Friday, May 29, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 46: How we could have got more from 704's bus upgrade

The saying is to never look a gift horse in the mouth. Especially during times, like the last few years, when bus service reform of any description has been limited. The Labor government's priority has overwhelmingly been big infrastructure over service. The government's had an easy ride on this score thanks to the passivity of Shadow Public Transport Minister David Davis. He's been all but silent on bus service issues including those affecting seats his party needs to win in 2022.

A vigilant shadow minister would find the government's few recently announced bus upgrades to be of mixed merit. The improvements to the 462 bus in Caroline Springs sound excellent. Endeavour Hills' new network doesn't quite deliver on minimum standard operating hours but is likewise a good step forward. 

Conversely there's the big increases to the very quiet Route 704 between Oakleigh, Clayton and Westall. These include a short extension to Westall, higher frequency, longer hours and new weekend service. It even finishes later on weekends than some Endeavour Hills routes. 

That boost has me flummoxed. Of the hundreds of things you could do for buses you'd think this would be low priority given 704's quietness. Route 704's recent upgrade carries a large opportunity cost. Had we not done it, or spent less on it, we could have instead improved other busier routes in the area for the same money. That would have benefited thousands more passengers and delivered worthwhile service upgrades to large shopping centres,  hospitals, universities and train stations.  Given how rare bus service upgrades are it's important that we make what we do matter. Ideas on this later.

704's service windfall

Let's look at 704 (in yellow above) in more detail.

Less than one-third of the 704 uniquely serves a residential area. Much of the rest is within the catchment of other more frequent services that often serve similar destinations. These include the 900 SmartBus Between Oakleigh and Huntingdale and other routes along Centre Rd. The eastern portion of the route is more industrial, with the previous terminus being the old Volkswagen factory. The new Westall Station terminus is only slightly stronger.

The effect of these overlaps is to depress patronage. And at just 13 weekday boardings per bus service hour, 704's patronage is very low indeed. The average for Melbourne bus routes exceeds 20. And busy routes not far away do many times better. For example Route 800 on Princes Hwy is 35 and 733 on Stephensons Rd at 64.

Comparison of old and new timetables show the windfall that 704 got. It's more than a doubling of service over a week. It was previously a very limited service that needed two buses to run in the peak and one interpeak. Operating hours were restricted and there was no weekend service. On weekdays it appeared to get an extra bus operating during the day. That was a gain from 2 to 3 during the peaks and 1 to 2 interpeak. Meanwhile evening and weekend service rose from nothing to two buses.

Hence the 704 got an extra peak bus along with the fleet being worked harder. The latter is good but only on routes most likely to attract higher patronage as a result of the improved service.

Remember these numbers as we consider what else could  have been done with those resources, especially on weekends and especially when combined with reform to other routes. Could another route, maybe one that carries 10 or 20 times more people, have gained from the same resources we put into the 704?
(data via

Next we'll see how we could have used what was spent on the 704 to generally strengthen the network in a larger area and benefit thousands more passengers.

Option 1: Upgrading a shortened 733 to a Useful Network route 

I talked about Route 733 in detail here and here. It's one of the busiest bus routes in Melbourne, connecting major centres including Box Hill, Mt Waverley, Monash University and Clayton. Patronage productivity is very high on the sections where it has unique coverage. This usage is high seven days per week with the 733 being Melbourne's second most productive bus route on Sundays. Despite that its service levels are low with it getting no significant frequency upgrades for decades. For example the 733 carries more people than many routes that run every 15 or 20 minutes yet its base frequency is just 30 minutes interpeak on weekdays dropping to hourly on Sundays.

One thing about the 733 is that parts of it overlap or pass near more frequent routes. This includes the Clayton - Oakleigh section on Centre Rd and Golf Rd. It's no accident that these are the less used portions of the 733, despite the route's very high usage elsewhere.

If these overlaps were removed by shortening the 733 it would be possible to increase frequency on its busier unique portion without additional resources. This is especially if an evaluation finds that Route 704 did not attract the patronage envisaged and it was fair to redistribute some resources from that.

Below is a look at the bus resources that the 733 uses for its entire Box Hill to Oakleigh trip. It's too small to read the times in fine print so I'll explain it here.

