Friday, January 31, 2020

Testing times for Minister Horne

Building Melbourne's Useful Network is on strike this week. Just like many others in transport. So today instead we'll cover the recent industrial unrest and other matters affecting the network. We'll also look at the history, record and challenges for Public Transport Minister Melissa Horne, who has been the network's public face during these times.

There's so much going on that it's hard to keep track. It's not just one dispute but several. We've had the trammies out on Tuesday and Thursday. V/Line's Geelong line didn't run on Wednesday. And Metro has had problems with drivers accepting its training on rebuilt/reopened track. All involve  various divisions of the RTBU (discussed here). Here's a summary. 

Yarra Trams (28 and 30 January)

Late January in Melbourne involves scorching temperatures, Australian Open Tennis, and, this year, choking smoke from bushfires that restricted many peoples outdoor activities. With lives and homes lost, forests razed, wildlife perished and people evacuated it's been a subdued start to the year. 

Strikes stopped interpeak trams on Tuesday and yesterday. A limited replacement bus service ran but passengers were warned of delays if using it.  

RTBU's Tram and Bus Division has been regularly putting advice to members on its website. The union gave notice of its intention to strike on January 16. The key issue appears to be Yarra Trams' proposal to implement part-time rosters as part of Operations EBA negotiations. Eventually part-timers could amount to 15% of the workforce, up from the current 4%. Also there will be the ability to roster shorter (3 hour) shifts.  The union claims this would reduce access to overtime and penalty pay of drivers who work extra hours as part-timers not subject to overtime payments would be doing more of this work.  RTBU also wants an 18% pay rise over three years. You can read everything here. Yarra's EBA negotiations has been a year-long saga with a previous stoppage back in August and court action before that. There is also news on their Facebook page

There hasn't been much from Yarra Tram's side.  This dispute has been a baptism of fire for new CEO Julien Dehornoy who took over two weeks ago.  Being an ex-SNCF Frenchman he should know a thing or two about strikes and unions. One hopes he's aware of international differences; modern Australian attitudes to strikes are harsher than those in his strike-prone home country. We just want things to work – like the Germans – and rarely care about ideological struggles. Also, with our higher car ownership, more of us have alternatives. This means a greater chance of prolonged unrest affecting patronage longer term (just as it did during Melbourne’s 1960s-90s era of public transport decline).

Industrial action associated with the 2015 enterprise agreement threatened Yarra Trams but was averted.

V/Line (29 January and 7 February)

Advice of stoppages came out a while ago. The strike stopped trains on the busy Geelong line on Wednesday. If the dispute is not resolved Bendigo, Echuca and Swan Hill lines will be out on Friday February 7. 

It's the second strike in six weeks for Geelong line commuters. Overtime bans on Monday and Friday are also threatened. V/Line staff are seeking a six percent pay rise

Metro Trains (ongoing)

Buses replaced trains between South Yarra and Caulfield due to the construction of new track as part of the Melbourne Metro project. The work was done in less time than expected and the rebuilt track section between Hawksburn and South Yarra opened early.

An important part of train driver training is 'route knowledge'. Drivers need to know every section of network they travel on. This includes track layout, point and signal locations, speed limits, gradients and more.

The dispute arose when some drivers queried the adequacy of the video training they received. On Monday The Age reported that 13 drivers who refused to drive the new section were stood down. On Tuesday it was 'nearly 50' drivers. This is affecting service delivery with mass cancellations yesterday morning.

Relations between the RTBU and Metro have been smouldering for some time, with the union portraying the train operator as a greedy multinational during EBA negotiations and court cases late last year. You may have also seen the banner up at Trades Hall.  December 2019's Loco Lines (from RTBU's Locomotive Division) has some commentary on this. Also see their Facebook page.

Government reaction

The normal ministerial response in the early days of an industrial dispute is to urge the parties to reach agreement. Industrial relations is considered a matter for operators to internally manage with their staff. Devolving workforce matters is one claimed benefits of private operation, whether it be the bolder franchising or the milder contracting out variants.

Pressure mounts when disputes drag on. Substantial inconvenience occurs when service stops. Calls for the minister to intervene get louder. Not only from those affected by the strike but also the opposition and sometimes one of the parties (if they consider their opponent stalling).

The government might also be feeling the heat. Whatever the technicalities the public does not like politicians blaming others. And as the 2010 state election result showed privatising operations does not mean privatising political risk when service fails. Australians see government as an 'insurer, ensurer or fixer of last resort' over a whole range of areas where markets fail or people suffer high losses. That expectation extends to transport services.

The most dramatic examples of government intervention are when they step in to directly run services the private operators can't. A famous example was the federal government calling in the Air Force during the 1989 pilots dispute. Victorian rail franchises resort to government operation if the private operator pulls out, as happened with National Express.

Governments have also intervened in industrial disputes affecting transport. A major 2018 election year bus strike, affecting Transdev and CDC services, was called off in August following the government stepping in to negotiate with the TWU. It basically delivered the desired pay rise and chucked in extra money so bus operators weren't out of pocket. The deal followed smaller strikes the previous month.

The video below was what the minister had to say on Tuesday.

The possibility of funded government intervention as a backstop may give rise to a sort of moral hazard where both parties behave irresponsibly in the hope that government will eventually buckle, to the detriment of the taxpayer.  Hence the hope is almost always for parties to resolve disputes themselves.

