Friday, January 17, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 35: Northern Epping

One of Melbourne's major growth corridors is around Wollert, about 25 km north of the city, beyond Epping. It ranks with the large subdivisions between Cranbourne and Berwick as one of the emerging areas with the least public transport infrastructure or prospects of same. This is because it's off the main rail corridor, which from Epping has been successively extended east and then north to South Morang and Mernda. 

Aurora, developed by VicUrban in the early 2000s, is one of the area's earliest estates. A rail extension, branching off from Lalor, was included in its master plan. Plans mentioned transport corridors but were vague as to the mode and timing. For years the area had only a single bus route (the former Route 575), operating only every 40 minutes even during peak times. 2016 brought an upgrade, with three routes (356, 357 and 358) replacing the 575, providing new coverage. Off-peak service remained at every 40 minutes but peak service doubled to every 20 minutes. These three routes form the basis of today's public transport in the area, with no subsequent changes apart from a minor extension to Route 357 happening later this month.

Older areas, mostly developed between the 1970s and 1990s are to the south and south east towards Epping. These include areas off Findon Rd served by the 577 discussed on Tuesday. Also nearby is Route 556 along Derby Dr. 

The area east of Epping Rd is in the seat of Mill Park, held by Lily D'Ambrosio MP with the rest in Thomastown, held by Bronwyn Halfpenny. Both are safe Labor seats. 

Existing Useful Network

I explain the Useful Network concept here. It's those routes that are frequent enough and run over long enough hours to be useful for many trips. I've specified a 20 minute frequency on weekdays and 7 day service until 9pm. In other words the coloured lines on the Melbourne Public Transport Frequent Network map with the 20 minute frequency selected. This map shows the sparsity of Useful Network routes in most fringe areas, despite their sometimes high population densities. 

Below is the existing Useful Network for the northern Epping area. Just two routes qualify. These are the Mernda train line and the 901 SmartBus. No single Useful Network route runs north of McDonalds Rd. This leaves tens of thousands of people with only sparse transport access at most times. 

Some routes and corridors almost but don't quite make it on the Useful Network map. These include the hairpin-like 556. This runs every 22 minutes from Northland to Epping Station. It then goes east, half way to South Morang Station (which didn't exist when the route started) then returns in a hairpin like loop to Epping Plaza. Only a few 556 stops in this area are unique due to the substantially overlapping 901 orbital (also between Epping and South Morang).   

The 356 and 357 also have an overlap along High St/Epping Rd. These provide a combined 20 minutes on weekdays. However weekday peak and many evening and weekend timetables are less well spaced with gaps approaching an hour followed by two buses within a couple of minutes.  

Existing regular network

The map below shows all bus routes in the area. They typically run every 40 minutes off-peak with the 577 (uneven 20 to 40 minute frequency) and 556 (every 22 minutes) offering a higher service. All operate to minimum standards, ie a 7 day service every hour or better until approximately 9pm. Key issues with each route are noted on the map.

The Epping Rd/High St corridor

Before proposing an expanded Useful Network, I'll discuss the Epping Rd corridor in more detail. After all it is here that one might run a future frequent bus route. And in the interim upgrade services along as much of it as possible. 

Routes 356 and 357 overlap between Epping and the Epping North Shopping Centre on Lyndarum Dr. Then they branch off, 357 to the west and 356 to the east and then north. They depart from the same bay at Epping Station and are evenly spaced during weekdays off-peak but not necessarily at other times (discussed previously). 

There are dense apartment buildings on both sides of Epping Rd. Their low unit prices would make them 'affordable housing', for both buyers and tenants. Such a housing mix may include populations with a high propensity to use public transport. 

Both 356 and 357 go near the shops and pass apartment estates like Waratah Gardens. However there are no stops where people can catch both routes to exploit the 20 minute combined clockface service to Epping. Instead they must take a gamble on which bus is coming next and pick their stop carefully. 

