Friday, July 31, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 55: How good plans can endure - A look at 1988's MetPlan

Planners (especially in public transport!) can get demoralised that what they work on may not get implemented or even published.  

Plans may be for 10, 20 or more years. However political and economic conditions change faster than that. It's not uncommon for a plan to look like it's been dropped if political fashions change. An example is 2013's Rail Network Development Plan whose emphasis on quickly delivering frequent service proved unattractive to an infrastructure-focused government. 

However planners can take comfort that their best work is based on universal truths. They address enduring matters that are important if we want a functioning system in a growing city. Fashions may change but a good plan lives on. 

An old plan may appear dead only to later be revived. It's not just in transport we see this; look at the history of policies such as Medibank/Medicare and the Goods and Services Tax. Ideas might be mooted 10 or 20 years before becoming 'part of the furniture'. Meanwhile the radical has become not the person who wishes to implement a policy but the one who wishes to repeal it.  

Getting back to transport, the most well known plan would be the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan. That was basically a big freeway plan with some scraps thrown to public transport (apart from the City Loop though even that project's benefits can be debated).

Freeways, particularly in inner suburbs, became unfashionable from the 1970s due to their urban displacement, pollution, noise and cost. And, for a while, Melbourne's population stopped growing as fast as envisaged. However traffic engineers, politically and institutionally supported by RACV and Vicroads, kept the faith and were ready when pro-mega road 1990s and 2000s governments dusted off old plans. Whatever your view on big roads you cannot deny that the 1969 plan remains extremely influential, with it still shaping road construction in the 2020s. 

One of the most interesting plans for public transport was 1988's MetPlan. Cost control wasn't very good and militant unions were sabotaging reliability. But there were some infrastructure and service improvements in the mid-1980s. And good patronage gains, lifting usage from 1981/82's historical lows. Hence there was an air of optimism about the future as you can see from this MetPlan extract below.

The 15-year plan, written at the height of this revival, proved the pride before the fall. Within three years city streets were clogged with striking trams, thousands of trips were stripped from bus timetables and riders rode what wasn't cancelled without paying thanks to the disastrous scratch tickets. Victorians left in record numbers for sunnier and more prosperous states. The atmosphere of decay was back, with usage per capita falling to near record lows. Joan Kirner and her Cain-era cronies were bundled out of office in the 1992 landslide. Her side's MetPlan appeared dead. 

Whatever the short-term politics underlying change continued. Melbourne continued growing, although somewhat slower than 1960s forecasts. We continued to suburbanise beyond and between existing train lines. Jobs that handled things moved outwards while those that dealt with ideas moved inwards. Investment returned to the CBD while the inner ring gentrified with city workers. Our use of time was also changing with working hours spreading and weekends becoming commercialised. Even if public transport was just to retain existing modal share its services would have to adapt to cater for these shifts.

MetPlan was a good plan that came at an inopportune time. Had it been released in (say) 1984 more of it might have been achieved. (Mis?)management of day to day issues such as industrial relations, bus contracts and ticketing soon overshadowed it. Along with the wider economic and budgetary malaise that was soon to affect all government-funded activities, including public transport. More favourable economic circumstances may explain why although the Bracks and Brumby Labor governments had their own cost blowouts (eg Regional Fast Rail and myki) they were able to absorb these without cutting services or suffering a long-term hit to their electability.

The reason why I say MetPlan was a good plan is that it contains enduring truths that responded to the sustained changes mentioned before. For example it had suburban rail electrifications, tram extensions into growth areas, frequency standards for trains and buses and a network of orbital routes that would permit easy cross-suburban travel.

Not much got implemented in MetPlan's term. Subsequent years were wasted obsessing over ticketing systems and franchising, even though goodness and badness can be found in both government and private operation. However many MetPlan ideas became the staples of future plans like Meeting Our Transport Challenges. A high proportion got implemented, sometimes on a larger scale than first proposed. Recommending projects of sustained usefulness rather than flash-in-a-pan fads is  another mark of a good plan. MetPlan generally succeeded here too.

What was in MetPlan?

I've tried to plot MetPlan initatives on the interactive map here or below. If you click on the map (top left) you can turn on and off initiatives by mode. Clicking on each line or point tells you a little about each project and whether it was eventually completed and when. 

There will  be inaccuracies and omissions. Some original maps and descriptions were not clear. For example it was not easy to tell the precise alignment of some of the 'Metlink' cross-suburban bus routes due to inconsistencies. Still what's there should be enough to explain the concepts.

MetPlan's enduring proposals

MetPlan contained a mix of infrastructure and service proposals. There were several rail electrification or extension projects across Melbourne's north including Sunbury, Craigieburn and South Morang/Mernda. They remained dreams until into the 2000s. However all were eventually completed, with Mernda the most recent in 2018.

Rail upgrades, including electrification, were considered for Bacchus Marsh/Melton, Geelong and Baxter. Geelong got Regional Rail Link in 2015 and today enjoys a 20 minute weekday service frequency that would have been considered extraordinary in 1988. In 2020 electrification for all remains a live option, with Melton the likely front-runner.

'Modal interchanges' and 'park and rides' were some of MetPlan's most widespread projects. Two Park and Rides were new stations at Calder Park and Moorooldale. These didn't get built but Coolaroo (also proposed) was. Moorooldale (Cave Hill) is still talked about with a new development nearby but there's nothing officially proposed.

Increasing parking at stations was an emphasis in MetPlan and in the whole period since. Even the federal government, which only occasionally gets involved in state public transport projects, has promised funding. However it is space ineffective and often ties up land that could be used for shops and housing near stations. It does not help family budgets where households need to buy an extra car largely just to commute to the station. The economics for the general community are poor with each person who gains getting a $10 000 to 20 000 windfall, none of which is clawed back by user fees. It is also not scalable for desirable future passenger growth; in 2020 walking remains the dominant way that people reach stations across the network.

There was some caginess in MetPlan about the fate of the Upfield line. This was the subject of intense local politics. Because much of it paralleled the 19 tram it was considered a 'Cinderella' service with buses replacing trains on Sundays (as also then happened on some tram routes) and speculation about closure. Though no political friends of local left-wing activists, the Kennett government upgraded infrastructure and services to assure the line's future. Activists in the union movement contributed to the downfall of the Cain/Kirner government while their gentrified Green-voting replacements in the area regularly win parliamentary seats. 