Will (or can) this minister intervene if these disputes continue? Will the government toss in some money to get agreements to avoid a repeat of long-running disputes like the paramedics that dogged the previous government? It's hard to say. There is no election just around the corner. And they're in a tougher budgetary position, preaching restraint for public sector workers. On the other hand it wants a fast resolution so its reputation for service delivery does not cop a beating. These are some of the issues that confront the minister who'll we'll discuss next.    

The rapid rise of Melissa Horne

Victorian Labor had a modest win (regaining office after four year gap) in 2014 and a large victory in 2018. In the normal course of events an able backbencher from the 'class of 2014' could reasonably get a parliamentary secretary role after the 2018 win. As indeed some did. If they impress they might become a minister after a mid-to-late term reshuffle (especially if there are retirements) or a possible 2022 victory. 

It would not be normal for a member of the 2018 cohort to get a parliamentary secretary role, let alone a minister job. Instead they would be expected to build their local profile. Then they can exploit the incumbency bonus and fortify the government against inevitable future swings against it.  

This makes the rise of the Melissa Horne, the current transport minister, remarkable. As a member of the large 2018 intake she had no apprenticeship as purely a local MP. Instead she zoomed straight into Cabinet, surpassing some 2014 entrants who remain backbenchers or parliamentary secretaries. Her fellow ministers in the transport portfolio are Jacinta Allan (elected 1999) and Jaala Pulford (elected 2006). She sits above parliamentary secretaries Ros Spence (elected 2014) and Vicki Ward (elected 2014). 

Her safe Williamstown constituency had been held since 1904 by long-serving Labor plodders who rarely saw government. In the 1990s it gained a reputation for breeding Labor royalty including Joan Kirner and Steve Bracks. Ms Horne gained the seat after the retirement of Wade Noonan. She was born into the party, her father Bob Horne having held a NSW federal seat in the 1990s. 

Horne's Level Crossing Removal Authority gig appeared to make transport a logical role. However her promotion so early and so high would have raised eyebrows within the parliamentary party. There would be ambitious and more experienced backbenchers and parliamentary secretaries wondering why they didn't get precedence.

Intra-party and movement relationships

Colleagues (and potential rivals) would be watching the minister's every word. Especially now with public transport back in the headlines and mass disruption affecting peoples commutes and travel to major events our city prides itself in holding. Any perceived weakness might be seen as a justification for a mid-term reshuffle, with gains for some and losses for others. Yes, they're playing for sheep stations. Tempers in Labor can run hot, with physical violence not unknown

Union membership, though a shrinking proportion of the overall workforce, is still formidable. Especially in the transport sector where the RTBU and TWU remain powerful. Both are affiliated with the Labor Party. 

Then there are more direct relationships. With the decline and ageing of political party membership, Labor owes much to the union movement as a source of campaign volunteers. This was particularly in the 2014 election that brought Daniel Andrews to power. Among other factors the defeated Liberal Party attributes its 2014 loss to Labor's superior field organising. 

Just like there is a revolving door of personnel between the coalition parties, employer organisations, think tanks and certain industries (notably finance, farming and mining) a similar thing happens in Labor. There's a bit of an interchange between community advocacy, media, academia, student organisations, knowledge industries, the union movement and Labor. A not atypical career path might be union organiser, research officer, MP's staffer or party official then Labor parliamentarian. 

Political parties are means to power and attract people with ambition. Any party with more than two members will probably have factions. They may cluster around ideologies, people or a mixture. You may have more centrist, pragmatic types versus those who seek to be 'more true to their ideology'. Some might be 'bread and butter' labourists worried mainly about pay and job issues versus cultural, environmental, post-materialist and identity politics types. You'd think that The Greens might appeal more to the latter. However Labor has always had these strands dating from before The Greens started. And those who wish to win office to implement policy may see a major party (despite its problems) a better bet than a minor party. 

Labor's  factions seem particularly notable, with strong faction leaders and negotiations between them to divide up spoils like party positions and safe seats. In the case of safe lower house seats like Williamstown (and all Legislative Council positions) how you get on within the party (including affiliated unions) is key to continued support and success.

Winning and retaining government

Winning a coveted position within the party is one thing. Earning enough public acceptance to win elections is another. Don Dunstan and Gough Whitlam taught a generation of Laborites how to win. Dunstan lasted a fair while but Whitlam didn't. Wran, Cain and Hawke's contributions were to teach pragmatic post-Whitlam Labor how to keep as well as win power.

This is where performance in government comes in. People expect state governments (in particular) to be competent deliverers of services. That includes transport.

John Cain came a cropper over plans to scrap tram conductors opposed by sections of his own side. While unemployment and economic management were the top issues, the images of stuck trams in the streets proved enduring for many. Jeff Kennett's advertisements basically wrote themselves. The 1992 election led to a massive loss for Cain's successor Joan Kirner. While controversial at the time Kennett's 'shock therapy' transport reforms had reduced industrial disputation and improved reliability (until the mid-noughties). So much so that Premier Bracks and his transport minister Peter Batchelor accepted rail franchising as here to stay. They would rather not deal with the unions if they didn't have to.

Early 2000s era hands-off franchising then started to falter. And not only because a major operator quit. Train punctuality fell as patronage grew from 2003. Performance kept falling. Unreliable trains got more and more headlines. Some things were done during the Brumby era but they were too late to save Labor from losing the 2010 election in which reliable rail service was a critical issue.

