Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #68: Stymied by SmartBus - the good but duplicative Route 293

Cross-suburban public transport connections across the Yarra are normally fairly limited. Unlike in most other places though service increases the further from the CBD you get. For example Chandler Hwy has just a few trips on the 609, Burke Rd has the 6 day per week half-hourly 548 and Manningham Rd across to Heidelberg has the 903 SmartBus. 

What really takes the cake though is the service along Fitzsimons Lane from Doncaster to Greensborough. That has two SmartBuses (901 and 902) plus Route 293. All up ten buses per hour during the day on a weekday but at irregular spacing. To the north-west Main Rd, Lower Plenty is similar with three overlapping routes including the 293, 513 and 901. Useful Network 23 discusses this in more detail.  

Today though I want to concentrate on the 293. While less frequent than the SmartBus routes it has some use.  As shown below it takes close to the most direct route possible between Greensborough and Doncaster Shoppingtown. Then it continues to Box Hill past the hospitals. The latter should not be underestimated since the hospitals are slightly beyond walking distance of the station for some people and the route (along with 281) provides their nearest connection to Doncaster. 

The map below has the network surrounding Route 293. Only a small part around Montmorency is uncovered by anything else. The rest of it overlaps either the 901 or 902 SmartBus. Ten years ago, before the SmartBus orbitals started, it was the only route in these parts. Its survival is unlike what happened in other areas, where the local routes 291 and 700 got incorporated into the 903 orbital SmartBus. It's no accident then that of the orbital smartbuses the 903 carries the most passengers per hour, partly due to the effort to avoid duplication with other routes (at least east of Northland; west of there 903's overlaps with other routes are substantial). 

Normally the SmartBus is the most direct route in an area, also serving the biggest destinations. That’s not so here with the 293 taking that crown. For example the 901 SmartBus serves the medium sized destination of Greensborough then goes directly to The Pines and Blackburn (all medium sized destinations). The 902 SmartBus connects Greensborough with the large destination of Doncaster but indirectly via Eltham. Whereas the 293 directly connects Greensborough with Doncaster and the even larger destination of Box Hill. 

Successful bus networks run their best routes the most direct way between the biggest destinations. However this is not what happens here with service levels out of kilter with directness and destination importance.   


Route 293 gets average to above average patronage relative to the service run. 

On weekdays it attracts 23 boardings per bus service hour which is very close to average for a metropolitan bus. 23 is also notable for it being about the speed (in km/h) of an average Melbourne suburban bus route. Expressed another way that’s roughly 1 boarding per bus service kilometre though as the 293 mainly sticks to main roads it might run a little faster. 

Patronage productivity peaks on Saturday with 28 passengers per bus hour. Sunday is a little lower at 25 boardings per hour. The shopping centres at Box Hill and Doncaster no doubt contribute to this. 293’s stronger alignment (versus the weak SmartBus alignments) possibly explains its relatively good patronage.

Why does 293 perform well despite all the overlaps, mostly with routes more frequent than it? There must be something good about its alignment. Any future bus network reform should respect and if possible build on this.  


Route 293 is an ex-Met route that was run by the National Bus Company before being included in the parcel of routes that went to Transdev. Like most routes with similar histories it never got minimum service standards that over 100 other routes received between 2006 and 2010. 

You can see this in the timetable. Operation hours are relatively long on weekdays except for the late first arrival at Box Hill (7:24 am) but are short on weekends. For example Saturday services finish around 6 or 7pm and Sunday around 6pm. 

Weekday peak period frequency is 20 to 30 minutes with a more constant 20 minute service to and from Greensborough. Interpeak service is 30 minutes. Weeknight and Saturday service is hourly. Because it missed minimum standards upgrades Route 293 is one of the few remaining Melbourne bus routes that only comes every 120 minutes on Sundays. 

Relationship with other routes

Many ex-Met routes had a partly overlapping companion route that provided doubled frequency over a busier section. Long-standing examples include 250 and 251. A more recently created example was 302 and 304 (simplified from 201, 202 and 302). The 216 / 219 pair in Footscray was only recently consolidated into one.

Where possible related routes should have consecutive route numbers for good legibility and easy finding of timetables on websites. This didn’t happen with Route 293 whose partner is Route 281 between Doncaster and Box Hill (including the hospitals). Combined frequencies in this section are 15 minutes weekdays and 30 minutes Saturdays. Route 281 has no evening and Sunday service, leaving just the 293 operating during these times. This makes the 281/293 corridor the only pair that drops so dramatically in frequency during the week – from every 15 minutes on weekdays to 30 minutes on Sunday and 120 minutes on Sunday. The lack of minimum standards operating hours is also rare for a corridor with a 15 min interpeak frequency (though 302/304 also share this problem).