The coloured columns are an attempt to count the number of buses used on weekday mornings (peak and interpeak). Every different colour is a unique bus. Some buses may be used on routes other than the 733. This improves scheduling efficiency but makes it harder to count the number purely attributable to the 733. Those runs that may be one-offs or formed from services arriving on other routes are in the unshaded columns. Very roughly the 733 uses 5 buses to run its 30 minute frequency off-peak all the way from Box Hill to Oakleigh. Peak service needs roughly 11 buses.

Shortening the 733 allows us to operate a higher frequency with the buses we have. For example with the current five buses we may be able to operate a 20 minute instead of a 30 minute interpeak service between Box Hill and Clayton, thus making this very busy corridor an extra Useful Network route. If six turn out to be needed the extra could come from making 704 a one bus route interpeak. Shortening would also allow 733's peak service to be boosted to a more even closer to turn-up-and-go 10 to 12 minutes. As well as connections to Monash University this provides an efficient feeder service for trains at Box Hill, Mt Waverley and to a lesser extent, Clayton.

What about weekend service? The inadequacy of this has long been a problem on the 733, especially on Saturday afternoons and Sunday. A 30 to 40 minute service on Saturday and a 60 minute frequency on Sunday currently operates. The 733's very high patronage justifies something nearer to every 20 minutes.  Current bus usage (for the existing longer route) appears to be around 5 buses on Saturday morning, 3 buses in Saturday afternoon and 2 buses on Sunday.

The shorter route might (just) allow a 30 minute frequency on both days with 4 buses. If traffic is heavy then 5 would offer better reliability. Or there could be a middle ground where 4 buses are out most of the time but there are one or two midday depot pull ins and outs to avoid delays propagating over the whole day.

Again one bus could be freed by operating the 704 every 80 instead of every 40 minutes on weekends. If nothing else that should allow the shortened 733 to be upgraded to every 30 minutes all day Saturday and 40 minutes all day Sunday. If you shortened 704's operating hours to closer to that which it previously ran to then it may be possible to afford every 30 minutes Sundays on the 733 as well.

To summarise, if we shorten Route 733 to serve its busiest portion where it provides unique coverage and used some of the resources that went into upgrading the 704 then we could have delivered substantial 7-day increases in 733's frequency to major destinations without significant extra cost. Many more people would benefit than now with all the upgrade funding going to a quiet route of marginal network importance.

733 parallels parts of the first stage of the proposed Suburban Rail Loop. A service upgrade for this (and Route 767) would be a good first step to improved transport in this corridor. Politically the route is important with its catchment including marginal government seats such as Box Hill held by Paul Hamer MP and Mt Waverley held by Matt Fregon MP. Hence it features prominently on this 2022 election marginal seat upgrade list

Option 2: Minor upgrades to a full length 733

What if, despite the points made above regarding overlap with the 703 and proximity to the 903's catchment, you wanted to keep the full length 733 between Box Hill and Oakleigh? You can do that but you'll likely only get minor, mostly weekend, upgrades without spending more money. For example you might be able to get something like a 25 rather than the current 30 minute inter-peak service. That's not clockface and offers no potential connectivity with trains so you wouldn't bother doing this.

However it might be possible to do other 733 upgrades if you used a bus from the 704. For example you could add an extra couple of am and pm peak trips between Box Hill and Monash University or Clayton. That could help reduce maximum peak waiting times if the extra bus allowed you to shuffle some trips either side.

Secondly if the abovementioned 1 bus was cut from the 704 on weekends and put on the 733 then you could deliver a consistent 30 minute service all day on Saturdays and boost Sunday to every 40  - 45 minutes. Not ideal but still better than its current 60 minute frequency. And it would likely deliver a better patronage result than confining all the upgrades on the 704.

What if you really did want to upgrade interpeak service to every 20 minutes between Box Hill and Clayton while retaining the 733's Oakleigh portion? Then  you might consider an arrangement where every second trip extended from Clayton to Oakleigh, ie a 40 minute frequency on that portion.

You could potentially run a service every 40 minutes between Box Hill and Clayton with 4 buses. That's because the run time from Box Hill to Oakleigh is approximately 70 minutes and some recovery time is needed for reliability.  Short runs between Box Hill and Clayton could be judiciously inserted to provide an overall 20 minute service on the busy portion and a worthwhile upgrade. As that's a shorter distance than the full route to Oakleigh you might manage that with 3 buses. That's a total of 7 buses interpeak rather than 5 currently.