To summarise, service delivery is important to the government's survival. A 2022 victory still seems likely but is not assured with some of 2018's gloss wearing off.

The transport portfolio

With Jacinta Allan looking after transport infrastructure and Jaala Pulford for roads, the transport service burden falls squarely on Melissa Horne. She would know public transport is somewhat of a poisoned chalice within Labor; handling of it played a part in the demise of three of the last four state Labor premiers (only Bracks escaped as he voluntarily retired). And the stress of the portfolio might not necessarily have helped the health of everyone who occupied it. 

Some governments had just one minister responsible for transport. This one has three plus two parliamentary secretaries. 

The Andrews government's strong infrastructure program has given Minister Allan plenty of good things to say and ribbons to cut (though budget and project management present a substantial and growing risk). Minister Horne lacks that luxury, not least because there have been so few bus network reforms and train frequency upgrades to announce. 

This is not necessarily all her fault since large upgrades require additional recurrent funding that Cabinet and/or Treasury would need to approve. A rookie minister might not have much sway, particularly in a non-election year when blowouts elsewhere have tightened access to money.  

While small (but still worthwhile) bus upgrades could be paid for by pruning overservicing elsewhere on the network, the political risk that this carries seems to be considered worse than maintaining the current stasis. And this presentation earlier in her career didn't reveal much interest in network reform. 

There's still (just) time to turn that around and get things happening by the 2022 election. But at the moment there doesn't seem much that Minister Horne could look back on and say "I did that". Unlike Peter Batchelor and his bus upgrades, Lynne Kosky and Regional Rail Link or Jacinta Allan and Metro Tunnel. While ordinarily considered a minor portfolio, even something like boating and fishing would have given its holder more satisfaction.  

One who shapes events or is shaped by them?

While eager ministers may like to see their job as implementing policies developed in opposition, they eventually find that they are also there to administer competently and respond wisely to circumstances not of their making. Their reaction to the challenges their portfolio throws up can be so important that it defines their public record and career progress. It's like surfing; the good ones can ride the waves while the bad ones get dumped. Consider the widely praised Daniel Andrews versus the generally panned Scott Morrison during the bushfires. Andrews' authority was confirmed while Morrison's was diminished.  

A festering sore in transport has been Metro Trains' slowly declining reliability, with below par service for about the last year. Even the performance data on this has increasingly come out late.  Then there is the current industrial disputation. All this is about service delivery. Good performance here doesn't win many plaudits but the brickbats come flying when it's poor.    

A junior minister lacks the authority to control some wider things that affect their portfolio. For example they may more often be told what the budget will be than have input into it. Neither might they be party to all back-room machinations that  may see industrial disagreements resolved or prolonged. Both factors would make their job harder. 

However it seems essential to this minister's standing, which I suspect is weaker than that of some less high-flying colleagues, that the current disputes are quickly settled, preferably without hurt to the government's budget. Otherwise the risk is that this is a minister who becomes, at least in the public eye, defined by events rather than being the engine behind them.  

As for normal programming, apparently the parties are negotiating, points of difference are few and a deal is imminent. Expect Building Melbourne's Useful Network to return next week.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #59: Six places with better public transport at 2am on a Sunday than 2pm on a Sunday

Most of Melbourne's bus network reflects a patchwork of initiatives at various times. For example some got service increases while others didn't. Governments may have cut funding to some but not others. Or a new route may have been layered over an existing unchanged network. With few exceptions (eg 2010 when multiple SmartBus routes commenced) new initiatives represent only a small proportion of what's already there and, in recent times much less than population growth. 

The result, in many areas, is a complex network where routes do not reflect current needs and timetables are remnants of planning practice years and sometimes decades ago.

Night Network

Night Network has been the biggest metropolitan-wide public transport service initiative since the SmartBus orbitals went in about ten years ago. It was high profile, forming the main PT service policy of the victorious Labor Party in 2014. It comprises service over the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings on all regular Metro train lines, six tram routes and approximately twenty special overnight only bus routes. 

I haven't talked much about Night Network here. That's been an oversight.

What became Night Network was known as 'Homesafe' before the election. There were concerns about alcohol fuelled violence with people staying in the city longer than they should have. Taxis were expensive and the only public transport was Night Rider buses. These were quite well used but considered marginal to a city that traditionally shuns buses in favour of trains and trams. There was also an aim to grow the city's night time economy and improve the ability of the food and entertainment workers who drive it to get to and from jobs.

Night Network then got sold by civic leaders as one of those symbolic things that defines how we see and sell ourselves as a city, especially when compared to what some might regard as 'rivals' eg Sydney. The Night Network gives substance to the narrative that only Melbourne is a 24 hour city, open for business, as opposed to Sydney's airport curfew and (recently repealed) late night lockout rules. And every politician's communication adviser loves a story to tell.

Big narratives can sometimes be a crutch for measures that on their own are counterproductive ('Free' Tram Zone) silly (expensive station roofs), expensive (high speed rail), or, at best, carry high opportunity costs. This is because once a measure becomes entwined with a favoured narrative, it tends to get exemption from serious analysis. Where this happens cheaper less glamorous but more beneficial initiatives like bus service upgrades in high-needs seats like Mulgrave, (held by state premier Daniel Andrews) can get crowded out. 