History (and the orbitals' opportunity costs)

The route number 293 was associated with a service in the Box Hill/Doncaster area in the 1960s through to the early 1990s. It then fell out of use for a couple of years. However the 1994 National Bus network revived the 293 in its current form. You can see 1990s timetables and route maps on Krustylink. Its frequency was higher then than now, particularly on weekends. For example in 1994 the 293 ran every 40 min on Saturdays and 80 min on Sundays. However by 1997 Sunday service had been cut to 120 minutes where it remains today. Some time later the Saturday service went down to 60 minutes.

The 1994 timetable contained a map showing a particularly legible network between Box Hill, Doncaster and stations on the Hurstbridge line. You can see it below.

The 291 got replaced by the 903 SmartBus orbital. This ran more frequently (15 minutes on weekdays). The trade-off was that it no longer harmonised with trains at Heidelberg but it did harmonise with numerous services at Box Hill and Doncaster. And operating hours were better.

In contrast the 293 remained with the 901 and 902 orbitals running over the top. In this instance the orbitals made the network more complex, with more frequent service going the less direct way between the biggest trip generators. If we were more economical with the orbitals in the area we could have had a network simple like 1994's but with two or three times the service.

For example, as an alternative history, if we only had the orbitals from the Ringwood line south and reallocated the buses otherwise used on the orbitals north of the Ringwood line we might have had 291 and 293 SmartBuses each running every 10 minutes on weekdays and 20 minutes on weekends.

Elgar Rd/Box Hill Hospital and Tram Rd/Station St would have each got this service level, which would be 150% today's level on weekdays and 300 to 600% on weekends. A combined weekday frequency of 5 min weekdays (10 min weekends) would also run between Shoppingtown and Box Hill. Upgrading interpeak trains to every 10 minutes at Box Hill, Heidelberg and Greensborough would then have given the area a first-class turn-up-and-go network on its main roads with good train connections.

The moral is that while less glamorous than adding new orbitals, upgrading existing routes (if they're direct like the 293) might have delivered a better overall service for the same cost, especially if the routes chosen for the orbitals are duplicative, indirect and have poor catchments (as is true for the north-eastern quadrants for the 901 and to a lesser extent the 902).

If you weren't going to scrap the orbitals a less radical approach is to reroute them and modify local routes to lessen inefficient duplication. You couldn't fund the 10 minute frequencies mentioned above but there would still be some improvements including a simpler network, weekend upgrades and extended operating hours on more corridors.

Transdev wanted to do this in their 2015 greenfields network. You can read why it didn't happen here and see what they proposed below.

Transdev sought to incorporate the 281 and 293 into a more frequent Route 911 which would also replace the 901 orbital across the north. That would fix many duplication issues mentioned before. And it would boost trips to areas that are poorly served eg the hospitals at Box Hill and the High St corridor on the limited hours 281. It's not a bad concept. It is regrettable that rejection of Transdev's plan slowed and then halted large-scale bus network reform in Melbourne due to a department unable to convince the minister of the community benefits it can deliver.

Transdev's plan wasn't perfect. Eg the High St dogleg means it would be less direct between Greensborough and Doncaster than the current 293. And it would have cut some services in the west of Melbourne while retaining orbital coverage to some quiet areas (eg in the north east around Yarrambat) that barely justify a local route let alone a SmartBus. Had we considered network reform by area rather than on a single operator basis we could have delivered  'swings and roundabouts' reforms that better compensated neighbourhoods affected by change while rolling out improvements like 10 minute bus frequencies to more places.


I’ve had my say with what you might do with Route 293 and surrounding routes; you can read it here. Basically 293 has an excellent route alignment but poor service. The SmartBuses have good service but poor route alignment with lots of duplication and frequencies that miss trains. It's a mess!

A network review could simplify the network, connect the orbitals more directly to stronger destinations and allow new 15 minute services on corridors like High St Templestowe with an upgraded 281 (more here). But what do you think? Please leave your comments below. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Moving the essential: Train, tram and bus timetabling for the COVID-19 emergency

Things are moving fast. A few days ago the line was public transport was an essential service and all services would run.

However patronage and fare revenue were falling. Those who could were urged to work from home. Entertainment venues closed. Restaurants offered take-away or delivery services only. The premier told everyone to stay home. 

Yesterday the RTBU stated that while public transport was an essential service there could be some short-term reductions in service. 

US transit agencies have asked for billion dollar bail-outs while UK has suspended rail franchising. Today's Age is reporting on crisis talks to keep our services going. 

Measures already taken include more frequent cleaning of buses, trains and trams, ticket refunds for those who no longer need to travel, cordoning off seats near the driver, encouraging social (ie physical) distancing, and discouraging the use of cash. 

We've so far avoided service reductions. But Radio 3AW this morning mentioned the possibility of us moving to a Saturday timetable (or modified Saturday timetable).  No official announcement has yet been made. But I wanted to tease out the implications of this or other arrangements if (or when) it happens. 