There's a few lines on service strategy. Speed was a priority with improvements to track and signalling and more express services. Lines would be operated in groups to improve reliability and opportunities for cross-platform interchanges at key stations would be investigated.

Frequency was less of a priority and I think MetPlan's main shortcoming. It proposed clockface timetables but the minimum standard proposed was weak, especially on lines through established areas. For example it proposed a minimum service every 20 minutes during the peak and 30 minutes off-peak (including weekends). This level of service was already being run or exceeded on the busiest lines. The main improvements would be on Sundays and along outer portions where lower frequencies ran.

One might explain this low minimum standard (or at least the lack of a dual standard with 10 - 15 minute off-peak frequencies closer in) by saying that many inner and middle suburbs had static populations as densification infill had not seriously taken hold. MetPlan did say that boosting off-peak patronage was important but we were apparently still too small for the concept of an all-day turn-up-and-go Metro type timetable. However not long after MetPlan came out the Sandringham line got a boost from 20 to 15 minutes off-peak. The following Kennett government went further by boosting off-peak train frequencies from 20 to 15 minutes to Frankston and Dandenong and some other upgrades. Those lines were to later get further gains (to every 10 minutes), leaving most of the north and west further behind. 

At the time Melbourne was no more advanced than comparable or even lower density cities. For example Perth's newly electrified system started with 15 minute off-peak service on all lines from the early 1990s, with this later being made 7-day. Melbourne's since made major frequency improvements on some lines but even in 2020 Perth (and especially Sydney, which saw large upgrades in 2017) remain with generally more frequent suburban trains. 

MetPlan proposed some new tram routes and extensions (although the fashionable term was 'light rail'). By far the biggest was a line to Doncaster. It was thought this would replace plans for heavy rail, with land reserved for this being sold off a few years prior. While trains and trams are still sometimes advocated, bus remains the officially favoured access mode to Doncaster with a dedicated busway being planned as part of the North-East Link road project.

Short extensions of the 59 tram to Airport West and (eventually) the Plenty Rd tram were delivered in the '90s. Avondale Heights, South Morang and Knox City are still waiting. However Vermont South  eventually got its extension in 2005. Nothing more has been heard of Garden City and Elwood extensions. These might have been sweeteners for earlier conversions from heavy to light rail, which was initially controversial. Light rail was slower than the train but offered superior frequency.

Buses are one of the main areas where MetPlan proved visionary. Its 'Metlink' routes look a lot like our three orbitals SmartBuses which achieved their final form in 2010. Overall SmartBus is better with a 15 minute weekday service versus Metlink's 20 minutes. Some Metlink routes did start soon after MetPlan came out but they do not resemble the generally direct routes planned. Instead they were indirect and sometimes overlapping routes in the eastern suburbs (631 and 634) set up to give Quinces work after the government's bitter bus contract dispute.

MetPlan proposed revised local bus networks with minimum service standards and better operating hours. This looks a lot like 2006's 'Meeting our Transport Challenges' agenda. There were indeed significant service improvements in 1987/88, around when MetPlan would have been written. However there were more than nullified by huge cuts in 1990/91. Most of these were not reversed until the MOTC upgrades fifteen years later, while some, like the Sunday service cuts on busy routes 536 and 800, remain with us today.

Mention is made of demand-responsive buses for use on quiet outer suburban routes or at quiet times. While still often advocated, this has been one of the big let-downs in public transport. When MetPlan was written flexible route buses were considered innovative. Invicta had started Telebuses around Croydon and later Rowville. These offered opportunities to service new estates with street layouts unsuitable for efficient bus routes. However they only work when patronage is small. When it increases travel gets too indirect and may miss connecting services. Flexible route buses are best thought of as very niche area services only suitable where fixed routes have failed. Many flexible route trials have not succeeded. In Melbourne their growth has been limited with the only significant addition in the last decade being Route 490 in hemmed-in Gowanbrae.

MetPlan had an overall patronage growth target of 20% over 15 years. Most growth would happen on heavy rail, with a 30% increase projected due to network expansions. Patronage fell rather than rose in the few years subsequent. Like with many other MetPlan initiatives the projected results were eventually achieved but over a longer period. This is due to the decline and long stagnation discussed here (written with buses in mind but also applies to trains).


If you were looking back at MetPlan from about 2003 you might regard it as an ambitious failure. Very little of what was proposed had been implemented or even yet on serious peoples' agenda. And some more recent promises along MetPlan lines like Labor made in 1999, ended up either being broken (eg South Morang trains) or scaled back (eg Knox tram). Even buses had seen relatively little progress, although there were signs of life. 

Advance to 2013 and the perspective couldn't be more different. Electric trains were running to Sunbury, Craigieburn and South Morang. A little later there would be service upgrades to Geelong with RRL followed by Mernda electrification and sods turned on the Metro Tunnel. Some Metro train lines were running every 10 minutes  all week, frequencies the planners of 1988 had not dared to countenance. Many local buses got 7 day service from 2006. And the middle suburbs would be ringed with three orbital SmartBus routes, also at higher than envisaged service levels.

From this vantage MetPlan looks prophetic - things just took ten years longer than expected. Credit should thus be given to the people who drew it up, even though they may well have retired by the time it happened. Also important is the power of plans. Even if not initially picked up good ideas can endure, shaping future plans that when they meet will and circumstance can become fate.

PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #84: Victoria's most complex bus network: Welcome to Wodonga!

Victoria's COVID-19 outbreak is still not contained and travel remains restricted to necessary trips. With other states restricting travel, border regions are experiencing special difficulties. None more so than the twin cities of Albury - Wodonga, with many living in one and working in the other.  

Albury-Wodonga is also known as being the most substantial application of the Whitlam government's decentralisation program in the 1970s. Topical for today is that its bus network map is a sight to behold. As you'll see later the two are not completely unconnected.  

Most regional Victorian regional cities have had their bus networks reformed and simplified over the last decade. Not just the larger centres of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and the LaTrobe Valley conurbation, but also smaller centres like Warrnambool. 

