Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #80: The seven ages of Melbourne buses since 1950

Normally on Tuesdays we discuss the quirks of one particular bus, train or tram route's timetable. Today we'll take a different tack. We'll do a broad historical sweep over the last 70 years.

Helping us will be these 70 year PTV patronage statistics via the web archive. You can find them here. This covers all modes. The bus graph, showing annual passenger boardings, is below.

Looking through blurred glasses so one sees the big picture, there's a large drop, a temporary rise then another rise in the 70 years since 1950. 

However I would view some numbers with caution. For example a break in series, indicating a change in counting method, occurred in the late 1990s. This indicated a large patronage drop at a time when service levels and economic conditions were stable. In contrast a much milder drop is indicated when the state was in a deep recession and bus service levels were savagely cut in the early '90s. I remember discussing this with a long-time patronage analyst in 2007. He suggested that counting  then might not have fully captured the drop. So don't treat the graph's numbers as perfect, especially those from last century. But they do give some broad trends that we can marry with events, economic conditions and political priorities.    

Below is my attempt to split the last 70 years into 7 ages. Thanks to sites like Krustylink information from the mid 1980s is easier to find that material 10 or 20 years earlier. Route histories and network development via BCSV are helpful.  Trove newspaper archives are another rich source for news on timetable changes but more recent years are not represented so again there's gaps in history. 

For these reasons please forgive the tendency to lend more significance to the last 35 years of events than the 35 years before that. However the last 35 approximately tallies with when bus patronage started to rise from its nadir in 1981-82 so is an important turning point. 

The people pictured are the state transport ministers around the times indicated. More on their individual records here.  

I'll gloss over this a bit. The early postwar era was associated with returned servicemen having families and settling in then new suburbs which were thought more desirable than crowded industrial inner areas. The end of fuel rationing and general prosperity led to mass car ownership and use, at least amongst working men. 

However for some of this period the drop was lessened, and in some years reversed, by suburbanisation (where buses were the only transport) and bus usage by housewives and children. This was to prove temporary, as more women entered the paid workforce and more homes, initially in the affluent areas, became two car households. The result, for buses, was a vicious cycle of falling patronage, falling service levels and route closures.

By the early 1970s the government had to step in. It sought to reorganise buses with new route numbers and a network map. Public subsidies accounted for an increasing proportion of private bus company incomes. Routes were gradually extended to outer suburbs. However patronage kept falling for another decade. 

All modes of public transport had reached rock bottom in terms of raw patronage around 1981-82. Transport was a major part of the winning Labor Party's platform. A lot was promised with only some delivered. However it was enough to reverse the decline. 

Key contributions included fare and ticket integration with train and tram, route extensions in growth areas and improved information and marketing through The Met. Service levels also improved, notably on Saturday afternoons where trips were added on many routes (coinciding with increased trading hours). All this resulted in several years of strong patronage growth.

1988 marked the euphoria before the fall. That year's MetPlan detailed how things had improved and raised hopes for more. Notably it specified 30 minute minimum service levels for buses and trains along with a series of higher service Metlink cross-suburban routes not unlike today's SmartBus orbitals.

However, unknown at the time, the year also sowed the seeds for the industry rancour, decline and stupor that were to afflict buses for the better part of 15 years. Much stems from the bus contracts dispute and subsequent court battles that found in favour of the private bus operators. Bus operators had made business decisions based on undertakings that government officials made then broke. The legal action went all the way to the High Court (see Waverley Transit Pty Ltd v Metropolitan Transit Authority 1991).

The affair poisoned industry-government relations for years if not decades. Special hatred was reserved for Labor, though Coalition governments also did things family bus operators opposed like franchising to outsiders in the 1990s and 2010s.

The MTA's loss meant that it could not use its preferred operator (Quinces) to take over routes run by existing private operators. The government had to find an alternative use for the now surplus buses. It did this by getting Quinces to run two long and expensive routes (631 and 634) through Melbourne's eastern suburbs. 634, for example, initially ran from Lilydale to Middle Brighton every 20 minutes. While they were initially labelled 'Metlink' they were different from the sensible Metlink routes in MetPlan. And they often inefficiently overlapped existing routes. While some areas gained they were a poor use of resources.

These were bleak years for the whole state, not just its transport. The problems with scratch ticketing, industrial disputation and tram blockades were well known. Poor state finances forced the Kirner government into making cuts that would not have been considered during better times.

One of these were big reductions in bus services in 1990 and 1991. Numerous routes across Melbourne got their operating hours reduced and frequencies cut. Service upgrades, such as Saturday afternoon trips introduced just two years previous were reversed. Peak frequencies were made unusably low and very few areas retained service after 7pm or on Sundays. Bus service levels fell to close to the worst in any Australian state capital.