Objectives for an emergency timetable

Before I do that it's worth stepping back to consider the objectives of such an emergency timetable. A few I can think of include:

* Maintain a service so that those in essential industries can still get to and from work

* Retain mobility for people to access essential services eg food shopping and medical care

* Be operationally possible with an ability to roster, schedule and implement at short notice

* Be easy to explain and understand so that people can plan ahead and are not stranded

* Maintain a reliable service with a reduced transport workforce (some may be ill, in isolation or have caring responsibilities especially if schools shut)

* Save costs given reduced fare revenue and cut over-servicing given the dramatically reduced demand (but noting that social distancing dramatically reduces train/tram/bus vehicle capacities)

* Even if not fully justified by demand maintain a minimum network coverage, span of hours and frequency so that those who need to travel can still do so with only a little more waiting for connections.

* Maintain goodwill towards public transport so that patronage quickly recovers post-virus. 

* Keep transport workers in jobs (so that services can quickly recover once travel demand resumes) and as a form of economic stimulus to retain employment levels in tough times.

Some of these conflict. For example low frequencies are poor for those whose jobs either have fixed start/finish times or variable times workers can't easily influence. Those whose trips involve connections may be doubly inconvenienced. On the other hand excessive frequency (like three to five minute headways on major lines) is overkill. Frequencies in the 10 to 20 minute range might be a fair compromise.  

Needs by mode

Different modes have different needs. Quiet roads might mean that bus and tram timetables could be sped up. Especially for trams it might be possible to run a high frequency with fewer drivers, but only if we moved to headway timetables that did not penalise early running. Many in tram-land either have CBD white-collar jobs where there is a work at home option or are switching to cycling. This might disproportionately reduce peak tram usage. 

The same could be said for peak train usage which again is dominated by CBD workers. Students may also have online study options and not travel. Peak train frequencies on the better served lines are again probably excessive even allowing for wide social distancing. 

Buses have different issues. They provide the only public transport for the majority of Melburnians who are beyond walking distance of trains and trams. However they enable essential travel for those beyond walking distance of the supermarket or the doctors. Their usage will have also fallen but possibly not in percentage terms by as much as for other modes. And, because we've been sluggish with bus service and timetable reform during the 'good' pre-virus years their timetables still contain many quirks that may disproportionately deny service to those who can least afford it unless we are very very careful. More on this later. 

Emergency timetable options

What timetable options are there for weekdays? I've identified four main options and will discuss their pros and cons. 

1. Flat 20 minute option 

This option is based on all train, tram and major bus routes operating every 20 minutes from early morning to evening, with a possible drop to 30 minutes late at night. It harmonises headways across the network and caps waiting times at 20 minutes for connections between major routes. Local bus routes might operate every 40 minutes, potentially connecting with every second train. Operating hours would be the same as for an ordinary weekday. Therefore anyone who can make a trip now would still be able to travel, though waiting times might be longer. 

Compared to regular weekday timetables this option would reduce tram frequencies the most. Train timetables would be very similar to what currently runs on Saturdays except that the lines in the eastern suburbs that run every 10 minutes wouldn't. Some main bus routes (eg those that currently run every 30 minutes off-peak like the popular 733, 737 and 767) might even get an overall increase. SmartBus would get a cut from every 15 to every 20 minutes - milder than other options. Extra trips could be slotted in on routes that serve major hospitals and essential services if demand warrants. 

The word that best describes this option is 'egalitarian'. It delivers a similar basic service to many suburbs including those without trains. However it involves a rescheduling and rerostering of almost the entire network. Communication to passengers might also be difficult, especially for local bus routes. Whatever its merits the chance of implementation at short notice is so close to zero that it need not be discussed further. 

2. Sunday timetable (without early morning Night Network services)

This is what Wellington did a few days ago. Running Sunday timetables on weekdays is a bad option for Melbourne. Here's some reasons why: 

a. More than 50 Melbourne bus routes serving significant residential areas do not run at all on Sunday. The actual number without Sunday service is 102 out of a total of 349 but nearly half are special services eg peak-only, industrial or university shuttles. Many streets would no longer have service, removing the ability for people to make necessary trips. Areas particularly hard hit include Campbellfield, Thomastown/Reservoir, Dandenong/Springvale, Templestowe, Croydon/ Lilydale, Belgrave, Bayswater/Scoresby, Frankston South and more. Service to job areas with no other nearby service, such as Port Melbourne, Laverton North and Dandenong South would not run. And a Sunday timetable wouldn't include shuttles like the 401 between North Melbourne and the hospitals at Parkville. While all these areas get cuts rail corridors like the Frankston line would keep their midday trains every 10 minutes with almost no one on them.   

b. The trains would start too late and be too infrequent. Essential workers, even if they start at 'normal' business times like 8 or 9 am would be unable to get to work. This is because before Night Network our trains started late on Sunday mornings. For example the first train to arrive at somewhere like Frankston would get there after 9am. And even if people could start a bit later, the widespread 40 to 60 minute frequencies until about 10 or 11am is unsatisfactory.  

c. Limited bus operating hours. Even if your bus runs on Sunday, you would not necessarily be able to get it for work trips. This is because 'minimum standards' bus routes are only just starting by the time people need to be at work (ie 8 or 9 am). That particular affects early starters who on weekdays can board buses from around 6am. Finishing times are also an issue. Regular routes, particularly in the Ringwood - Doncaster area often finish around 10pm on weeknights but only 6pm on Sundays. SmartBuses would also lose service, with the implementation of Sunday timetables deleting their 9pm to midnight service. 

d. Lower tram frequencies. Possibly less significant than the above three are reduced tram frequencies. These include reductions to half-hourly in the mornings (when people need to get to work) and evenings on most routes. 