The result is that although six buses per hour pass Waratah Gardens during peaks (and three off-peak) the usable service is halved by the pack of a stop serving both routes. The same applies for the Epping North Shopping Centre. 

Stop spacing is another issue on Epping Rd. 356 and 357 buses zoom past but do not stop for a 700 metre gap. This spacing is double the 300 to 400 metre spacing normally accepted as reasonable for local bus stops. Hence at least an extra pair of stops is required to provide adequate coverage.   

Epping Rd becomes High St further south. That also has problems with bus coverage. As discussed on Tuesday the 577 to South Morang has an 800 metre gap between stops. This makes travel to South Morang Station and the Plenty Valley Shopping Centre harder than it needs to be from parts of Epping.  

All three of the Wollert routes (356, 357 and 358) have between 21 and 25 passenger boardings per bus hour. This is fairly average for buses in Melbourne. Of these the 357 is the most productive, due likely to its amount of unique coverage and coverage of parts of Thomastown with favourable demographics for buses. Weekend usage is lower, at between 11 and 18 boardings per hour with 357 again being the best performer.   

Route 556's tangle

Slightly to the south of Findon Rd is Route 556. Its irregular 22-minute non-train harmonised frequency was noted above. It's also very indirect. Trips that should take 5 or 10 minutes to Epping Plaza Shopping Centre take three times that time due to a dogleg the route has east of Epping. This is long-established and was not sorted out when the Route 901 orbital added service in the area. And even if it's considered that the 556 should be retained in the area, an opportunity was not taken to operate it to South Morang Station when that opened several years later.

The 556's problems have been known for years. The Whittlesea local area bus review from about 10 years back proposed straightening the 556 (to improve directness) and interlining it with the 555 (also every 22 minutes) to form two upgraded and direct routes operating every 20 minutes and connecting with trains. This would be a highly beneficial cost-effective upgrade of two major routes.

I suggested a similar straightening of 556 as part of the Reservoir area Useful Network (UN #2). Since 556's catchment abuts Findon Rd and the 577, reform to it could happen independently as part of an Epping area review, although inclusion of a 555 upgrade as per the bus review would obviously be highly desirable.  

Expanded Useful Network

I will not cover Wollert and desirable frequency upgrades for routes like 357 on its own. While of merit they need new buses to be purchased. Instead I will concentrate on cheaper upgrades for parts of Epping Rd and the section east to South Morang.

Priorities could include the following:

1. New bus stops on Epping Rd to improve coverage and maximise the area accessible from both the 356 and 357 routes. One pair of stops should be as close as possible to Epping North Shopping Centre with another about 300 - 400 metres south. Pedestrian operated lights with quick response times to assure easy access to these new stops are needed. 

2. Rescheduling Routes 356 and 357 to provide more evenly spaced services 7 days per week, with priority given to peak, weekend and weekend evening service. The aim should be a 10 minute peak, 20 minute off-peak day and 30 minute evening service, coordinated with trains.

3. Additional stops on Route 577 to reduce the long gap between them on trips towards South Morang. Road treatments, traffic calming with zebra crossings at regular points on Findon Rd to allow safe and reliable pedestrian access to bus stops. 

4. Operating Route 556 direct from Epping Station to Epping Plaza with an upgrade to a 20 minute frequency.  This change to be introduced in conjunction with a new Route 576 between Epping and South Morang to replace the 556. A suggested frequency of 30 minutes peak, 40 minutes interpeak could apply, with Route 577 operating a similar service. Times could be staggered with 577 to improve frequency for those between both routes. While this entails a reduction to Route 577's peak service, current usage is low and many would benefit from the new 576 to South Morang and Findon Rd pedestrian upgrades.

5. Extend one of the Epping routes (either 356, 357 or 358) to Craigieburn for a new connection across the north. Previously mentioned here.