Regional city bus operating hours are still not great; one can't always get a bus to the station for an early Melbourne train or find one meeting your train home after dark. But routes are simpler than they were, 7 day service is quite common and frequencies approach or even beat Melbourne metropolitan standards. For example since 2015 much of Geelong has had buses every 20 minutes on weekdays, meshing well with trains also on that headway. 

Overall the pace of network reform has exceeded that of many Melbourne suburbs. The result is that many Victorian regional cities enjoy better internal bus services than equivalent sized cities in states like NSW, WA and parts of Qld (although NSW is making progress). 

There are however some exceptions. The bus networks of Mildura and Wodonga have operated unreformed for years if not decades. Both are border cities along the Murray River. Victoria's Mildura overshadows NSW's tiny Buronga. In contrast Albury and Wodonga are similarly sized with substantial daily travel between the two. Together they form Australia's largest non-capital inland urban complex. Border issues add another layer of complexity as you'll sell later.

Wodonga's bus network

This is Wodonga's network map, as published on the PTV website. Most routes operate to the city centre, to the north east of the map. Birallee Shopping Centre (middle of map) and the TAFE (north-west) are other important attractions. 

Key observations include:

It's complex. More so than any other town's bus network. It's not uncommon for some roads to have two or three routes. Many routes try to serve as many places as they can. That's good for one seat rides but not for network simplicity or directness. The road network must shoulder some (though not all) of the blame. For example the location of the Birallee Shopping Centre away from a four way intersection with a direct route to the west doesn't help with designing bus networks that are both efficient and deliver good coverage. Convoluted internal street layouts also unnecessarily increase walking distances to stops, a problem widespread in many 1970s/80s/90s developments. Newer subdivisions have gone to be more grid-like but permeability remains an issue across main roads, especially midblock and near roundabouts. 

Letters as route numbers. Victoria, like most other places, uses numbers to identify their bus routes. Unlike South Australians (who seem to want to keep their complex alpha-numeric network) we don't go crazy on the letters. Melbourne sensibly has three digit bus route numbers while regional cities use one or two digits. Wodonga is special in that it mostly uses letters. These are one or two characters, based largely on the destination or a key street. Note 'mostly'. It's not all standard as you'll see later. 

Buses don't always display their route letters when on the road. I have no idea how representative this is but this picture shows a Wodonga bus without its route letter. Instead it displays what looks like a conventional route number (but isn't). These numbers excite enthusiasts trying to 'reverse engineer' the driver roster but are not helpful when attempting to correlate the bus with what it is on the above map, especially on roads with multiple routes (of which there are many).

There's no bus to the station (but it may not be justified). Wodonga used to have a conveniently located CBD station. It was closed and moved out of town. No buses now run to Wodonga station, making it entirely car and taxi dependent. This is a tricky one; the shuttle bus that initially ran failed due to lack of use. An infrequent regional train won't justify the numbers for its own feeder bus or even a deviation of an existing route. Most family and friends would be dropped off/picked up by car especially early morning or at night, detracting from the bus' usage. But an out of town location is terrible for independent travellers and CBD accommodation that could benefit from a central station (like what Albury still has).

Cities that shunt their stations out of town are guilty of short-term small-town thinking despite Development Victoria rhetoric to the contrary. Cities that aspire to be bigger and better places need CBD rail stations near suburban buses, regional coaches, supermarkets, business districts, cafes and hotels of all budgets. Adelaide suffers from the off-centredness of its suburban rail station and the out-of-mind location of the Overland terminus. Conversely Auckland can trace its rail revival to the construction of the Britomart terminal that brought trains closer to the CBD. Lacking a central station detracts from a future accessible higher density Wodonga CBD more attractive for residents and visitors (especially independent travellers). Wodonga looks stuck with its bad decision. Other regional cities with plans for growth should learn from Wodonga and 'just say no' to CBD station closures.

Different weekday and weekend networks.  This is something that larger cities like Perth and Canberra once had but have now grown out of. Even Melbourne had weekend or Sunday-only routes in some places. The concept is that an indirect weekend route takes the place of several weekday routes to provide at least basic coverage to a wide area. The low cost is helpful but the added complexity is not.

Wodonga takes this complexity a step or two further. Weekday routes are identified by letters whereas mostly weekend routes (150 and 160) are numbered. The route list, extracted from the map above, is below. 

Note 'mostly weekend'? That's another oddity. According to PTV, both weekend (ie Saturday) routes also have a trip departing the water tower at 5:45pm on weeknights. It's potentially useful for commuters. That's a plus as it's common for regional town bus networks to shut down before people finish work. However it does add confusion to an already complex network. Interestingly this trip is not mentioned in Dysons timetable booklet under Route 150 or 160. However it may be included as a modified trip in the weekday routes (several of which have 5:45pm departures). 

A Timetable Tuesday is not complete without looking at service levels. The highest service operates on the logically named Route AW, between Albury and Wodonga. It runs roughly half-hourly between 7am and just after 6pm. Midday services are at even 30 minutes intervals but there's some variations in the morning and afternoon. This can happen where buses are needed for school runs. 

Below are more typical timetables. Some (just) cater for 9-5 workers while others are mainly a daytime shopper style service. Frequencies are roughly hourly with larger gaps around lunch and school times. Route such as G have midday variations with a letter indicating where the route varies from the regular service. 

Routes in small cities are typically tightly interlined with the one bus doing duty on several routes. Wodonga is no exception. Timetables sometimes indicate where next the bus goes, such as the footnotes for this stop timetable at the Federation Bottle Shop. 

Further details are contained in this well-presented network timetable booklet from Dysons

Weekend service on 150 and 160 are each hourly on Saturday morning and two hourly on Saturday afternoon with a finish around 4pm. 150 and 160 times are wisely staggered to provide an even Albury - Wodonga service with 30 and 60 minute intervals. There is no service on Sunday. This makes Wodonga the largest Victorian regional city without 7 day public transport. 

And Albury? 

This post would not be complete without saying a few words about Albury's network. Routes there are less overlapping but two companies run services. There appears to be no integrated network map. Dysons routes appear on the PTV Albury-Wodonga map while Martins services have their own map. Martins routes use three digit numbers while Dysons, like their Wodonga network, use letters.  