There are certain operational benefits of a Sunday timetable. It's the cheapest of these options to run, at least for train and bus. It's easy to roster for since all operators (except for Moonee Valley Bus Co which doesn't operate on Sundays) have timetables proved to work. Communication is also easier too. However it would severely reduce the network's capabilities for many essential work and other trips that are currently easily possible.  

3. Saturday timetable (without late evening Night Network service) 

This is what was talked about on the radio this morning. It is far better than the Sunday timetable option. There are two big reasons why:

a. Trains, trams and some major bus routes have similar operating hours on Saturday as they do on weekdays. This means that most people would still be able to do trips that the weekday timetable enables (though usually with extra waiting times) if a Saturday timetable was in force. The main difference would be at night on most train lines where the Saturday timetable drops abruptly to every 30 minutes from approximately 7pm. Also on Saturdays most SmartBus routes drop to every 30 minutes as opposed to the 15 minute weekday frequency.

b. Many more bus routes run on Saturdays than they do on Sundays. This allows more people distant from trains to make essential work, shopping and medical trips. Out of Melbourne's 349 bus routes 301 run on Saturdays, leaving 48 that do not. The majority of those that do not are special routes like peak only, university shuttle and industrial area routes. 

Like with Sunday timetables, the Saturday timetable is a proven arrangement known to work with regards to rostering. It is also easy to communicate. For instance all bus and tram stops already have Saturday times posted. Train, tram and bus operators are much better equipped to run a Saturday timetable at short notice than a custom timetable as per Option 1. 

There are still disadvantages with the Saturday timetable in some areas served by buses. It's basically similar issues to Sunday but more localised. These include:

a. Some weekday bus routes (48 out of 349) do not operate on Saturdays. These fall into the following categories:

i. University shuttle routes. In all cases except the 401 (which also serves hospitals) these have less frequent non-express overlapping routes that should suffice. 

ii. Peak only/weekday only express commuter routes. These almost all serve areas that have local bus options. Patronage on these routes is likely dramatically reduced (by a greater proportion than regular bus routes). Not running these (as would happen with a Saturday timetable) should not cause undue hardship. 

iii. Industrial area routes that only run weekdays with no or limited Saturday service. Examples include the 235 in Fishermans Bend, the 417 in Laverton North and the 857 in Dandenong South. These routes would either not run or be rendered unusable (eg noon finish) if a Saturday timetable operated. 

iv. Late starting times for local bus routes. Most Saturday routes start around 7 to 8 am but this may still be too late for those with early starts at jobs that were accessible when buses started at 6am or earlier as they do on weekday. More than 100 bus routes fall into this category. 

v. Residential area routes that have no or limited Saturday service. There are not as many of them as  areas lacking Sunday service. But it's still an issue. 531 in Campbellfield, 680 near Lilydale, 802 in Dandenong North are examples of neighbourhoods that would lose all service if a Saturday timetable ran.  Also significant are routes with Saturday timetables that finish around noon (or at best) early afternoon. Areas affected include Campbellfield (Route 538), Reservoir (Route 558), Thomastown (Route 559), Noble Park (Route 800), Springvale South (Route 814), Doveton (Route 844), Patterson Lakes (Route 857) and more. Many are low income neighbourhoods where buses provide vital links to essential services. Work travel is also made harder if the last bus ran five hours before your shift finished.  

It's not all about underservicing. Some train services may greatly exceed demand in the middle of the day but not be enough for social distancing earlier in the day. For example the Saturday timetable for Ringwood, Dandenong and Frankston feature a 10 min midday service but a 20 minute service during the am peak when more may be travelling. Similar issues may apply with some tram routes. 

There's also some silver linings. Tram 82 actually has a better weekend frequency than weekday frequency interpeak. It might actually get more trips under the virus timetable. The same may also apply for Belgrave/Lilydale trains, where weekend frequency is 20 minutes (10 min to Ringwood) versus 30 minutes (15 min to Ringwood) on the weekday timetable. If we go to a Saturday timetable for Ringwood due to the virus ideally the interpeak portion of it should continue permanently.   

Something else we need to watch is the adequacy of V/Line service, especially from areas like Melton, Caroline Springs, Wyndham Vale and Tarneit. Their weekend services drop greatly in frequency compared to weekday. And it may be that some lower income outer suburbs contain more people in jobs that don't have a work at home option, and/or people cannot afford not to work. So demand may not drop by an even amount on all lines or routes. 