Night Network trains, trams and buses carry more people than the previous bus-only system. It largely fixed the ridiculously late starting time of Sunday trains in Melbourne that hindered so many peoples travel. And it made our transport a bit more job-ready, an important but often overlooked network planning aim. These gains are not to be sneezed at.

Not widely discussed in polite company though is Night Network's cost-effectiveness. It can't be very high, at least for its rail component. Imagine all those bored station staff and PSOs just to support  hourly trains. And running Night Network trains means that maintenance is shifted to busier times when more people are forced onto substitute buses.

In an echo of elite-dominated 'Free' Tram Zone and airport rail debates, 'Hang the opportunity costs, we're building a world city' seems the prevailing view among our civic leaders. Of course, especially where associated with councils or the federal government, such leaders can virtue signal all they like but don't have to fund transport services themselves as that's a state government job.

One could also argue that Night Network trains constitute symbolic more than useful transport due to the hourly frequency. And our provincial-style thirty minute waits between trains in the five hours of evening leading up to Night Network are two or three times longer than those in any city we'd want to compare ourselves (including Sydney). That's important. Especially for people who need to get to work on time, such as required to drive the night time economy. If you define 20 minutes as an acceptable minimum service frequency, all but one of Melbourne's train lines comply for just 9 of the day's 24 hours on a Sunday.

Upgrading evening train frequencies seven nights per week and running after 1am service as quarter to half-hourly buses, as more common elsewhere, might have been a better service mix with wider benefits. I'd certainly have favoured this in the pre-Night Network era if given a choice. Unfortunately, for our international city-spruiking coterie such an improvement, though very beneficial, may seem mundane, lacking the 'wow factor' of all night trains. To summarise, Night Network's rail component wins points as a city-strengthening initiative. However, apart from the Sunday morning upgrade, it's weaker as a transport policy.

What about Night Network buses? These rank among the quietest routes on the network. Possibly because they run on special routes that people don't know (daytime buses are hard enough to fathom in many areas). You might cut almost empty Night Buses some slack because a developed bus network should be more than just peak hour commuters and school students. However such arguments weaken when even daytime service is poor or non-existent. Consider that when reading what follows.

Service oddities

I've cited Night Network because it was implemented as a metropolitan wide network in one go. When Night Network came to an area nothing else about its public transport changed. That's not unreasonable because regular services are not usually operating during Night Network hours. 

But it does leaves oddities in the service. For example (with exceptions) your average suburb's buses finish around 9pm on a Friday or Saturday. But if it has a Night Network bus an hourly service returns around 1 or 2am after four hours of no service.

In other cases an area might have a better service at 2am on a Sunday than 2pm on a Sunday or even weekday. The roads are busier at 2pm than 2am but Night Network's coming gave certain places more service where demand was least.

Where are these places? Where can you find better public transport at 2am on a Sunday than at 2pm Sunday? That's today's topic. Six examples below: 

952 vs 468 Essendon - Highpoint

Bus route 468 provides a short but potentially important connection between the busy Highpoint Shopping Centre and Essendon Station. The 952 Night Bus almost entirely overlaps it except for a short segment near Buckley St. While Highpoint generates far more traffic at 2pm Sunday than 2am Sunday, the bus connection to Essendon only runs in the wee hours due to 468's limited operating hours. Meanwhile the area's extended hours 903 SmartBus duplicates much of the existing 465 to Buckley St instead of running to Highpoint. More on this here.

The 468 is in the seats of Footscray (Katie Hall MP) and Essendon (Danny Pearson MP).

967 vs 745 Scoresby Rd 

Here's a case where the service at 2am Sunday is not only better than that at 2pm Sunday but also any other time of the week. I'm talking about Scoresby Rd south of Bayswater. All it has is the once-daily 745A and some occasional 753 extensions during the day. But it gets a full Night Bus service. This is because the City of Knox never got a full daytime bus network despite it being largely settled thirty years ago. An economical solution for better daytime services on Scoresby Rd is discussed here.

The 745 and 753 are in the seats of Bayswater (Jackson Taylor MP) and Ferntree Gully (Nick Wakeling MP).

978 & 979 vs 800 Princes Hwy

978 vs 814 Jacksons Rd

Route 800 runs along most of Princes Hwy between Chadstone, Oakleigh and Dandenong. During the week it's a major route with above-average patronage. However there's no Sunday service and Saturday afternoon service drops to every two hours before finishing around 4pm. In contrast various segments of Night Bus routes operate hourly around 2am Sunday. Another example where better service is provided during quieter times and no service runs during busier times. More on the 800 here. The 814 on Jacksons Rd is another example in the area where there's no Sunday daytime service but buses run in the small hours. A discussion on an improved network for Greater Dandenong is here

The 800 and 814 are in the seats of Mulgrave (Daniel Andrews MP) and Dandenong (Gabrielle Williams MP).

965 vs 685 and 686 to the Sanctuary

There may be some nocturnal animals there but 2am Sunday is not exactly the busiest time for Healesville Sanctuary. And the charming shops of Healesville's main street won't be open either. Yet it is in the wee hours that it gets its most intensive bus service from Lilydale thanks to the 965 loop. That gives hourly departures with alternating clockwise and anticlockwise directions. Meanwhile, at 2pm on a Sunday the 686 doesn't run while the 685 to Lilydale has two or three hour gaps. More on the 685 here.  

The 685 and 686 are in the seats of Eildon (Cindy McLeish MP) and Evelyn (Bridget Vallence MP).