Both companies operate Monday to Saturday mornings - there is no Saturday afternoon service like there is in Wodonga. Also Albury's weekday operating hours are slightly shorter, with the bus service less useful for 9 to 5pm workers. However Albury's network is simpler with neither operator having special Saturday routes. 

Like the Canberra/Queanbeyan situation, there appears to be no fare integration between each company's networks. This means that even for travel within Albury passenger may need to purchase two tickets. Both Victoria and NSW have cross-border commissioners but it would appear that their work so far has not included improving public transport connectivity in this area.

Wodonga is in the state seat of Benambra. Its representative is Bill Tilley from the Liberal Party. Historically it's been a safe seat for them though a strong showing from independents and minor parties saw the Liberal margin cut in 2018. 


What are your thoughts on Wodonga's bus network? Is there scope for simplification, eg a pair of linear Lavington to Birallee routes each operating hourly offset by 30 minutes over a common Albury - Wodonga section? Could pairs of interlined semi-circular routes work, with one staying on the bus through Birallee if desired? Would we get a better network if both bus companies merged or at least shared operations? Or do current routes meet local needs well without change? Please leave any comments below. 

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Friday, July 24, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 54: Using buses to start the SRL's benefits 10 years early

You'd have to go back to the rail construction frenzy after the 1884 Octopus Act to find any project as big as the proposed Suburban Rail Loop. Connecting Cheltenham to Werribee around Melbourne's middle suburbs, it proved popular with voters in the 2018 election. 

The premise of the SRL is sound; that is Melbourne needs much better orbital public transport. The SmartBus orbitals introduced ten years ago helped but they are too often stuck in traffic and have too many stops. They're still not straight enough and frequencies are lacking, particularly on weekends.

In ascending cost, improvements include traffic signal priority, frequency boosts, bus lanes, dedicated busways, elevated busways all the way up to light and heavy rail. The dearest of the lot is something underground like the SRL is believed to be. The ride experience between stations of this would be amazing; the nearest we have to a magic carpet around the suburbs. We just need to think about 'last mile' connectivity since stations themselves are rarely destinations.

Underground rail guarantees no interaction with surface transport so is fast and non-disruptive in built-up environments. However the trade off is that the per kilometre costs of tunneling makes even one corridor an expensive long-term project. Elevated rail costs less, provided a suitable corridor exists like along the Dandenong line. Surface rail is cheaper still, especially if you can run it through low value or underused areas like golf courses or low density industrial estates (that could eventually be redeveloped) and there aren't too many intersecting roads to grade-separate.

The basic trade-off is that for a given budget you get less underground rail than elevated or surface rail. The economics for underground only work where land values and passenger flows are very high. The high costs mean that it can't serve many places, creating a scarcity since locations with it are made so much more accessible relative to other places. That might translate to higher land values and pressure to intensify development. 

An equal cost alternative might involve less heavy underground rail but an overall larger orbital network of lower cost per kilometre modes. This might be slower and have more stops. But it will make many trips faster as more benefit from a more ubiquitous network. Experts from groups such as Rail Futures have proposed a larger number of more modest projects with this approach in mind.

Both approaches have their pros and cons as you can see below.

Land use doesn't always reflect transport infrastructure provision. However having generally uneven access across a metropolitan area is likely to make accessible locations more in demand and therefore relatively more highly valued. That gives rise to pressures to increase density (and create a windfall for existing landowners).

In contrast a larger network spreads good (but not excellent) access across more areas. That reduces scarcity and lessens pressure for high densities. Medium density over a larger area might be the better use. Housing would be more diverse, with 'missing middle' row, town, villa, walk-up and low rise apartments being typical. Car use and parking would need to be contained to ensure safe and fast active and public transport in these communities. 

If you wanted to intensively develop new suburban centres it may be easier to start with a few major deals with big institutions involving a small number of large sites that can be made extremely accessible through new transport infrastructure. The improved accessibility lessens competition, gives a location-based edge, induces land value uplift and probably reduces business risk. All are important if attracting customers, investors and finance is important.

In relation to road versus rail, new roads soon clog with traffic, slowing travel due to the demand they induce, whereas rail travel times are relatively constant over decades. One can thus see how a once-in-a-generation project like the SRL that delivers fast access to a few locations is compatible with long-term development and investment aims.

More about the SRL when it was first announced here. The official site is here. Initial planning alone will cost $300m. 

SRL's first stage will be between Cheltenham and Box Hill. It's expected to start in 2031. An article about this (with some dubious travel time claims) is here. What happens between now and then?

At least pre-COVID 19 there was an expectation Melbourne's population will continue to grow and traffic will continue to rise. Existing bus routes parallel to the Suburban Rail Loop, especially in the east, were already busy and had few large service upgrades for decades.

Universities in the suburban rail loop corridor have ambitious growth plans. Local housing is densifying. And local councils want more local jobs and a stronger role for suburban activity centres. Cars are terribly space inefficient, and, especially with rising land values, the spacial costs for their movement and storage are massive. And their presence in large numbers hampers urban amenity, walkability and efficient public transport, not to mention the movement of other cars when wide freeways and parking oversupply seek to funnel too many into confined suburban centres.

Preparing the ground for the SRL 

What should be done in the ten to thirty years between now and when all stages of the Suburban Rail Loop opens? One answer is to improve direct bus routes that roughly parallel the SRL and serve its proposed stations. This would bring benefits including:

* Quick wins. Deliver fast mobility gains to major SRL destinations including Monash University, Deakin University, Clayton, Mt Waverley, Box Hill, Doncaster, La Trobe University, Broadmeadows, Melbourne Airport, Sunshine and Werribee to accommodate growth between 2020 and 2031-2050 when the SRL progressively opens. There are also political dividends, particularly in the east, where the SRL serves several marginal seats. 

* Makes SRL real. Long term projects can invite cynicism as to whether they are really happening. Especially where completion is decades off. The early introduction of 'SRL SmartBuses' makes the project look real and boosts confidence. And it would be affordable given that you can do a lot with say a $20 or $30m spend per year (small compared to the $300m budget for planning alone). 