Overall using the Saturday timetable as the basis for an emergency weekday is the best option so far.  It is easy to implement and easy to understand. However it still has substantial problems with buses since Saturday service is not universal and where it does exist operating hours may not suit work starts and finishes. And we may still be overservicing trains and trams in the middle of the day. 

4. Modified Saturday timetable (without late evening Night Network service) 

If we completed minimum standards upgrades and reviewed more area's bus networks we might not need this option as straight Saturday timetables would be more adequate in more areas. But we didn't. So we may need to consider the possibility of a 'modified Saturday' timetable option, especially if virus timetables are likely to persist for weeks and months. 

The good news is that trains or trams would be largely a Saturday timetable. Unless you needed to swap some midday and morning service levels to better meet demand as suggested before. Most bus routes would also have a Saturday timetable. 

But you might wish to keep the Saturday frequency but extend operating hours to match weekdays. For most local routes (that got the minimum standards upgrades) this would mean a couple of extra trips to give an earlier start. Some routes, especially popular weekday routes with a limited (eg 40 - 60 min) Saturday timetable might have extra peak trips slotted in. 

Routes with Saturday morning service only might have services extended both earlier and later to match their weekday span. 

Some routes that don't run Saturday (or have very limited services) might keep their weekday timetables going. Or have a special timetable drawn up. 

Then there are routes that have a more frequent Saturday morning service, dropping down to about half on Saturday afternoons. Like Reservoir's 552. That made sense 40 or 50 years ago but not now. Neither would it make sense as part of a weekday virus timetable. It will be interesting to see what happens to this and other routes that have more gentle frequency drops in their Saturday afternoon timetables. Although there are routes that drop back to as infrequently as every two hours on Saturday afternoon (like the important Route 800 past the premier's electorate office) that you'd keep at least its morning frequency going all day with weekday operating hours applying. 

To summarise, this 'modified Saturday' option is messy. Necessarily so because our Saturday bus timetables are messy. It is time-consuming to roster and explain. So it might not be implemented straight away.  However it is worth considering if the reduced timetables look like they'll be in for some time. And the extra cost could be kept down with some adjustments to train and tram frequencies where warranted.  


They may still cause hardships but Option 3 (Saturday timetable) and when possible Option 4 (modified Saturday timetable) are best and most practical at preserving service for those who need it most.  That includes those whose jobs are in essential industries and those who depend on public transport for essential shopping and medical travel. 

This is a hastily written post and there may be some errors or omissions. But I thought it was important to address this topical issue. If there are other things we should consider please leave them in the comments below. 

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 

Breaking Point: The Future of Australian Cities Peter Seamer

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

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Throwback Thursday: Liberals promise trains every 10 minutes three years ago

Three years ago today Channel 9 reported on a 2017 state Liberal policy to increase all-day train services to every 10 minutes. 

While adding train services is dearer than adding bus services it would benefit huge number of people and give the public transport network a really good spine serving most suburban corridors. Currently Melbourne's train network is extensive but waiting times, especially in the fast-growing north and west, are typically 20 minutes during the day, 30 minutes at night and as high as 40 minutes on Sunday morning

A 10 minute train frequency is true on-demand public transport. Rock up at a station and there will a train within a few minutes, even if you've just missed one. That makes trip planning and connections much easier if changing from a bus. And if a service is cancelled the waiting time to the next service is halved so the network is more robust as well. That compares to now where a single cancellation can mean 40, 60 or even 80 minute gaps between trains. It's the sort of service that could really shape our cities to a more transit-oriented form, with it being more attractive to locate homes and businesses near stations and car ownership less necessary. 

In terms of patronage and projected patronage growth, the biggest needs are in the fast growing north and west. Lines like Mernda, Sunbury (to Watergardens), Craigieburn and Werribee, probably in about that order. The Upfield and Hurstbridge lines have infrastructure constraints but 10 minute service could be provided part-way. 

Politically, if we look at the seats the Liberals need winning to gain government, they're mostly on the Ringwood line (being their traditional electoral heartland with much lost in 2018). Fortunately for them a Ringwood line upgrade to every 10 minutes would be the cheapest on the network and deliver benefits for outer areas like Belgrave and Lilydale as well. That's also a busy line that would benefit from train frequency upgrades. And the outer portions would no longer have interpeak train frequencies worse than Geelong gets. 

30 or 40 years ago both parties were pretty poor when it came to running trains. Rupert Hamer's Liberals saved the trams but cut evening train services in 1978 to every 30 minutes (where they mostly remain today). And for passengers industrial disputes caused significant disruptions during the latter part of the Cain/Kirner Labor era. 

More recently both parties can point to instances where they increased train frequencies under their watch. While Labor has done the most for rail infrastructure, it's been the Liberals who seem to understand the need for service frequency more. Examples go back to the Kennett government with lines like Frankston and Dandenong being boosted from every 20 to every 15 minutes interpeak during the 1990s. Also a few years later in 1999 the whole train and tram network got radically boosted Sunday timetables so that midday frequencies matched Saturdays. That greatly improved mobility including to sporting games and special events. 