Before and after timetables for some routes can be compared on Krustylink. And because of the slow pace of subsequent bus service reform some of those cut back timetables remain with us today, even on well used routes like 536 and 800. Today's low peak frequencies on many middle suburban buses is another lingering legacy as post-2006 'minimum standards' upgrades mostly improved evenings and weekends but not peaks.

It is interesting to see what would have happened if the government had been a bit wiser in 1988 or won the court case against the bus operators. We wouldn't have had the mostly unnecessary Metlink routes as the buses would have been used on existing routes (possibly with some upgrades if they were on MetPlan's Metlink alignments). This might have contained costs and not led to cuts as deep as we saw.

Joan Kirner lost to Jeff Kennett in the 1992 election. The main political priority in transport was reducing costs, particularly for train and tram. Line closures were threatened but almost all were saved, particularly in metropolitan Melbourne. There were even off-peak train frequency upgrades, particularly in southern and south-eastern suburb seats marginal for the ruling Liberal Party. Sunday services were also later upgraded across the train and tram networks. Buses didn't get much of a look-in though.

Dismantling The Met included privatising its bus operations in two tranches. That was done as a precursor to the much larger train and tram franchising. This led to National Bus, mostly serving the north-eastern area and Melbourne Bus Link, serving western and southern areas. There were significant changes to National bus routes and timetables in the '90s including some service increases. 

In contrast changes to Melbourne Bus Link routes and timetables were less. Ditto for routes run by the private operators. If you took a 2001 network map and compared it to something from the early 1990s you'd see very few changes. And almost all timetables had the same restricted operating hours, low frequencies and confusing deviations. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that nothing happened with bus services in this period. Meanwhile other cities like Perth and Brisbane were starting serious bus reform near the end of this era.

The change of government in 1999 initially meant little for public transport services. The incoming Labor government kept Kennett's train and tram franchising for Melbourne though it did not refranchise V/Line when National Express pulled out. Buses, in theory the most flexible form of  public transport, retained their existing ossified routes and timetables.

The government was spruiking Melbourne 2030 - a future of denser living and more public transport - but wasn't backing it with commensurately good service levels. Service on some rail lines resumed but other promises were quietly shelved. The political focus was on retaining regional seats; hence so-called 'Regional Fast Rail' and a new roof for Spencer Street Station (renamed Southern Cross) were transport priorities. 

SmartBus was speculated about in the last year or so of the Kennett government but didn't start until late 2002. These were as trial services on routes 703 and 888/889 (Springvale Rd). They delivered 15 minute off-peak services but weekend timetables and operating hours were still limited. Late 2002 also saw some upgrades to suburban bus routes including new Sunday services. It was large based on the little that happened in the ten years prior but still small on a network scale. Hence the title of this period. However there was some optimism that more could be ahead, with SmartBus confirmed as successful, and the third being implemented on Warrigal Rd (Route 700). 

Public transport was emerging as a political issue. Trains were full and reliability was dropping. Melbourne's population was growing much faster than during the 1990s with large suburban subdivisions to the west, north and south-east. 

The government came out with 'Meeting Our Transport Challenges' in 2006. From a rail point of view it was a damp squib and was thought so at the time. One of its signature projects, a third track to Dandenong, was never built. However it promised a lot for buses and delivered maybe half (which was still a lot). In fact it was an amazing time with a new bus announcement at least every month for a very busy four years from 2006.

Major wins were minimum service standards. More than 100 bus routes got upgrades including 7 day service every hour or better until 9pm. That might not sound much but the low level of previous services made it a substantial gain. Most of the operating hours and weekend service cuts from the early 1990s were reversed with better service than before. Public holiday timetables were also standardised on many routes. Route 900 started as a SmartBus to Rowville to replace a hoped for train or tram extension.

Sixteen local area bus reviews were done, covering all of Melbourne. Implementation was patchy, especially where substantial route reforms were recommended. The same can be said for the promised coordination with trains; in 2020 we still have areas where buses every 22 to 24 minutes fail to meet trains every 20 minutes.

2010 was possibly the biggest year ever for buses. The SmartBus network grew dramatically from its few eastern suburbs routes. This was the year of both the Doncaster area DART SmartBuses and the SmartBus orbitals. They brought more frequent service over long hours to middle and outer suburbs. 

The orbitals were however a 'broad brush' approach, with some sparsely populated areas being over-served by them and some busy areas being underserviced. Efforts to reduce duplication with regular routes were only sometimes made. Combined with the limited progress on local bus reviews the result was a network that was still too complex and in some places inefficient.