* Prepare the ground by changing movement habits now. Even though SRL opening is a fair way off it's already desirable to rewire how people see their city. This includes the 'mental maps' of millions of Melburnians that shape their thoughts as to accessible places to live, study, shop, work, or establish a business. Then when SRL opens there will be established movement patterns that can switch over and guarantee success almost from Day One. As proved with the successful orbital  buses, well promoted 'SRL SmartBuses', could be a good way to establish SRL-friendly movement patterns.

* Boost overlooked high patronage services. Some of Melbourne's busiest bus routes in Melbourne's east haven't had substantial frequency upgrades for decades despite serving key destinations and, at times, crowding problems. They happen to roughly parallel the SRL and justify upgrades even before SRL was thought of. The increased development impetus due to the SRL make service upgrades more important than ever. Some were discussed here

The rest of this post will discuss high patronage potential bus routes near the Suburban Rail Loop alignment and how they can be improved to prepare the ground for SRL. 

South east section (Stage 1)

This is the first stage of the SRL. The portion between Clayton and Box Hill contains the highest population density and the most intensive land uses. Key destinations along the loop include Monash Medical Centre (Clayton), Monash University, Deakin University and Box Hill (which has large hospitals, shopping centres and educational institutions nearby). It's no accident that bus routes in the area are amongst Melbourne's busiest even if it's common for them to come only every half hour.  

No bus route exactly parallels the SRL. None of the main routes that go near it have a particularly intensive peak frequency (every 10 to 15 minutes is about the best). The SRL stations are a long way apart. This means that even after SRL opens many buses will still be needed in the area.  

What if you wanted to prepare for SRL Stage 1 by improving local buses for the reasons outlined before? There are three or four routes you would need to upgrade. I discussed some of this in a previous Useful Network post.

Key SRL-paralleling bus routes involved are the 733, 767, 201 and 737, probably in that order. All parallel parts of the SRL in the east, especially what is likely to be its busiest section. See the map below.

All these routes have above average patronage on a boardings per hour basis. Even in gross  passenger numbers routes like the 733, 737 and 767 carry more people than higher frequency routes. Despite significant growth of institutions such as Monash University and density around places like Box Hill their basic off-peak frequencies have remained at approximately half-hourly for thirty years or more. Thus they much need a 7-day service boost. 

Here's a quick rundown of how you might upgrade the four routes involved.

201 Box Hill - Deakin University EVERY 10 MINUTES. Currently runs every 20 minutes. This is poorer than other university shuttles (which are every 10 minutes or better) and a bad match with trains (a 15/30 minute pattern on the Belgrave/Lildale lines interpeak). An interim upgrade to every 15 minutes or better is possible by incorporating the duplicative 768 route into an improved 201. However real turn-up-and-go service requires a 10 minute or better service. This is a very cheap upgrade, requiring just one extra bus to be run on weekdays only. More here

733 Box Hill - Clayton 'SRL SMARTBUS' UPGRADE. This route actually goes further to Oakleigh but it overlaps other routes or has limited catchment on its last section. Box Hill - Mount Waverley - Monash University - Clayton is the busiest section that we concern ourselves with here. During peak times it runs approximately every 15 minutes, dropping to half-hourly off-peak and on some of Saturday. Sunday service is just hourly. As you saw from the graph above patronage per bus operating hour is exceptionally high and crowding can be an issue. Its Box Hill to Clayton section deserves an upgrade to every 10 minutes peak, 10 to 15 minutes interpeak and 20 minutes or better on weekends. Along with extensions to operating hours this could form a high quality SmartBus type service on a busy corridor. If an additional southern connection from Monash Clayton is desirable an option exists to extend the 733 SmartBus south to Moorabbin/Brighton via the existing Route 824 alignment. 

737 Monash University - Knox City 'SRL SMARTBUS' UPGRADE. This route goes further to Croydon though it sometimes goes away from main roads beyond Knox City. It parallels the Suburban Rail Loop between Monash University and Glen Waverley. It's a good patronage performer. An upgrade to a SmartBus level of service with longer operating hours is desirable. Peak frequency could be 10 minutes, interpeak could be 15 minutes (matching trains at Glen Waverley) and weekend every 20 minutes (also meeting trains). This is about twice as good as the current 30 minute weekday off-peak and 40 minute weekend service. Service levels beyond Knox City could be considered separately as part of a Knox area network review. 

767 Box Hill - Chadstone - Southland 'SRL SMARTBUS' UPGRADE. This route aligns with the SRL between Box Hill and Deakin University. Much of the 'heavy lifting' can be done with the 201 express as mentioned earlier but the 767 is still needed for intermediate stops and on weekends. 767's big benefit (that replicates the SRL) is it's the only direct connection from Deakin University to the south. It also provides a handy feeder to the Glen Waverley line and connection to Chadstone Shopping Centre.

Route 767 is less direct south of Chadstone, often serving local streets. However there is currently a poorly served but potentially strong bus alignment down Murrumbeena, East Boundary and Chesterville Rd via the new East Village development at Bentleigh East. The northern half feeds into the Dandenong line while the southern half provides connections to jobs at Moorabbin and shopping at Southland. It doesn't exactly replicate the SRL but is the region's strongest corridor between the Frankston train line and the 903 SmartBus.

A suitable upgrade could be to improve the 767 to a SmartBus between Box Hill and Chadstone, with a desirable direct Southland SmartBus extension in conjunction with reforms to local routes like 627, 701 and 822. Again current frequency is 30 minutes off-peak so a SmartBus upgrade would approximately double the number of services operated. 

North east section

This segment will happen later. Possibly Stage 2. Or Stage 3 if the Airport - Sunshine portion is done earlier.  However the later start makes it important to think about buses as these will be the only means of orbital transport for much longer.

Like in the east no one bus route directly follows the SRL's alignment. The routes most similar are the SmartBus orbitals (901, 902 and 903). However in their current form they miss the important La Trobe University cluster and are indirect to Melbourne Airport. Also missed by them is Reservoir (of local rather than regional significance) and Fawkner (not significant except for an Upfield line connection). 

The map below shows how minor changes and extensions to existing routes can deliver orbital service to the most significant stops as a precursor to the Suburban Rail Loop. As most of the key routes involved are existing SmartBuses the costs for this section are low.   

