean that you can't afford to run the highly desirable 10 minute weekend frequency from Heidelberg to Coburg.

Another approach could be to still have the 20 minute weekend frequency but only to Sunshine. This would tie in well with a realigned 903 that no longer duplicates other routes and serves useful weekend destinations such as Highpoint. That could be the ultimate approach after the network reforms in Useful Network Part 5 and Useful Network 6.  Short trips could augment these to provide the Coburg to Heidelberg 10 minute service.

Cheapest of all could be to keep Heidelberg to Altona at the current 30 minute frequency on weekends. It could even be timed to meet 903 trips arriving at Heidelberg. Short trips (using resources from the 527) could be slotted in between to provide a higher frequency between Coburg and Heidelberg.  That would require two buses per hour for the 15 minute overall frequency (from 527 resources) and four per hour for the ideal 10 minute service (with resources to come from some of the weekday changes).

There are several approaches which can be adjusted for taste. The main point is that a Murray Rd Megabus with a service every ten minutes is very affordable for five and probably six or seven days per week.

Optional extras

What's described above are the basics. The 904 Murray Rd Megabus could be done stand-alone with no changes required outside the northern suburbs. This is to make implementation as fast and easy as possible.

However there are some other network gains that are possible. They could be done before, during or after the 904 is introduced. Some of these are:

* Upgrading service on Route 513. The new 904 overlaps a little less of Route 513 along Bell St than the existing 903. 513 is a popular route in these parts. A service upgrade might see weekends improved from every 40 to every 20 minute. Operating hours could also be extended with some after 9pm and early weekend morning service added.

* Continuing Route 904 (ie existing 903) via Highpoint Shopping Centre along the Route 468 and 408 alignments. This would remove duplication with the Route 465 along Buckley St and provide improved access to Highpoint from two directions. More detail in Useful Network Part 6.

* Terminating Route 904 (ie existing 903) at Sunshine with a new dedicated industrial area route connecting to Altona. This would enable a new network for Altona North including an Altona - Millers Rd - Footscray Route 411 SmartBus. More detail in Useful Network Part 5.

* Potential realignment of Route 904 (ie existing 903) between Coburg and Essendon via Strathmore. This could provide a better connection between train lines and improved directness to Essendon (further aiding access to Highpoint). An alternative route or route extension would be needed to maintain service to Bulla Rd and DFO. Eventual reform might see the ten minute service proposed for the 904 extended from Coburg to Highpoint or even Sunshine.

* Potential extension of Route 903 from its new Heidelberg terminus to La Trobe University. This would replace part or all of Route 548 and/or 551 in a local network restructure. Such a direct connection has been widely requested. Its merit would need to be compared against other ideas for connecting Heidelberg with La Trobe, such as described for Route 550 in Useful Network Part 15.


Described is a new way to get across Melbourne's middle-northern suburbs. It serves all major transit, jobs and shopping destinations between Coburg and Heidelberg. The frequent service assures good connections with all intersecting modes. And its cost is low. 

What do you think? Do you have other ideas for the area? If so please leave your comments below.  

PS: An index to other useful networks is here.

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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