The Baillieu government also boosted rail frequencies. They commissioned and made public the PTV Rail Network Development Plan. That called for 10 minute services on the major lines. And they were starting to implement this. Read another Throwback Thursday for details. Labor won in 2014, flicked the switch to infrastructure and stopped substantially upgrading timetables and reforming bus networks soon after. 

One would expect that the opposition would hold the government to account on this. Especially given that the Coalition can demonstrate achievement on train frequencies during the Baillieu and even Kennett governments.  The tweet below describes an insider's frustration with then leader Matthew Guy who did not actively push this policy at the 2018 election. 

Instead their energy seemed to be against Labor's 'Skyrail', mainly on the Dandenong line. This proved misdirected. Skyrail proved a success. Former opponents became supporters or at least accepting. And in 2018 there were large swings to Labor in seats that had or were threatened with Skyrail. 

What about buses? Unlike train services the Kennett government didn't have much of a record on them. The Bracks era was mostly also slow. However service upgrades accelerated from 2006 with the MOTC plan delivering probably the biggest ever burst of upgrades. This included extended hours for local routes and bold new SmartBus orbitals. The Brumby government possibly didn't get as much credit as deserved for this as other issues loomed taller. For example the continuing myki saga and their loss of control of the train network with reliability in freefall. 

The same could possibly have been said, a decade previously, with regards to the Kennett government since cuts to lines overshadowed the improvements they made to rail frequencies, although until the Sunday upgrades came along, they were skewed towards their heartland in the south and east.

 The Baillieu government saw significant bus reforms with some major changes in 2013 and 2014, most notably in the Point Cook, Brimbank, Fishermans Bend, Northcote, Preston, Kew, Manningham and Maroondah areas. It was also under them that the large upgrades in Geelong and Wyndham were planned. However most were 'smell of an oily rag' improvements with service kilometres per capita starting to decline from that time. With surging population growth and few bus network expansions, this decline continued under the Andrews government. 

Again a strong opposition could have done something. In public transport policy though Matthew Guy was anything but strong. Even if some of his shadow ministers might have been. For example they had a bus policy involving a $70 million commitment. If that amount was per year that could put approximately 140 buses on the road and deliver upgrades over a wide area. Especially if accompanied by well-planned network reform that could have quite an impact. 

However when it came to selling the policy Guy proved deficient. For example there were no specific measures by area that marginal seat candidates could sell seat by seat, street by street. And the release, issued on election eve, was too late anyway. It might as well not come out. The shadow minister concerned would have every right not to be amused.   

The result was although its record on service levels had been lacklustre the Andrews government was returned with an increased majority in 2018. It was able to campaign positively on its large infrastructure program that was producing results all over Melbourne. The opposition Coalition parties were unable to capitalise on the government's weaknesses in service delivery. And where they had good public transport service policies they were either (a) announced early and not reaffirmed (10 minutes train frequencies) or (b) not made specific and announced at the last minute (bus upgrades). Their electorally successful NSW Liberal colleagues, in contrast, have done better with some real runs on the board. 

What have we heard since the election from the Coalition on transport services? Not a lot. Things are not normal right at the moment with the Corona Virus. However there are still weaknesses in government (service reliability, crowding (under normal times) and limited services) that a vigilant opposition could exploit. David Davis and Co would do well to be using the extra time available (with meetings being cancelled etc) to be planning some transport service policies for 2022. Even if they were just a cut and paste job from here

This post appears in place of this week's Building Melbourne's Useful Network 

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 

Breaking Point: The Future of Australian Cities Peter Seamer

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

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Bad Move: Infrastructure Victoria's scheme to disintegrate public transport fares

With non-essential trips discouraged, many businesses shut, school holidays extended and more working from home due to the Corona Virus, transport congestion couldn't be further from most peoples minds right now. 

However this time will pass. We'll likely be back to being a growing city growing by more than two thousand people a week. And pressure will return to our roads and railways. Infrastructure Victoria are the boffins charged with thinking about how we should cater to and respond to this growth. 

Anyway today (of all days!) they released their Good Move: Fixing Transport Congestion report. It's all about changing how we pay for transport. Changing this is cheaper than building infrastructure (which might only be fully used for a few hours a day) and improves the utilisation of existing assets. 

For example if we have to pay for things at the point of consumption that can cause us to think twice about whether we want to use it or not compared to if it was laid on without direct charge (like most roads and parking). In the latter case the roads and parking still needs to be paid for through higher charges and taxes but more will be built than is necessary due to the demand induced as a result of it being 'free'. That's detrimental for other modes since the increased spacing out that catering for cars causes makes active and public transport less economical, accessible and effective. 

That's all good stuff. Although it's incredibly hard to implement, whether at the local, state or national level. Parking, for example, is considered a necessity. And indeed driving is the most popular mode for many trips. However people make the leap from something being a necessity to it being free (and often untimed) like air. Imagine how fat we'd all be if Kingston biscuits were free?

