Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #76: Our least train-harmonised buses - Where are they?


Ten years ago the issue of whether buses connected with trains went from being a daily encountered but largely private passenger frustration to the political mainstream. It got talked about in the media. And for a while stuff got done.  

The timeline went something like this: 

Early 2010: The government released timetable data in a form that could be automatically analysed. 


May 9, 2010: The Age ran with the story. Daniel Bowen's write-up here

September 8, 2010: The Herald Sun reports the Minister for Transport, Martin Pakula, as saying that people needed to change how they viewed buses. This was despite known major problems with the bus network. One of those was poor connectivity with trains which the minister was later asked about. He said it 'wasn't simple because trains and buses operate at different frequencies'. The person responsible for setting frequencies that could enable better connections? Minister Pakula himself!  


(I was at the debate - my notes here)

September 29, 2010: Age reports that no one is running public transport coordination. 


The finding came from a 2010 ATRF paper by Melbourne university researchers Kathren Lazanas and Dr John Stone (well worth reading). It described timetable planning as operating in single mode silos with little coordination between them (diagram below).  


My blog post at the time, prepared before the ATRF paper was available, is here

The research and ensuing media coverage made the Brumby government, despite its record improvements to bus services, look silly or inept on transport planning issues. The existing organisational arrangements were clearly failing. Denials from pollies and their spinners merely demonstrated their lack of first-hand experience and isolation from peoples daily lives. 

Support for a proper public transport authority charged with coordinating services came from advocacy groups, Greens politicians, and, most significant of all, the Liberal opposition which went on to win November's election. The new Coalition government introduced the Public Transport Development Authority, publicly known as Public Transport Victoria. 

PTV sought to improve connectivity between trains and buses. It became procedure for bus services to be 'recoordinated' with train timetables when these changed. The recoordination program improved things. However it was mostly minor timetable tweaks. Systemic problems, where bus and train frequencies were unharmonised all day, were mostly outside scope. 

PTV didn't preside over as much funding for new bus networks as happened in the four years previously under Labor. However what was done was more radical and more cost-effective. Some areas got major bus network reforms with more direct routes and revised timetables that harmonised with trains. It helped that there were train frequency improvements as well, with some lines going to ten minute frequencies during the day. 

 The bus network reviews done under PTV were good. It's just that they were too few to cover most of Melbourne. Bus networks in established suburbs that didn't get new train stations, for instance, rarely got reviewed then or subsequently. The major backlog from the 2006 - 2010 reviews remained  unfinished. And the program to simplify train services with new more frequent greenfields timetables stalled since the following Andrews government switched priority from service to infrastructure.  

Hence there remains, in 2020, local bus networks whose timetables reflect settlement and working patterns pre 1990s or earlier. And we still have many bus routes that don't evenly match train frequencies a decade after the Lazanas/Stone paper and eight years after the formation of PTV. 


Why does timetable harmonisation matter?

Except possibly for some local trips, you are lucky if you can take one train, tram or bus from your home to your destination. More often than not you need to change services. That's fine when frequency is high. But often it's not, with suburban bus services commonly running every 20 to 40 minutes only. 

An economical, efficient and versatile public transport network requires many to make connections. A bad connection can easily double the length of a trip, possibly making it three or four times longer than driving. The most potent tool to speed travel by public transport then is not to buy faster trains or buses but to improve connections between services. That's best done by cutting waiting by making services more frequent, or where high frequency isn't justified, planning timetables for reliable timed connections. 

The first step in ensuring this is to harmonise bus with train frequencies. That makes the service easier to catch without detailed juggling of timetables. And it gives consistent travel times. Even if your bus is less frequent than the train service, there is utility in knowing that your bus will evenly meet (say) every second train with a short wait rather than at apparently random times with varying waits. Also once a bus service has been designed to operate at a harmonised frequency (which may include network reform so that its route is an operationally efficient length) then it's relatively easy to shuffle times to optimise connectivity. 

The result of all this is a bus route that is not only good for the destinations along it but is also useful for the connectivity it enables to trains and other buses it intersects with. Not just for occasional trips, where good connections can be fluked, but as a matter of routine. This encourages patronage by widening the range of trips that public transport is efficient and useful for. 

Our unharmonised bus routes

What and where are the unharmonised bus routes? That's what I'll attempt to answer today. I won't analyse all routes and connections like the PTUA did. Instead I'll just compare interpeak weekday bus with train frequencies. If the train is every 20 minutes and the bus is every 20, 40 or 60 minutes I'll count that as being harmonised. Whereas if the bus was every 23, 30 or 45 minutes then I won't since there will be different and uneven waiting times over the day. I'll give special emphasis to routes where frequencies are lower and the need for timetable harmonisation is higher to avoid long waits. 

Note that just because a bus route isn't on the list below doesn't mean that its trips connect with trains. Many long bus routes intersect several train lines and you can't usually guarantee good connections at each without high frequency. And it's possible to have routes whose timetables harmonise with trains but the connections are still poor. Hence timetable harmonisation is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for good all-day connectivity with trains. 