6. Further extend the abovementioned Craigieburn to Epping route to Bundoora RMIT and Greensborough via Mill Park to incorporate the reformed 566/proposed 565 mentioned here. The entire combined route would operate every 20 minutes or better at least on weekdays. If 357 is chosen you would need to split the existing route at Epping and operate the Epping to Thomastown portion separately. A 357 Useful Network upgrade was mentioned in Useful Network #2.  

Doing it for (almost) nothing

This is an 'oily rag' Useful Network. In other words I've sought to make at least some of the upgraded service possible for no or little cost in terms of bus requirements.  Let's see how we score. 

* 356/357 rescheduling. I've assumed that the number of trips stays the same but that rescheduling is possible to provide more even service during peak periods, weekends and weekend evenings. 

* Route 556 reform. Currently requires 6 buses to operate a 22 minute service. The run time is approximately 60 minutes with some scheduled dwell time at Epping in one direction. The 22 minute frequency, while unharmonised with trains, allows some recovery time. Shortening the route to operate directly between Epping Station and Epping Plaza cuts run time to approximately 50 minutes peak and 45 minutes interpeak. The existing 6 buses would easily support a 20 minute service, peak or off-peak, due to the shorter route. Since 556 has the same terminus and is run by the same operator as the 577 (and likely the new 576) some scheduling efficiencies or at least flexibility may be possible. For example it may be possible to use the saved time to enable an upgrade of Route 555 to an even 20 minutes by interlining services. 

* Existing Route 577 and new Route 576. I've assumed 3 buses now provide the existing 20 minute peak service and 2 buses run the existing 30 min (average) interpeak service on the 577. Run times are currently slightly over 20 min weekday, slightly under weekends.

New route 576 is slightly shorter than 577. So I've assumed a run time slightly less than 20 min each way. Add to 577 for about 40 minutes assuming that arriving 577s at South Morang form departing 576s (and vice versa). The concept is that a reduced frequency on 577 could free up resources for the new 576 (which would partly overlap the 577).

Two buses could (just) provide a basic 40 minute off-peak service (connecting with every second train). Three buses could enable a 30 minute  peak frequency on each route. If possible departures would be offset by 20 minutes so that those living between the two routes would gain a more frequent combined service. That would compensate some for the slight reduction in 577 frequency (as mentioned on Tuesday it currently has a lumpy timetable with uneven intervals and current boardings per hour performance is below average for Melbourne buses). 

Some scope may be possible for peak frequencies to be nearer their current 20-22 minutes if (a) there were additional efficiencies unlocked by making 556 shorter and interlining some trips, (b)  if Route 576 was commenced from Epping Station rather than Epping Plaza (since the nearby and more frequent 901 serves the Plaza), (c) the better peak frequency only operated on the 577 (since the new 576 is fairly close to the 901) and/or (d) an extra bus became available.

An even more radical change would be to not have 576 at all and concentrate all resources into the 577 which could run every 20 minutes all day. This measure would make pedestrian access improvements across Findon and McDonald roads essential to retain reasonable coverage if buses are removed from Derby Dr. Hence I am not suggesting this as a short term option. 

Even if none of the above happened and peak frequency was at 30 minutes those on Derby Dr would gain extra connections from South Morang Station that aren't currently available. They'd be able to get home by alighting at either Epping or South Morang rather than just Epping. And note the vastly better all-day train connectivity and shorter travel times in Reservoir and Thomastown thanks to the more harmonised, frequent and direct 556. 

The above is the cheap stuff that uses about the same number of buses and service hours as now. Points 5 and 6 before need more buses and more service hours. However they will deliver further  desirable upgrades, including 20 minute service into the heart of Wollert and a new east-west route connecting Craigieburn and Wollert with Bundoora RMIT, Greensborough and, via a tram connection, La Trobe University. 


Presented are potentially low-cost upgrades for the northern Epping area. If combined with the 556 change there are substantial benefits for Northland, Reservoir and eastern Thomastown as well.

If you have any comments about them please leave them below. 

An index to all 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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