It's interesting to compare parking with other things we'd consider necessities. For example food is even more necessary than parking but we expect people to pay for what they eat. We don't make it free. And the millionaire pays exactly the same for two minute noodles as does the struggling pensioner behind. If society wishes to help the less well off we do it not by setting the price of food according to ability to pay but in providing welfare payments and allowances. After all the farmer does the same amount of work to produce a potato regardless of who consumes it. 

Health care is also necessary. But we don't pay for it like we do food. Medicare or private insurance tips in most. Bulk billing and Pharmaceutical Benefits limit some charges. A single payer national health system has wider social and economic benefits with outcomes better, coverage higher and total costs lower than alternatives such as the US system. And even if philosophically you do not care for collective medicine, if you live in a city with communicable diseases then it is in your own interest that others are not sick.  

Free health is considered much more of an entitlement than 'free food' or 'free housing'. Food is most 'market-oriented' followed by housing, health and education less so. 

'Free storage' though is more nuanced. Everyone accepts paying to store stuff in an industrial area storage unit if they have more posessions than room to house them. Car parking is another form of storage (often in a high-value CBD or suburban centre) but acceptance of paying for space is much lower. Instead it's considered a necessary entitlement like health care. This is something that IV gallantly seeks to challenge. In compensation they seek to remove other charges like car registration which you can read about in the report. 

I'll soon discuss what the report says about public transport fares. However first off it's worth reading their executive summary. They don't get off to a good start. Take below for instance. 

It's not believable, at least as far as public transport services go. We've added a city half (or more) size of Adelaide in the last 10 years but have we added anything like their service quantity, especially for buses where the most new housing is? 

They need to talk to Monash's Prof Graham Currie whose graph shows that Melbourne has been in a per capita service decline for the better part of a decade. At least once and sometimes several times per week this blog brings up examples of bus routes and networks whose service levels and destinations have been stagnant for years if not decades. Tram timetables have hardly changed. And the last comprehensive greenfields Metro train timetable rewrite is a distant memory despite services on much of the network (and the City Loop!) remaining complex and sometimes infrequent. 

While we have been busily building infrastructure we have hardly been adding service. It's mistaken to  imply that it's time to forget service and shift to pricing, at least in the public transport arena. I can only assume that this view has come about since IV's boss, Michel Masson, is a tram man and may not have seen main road/major destination bus timetables like this. 

If he had then he'd realise that pricing, especially public transport fare policies, is the least of the network's problems. A bad service with lower fares is still a bad service. 

Speaking of fares it's pretty clear our system's not perfect. For example our fares are quite flat. Short trips in Zone 1 cost as much as a trip to Melbourne's edge. That can dissuade people from off-peak travel where the system has cheap capacity to carry them. You could argue that some longer distance peak trips are a bit too cheap, especially for high-income myki pass holders. There are some odd bumps in peri-urban area fares. And families (who probably already own a car) may not find some trips good value if they travel together. 

Nevertheless, despite the chequered histories of various ticketing systems (scratch tickets, Metcard and Myki), Melbourne and Victoria's integrated fare structure can be counted as a major strength of the network. At certain times (particularly in the early years of rail franchising), Metcard fares were one of the few things that held the system together. 

Most people choose to use public transport versus other modes based on what suits their trip best. In other words 'the customer is always right'. Fares is just one, and not necessarily the most important, consideration. A network that presents itself as an integrated system, including fares, routes and timetables, is useful for the most number of trips and thus has the best chance of being useful. 

IV doesn't get the integrated network concept even though it's something that thousands of passengers navigate daily. For example they seek to smash the network's multimodal identity. That's been painstakingly built up over years of integrated fares that visitors from overseas (and Sydney!) envy. 

IV's recipe is a regression to single-mode distance-based fares like that which existed in the bad old days up to the late 1970s. That is the period that saw the fastest decline in Melbourne's train and tram patronage. In contrast fare integration in the '80s revived Melbourne bus patronage which was then in free-fall.

IV approvingly quote Sydney, Australia's only capital without proper integrated fares, as an example. What they didn't mention was that Sydney has greatly improved services in the last few years. They had large network-wide train frequency upgrades in 2017 of the magnitude that Melbourne has not seen in more than 20 years (when Jeff Kennett boosted Sunday trains and trams). And there were train presentation and reliability improvements with Gladys B at the helm. 

Sydney's improvements have been such that their trains now run two to three times more frequently than do ours during evenings and Sunday mornings. And the number of extra bus services proposed (14 000 weekly) is a number that Melburnians can only dream of. Maybe it's these that have had a bigger impact on patronage? 

The table below suggests a pricing structure for IV's proposed mode-based fare system. 

The report's first principle is that all modes and routes should be priced. The theory seems to be that if modes are fully priced and charged at the point of use then people can make choices that better reflect the cost of providing that particular transport option. That user-pays approach may reduce inefficiencies and discourage over-provision.  

Here's a well-known curve used to illustrate how demand falls as parking is charged.  