Here are the routes involved (from east to west):

903 Mordialloc - La Trobe University EXISTING SMARTBUS WITH EXTENSION. Route 903 is currently an orbital linking Box Hill, Doncaster and Heidelberg (just like what the SRL will do) before ending up at Altona. However from Heidelberg, unlike the SRL, it currently goes west rather than north to La Trobe University. This change would split the 903 at Heidelberg and extend the eastern portion to La Trobe University to mirror the SRL. 

The western portion of the 903 between Heidelberg and Altona would become another SmartBus, something I've called the 904. If amalgamated with the 527 it could be cheaply upgraded to operate every 10 minutes between Heidelberg and Coburg as discussed here

An option exists to extend the 903 from its new La Trobe terminus west to Reservoir. However it would then overlap the 561 and the 301 university shuttle. While the university shuttle could be deleted the off-peak SmartBus frequency (15 minutes) is inferior to the 10 minutes the shuttle offers. The cheapest possibility could be to leave the 903 terminating at La Trobe University and simply upgrade the 561 on weekends when the university shuttle does not operate.  

536 Glenroy - Reservoir ROUTE EXTENDED. The SRL is planned to connect Reservoir with Fawkner. However there is no direct road connection. Of all the stopping points on the SRL Fawkner is likely to be the least active since it has no significant attractions (apart from a cemetery). Reservoir is more active but still largely of local interest. For completeness and to provide a basic level of east-west mobility it is suggested that the popular Route 536 (which starts at Glenroy) is extended from Gowrie to Reservoir via Campbellfield. This could replace Route 558 in the Reservoir area and permit a convenient same-stop connection for those travelling from Broadmeadows to Reservoir (as the SRL will eventually enable). As part of the extension Route 536, one of Melbourne's busiest bus routes that doesn't run Sundays, would gain longer operating hours and seven day service. 

902 Chelsea - Melbourne Airport EXISTING SMARTBUS BUT MODIFIED. Route 902 is distant from most parts of the SRL but is parallel to it. However it gets nearer to it in the Keon Park - Broadmeadows area before getting more distant nearer Melbourne Airport. To make the 902 SmartBus more like the SRL, the following swaps with the 901 SmartBus are suggested: 

a. 901 and 902 termini swapped so that 901 goes to Airport West and 902 to Melbourne Airport. This provides a simple and direct east-west connection from the Reservoir area to Melbourne Airport via Broadmeadows. The swap would not remove SmartBus service from any stop or add route kilometres. 

b. 901 and 902 swapped in Templestowe / Greensborough area. Currently 902 operates only indirectly between the north-east's two largest centres of Doncaster Shoppingtown and Greensborough. Swapping with the 901, so that this goes via Eltham instead of the 902, would improve directness and make the 902 a better orbital, that like the SRL will connect Shoppingtown with Broadmeadows and Melbourne Airport. More on this here

North west section

This section is simple. There are no existing bus services between Melbourne Airport and Sunshine. As a result even though many people can easily get to Sunshine from origins such as Watergardens, Melton, Ballarat, Wyndham Vale, Geelong and Newport, there are no easy connections to Melbourne Airport. A bus route to fill this missing link is suggested as per the map below.

500 Melbourne Airport - Sunshine PROPOSED 'SRL SMARTBUS'. A limited stops route to fill a major gap in the current network. Service frequency could be every 15 to 20 minutes over long hours, seven days per week. It would save a lot time but would need to be well marketed to succeed. This route might be one of the earlier SRL precursor routes to be introduced. It is likely to have a high public profile given public interest in airport rail which will likely operate from Sunshine. More here

South west section

Sunshine to Werribee already has the Geelong line train that goes almost all the way to Werribee (Wyndham Vale and Tarneit). It's well used but frequencies are low (20 minutes off-peak, 40 minutes weekend). 

The catchment between Sunshine and Werribee is largely light industrial. It is unlikely to attract patronage at the same rate that buses through dense residential and commercial areas would. For this reason no SRL SmartBus routes are suggested from Sunshine in this direction. 

Instead there would be a greater benefit in improving Geelong line train frequencies (at least to Wyndham Vale) and upgrading Werribee area local buses that are known to be much better used than the metropolitan average. Ideas are mapped below: 

150, 160 UPGRADE: Improve from every 40 to every 20 minutes during the day and extend operating hours. Improve peak service to every 10 minutes. 

170, 180 UPGRADE: Extend operating hours. Improve peak service to every 10 minutes. 

190 UPGRADE: Improve weekend service to every 20 minutes. 

An option exists to improve connections to jobs in Laverton North from surrounding residential areas. The centre piece of this could be a new eastern connection from Tarneit to Laverton North terminating at Altona Gate or Sunshine. Route 417 from Laverton could be simplified and extended north to Sunshine while Route 400 from Sunshine could be run to Williams Landing instead of Laverton. Operating days and hours would suit local workforce needs. More on a more job-ready network here


To summarise this change involves the following:

* Four new 'SRL SmartBus' routes (500, 733, 737, 767) of which three are upgrades to existing routes, mostly working the existing fleet harder.

* One extended SmartBus (903 Heidelberg to LaTrobe University) and an associated new 904 SmartBus to serve the western part of the 903 alignment.

* Two modified SmartBuses (901 and 902) with no additional service km or stops missed

* Upgrades and extensions to existing routes in the Deakin University, Reservoir and Werribee areas with optional western industrial area upgrades.

All routes suggested for upgrade have higher than average patronage. There is a strong case to suggest that they are currently underserviced. The upgraded suggested here would resolve this while establishing travel patterns and location decisions that would support SRL patronage when that starts.

It is likely that the cost of the entire SRL bus upgrade package would be in the low tens of millions of dollars per year. Some new buses would be needed but a lot of the extra resources would be to work our existing bus fleet harder by boosting interpeak and weekend service. They could be phased in with two or three of the above routes being introduced or upgraded per year. A lot could be done by the 2022 election, especially in marginal eastern suburbs seats which will be served by SRL Stage 1.

To put into context, this relatively small amount should be compared against other SRL costs, such as $300 million for initial planning and $50 billion for the total project. Yet boosting buses would mean that the SRL  project could start delivering tangible gains within three years rather us having to wait 10 to 30 years for any SRL project benefits if the bus upgrades were not done.

