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.

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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AuntyFrank said...

I fell in love with the 382 when I was houseminding in West Heidelberg this holidays. To avoid lugging my luggage on and off buses and trams to University Hill Bundoora, I walked to Northland (after checking the timetable) and caught the 382 all the way.
Yes, it duplicates the 86 tram, but the tram is not to be depended on; strikes, drunken lunatics and the tendency for short running mean I preferred the 382. Most of my fellows were old ladies with shopping trolleys, but that is true of most buses out of Northland, and the rest got on during the tram duplication and carried on past the tram terminus (Asian students mostly).

Certainly, more buses can connect tram and train services, especially when it is a crapshoot which of them is having works carried out...and the 566 is weird! I have lived in Bundoora for 2 years and I still don't understand it, and it makes no effort to meet Greensborough trains.

PS:The 570 RMIT to Thomastown, (which you didn't mention; too North) is a reliable workhorse, meeting trains at Thomastown and waiting for passengers off the train in the evening; if only it ran all night! And because it doesn't travel on Plenty Rd it isn't made late by traffic. Only problem; the terminus is listed as Betula Ave and so it is never one of my suggested journeys on Journey planner.

Peter H said...

Another way the new 558 could be extended from Cambellfield (instead of to Gowrie and Glenroy), would for it to replace the northern section of 531 (and an eliminated 538) by going on to Upfield via Somerset Estate.

Peter Parker said...

SOME FURTHER THOUGHTS: Likely additional overall cost but I think are worthwhile.

1. Retain 555's current alignment to Northland. Slightly extra run time but keeps popular route going to key destination. And may be able to interline with more direct 556 to get to 20 min frequency.
2. Retain 553 from Thornbury but route along Spring St then to north-west Reservoir to fill in part of 558 coverage. You might not extend to Campbellfield especially if easy interchange can be arranged with 902.
3. Split 357 at Epping. Southern part of becomes 558 to Reservoir via north-west Reservoir. Concept here is that it connects western Thomastown to places other than Epping, Lalor and Thomastown, some jobs in industrial area and Reservoir.