961 vs 281 High Street Templestowe

This is less significant than the others as the distances are shorter. But I thought it worth mentioning anyway. A section of High St only has the 281 and the 309. Neither run Sundays. Even though 281 is a potentially useful route to Shoppingtown. In contrast the 961 runs a half-hourly service in the small hours. A cheap upgrade to the 281 to economically get 7 day more frequent service is discussed here.

The 281 is in the seats of Bulleen (Matthew Guy MP) and Box Hill (Paul Hamer MP).

982 vs 845 in Endeavour Hills 

The 982 Night Network bus goes a very similar way to the 845 through Endeavour Hills. The big difference though is the timetables. In the small hours of Sunday it's running hourly. In contrast the 845, like most other Endeavour Hills routes is only every two hours during the day. More on Endeavour Hills buses here

The 845 is in the seats of Dandenong (Gabrielle Williams MP) and Narre Warren North (Luke Donnellan MP).


I've discussed six areas that get better buses at 2am Sunday than during the day (when demand is likely to be higher). Observations are that some Night Network buses are very poorly used. Should we continue with them or would it be better to put some of the resources they use into boosting Sunday daytime services which in some cases is non-existent? While Night Network delivered benefits should we be aware of its opportunity costs where alternatives could have been more widely beneficial?  If you have ideas please leave them in the comments below. 

PS: An index to all Timetable Tuesday items is here.

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Friday, January 24, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 36: The great Preston Reservoir bus route clean-up

I covered parts of Reservoir back in Useful Network #2 as part of changes also involving Bundoora and Epping. Key local improvements were boosting Route 556 to every 20 min (possible for no cost if it is straightened) and extending 552 to Keon Park Station (also possible if its off-peak frequency is reduced from 15 to 20 minutes, a measure that would harmonise with trains).  

However the local bus network is so complex that I couldn't cover everything in a single item. Hence today's return to the area. To refresh your memory, here is the local bus network.

Apart from quite good coverage, the local bus network has little to commend it. Most of the routes are one or more of the things that good bus routes ought not to be. That's what you get when you let a network accrete over decades with no reviews to check that services meet community needs. It's common for routes to be indirect (553, 558, 566, 567), have occasional deviations (553, 555, 558), terminate short of anywhere useful (526, 552, 553, 558, 567), inefficiently duplicate other routes (382, 553) or have limited operating hours (526, 550, 558). One (558) even reverses direction at noon. 

Most of the area is in the state seat of Preston, held by Robin Scott MP. This is a safe Labor seat.  

Existing Useful Network

Below is the existing Useful Network, that is routes that run every 20 minutes or better off-peak weekdays. It's fairly sparse with north-west Reservoir particularly poorly served. There are other gaps in both west and east Preston, with the latter having a significant low income high bus using population. Northland has connections from three main directions while La Trobe has them from five. There is a particular problem in reaching Northland from the north-west and north. 

Because so many routes run every 22 to 24 minutes they just miss being on this map, and, significantly for passengers, miss connectivity with trains and potentially each other.


Even though the existing Useful Network is sparse there are more opportunities for cost-effective bus reform in this area than most others. This is for several reasons:

(a) The area is established residential so there is no need to spend precious bus resources on improving coverage (except in minor cases) 
(b) Most routes are currently only slightly less frequent than the desired every 20 minutes (eg every 22 to 24 minutes)
(c) There is significant overlap between routes. Removal of overlaps and straightening of routes could allow frequency upgrades without having to buy many extra buses. 
(d) The network has had no serious review since the 1990s or even the 1970s (see old network maps here). Proof of this can be found in the Regent terminus location for some routes like the 567 (whose choice reflects the old 86 tram terminus and now run-down shops).

Existing bus resources and productivity

Here's a list of local routes, accompanied by my guess as to the number of buses they currently use. They are in reverse order of productivity as measured in boardings per bus operating hour.

552 6 buses (extension discussed in Part 2)
567 4 buses 
555 5 buses
556 6 buses (discussed in Part 35)

558 1 bus
566 8 buses (discussed in Part 23 approach here slightly different)
553 2 buses
550 1.5 bus (possibly interlined with another route) 

526 1 bus
382 1 bus (Bundoora RMIT - Northland portion only) 

552, 567, 555 and 556 are above average, attracting between 30 and 25 boardings per hour. 552's basic weekday frequency is every 15 minutes versus about 22 minutes for the rest. None harmonise with trains and none but the first have an even clockface timetable. Also most have weak termini. Attention to these might improve their performance further, especially if they could be straightened or resources can be found from lower performing routes in areas where there is overlapping coverage.

The next group, comprising routes 558, 566, 553 and 550, get between 23 and 20 boardings/hour. They are considered just viable according to how Infrastructure Victoria analyse bus routes But there is scope for them to do better since all have significant issues including overlapping other routes. 

526 and 382 round off the list with only 17 boardings per hour. 526 has substantial unique coverage but has a weak northern terminus so it's basically a shuttle to and from Coburg. And 382 has no unique coverage (south of Bundoora RMIT) as it entirely duplicates a large length of Tram 86 and other routes on its way to Northland. 

Reasonable responses to these numbers might include making the route more appealing where you think it has potential (eg 526 and 558) or deleting it where much just overlaps other services (eg 382). 

An expanded Useful Network (getting to every 20 min nearly everywhere)

I discussed the 553 in detail here. A confusing route like this, where it tries to do bits of many things and has mediocre patronage performance simply has no place in a modern bus system. The buses it uses should be declared surplus, able to be used locally to deliver wide-ranging network improvements. 

Similar comments apply to the portion of the 382 between Bundoora RMIT and Northland, especially given it heavily duplicates the much more frequent tram and other buses all the way and its low existing usage.

The remains of 553 and part of 382 gives us something like 3 buses to play with. A good down-payment on what you'd need to reform an area's network where existing route need to be made only slightly more frequent to get to our desired 20 minute frequency on as many as we can.

The map below gives the idea. Four or five routes get upgraded to every 20 minutes, giving a much more complete Useful Network, serving thousands more homes in the area. Thinner lines (eg extended 526) show a 30 minute service, providing local coverage with 7 day service. 

The colour coding represents interdependencies between routes. That is groups of related changes that depend on one another. If you wanted to stagger implementation over three or four stages certain changes would need to be made together.

Possible stages could be as follows:

Stage 1 (not annotated on map): Upgrade 556 from every 22 to every 20 min. Discussed last week in Useful Network 35. Can be done independently as there are no route changes in Preston / Reservoir area.

Stage 2 (green): Delete the very indirect and confusing Route 553. Coverage retained by extending or modifying the following routes:

526: Extend east to 11 tram terminus, then across to Regent Station and Northland. Preferably merge with 550 to La Trobe University. This route would run every 30 minutes on weekdays to retain service levels of existing 526, 550 and 553. 7 day service would operate, extending this to a large area currently without it. Operate with three buses, with at least two coming from existing 526 and 550 operations. This provides a much more useful local bus, serving many nearby shopping and education destinations.

555: Reroute to terminate at Thornbury instead of Northland to replace 553 in area. Remove kink on Allenby Av (north of Reservoir). Align route to bring buses to a section of Spring St north of Preston Station. This is an overall straightening and shortening that should assist in upgrading frequency from every 22 to every 20 minutes. Time services to provide easy same-stop Northland connection to upgraded 556 or 558 at Reservoir (5-6 buses / hour on weekdays). You may be able to obtain some efficiencies by interlining a shortened 556 with 555 at Epping Plaza if 555's run time is still excessive. 

558: Reroute to form simple linear route serving Ruthven Station and taking in areas served by 553 deviation. Extend all trips to Campbellfield shops. Extend through Reservoir to Northland, replacing 555 in area. There would be no deviations and the service would be upgraded to run 7 days per week. 

Here is where you could be flexible on service levels. The route's 12-13km length means a single bus can take two-thirds of an hour. Thus a very basic service running every 40 minutes would need two buses (or one extra when we count the existing one that currently does the route). The route suggested is simpler but would represent a significant frequency cut over the current 25 - 30 minutes. So if at all possible I'd introduce one more bus for a clockface 30 minute frequency. 

We could even go further; given the large catchment that we're asking of the 558 due to its straightening and the removal of the 553 deviation there's a case for a 20 minute service which would need an extra bus. An even more ambitious plan could extend this to Glenroy to amalgamate with the 536. 

If coverage in north-west Reservoir is considered more important there could instead be two linear routes every 40 minutes each, with many in between having the option to walk to either. If run time is an issue only one of them (probably the southern route as it's further from the 902) need go all the way to Campbellfield. The northern route would remain as the 558 while the southern route could run as the 553 given it's already in the area. 

Stage 3 (red): Extend Route 567 to La Trobe University direct via Plenty Rd instead of Regent Station to provide stronger northern terminus (Regent Station would gain extended 526 instead). Upgrade from every 22 to every 20 minutes to provide simple clockface timetable.

Reroute 566 to serve housing east of Plenty Rd (replacing 567) with extended 526 replacing it west of Albert St. Simplified to operate Northland - Greensborough only with Lalor - Mill Park - Greensborough portion forming another route (more detail here). Timetable upgraded to every 20 minutes. 

Deleting the poorly used and duplicative Route 382 south of Bundoora RMIT (1 bus saving) could help to fund this upgrade. Further resources for improved Greensborough to RMIT and LaTrobe University connections could come from simplifying routes in the Greensborough-St Helena-Eltham area (which has many overlaps and poorly used routes). More on this here

Stage 4 (blue): Extend Route 552 to Keon Park Station to provide improved access to train and 902 bus. Less dead terminus should make route more useful. May need extra bus to be found if existing 15 minute frequency is retained. 

What isn't changed? I've tried to keep things simple. I haven't proposed any changes in the area for routes 250, 251 and 561. However potential exists elsewhere in Preston for cheaply added ten minute frequencies. Read about the amalgamation of Route 527 and 903 to provide a 10 minute 'megabus' corridor between Coburg, Northland and Heidelberg here.


Presented are potentially low-cost bus upgrades for the Preston and Reservoir area. Like with almost any cost-effective reform there are some shortcomings. For example: 

* Route 555 loses its direct service to Northland but gains Thornbury. Not all will like that swap, though effort should be made to provide same-stop timetable harmonised connections to Northland buses. 

* Some parts of Preston West lose their direct bus to Reservoir due to the 553's replacement. On the other hand some gain vastly better connections to bigger destinations like Coburg, Northland and LaTrobe University. 

* Parts of eastern Reservoir north of Northland lose a direct train connection with the 567 rerouting. Although to be fair its timetable never harmonised anyway. And they gain increased frequency, a clockface timetable and a new La Trobe University connection. 

Overall though I think there are more gains than losses, with vastly more people gaining a 20 minute service, clockface timetables and connectivity with trains. The network is much simpler with no deviations and everything running 7 days per week. Plus some changes, like the straightened 567 extended to La Trobe University, set things up for further upgrades such as a southward extension to better connect with students in the Hawthorn or Burnley area.  

After all that it's over to you. Is it a good network or could it be improved? Would some trade-offs disadvantage too many? Or are there more things that could be done? If you have any comments on this please leave them below. 

An index to all Useful Networks is here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #58: Thirteen Melbourne bus routes that most deserve Saturday service

Twenty years ago Melbourne had only a rudimentary bus system. Operating hours catered for school, and some shopping and commuting trips but little else, with almost nothing running after 7pm or on Sundays. What service improvements occurred in the 1980s were more than reversed in savage 1990/1991 cuts. Then networks and timetables largely sat idle for ten or fifteen years as the rest of society changed its living, shopping, working and travel patterns.

There were some small upgrades a few years prior but the 'big bang' was the arrival of the 2006 Meeting our Transport Challenges plan (MOTC). It promised seven day service and longer operating hours on 250 existing bus routes. At the time there were about 300 routes, with most of the difference being industrial, peak-only or university routes that did not need weekend service.

Something like 100 (maybe 150) routes did get upgrades by 2010. However it wasn't the 250 within the four years promised. Consequently there remain many routes with six day service, including some quite busy ones. Those that were most in need of upgrade were identified in Thirteen Melbourne bus routes that most deserve Sunday service back in August. 

A smaller but still significant number of bus routes lack Saturday as well as Sunday service. This is today's topic. The total would be close to fifty if you included weekday only routes such as various peak industrial, commuter and university routes. Leave those out and the number comes down to about thirty. That is roughly ten percent of the remaining bus routes in Melbourne. However that number still includes some fringe area and interpeak shopper routes that typically attract very low usage. 

Here's the list with top priority first. I'll discuss how I arrived at it later. 

#1. Route 802 Chadstone - Dandenong. The 802 serves major train stations at Oakleigh and Dandenong. As well as the massive Chadstone Shopping Centre and Monash University bus interchange. Weekday patronage is good. It has a low income catchment that heavily uses buses. 804's main unique catchment is in Dandenong North. While the 802 overlaps other routes like 804 and 862 introducing Saturday service would allow a higher combined frequency on a major bus corridor and improve service consistency. Hence I've made the 802 high priority. Costs of an upgrade could be reduced by doing it in conjunction with a local network restructure that simplifies routes.

#2. Route 821 Southland - Clayton. This is a cross-country route that connects Clayton Station to the larger Southland shopping centre. It has some similarities with the 631 (which does run Saturdays) but goes a different way. Also Clayton, being home to many university students, has excellent demographics for high bus usage throughout the week. Much of the route is industrial but an upgrade would improve connections to Southland from the residential area of Clarinda.

#3. Route 675 Chirnside Park - Mooroolbark. The 675 is the second busiest route on weekdays that lacks Saturday service. It also serves a lower-middle income catchment with limited weekend public transport and connects a major shopping centre with its nearest train station.

#4. Route 551 Heidelberg - La Trobe Uni. This is a short route connecting some residential areas to Heidelberg Station and La Trobe University. The latter is probably why its weekday usage is good. The route would likely disappear or be incorporated into another but for the interim a Saturday service would assist students who go to the university library to study on weekends. 

#5. Route 531 Upfield - North Coburg. Weekday patronage on the 531 is fairly weak due to overlap with other routes. However a social case for an upgrade exists as it serves the low-income Somerset Estate, Campbellfield which is unwalkable from other areas and has only the Saturday morning Route 538 operating. Saturday (and Sunday) service would be most economical if the upgrade was introduced along with network reform in the area that would amalgamate routes 531 and 538.   

#6. Route 774 Frankston - Delacombe Park. The 774 is the busiest route on weekdays that lacks Saturday service. Some of its weekday patronage comes from Frankston High School which it passes. However even on school holidays productivity is still an above-average 30 boardings per hour. This strengthens the case for Saturday service even though it's a short route. Addition of Saturday service would also improve frequency in the area and potentially assist simplification of the loop routes and occasional deviations that plague the area's bus network.

#7. Route 783 Frankston - Hastings. This route parallels and partly overlaps the 782. However the 783 provides better coverage of parts of Somerville and West Park Estate, a low income area near Hastings with little other service. Adding Saturday (and preferably Sunday) service could simplify buses in the area with other network reforms.  

#8. Route 546 Heidelberg - Queen Vic Market. This is a moderately used route that almost but does not quite run to Melbourne CBD. It provides unique coverage to parts of Eaglemont that currently only gets 5 day service. 546 also serves a densifying and developing area including that around the old paper mill at Fairfield. Other local network reforms discussed here.

#9. Route 680 Lilydale - Mooroolbark. Weekday patronage is only average (or slightly below) for the area. However Saturday service is recommended because the residential area it serves has coverage from no other bus route.  

#10. Route 823 North Brighton - Southland. The 823 is an hourly weekday route with limited operating hours and not much of a train feeder function. However it has greater potential on Saturday thanks to its ability to provide a direct connection to the busy Southland shopping centre. A northward extension to Elsternwick should strengthen its currently fairly weak patronage. More on the 823 here.  