PS: A revised concept for the 733 that better replicates the SRL to Southland is described here.

 An index to all Useful Networks is here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #83: The Metro train timetable that never was

Today marks 5 years since an important article was published in The Age. It was about the 2015 Metro train timetable we never got.

It proved a turning point in public transport policy priorities. And not in a completely good way. Along with the abandoned 2015 Transdev greenfields bus network it marked the start of what might be called 'Allanism', that is a strategy based on 'big build' infrastructure to the exclusion of significant network, service or timetable reform. 

Allanism replaced the previous coalition government's doctrine of Mulderism. That was almost exactly the opposite. Key ingredients included the production of reports on things like Rowville rail but little movement on projects. On the plus side was the setting up of PTV (the best institutional arrangement we've had in years) and its activity in ramping up long-overdue network and service reform across train and bus including higher frequencies. Premier Napthine  eventually proposed new infrastructure in his ill-fated 2014 campaign but his side lacked credibility. That was partly due to hopes raised and dashed earlier in the term on silly sorties like Avalon airport rail while slothing out on Southland station. 

Had the plug not been pulled on the Transdev bus and Metro train timetable changes we would have got transformative network and service reform in 2015. What got delivered (V/Line's Regional Rail Link and new bus networks in Ballarat, Geelong and Wyndham) were big in those areas but not metro-wide (see Daniel Bowen's write-up here). 

The 2015 Transdev proposal certainly had problems. The minister might have been right to abandon. However she never delivered the subsequent promised "more balanced bus network proposal". 

Also not delivered were most parts of the 2015 Metro train timetable. That decision effectively killed off the implementation of 2013's Network Development Plan. This was formulated under the Baillieu government, during a brief bipartisan pro-service consensus (2009 - 2014) when it looked like big things were possible. Had the NDP gone to schedule we would by now have many more lines running every 10 minutes each day on simpler timetables than the two we have now (Frankston and Dandenong). 

By not proceeding with the 2015 Metro changes Jacinta Allan stopped the momentum. Melissa Horne, her successor, lacked the experience, budget and/or authority to restart it. A short document, called Growing our Rail Nework was published in 2018. This was a simple list of rail infrastructure projects being built. Apart from brief references to 'turn-up-and-go' there was nothing specific on  improved frequency and when we would get it. In particular the NDP's key aim of boosting service to every 10 minutes as early as possible and over as much of the network as possible subject only to infrastructure constraints, had vanished. 

David Davis, her Liberal parliamentary opponent in the other place, did little to hold the government to account. Instead he listened to an unrepresentative minority of anti-Skyrailers to oppose what ended up a popular and successful project. Also, by refusing to press service issues such as low frequencies even in his party's eastern suburbs heartland (unlike predecessor David Hodgett) Davis gave Labor a free kick while downplaying his own party's in-government achievements going back to Jeff Kennett of substantially upgrading suburban train timetables. This stance is puzzling given the electoral politics as you'll see later.    

What was in the 2015 Metro train timetable that never  happened? The best summary is in this Daniel Bowen post written when The Age article came out. We know that behind the scenes Metro Trains advocate timetable reforms to government. However governments of both sides have held train timetable changes back. Mostly over political concerns about taking a small number of Frankston all stations peak trains out of the City Loop. 

But had it gone ahead there would have been major all-day network-shaping changes on three lines: Alamein/Belgrave/Lilydale, Glen Waverley and, possibly later, in 2016, Sunbury.

The first of these would have delivered a 10 minute offpeak service to Ringwood and fixed the situation where off-peak trains to Belgrave and Lilydale operate less frequently (every 30 minutes) than trains to Geelong. The Glen Waverley line would also  have got a 10 minute service. 

After Labor's large 2018 win seats along these lines have turned marginal. Both major parties will be battling to keep or gain them in 2022. The Ringwood line boost, in particular, makes transport and political sense, especially given its low implementation cost 

While not politically marginal, the Sunbury/Watergardens boost is also of prime importance to the network. It's stuck with a 20 minute service (30 evenings and 40 on Sunday mornings) but offpeak patronage and demographics justified a 7 day 10 minute service years ago. No one has said what will happen post-Metro Tunnel. Until we know the West Footscray train turnback looks like a snub to the west; a sign that, high patronage notwithstanding, it's not good enough for the frequent service that parts of the east now enjoy. 

The 2015 timetable had other features as well. For example some extra peak services on some lines. However the trade-off would be that some would no longer go via the City Loop. In the west stations out to Newport would gain a 10 minute weekend service. Altona would also get its direct CBD interpeak trains back; a loss that has been felt since they were converted to shuttles in 2010

What has been the legacy of not doing these timetable changes in 2015, imperfect as they might have  been? We got some small boosts. For example Dandenong got its 10 minute weeknight service extended a bit later (although weekend services still drop to half-hourly ridiculously early). Evening services on the Sunbury line were extended all the way, rather than some stopping short. Some peak service upgrades occurred. And  Altona (represented by former shadow Transport Minister Jill Hennessy) finally got its interpeak CBD trains returned. 

Nothing though has been truly transformative like the NDP's network-wide roll-out of 10 minute service would have been. The 2015 Age article described the then state of play well.  

The 'significant deviation from the plan' became a long-term stalling. Far from the promising 'complete reboot' the government got cold feet. Not even in 2019, after it had just been re-elected with an increased majority (the ideal time to introduce potentially controversial changes) was the NDP upgrade program revived. 2015's decision turned out not to be a simple deferral of a timetable change but the end of a brief but fruitful period of service reform that, under both parties, transformed train services where they were implemented. However, with the 2018 election redrawing the electoral map, reviving the 2015 timetable could just be the 2022 vote winner both parties need in critical marginal seats. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 53: SmartBus orbitals - time to split?

The SmartBus orbital routes, introduced about 10 years ago, are easy to explain. They changed the way people saw public transport and made the network more versatile. They made it possible to make long trips without changing (not that many do - most trips are over 2 to 20 km segments). And they were the first (and so far only) attempt at 'big bus' - that is treating buses seriously with large scale frequent service to move millions more passengers.