Nevertheless buses had been given more love than they had for decades. Patronage grew about as quickly as services were being added, reaching 50 year highs. This is why I call it a new golden age.

Unfortunately for the Labor government trains were where the politics was and with plunging reliability it was clear they had lost control of the network. They were penalised on this when they lost 2010's election.

The Coalition victory kept the train service upgrades happening with new greenfields timetables commencing. There were no new SmartBus routes and the new Transdev contract ripped money out of the system. However minister Terry Mulder was more supportive of major bus network reform than either his predecessors or successors. And he set up Public Transport Victoria as an organisation with better focus on public transport service than previous or subsequent arrangements. 

The result were 'smell of oily rag' network reforms in areas like Brimbank and new networks in areas like Point Cook, Werribee and Tarneit. These new networks were based on a hierarchy of simple and more frequent routes along main roads and coverage-type local routes serving areas in between them. Later areas to gain simpler networks include Epping North, Cranbourne and the South Morang area. Transdev's mid-2014 network was also bold in some areas. Its route simplifications were generally good but service on some routes was underbaked for the patronage being achieved. 

Labor returned in late 2014. Networks planned under their opponents continued to be rolled out for a while later. However ministers tended to be risk-averse (for example in rejecting Transdev's proposed 2015 greenfields network and recommending nothing in its place) while their governments were infrastructure oriented. This was to set the stage for what happened next in the service arena.

We appear to have entered a new stupor. The government put on a few extra resources for buses  in early 2016 (notably new university shuttles) but interest in substantial network reform collapsed. This is even though there remained much unfinished business from the bus reviews and some areas had inefficient networks that could be reconfigured to benefit more people.

Will this stasis be sustained? There has been a recent small but discernible increase in activity. For example a new Endeavour Hills bus network. Some changes in East Keilor/Niddrie. Also Caroline Springs, Essendon Fields, Craigieburn and Donnybrook.

While beneficial, the Endeavour Hills and East Keilor revisions have not simplified services as much as 2014's bolder reforms in areas like Brimbank have. At the current pace one would be very old until the planners had got around to reforming what would then be 50 or 60 year routes and service levels. Especially when it's possible to waste effort on projects of little network importance, eg the recent upgrades to the very quiet Route 704.

Last week, as this history was being written, history was also being made. A ministerial reshuffle in the wake of the Adem Somyurek affair led to Melissa Horne losing public transport after eighteen months. Her replacement is Ben Carroll who is also responsible for roads (bringing roads and public transport together once again).

The chapter is not closed on this age. It might even be renamed, depending on what happens next. Maybe the recent changes will end up defining this period, more positively, as a second stirring, depending on what happens next.

Melbourne on Transit bookshop

Favourably reviewed books about transport and cities. Purchases via these links support this blog and its independent reporting (at no extra cost to you).   

Sunday, June 28, 2020

How significant is 78 million more bus trips each year?

Buses in Melbourne are usually thought of as public transport's small fry. Most corridors have rail services and its world famous trams link inner suburbs to the city. Buses account for barely a quarter the network's patronage; a much lower proportion than for any other Australian city. 

However buses are the nearest public transport to most homes and suburban jobs. They connect universities and shopping centres poorly served by radial trains and trams. Our current network operates well below capacity, with many vehicles spending most hours of the day idle at depots rather than being in revenue service on efficient and useful routes. 

The potential of what you might call 'Big Bus' was illustrated on Friday where I discussed a little-repeated goal to increase Melbourne's annual bus patronage from 122 to 200 million by 2030. That's a rise of 64% or 78 million trips. I described the target growth as being four times the usage of our entire SmartBus network. Unfortunately those not acquainted with buses had to take my word that it was a large scale, even transformative, aim. Numbers of that size tend to lose meaning. Comparisons with better known projects may be a better way to illustrate their significance.  

The last government to roll out serious 'Big Bus' improvements was that of John Brumby in 2010. These involved new Doncaster area and orbital SmartBus routes. Credit should also be given to the 2006 'Minimum Standards' program, which upgraded something like 100 routes to operate 7 days per week. Bus patronage rose strongly during this time.

The rest of the 2010s, in contrast, has been quieter. Its first half had good but 'smell of oily rag' network improvements. In its last half even the pace of these had slowed. Achieving the 78 million growth target would require a massive renewed interest in buses, including a resumption of 2010-level activity in most of the next ten years.

Contrast with the Metro Tunnel

How does the 78 million more trips per year goal compare with the forecast increase we'll get from our biggest transport projects like the $11b Metro Tunnel? Are buses still small fry?