Melbourne West

216 Every 15 min. Trains in the area are every 10 or 20 min.
220 Every 15 min. Trains in the area are every 10 or 20 min.
223 Every 15 min. Trains in the area are every 10 or 20 min.
410 Every 15 min. Trains in the area are every 10 or 20 min.
432 Uneven 20 - 30 min frequency. Trains every 10 min.
460 Very uneven frequency.
462 Every 68 min. Frequency upgrade planned.
472 Every 15 min. Trains in the area are every 10 or 20 min. 

Melbourne North

Inner north

467 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min. 
503 Every 25 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
504 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
512 Every 15 - 30 min uneven. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
526 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.

Fawkner/Broadmeadows/Craigieburn

528 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
530 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
532 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
534 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
536 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
544 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.

Preston/Reservoir/Thomastown/Epping

552 Every 15 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
553 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
554 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
555 Every 23 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
556 Every 23 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
557 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
558 Every 25 - 40 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
559 Every 22 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
567 Every 22 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.

Melbourne North-east

Heidelberg

546 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 10 or 20 min.
548 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
549 Every ~30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
551 Every ~30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.

Greensborough/Eltham

293 Every 30 min. Trains in the area every 20 min.
517 Every 22 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
566 Every 24 min. Trains in the area are every 20 min.
580 Every 30 min. Trains in the area are every 20 or 40 min.

Melbourne East

Box Hill/Blackburn/Mitcham

201 Every 20 min. Trains in the area are every 15 min.
270 Every 20 min. Trains in the area are every 15 min. 
736 Every 30 - 45 min. Trains in the area are every 15 min.
765 Every 30 - 40 min. Trains in the area are every 15 min.

Croydon

688 Every 35 - 45 min. Trains in the area are every 30 min.
690 Every ~40 min. Trains in the area are every 30 min.

Melbourne South and South-East

603 Every 20 min. Trains in the area are every 15 min.
605 Every 20 min. Trains in the area are every 15 min.

There's a few other caveats other than those mentioned above. If we looked at weekend frequencies there would be more routes listed. Also, even if you harmonise buses with trains on one line there is no guarantee that they would mesh with trains on other lines the bus route serves. This is because unlike other Australian capitals (which generally run a base 15 or 30 minute rail frequency), Melbourne has no network-wide pulse for its train timetables. Instead our off-peak train frequencies can be 10, 15, 20, 30 or 40 minutes. 2012's Rail Network Development Plan sought to simplify this to a 10/20 minute hierarchy but implementation of this has stalled. 

This means that it's not possible to harmonise buses with trains at all points on some of our longer bus routes. This is particularly the case with the orbital 901, 902 and 903 SmartBuses that also suffer from a decision made to go for 15/30 minute base frequencies as opposed to the 10/20 minutes common on much of the rail network, particularly on weekends. 


 Locations of unharmonised bus routes

As you saw before there's huge geographical differences when it comes to buses being harmonised with train timetables. Buses in some part of Melbourne are almost totally harmonised with trains while elsewhere very few routes are. This legacy reflects long-term history, the scheduling practices of particular bus companies and whether an area has had a comprehensive network review. 

For example only a few bus routes in Melbourne's west are not harmonised with trains. About half of those instances are around Footscray which have generally high bus and train frequencies, lessening maximum waits. Also making a difference has been the west's large number of PTV-era bus reviews, such as in the City of Brimbank in 2014, Wyndham in 2015 and some smaller network changes and harmonisations since. 

Melbourne's south and south-east is also pretty good as regards harmonisation. Although some routes not are impossible to consistently harmonise due to varying train frequencies. For example Route 828 at every 20 minutes harmonises with trains at Dandenong, Cheltenham and Highett but not Hampton due to the latter's 15 minute train frequency as opposed to 10 minutes on the other lines. The same applies for other routes eg 630. The 10 minute train frequencies to Dandenong and Frankston have encouraged me to be lenient here despite some irregular bus frequencies. 

The outer east and south-east have been long dominated by a few large operators such as Ventura, Grenda and Invicta (last two now part of the Ventura Group). They have historically ran their buses every 30 or 60 minutes, matching eastern suburbs trains every 15 or 30 minutes. There have been some bus reviews in the Berwick/Narre Warren area about 10 years ago and a more recent one in Cranbourne with widespread harmonised and coordinated services. The Dandenong and Frankston line upgrades (from every 15 to every 10 minutes) maintained harmonisation with buses every 30 or 60 minutes while restoring harmonisation to the few routes operating every 20 minutes (which was broken in the 1990s when the Dandenong and Frankston lines improved from every 20 to every 15 minutes interpeak).  

This brings us to answer the question posed. There is no contest. Melbourne's northern and north-eastern suburbs have the least harmonised buses. Reservoir, Thomastown, Epping, Greensborough, Heidelberg and Eltham are the epicentres of this non-connectivity. Timetable harmonisation is the exception rather than the rule in these areas. This is despite buses providing connections to key destinations across the north such as Northland Shopping Centre and La Trobe University.  

Comprising established areas with no new stations, the middle north and north-eastern suburbs have had no recent bus reviews. Where new routes have been added they have been over the top of existing services. This has left a legacy of considerable network duplication and low patronage in areas like Eltham and St Helena. Addressing this by simplifying the network could pay for some routes to be upgraded to every 20 minutes and made to connect with trains. The Useful Network series contains many ideas along these lines.  



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