However the decision to make them long orbitals (rather than shorter 15 to 30 km sections) hampered their benefits due to the following:

1. Length. They're very long. About 4 hours end to end. This makes recovery from delays on the other side of town difficult.

2. Density. Their catchment can range from high to very low density. This variation makes it impossible to arrive at a fair service level for the entire route. The standard 15 min weekday/30 min weekend frequency overservices some portions while grossly underservicing others. Their sheer length makes the SmartBus orbitals the highest used bus routes in Melbourne even if they are not the most productive (measured as boardings per bus operating hour). Shorter routes would have allowed frequencies to be aligned with demand, especially during peak periods and weekends on busy sections.

3. Connectivity. Most train lines that intersect SmartBus routes operate on either a 10 or 20 minute base weekday frequency. Only two lines served by SmartBus operate on a 15 minute weekday pattern. In contrast SmartBus has a base 15 minute service on weekdays. The result is unharmonised frequencies between train and bus and unpredictable connection times.

Having SmartBus every 15 minutes made sense when SmartBus was confined to the eastern suburbs whose trains ran at that frequency. However it's lost relevance since a. the orbitals got extended to areas with 20 minute train frequencies such as in the northern and western suburbs, b. the Dandenong and Frankston lines got upgraded to 10 minute base frequencies, and c. 15 minutes is not really considered 'turn up and go' in a large city, especially one with significant traffic congestion that delays buses.

Weekends have been a problem with the orbitals since their inception. Their mostly long operating hours are good but the usual 30 minute frequency is barely better than the 40 minutes standard on local routes. And it means that the best connections with trains (mostly every 20 minutes) repeat only hourly. Train-compatible 20 minute weekend frequencies should be regarded as a starting point for orbital sections that pass through suburban densities with even some non-SmartBus routes now enjoying this service. However where densities are lower the existing 30 minutes is too much service. Shorter routes would have allowed frequencies to be harmonised with trains and times to be juggled to minimise waiting while also reflecting demand.

4. Overlaps. SmartBuses sometimes inefficiently duplicate and overlap other major routes. The original SmartBuses (all in the eastern suburbs) were done right. There, and in parts of the north, the orbitals replaced existing routes (291, 560, 665, 700, 830, 831, 888, 889) so didn't unduly duplicate.

However much of the 903 orbital west of Northland overlaps existing routes (eg 527, 465, 232, 411) some of which approach or even exceed SmartBus frequency at certain times.  The same applies in the north on sections of the 901 and 902 orbitals. The result is a complex network with low and uneven frequencies rather than a simple frequent network. It might have been cheaper to upgrade the busier of these routes (eg parts of 411, 465, 527) to every 10 minutes, extend operating hours and implement multimodal 'frequent network'  branding than to introduce new SmartBus orbitals. However they wouldn't have looked as elegant on a map and have left some important gaps (eg Heidelberg - Northland) unserved without some route extensions.  

Last year I suggested splitting the Route 903 orbital at Heidelberg. The main purpose of this was to enable the portion west of Heidelberg to be upgraded to every 10 minutes as far as Coburg by merging it with the substantially duplicative Route 527. Another potential benefit could be to allow an extension of Route 903 to La Trobe University to form a direct route from the Doncaster area.

I also proposed another 903 split further west, at Sunshine. This would have transferred long hours Smartbus service from the Brooklyn industrial area (where it attracts low usage) to Footscray via Geelong Rd by upgrading the popular Route 411 to a SmartBus. That would have provided a more useful connection with a better residential catchment. More on that here.

Transdev's try

Transdev also wanted to split the orbitals as part of its 2015 greenfields network. Some of their frequency changes would have harmonised the northern parts of the orbitals with trains. Unfortunately they only considered their routes in isolation and planned to cut service in the west to give to the east. The network was vetoed by Transport minister Jacinta Allan so was never implemented. 

Politically the SmartBus orbitals have been regarded as 'protected species', at least in Labor circles due to the 'nasties' in Trandev's 2015 proposals and lingering sentimentality from before then (given Labor created the orbitals). Still there is merit in splitting them for reasons given before if overall service levels can be maintained or improved in northern and western populated areas (something Transdev's plan did not do).

A look at the orbitals

As background, past local bus network reviews of 10 years ago regarded the orbitals as fixed and did not seek to incorporate reforms to them in their recommendations. This was probably because the orbitals were either new or about to be implemented. And the first (eastern) stages of the orbitals, as mentioned before, were wisely implemented with wider network changes to avoid duplication.

Those earlier bus reviews had a poor record of having their recommendations implemented. Not least because some recommendations were expensive and/or duplicative. Later bus network reviews, such as occurred in Brimbank and Wyndham, were less duplicative 'smell of oily rag' efforts. Future local bus network reviews need to consider the fate of the orbitals and surrounding routes if they are to deliver the best service for the least cost, particularly in Melbourne's north and west.

Below are comments on sections of the three orbital routes. These may be useful if their usefulness is reappraised in future local bus reviews.

Route 901 Frankston - Melbourne Airport

Frankston to Dandenong: The main connection between two key centres. Although there's a lot of open space the size and demographics of these centres makes this segment popular. Not just for people going the whole way but for shorter trips like Frankston to Carrum Downs. Has significant low income catchments in Frankston North and around Dandenong. Also key connector to jobs in Dandenong South. However use as a rail feeder to the Frankston line is constrained by it arriving at an acute angle to it, with passengers having to go south before going north. There is little duplication of service as the 901's introduction coincided with deletion of old 830 and 831 routes.  An improved peak (every 15 to every 10 min) and weekend service (30 to 20 min) would be desirable as per Transdev's 2015 proposal. 

Dandenong to Ringwood: Also an important link. Passes near TAFE and hospital north of Dandenong. Significant lowish income catchment north of Dandenong. The only good north-south bus connection in Knox area, serving Stud Park and Knox City. Apart from the 664 there is only minor duplication between Dandenong and Ringwood as the old 665 was removed when SmartBus went in. An improved peak (every 15 to every 10 min) and weekend service (30 to 20 min) would be desirable as per Transdev's 2015 proposal, although a higher priority would be local bus network improvements in the grossly underserved area east of Stud Rd. 

Ringwood to Blackburn: Roughly parallels the railway. