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.

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