It might come as a shock that buses are bigger than Metro Tunnel.  78 million more bus trips per year is four times  the expected increased usage generated by the Metro Tunnel alone and over double that of it with associated projects (the 'extended program').

Don't believe me? Check the numbers.

Below is an extract from Appendix 5 of the Metro Tunnel's Business Case. It indicates 52 000 more trips per day. That's 19 million per year with the best case assumption they're Monday - Sunday trips, not weekday-only trips. The extended option (with high capacity trains, Melton electrification and additional tracks) increases that to 90 000 more trips, or 33 million per year.

The difference in favour of the 200 million by 2030 bus plan is even more stark when plotted on a graph as below: 

To summarise, the Metro Tunnel on its own is transformative for some near-CBD destinations but less so elsewhere. A lot of the service increases that make the network useful all day seven days per week are off-peak boosts that could have been done without the tunnel. The extended program spreads the benefits further but still not to the metropolitan wide scale that improved buses would. 

Even achieving just half the 78 million per year increase in bus patronage by 2030 would exceed the  growth projected from the (best-case) Melbourne Metro extended program. Bear that in mind if you think that the 78 million increase number is fanciful.  

Contrast with the Suburban Rail Loop

What about a comparison with the even bigger Suburban Rail Loop? This is a longer term project so I've projected the 2030 bus patronage target forward to 2051. I started with a 200 million base (the figure given to the Metropolitan Transport Forum talk as the 2030 target) and assumed much reduced growth of 1 or 1.5 percent per year thereafter.  That results in annual bus usage of around 250 million trips or a little more by 2051. 

The Suburban Rail Loop has a projection from its Strategic Assessment document. The 400 000 extra trips per day generated translate to 146 million more trips per year by 2051. Again I've generously assumed the same patronage 7 days/week rather than it being a weekday number. 

That 146 million trips increase is substantial. But when you compare it to the project's cost it might not appear so large. On the other hand since the SRL only adds a few new stations it does look big. However it is only a bit more than total bus patronage in 2019 and less than it will be in 2051 even if bus usage growth is only half that envisaged in the 2019 - 2030 period.  

Challenges for the Minister

Ben Carroll MP became the new minister for public transport less than a week ago. So far he hasn't put a foot wrong, expressing interest in the portfolio and saying all the right things. 

Suburban buses rated an early mention. 

One would expect any incoming government (or minister) to review the record of their predecessors. Leaders will wish to bring their own ideas, priorities and style to the job. And they might be influenced by recent events, including avoiding predecessors' mistakes.  

Take Daniel Andrews and Labor's win in 2014. They defeated a one-term Coalition government that, despite internal problems, was expecting to remain for at least two terms. The increasingly volatile electorate however had other ideas, punishing the Coalition in 2014 and again, more severely, in 2018.

Baillieu and Napthine's coalition governments were cautious administrations that stressed financial responsibility (although they did some financially reckless things like write pre-election side-letters for expensive road projects that there wasn't a political consensus on). Whereas Andrews and Labor started construction almost immediately after they gained office so that even if they lost in 2018 their projects would still be completed. As it turns out people liked the jobs-creating construction program and rewarded them with a second term and increased majority.

There's parallels with ministers, even if from the same party. At least the smarter ones know that their tenure depends on the support of others. That can be fluid. The party that gives can also be the party that takes. Internal competition is particularly high if a government has a big backbench arising from a large electoral majority. A good minister would want some early runs on the board so they at least have a record to talk about no matter what might happen later.

I wrote about the last 65 years of Victorian ministers responsible for public transport here.  No one can seriously doubt that Melissa Horne has been the role's least significant occupant for close to 30 years. Admittedly Martin Pakula's term was less but he presided over historically large bus and train timetable upgrades before his party's 2010 loss. The main virtue of Horne's anodyne record is that it would keep her off any 'worst transport minister' list.

My profile on Minister Horne is here. While it included a prescient tweet from Adem Somyurek, no one then was to know how the exposure of his factional dealings were to lead to the reshuffle that saw Horne demoted and lose public transport within months. 

The point of this background is to illustrate the context the new minister finds himself. One would expect that ministers would be keen to leave a good legacy. Power can be unexpectedly lost due to forces outside one's control.

Unlike Melissa Horne, Ben Carroll starts mid-term. That can be difficult because the lead time on many public transport projects limits the ability to deliver pre-2022 election upgrades if desired. As he'll likely be advised by people in the Department, even small things like weekend bus service improvements using existing buses, take ages to arrange due to currently schlerotic internal processes. Because of that decisions to improve buses need to be made fairly soon, even for changes two or even three years off. Unless he can win early funding and direct the department to speed things up a bit. 

Secretary, show us the plan! 

The Department Secretary made that bold remark about an ambitious patronage goal last November. Since then nothing further has been known to have been said. 

This is extraordinary given we're talking about a passenger patronage impact between two and four times that of the Metro Tunnel. It could even rival the scale of the Suburban Rail Loop. 

If you're going to be changing how tens of millions of passenger trips work you'll need some sort of plan for it. 

Substantial public money, potentially up to hundreds of millions extra per year by 2030, would be involved. We should not resile from this as well-executed bus network reform compares well in terms of cost-effectiveness against dearer and slower to build projects like freeways and rail loops. However it does need to be explained, not least to those in charge of public expenditure. 

A program would include a process of redesigning local networks and funding service frequency upgrades vastly faster than the current pace. There will have to be a major bus fleet buying program for improved peak period and growth area services. 

Due to the scale of the purchases other departments may have views on local employment, industry development and potential use of electric buses. New sites for depots will also need to be found. 

Roads (one of the minister's other portfolios) will need changes to speed buses through bottlenecks while also making them quickly crossable for walkers to bus stops, especially mid-block. More on what's needed in Friday's post. Other ideas here

All this is bold, exciting and daunting. However an aspirational goal, said once and not reinforced later, is not enough. A substantial budget and strategy is needed to make it real. And due to connectivity between modes, it needs to cover train and tram as well, especially right now with the Auditor-General sniffing around. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

10 steps to 200 million: Achieving Melbourne's bus patronage target (Useful Network Part 50)

Other Australian cities are doing big things with buses. Adelaide is increasing its frequent network by 42%, delivering frequent buses to 200 000 more people. That's 800 000 if you scale it up to Melbourne's size. Canberra, which introduced a new frequent network last year, is boosting services by 17% to give everyone a local bus every 30 minutes or better on weekdays from next month. Perth has a continuous review process that's transformed its network in 20 years. And Sydney regularly announces bus service upgrades that make us envious. 

What about us? Our buses just limp along. The infrastructure-heavy program under senior minister Jacinta Allan grabs all attention. Until this week public transport services were left to rookie minister Melissa Horne with a tiny budget for anything new or even to reconfigure existing routes. Pre COVID-19 metropolitan bus patronage had stagnated near 120 million passengers per year versus 200 million for trams in their much smaller catchment.

We haven't had a publicly available bus network plan for years. You'd have to go back to 2006 for Meeting Our Transport Challenges which spawned some large upgrades. The Rail Network Development Plan from 2012 showed how buses might operate as part of a coordinated network. The last few years have, in contrast, been quiet. But don't discount the iceberg theory (below).

A rare insight into what might lurk below the surface was given by Department of Transport secretary Paul Younis at a Metropolitan Transport Forum meeting last November . He flagged a large bus order and an ambitious bus patronage target of 200 million passengers per year by 2030.

This target is 64% growth in 11 years. That works out to be about 5% annual compound growth or at least double our (historically high) recent annual population growth. In other words more people, more trips and a shift from other modes. The growth required is 78 million extra boardings, about four times what all our SmartBus routes carry each year

You won't get this sustained increase without either a plan or some bigger favourable external force at work. The latter happened for trains in the 2003 to 2010 period. However there wasn't a proper growth plan and booming patronage was accompanied by plunging reliability. Bus use also grew strongly in this period, with service upgrades helping greatly.

The 200 million target sounds great. It's achievable but only with a lot of effort. Implementation would make our network much more capable and useful, with big gains across the community.

Unfortunately it doesn't quite feel real (yet). For example there is no mention of the target on the DoT website, no known public endorsement of it by the minister and nothing in last year's state budget documents. For it to be credible we need backing from the minister, an implementation plan and a budget. Especially in these times when unfavourable forces (eg COVID-19) have caused network patronage to fall not rise.

What would Infrastructure Victoria do?

We don't hear much about what underpins the Department of Transport's work when it comes to transport network planning. Their strategic plan from last year didn't say much.

To their credit more has come out of Infrastructure Victoria. Detractors regard them as technocratic economist types obsessed with pricing. Our state government, which humours IV's existence but otherwise gives them short shrift, is equally single-minded about infrastructure. No one important (not even the Department) visibly champions service sufficiently to balance the other forces. This is why public transport is such a shaky one or two legged stool with poor asset utilisation.

Infrastructure Victoria occasionally talks about bus reform in limited terms. Notwithstanding their kookiness on things like fare policy, they deserve a hearing, especially if they engage in a public or semi-public arena such as at the Metropolitan Transport Forum. Last October, for example, they presented at MTF Loves Buses.

A key slide from that presentation is below. It shows the bus routes with above what they regard as viable (20 passenger boardings per bus service hour) in green and the quieter ones in red. Most underperforming routes are in the four main clusters I've circled.

 The next slide (below) discusses their proposed treatments.

This approach is flawed. It's expressed in terms of individual routes rather than networks or regions. These impose an artificial division between high and low performing routes and seek to tackle them separately with different priorites accorded to each.

This is both misguided and inefficient. For example you may have a busy and under serviced route operating in the same area as a quiet but excessively serviced route. The most economical approach might be to transfer buses from the quieter route to the busier route. But you can only do this if you simultaneously review all the routes operating in an area, regardless of which company runs them or their patronage performance. You might not be able to afford upgrades to strong routes if you were unable to touch quieter routes at the same time (listed under Priority 2). Whereas you could if priorities were ordered by area.

A route may sometimes perform poorly due to poor network design. For example multiple routes going the same way may overlap. Removing overlapping routes may be enough to make a previously quiet route viable. In other cases moving it to adjacent roads might give it unique catchment and extend coverage to more people while allowing another route to be straightened and made more frequent. Again this requires a network-based approach to deliver the best coverage and frequency to the greatest number. Unfortunately IV is weak with wider network thinking, as demonstrated by its proposal to fragment fares by public transport mode.

Removing poorly used routes can save money but is often politically controversial. IV has obviously never been in a room full of people angry that their local service is being cut. Planners need all tools available to deliver the most efficient generally acceptable network, including changes to other routes that make network reform more 'swings and roundabouts' rather than straight losses in an area.

An example of a failed fragmented approach was the 2015 Transdev greenfields network that had some merits but, because it was done in isolation from other operators' routes, short-changed some areas and got rejected by the minister.

IV position themselves as champions of economic efficiency and social utility. However some of their prescriptions for buses can have the opposite effect. Priority 2 suggests several options for quieter routes but some are either unlikely to deliver the savings envisaged or would result in large service cuts.

As an example deleting off-peak trips from a route only saves a little money as the bus is still needed for peak trips and still has depot and maintenance overheads. Network performance on both economic measures (eg efficient asset utilisation) and social equity measures (as off-peak passengers are more likely to be on lower incomes than peak passengers) would decline. That's opposite to the idea about using school buses better which does have merit. Then there's the 'community transport' sometimes recommended.  It's a warm fuzzy name but with typically only a few midday shopper trips per week it's much less useful than a  7 day service on a conventional local bus route.

IV sometimes spruiks flexible route buses as a solution. Carrying more people on a flexible route bus is like pouring sand into cogs; the more there is the more the cogs slow and eventually seize up. With their high operating costs per user they are unlikely to save much money unless you also cut service. Service cuts directly reduce the service's usefulness and flexibility in the types of trips possible, returning us to the problems flexible routes were intended to solve. Because the concept sounds attractive (including to some in the Department) I'll elaborate on some of its problems below.

Note to Minister: Avoid the flexible route garden path

If we take IV's bait and go for a mass roll-out of so-called demand-responsive buses (which can be less rather than more flexible for the passenger) on the basis of them saving money we risk being dudded by cargo cultists selling the 'latest thing'. And not for the first time. 

Systems and technology attract a disproportionate number of well-meaning 'solution sellers'. They seem perfectly made for transport departments eager to be innovative without doing much of the grunt work themselves. Examples include scratch ticketing, Metcard, SmartBus passenger information (Mk 1), botched bus tracking and the myki debacle. The Department lacks consumer protection laws that we punters have if we buy things that don't work. Besides admissions can embarrass political masters so are rarely made. 

There have also been issues with over-promising but underquoting by aspirant transport operators. For example the early years of rail franchising promised massive patronage gains and diminishing public subsidy. We eventually got more passengers but cost blow-outs forced a renegotiation of contracts in the surviving franchisees' favour. Then, fifteen years later, the government thought it got a bargain when it picked Transdev to run our busiest bus routes. In 2015 the auditor general indeed found savings. However aspects of its operations were shoddy with a major fleet maintenance crisis in 2017 making at least some of the claimed economies false. 

'Flexible route' services involve both information technology and potentially different operators. That makes it vulnerable to all risks mentioned above. Especially since running costs vary more than with standard fixed bus routes operating a known number of annual kilometres.

In practice you are unlikely to unlock efficiency gains without making other hard decisions eg serious bus priority (good for frequent fixed routes) or accepting large cuts to service or driver labour conditions (which might not be). The latter risks the ire of driver unions such as the ALP-affiliated TWU and potential further fracturing of the party before a state election that has just become tougher than expected. However if costs are not reduced the government may miss out on savings that it hoped could boost stronger routes.
To summarise, at best 'demand responsive' services typically carry few passengers with poorer results than even low frequency fixed route buses. When more people use them they become much slower as they are forced to deviate for more people. In a way that is self-regulating as people find the service too slow so usage levels off at a lower number. At worst the service can fail with too few passengers to be worth running. In the few cases where flexible routes do succeed their service pattern evolves to that of a regular route with fixed stops.

Overall improving fixed route bus networks appears less risky with more assured results and better overall service. Such review work needs detailed local knowledge of demand and services.

This is more likely to be found within the depths of the Department of Transport (which has area-based transport planners) than the generalists within IV. Solutions will be different for each area as networks and historical service levels are different. For example areas A and D (see earlier map) have overlaps, major overservicing and poor catchment demographics for buses while B and C have many coverage and service gaps. All have prospects for significant and fairly economical bus network reform as often discussed here.

10 steps to 200 million bus trips by 2030

With no publicly available plans from DoT or good guidance from IV, what do you do? In one sentence, if you wanted to greatly boost bus patronage, you'd just run every route twice as frequently. However, apart from being expensive, this doesn't solve other problems like restricted operating hours, indirect routes, lack of coverage, wasteful duplication, delays in traffic and more. A more nuanced approach would be better to fix network problems, selectively boost high patronage potential routes, cut waste and be more cost-effective. It needs at least the following ten steps.

1. Funding. The existing bus network has inefficiencies but patronage growth of this magnitude requires new money on services. A couple of hundred million dollars per year would be a good start, with some recouped by higher fare revenue and wider benefits such as reduced parking pressures at stations. It doesn't have to be all in one go; funding can be ramped up year by year with progressive improvements implemented.

2. Bus drivers. Recruit them. Lots. Plus maintenance, support and other staff needed to run more services, especially off-peak and shoulder peak initially. Even if you don't yet know what route they'll be on hang out the vacancy sign anyway. 

3. New buses. Order them. Boost peak frequencies when they arrive (having already recruited the drivers). Cost-effective network reform (as often discussed here) will free up some buses but more are needed for the 200 million goal aimed for here. Get articulated buses with double leaf doors for high capacity and fast boarding on busy routes that already have frequent service.  

4. New depots and workshops. Needed to store and maintain the new buses if existing depots are full. Locate in operationally efficient locations. 

5. Work existing buses harder. That means longer operating hours and better frequency off-peak and weekends. Then more buses are in revenue service for more of the day. Key routes are turn-up and go while others have frequencies harmonised with trains for better connections. Most people to be within walking distance of buses every 10 to 20 minutes. All residential area routes upgraded to run 7 days per week including public holidays. And implement all-door boarding on major routes to cut dwell times. A good start is possible by the 2022 election if we start now. 

6. Reform networks to be simpler and more direct with better coverage.  This will require about 60 suburban networks reformed along Useful Network lines but beefed up with 10 minute frequencies on maybe 30 to 50 key routes. Also extend network coverage to fringe areas without buses and established areas (eg Knox and Mornington Peninsula) that never got a full bus service. Some changes will be cheaply possible by rationalising existing routes. However contrary to claims from Infrastructure Victoria one cannot bank on significant savings from flexible route buses without large and unwelcome service cuts. 

7. Train and tram frequency boosts. Needed to improve connections. First implement network-wide 20 minute maximum waits, then boost lines on which track capacity exists (ie most) to every 10 minutes, starting with shoulder peak and then daytime services. Boosting new driver training should be an early action.  

8. Give buses a free run through traffic to speed trips. Implement effective bus priority measures at intersections with high bus movements. Convert traffic lanes to buses only where there is frequent service and people throughput with buses is higher. Use time savings to increase service frequencies to further boost usage.

9. Make all bus stops accessible. Improve pedestrian and wheelchair access to stops from surrounding homes and destinations, especially those served by frequent routes on main roads. Local treatments may include roundabout removals, signalisation, reduced signal cycle times, zebra crossings etc. No passenger should wait for more than 30 seconds to safely cross any road at any time to get to or from a bus stop. Stops should be located at intersections to maximise catchment and improve interchange with routes on other roads.

10. Quality multimodal information and network promotion. Back revamped networks with signage, network maps, timetables and other upgraded information, particularly at interchange points. Strengthen marketing of improved networks.


I've discussed the laudable, ambitious but little known goal to boost annual bus patronage to 200 million passenger by 2030. There's been no known reaffirmation of this target since MTF members heard about it six months ago. And nothing official as to how it might be achieved. I've raised and critiqued Infrastructure Victoria's approach and have suggested ten steps of my own.

What are your thoughts? Is a target like this desirable? Could COVID-19 permanently change demand patterns to make patronage increases harder? And are the ten points suggested reasonable or are other things required? If you have thoughts please leave them in the comments below. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #79: Route 740 - Going the same way for decades

The last time anything significant happened to Route 740 was when Henry Bolte was premier. For all the years since the 740 has remained static while surrounding routes were added, deleted, altered or lengthened. We're now up to our tenth subsequent premier with no substantial change to the route.

Melbourne is the opposite of Adelaide or Canberra; their bus routes have changed and renumbered frequently while any alteration to ours requires an extraordinary effort. Stability is good in that you can make a long term decision like buying a house near a bus with the assurance that a service will remain. However it can regress to a useless inertia if an existing route ceases to meet community needs and is not changed. This is a common issue here. A happy medium is a continuous but thorough review process most like what happens in Perth.

You only know this in retrospect, but the golden decade for buses in Melbourne was about 2006 to 2016. It started with major upgrades to operating days and hours, had big SmartBus roll-outs in 2010 and ended with reformed networks in some areas. This golden period was preceded by more than a decade of stupor after the massive 1990-91 cuts. We're currently in another lethargic period. More on this next week.

So what is the 740? It runs from Mitcham Station to Vermont South where it terminates at a small group of shops (pictured above). It's hard to see from the map below but it's one of Melbourne's shortest bus routes, being just 3km long.  

Route 740 fills a coverage gap between Mitcham Rd and Heatherdale Rd. These are about 1.5km apart. Thus, if you want buses to be within 400m of most homes, there needs to be a bus there. The map below shows where it is relative to other routes. 


Route 740 is a weekday peak-only service. This limits its usefulness to two categories of passengers; peak commuters catching the train at Mitcham Station and, in the morning, children going to Vermont Secondary College (which its only morning southbound service extends to). You can see from the timetable below that it fully utilises one bus for just over two hours in the pm commuter peak. 

Even though the 740 provides residential area coverage that seniors and shoppers would likely value, there are no midday trips that would be most useful. If one was to make a shopping trip from Vermont East to Mitcham one would need to board the 4:30pm service to arrive at 4:47pm. If you were quick then the 5:27pm trip would get you home, otherwise it's the 6:08pm trip which is the last for the day. Thus your shopping errand can be no longer than 80 minutes unless you plan to spend the whole day at Mitcham. 

As for commuters, short routes and low frequency are a bad combination for buses. Unless you're lucky with the timing of its departures from Mitcham Station there's about an even chance that you'll reach your destination before the bus does.  This means that, except for one group of passengers, the 740 isn't often very useful as you'll see later when we discuss patronage.

Route 740 is in the marginal seat of Ringwood held by Dustin Halse MP for the Labor Party. 


Other routes around Mitcham have been lengthened as bus operators merged. A spectacular example is the previously mentioned 742 which has steadily grown from being barely 2km long to over 20 times that in fifty years. However the 740 remains pretty much unchanged since at least 1971. See these network maps on the BCSV website to compare. 740 can trace its history back to 1957 as part of another route. 

The 740 timetable has the same number of trips it did in 1991. The main change since then has been the spread of trips over a wider span in the afternoon. This greater spacing has meant a drop in pm frequency from about every 30 to about every 40 minutes. 

The 740's stability perfectly exemplifies the static nature of bus routes and timetables over 30 to 50 years in many parts of Melbourne.  Rather than being a routine process based on patronage data and assessed needs, the Department of Transport reviews only a small number of routes per year. An even smaller minority of routes ever have review implemented.   


Route 740 is a real outlier. While you expect buses on school days to be busier than those on school holidays, the difference is normally quite small - say 10 or 20 %. Route 740 is a major exception. Its boardings per service hour are very high on school days (45) and very low (11) on non-school days. That 11 would comprise of the few who find the 740 will get them home faster than they can walk from the station. This limits its usefulness for commuters (who are normally more willing to walk longer distances). Meanwhile seniors and shoppers, who would more appreciate a bus on local streets nearer home, find the peak-only 740 runs at times inconvenient for them. 


What would you do with the 740 and its timetable? While it obviously is useful for schoolchildren on one at least one trip, what about the other trips? Would the 740 be more useful if it ran as an interpeak shopper service to provide coverage, with its pm peak bus freed to upgrade frequencies on another route? 

What about bigger changes to the network? Could 738 and 736 be swapped to provide some minor time savings? Does Mitcham Rd need two routes or can one be rerouted to replace the 740 and provide a full time service? Comments are appreciated and can be left below.  

Melbourne on Transit bookshop

Favourably reviewed books about transport and cities. Purchases via these links support this blog and its independent reporting (at no extra cost to you).