Cutting 704's interpeak frequency frees up one bus, but that's not enough. Another interpeak bus and driver would be needed to deliver this 733 20 minute upgrade. It's not a high cost and I'd regard it as highly cost-effective given the 733's patronage productivity.

The two tier every 20 minutes to Clayton and 40 minutes to Oakleigh 733 scheme has a minor shortcoming in that it introduces some confusion with half the trips terminating at Clayton. Still it's not unheard of, given that exactly the same is done with the nearby Route 824 with only half its trips continuing to Keysborough. And it's more politically saleable in the Oakleigh South area than Option 1 since it's merely a timetable change rather than a route being shortened.

Option 3: An upgraded Route 800 Chadstone - Dandenong

Another key bus service through the Clayton area is Route 800. It's the main Princes Hwy route between Chadstone, Oakleigh and Dandenong. It doesn't quite go to Monash University Clayton but it passes through areas where many students live. It runs past the high density M-City development (under construction) on Blackburn Rd, IKEA, the Springvale Cemetery and the premier's electorate office in Harrisfield. These have no or only indirect Sunday service from other routes.

If you do any sort of analysis on which main road bus route in Melbourne most deserves a service upgrade, the 800 (like the 733) ranks near the top. 800 has good patronage, great catchment but poor service levels, especially on weekends. It had more trips in the 1980s than now, including Sunday service. See old timetables here. Unfortunately it was a casualty of service cuts made in the Cain/Kirner era. Service never got restored despite the spread of Sunday shopping. Hence an assessment of all  bus routes without Sunday service ranked 800 as the No 1 priority to get it restored from a shortlist of 13.

What can we do with the 800 using some (but not all) resources from the 704? You might be relieved, having read this far, that the answer is simpler than our 733 options.

The 800 is timed to be roughly 50 minutes from end to end. Peak trips a bit slower. Two buses can provide an hourly service. One bus can provide a two-hourly service. Three buses can give a 40 minute service.

The 800 shuts down just after 7pm from Chadstone and around 6:30pm from Dandenong. It was probably the busiest route to miss out on the minimum service upgrades from 2006. Fortunately we can redress this at zero extra operating costs if we can borrow some resources from the 704.

The first upgrade needed is weeknights. 704, until a couple of weeks ago finished early, like the 800 does now. There would be a far greater benefit if the finish times were swapped so the 800 finished later and the 704 earlier. The two buses it uses could then be transferred to the 800 to provide an hourly service until at least 9pm. Since 800 already has reasonable weekday peak and interpeak service the 704's daytime service could remain similar to now, or be put towards a 733 weekday upgrade.

Then there are weekends. 800 currently uses two buses on Saturday mornings (60 min service), one bus on Saturday afternoons (120 min service) and no buses on Sundays. A 'greatest good for the greatest number' upgrade would transfer both of 704's weekend buses to provide the 800 with a 30 minute service on Saturday mornings, a 40 minute service on Saturday afternoons and a 60 minute service on Sundays. The increased Saturday morning frequency reflects the existing timetable rather than modern travel patterns including Saturday afternoon shopping. Ideally you'd change that to run a more consistent service, eg every 30 minutes all day Saturday or 40 minutes on both weekend days.

If you considered that removing all weekend service from the recently upgraded 704 was harsh you could have a compromise. You might operate the 800 every 40 minutes on Saturday and 60 minutes on Sunday. One bus could remain on the 704 to provide a limited Saturday service, preferably extending to at least 5pm.

800 almost certainly still deserves a better weekend service than 40 to 60 minutes but these upgrades would bring it to minimum standards and benefit a main road route serving a catchment of thousands. And all for zero extra operational expenditure compared to now.


Route 704 has just had lots of money spent on upgrading its service despite having just 5 or 10 percent of the patronage of other routes in the area. Upgrades could have done to these for the same money yet benefited more people. 

It would be worth reviewing 704's patronage performance (allowing for the current unusual circumstances) to see whether the improvements to it attract large numbers of passengers. If they don't it may be desirable to pursue upgrades to more useful routes like the 733 and 800 as described above.   

1 comment:

Tom said...

I would guess that Westall Secondary College, which is not far south of the station, is one of the main targets of the extension.