The various public transport modes are considered separately, as per the table above. IV's thinking seems to be that people can make choices between modes within public transport, eg bus vs train vs tram. And that the pricing system should reflect the cost of running each mode and even route along with demand variations such as during peak times. 

It is thought that these price signals would encourage behaviour change amongst price-conscious passengers. For example using a different mode or route because it's cheaper.  Their idea seems to be that you have a sort of round-robin between modes by pricing them differently. For example you price roads and parking to encourage some drivers to take the train. But then the train gets crowded so you price that higher to encourage the price-conscious to take the bus. That frees up more room on the train for 'high value passengers'. Presumably someone then replaces the displaced car driver. 

IV seem to assume that passengers can pick and choose between public transport modes like a cyclist could choose to walk instead. If they could then differential pricing between modes may have a meaning. But usually people can't choose as outside the inner-city only a handful of routes (maybe just one) will be suitable. 

If you live on a crowded tram route like the 96 the availability of a cheaper fare on the 582 bus is no help. Trying to dodge a direct (but more expensive) route by taking a combination of other routes isn't very practical either. Public transport is slow enough without subjecting value-conscious passengers to these gymnastics. And don't forget the importance of saving money for a large passenger group; the Grattan Institute recently found that 10% of households had less than $90 in the bank

What if you wanted to explicitly design a public transport network so you could choose between whether to take the train or the bus into town? Choice is good, right? Especially if you had a fare system like what IV wants that gives incentives to ride buses instead of trains. 

As it happens we already have such public transport networks in Australian cities. Unfortunately they're not very good for diverse trips. The shape of what I'll call a duplicative network is on the left below. There are many buses and trains but they all go to the CBD. Buses may be quite good but trains may only run half-hourly and be poorly used for the size of the network. Many people can choose between bus and train for trips to the CBD. However access to places other than the CBD is poor, involving backtracking via the city. Brisbane and Adelaide are like this. Despite allowing choices between modes for many city trips they are poorly set up for the sort of patronage growth (76% by 2030) that IV is projecting for Melbourne due to their limited versatility. 

On the right is the connected network. Like with the duplicative network heavy rail serves the CBD. however unlike the duplicative network most buses, particularly in the outer suburbs, do not. Instead they provide cross-suburban travel and connect with trains. While there is a need to connect for trips from some places to the CBD, the large number of circumferential routes and interchange points make cross-suburban travel easier. This makes for a more versatile network that enables more people to get to more places. 

Because buses feed passengers to train stations rail patronage is higher than  in cities with duplicative networks. And because there are fewer buses on clogged inner-suburban streets they can instead operate as faster and more frequent feeders in the suburbs. Perth and Melbourne have this more useful style of network.  A trade-off is that far fewer can take one bus to the city. Instead they need to change but services may be more frequent to more destinations as compensation. 

While an efficient public transport network could have some built-in redundancy for robustness it should avoid wasteful duplication between services. An efficient connected network maximises the number of people near frequent service and the places they can go with a given number of buses, trains and trams. The different public transport modes should work with one another not against one other. Contrary to IV's recommendation, this needs an integrated multimode fare system otherwise there are pressures to retain or add duplicative routes or modes on the grounds that removing one would cause fares to rise.

What else does Good Move say? Again, according to IV, price is (nearly) everything. They reckon that making buses cheaper than other modes will increase bus boardings by 110 000 per day. That's about 40 million per year or an increase of about 33% on existing numbers. Bold! 

Given how static bus patronage has been for the better part of 10 years, it's hard to see where those numbers will come from. You might get something like that if you implemented network and service reforms but then the increase would be service-driven, not price-driven. Very little will come at the expense of trains or trams because whatever else you might say about our bus network, sensibly very little of it duplicates these modes. 

If the source of new passengers is intended to be motorists then service convenience (along with priced or scarcer parking) rather than cheap bus fares is likely to be the key.  This is especially when we look at other modes where an overall 76% increase by 2030 is projected. The only way you're going to get this is major investment in service levels to deliver the needed capacity. That includes for buses both as feeders to rail and suburban transport in their own right.    


IV's report says some good things about transport pricing. We need better parking and road space policies for instance. Also fares. For example our fare structure is too flat and we could do more with off-peak pricing. However I rank the fares issue as middle-order issues; certainly not top priority. 

Maybe I'm being unfair given it's a report specifically about pricing, but their obsession with pricing over service is a major blind spot. A poor service is still poor no matter how cheap. And you can't catch a service that doesn't run; a major issue in many areas that still lack route coverage or span of hours. 

Dismantling our integrated fares would be disastrous. It would confuse passengers, do little for patronage and potentially split the network into disintegrated fiefdoms like existed during the rail franchise mania of the early 2000s (which Britain is now undoing).  

Politely listen to IV by all means, but don't regard them as the experts on public transport network  connectivity. If you have any comments on the report or wish to disagree on anything then please leave them below. 

 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 

Breaking Point: The Future of Australian Cities Peter Seamer

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

(Sales links: I get a small commission if you buy via the above - no extra cost to you)