#11. Route 758 Knox City - Knoxfield. Much like 680, this is a route that is the only one in its neighbourhood. Monday to Friday patronage is weak due to its limited frequency and operating hours. Saturday service would add service to an area where a substantial walk would otherwise be required. 

#12. Route 757 Knox City - Scoresby. A very similar route to 757 except it's on the other side of Stud Rd. Comments are as for 758.

#13. Route 842 Endeavour Hills - Fountain Gate. Currently a thrice daily weekday route with low patronage. However its operation between well-populated Endeavour Hills and the larger Fountain Gate shopping offer some potential if it operated on Saturday.    


How did I arrive at that list? I think its contents are OK but every time I look at it I have different thoughts about the priority order. You might also have opinions on what is more or less important.

Anyway to make the list I started with a list of routes without Saturday service. Peak only, industrial and special university routes were removed. 

I then ranked them in reverse order of weekday passenger boardings per bus hour (highest first).

Admittedly this is a poor measure for a couple of reasons:

(1) Peak and school trips can make numbers irrelevant for what you might get on a Saturday.
(2) One can argue that you can't estimate demand for a bridge by counting the number swimming across (ie the service isn't there to start with).

Anyway the list is below. (*) indicates inclusion in the top 13 list above. 

774 suburban residential and school 37 *
309 suburban residential  mainly peak 36
675 suburban residential 33 *
821 suburban residential 32 *
551 suburban residential & university 31 *
802 suburban residential 29 *
783 suburban residential 26 *
546 suburban residential 21 *
886 fringe & TAFE 20
680 suburban residential 18 *
609 special  17
343 special (duplicative) 14
704 suburban residential 13
531 suburban residential 11 *
758 suburban residential 11 *
757 suburban residential 10 *
823 suburban residential 10 *
686 suburban residential 9
842 interpeakpeak shopper 9*
795 fringe semi rural 8
TB9 suburban residential 8
838 fringe semi rural 7
TB7 suburban residential 7
706 interpeak shopper 6
887 special and university (partly duplicative) 6
777 interpeak shopper 5
TB8 suburban residential 5
687 fringe semi rural 2
673 suburban residential (duplicative) 1
696 interpeak shopper 1
511 suburban residential ?

Other factors used included whether the route provided much unique catchment, catchment demographics and attractions like large shopping centres that boost Saturday patronage. For example routes like 309 and 343 are entirely overlapped by other bus or train routes so did not feature. And most interpeak shopper and fringe routes have too limited unique coverage or sparsely populated catchments to justify inclusion in the top 13.  

Special mention must be made of 511 to Craigieburn. This currently has a token one weekday trip each way to a far flung but fast growing estate. That almost certainly could do with a Saturday service but not until there is a proper weekday service.  

Half-day Saturday service

Another quirk with Melbourne's buses is that some routes remain with half day Saturday timetables. Melbourne got Saturday afternoon trading in 1987. Many routes gained Saturday afternoon trips. However not all did. And many timetables were subsequently slashed by the Cain/Kirner axe a few years later.  

Today at least eight routes reflect old times with only Saturday morning service. In reverse order of Saturday passenger boardings per hour they are as follows: 

814 suburban residential 29 (larger area reforms discussed here)
559 suburban residential 27 (discussed here)
815 suburban residential 21 (larger area reforms discussed here)
512 suburban residential 17 (discussed here)
844 suburban residential 16 (3pm finish - discussed here)
538 suburban residential 14 (discussed here
558 suburban residential 13 (discussed here)
697 suburban residential/fringe 11
857 suburban residential/industrial 9
699 suburban residential/fringe 5 (discussed here)

The main concentrations are in Melbourne's established northern suburbs, around Dandenong and in the outer east. Some have high weekday usage. The existence of these oddities owes not to low demand but because bus timetables are rarely reviewed and outdated service arrangements can endure for decades. 

Other short operating hours on Saturday

Even more numerous than routes only with Saturday morning service are routes with Saturday afternoons but not evenings. These are legacies of the bus network that never got MOTC upgrades. Back then the standard bus finished before 7pm on weekdays and about 6pm on Saturdays with no Sunday service. MOTC upgrades were skewed towards bus routes on regular contracts; those franchised out to operators like Melbourne Bus Link and National Bus rarely got a look-in. 

This 'path dependency' influences today's timetables, even where routes got reformed or upgrades. For example some results of Transdev's 2014 revised network in the eastern suburbs still have pre-2006 Saturday finish times and either no Sunday service or only two hour gaps between services. Reflecting divisions between operators, most of these are found in the eastern suburbs, most notably around Doncaster and Ringwood (where services are run by Transdev) and in some northern, outer-eastern and south-eastern suburbs that have routes passed over by the MOTC upgrades. 

Public holidays

There's a complex relationship between Saturday timetables and public holidays. The standard arrangement is that bus routes with a weekend service operate on public holidays (either a Saturday or Sunday timetable depending on the holiday). However there are many 6-day and even some 7-day routes that have no public holiday service. Read an earlier post at The public holiday gamble on Melbourne's buses or a detailed treatment of the topic here:


What do you think? Should more buses get Saturday service? Is the list of 13 selected fair? Should other routes be included. Or should some not be. Please leave your comments below if you have an opinion.

PS: An index to all Timetable Tuesday items is here.

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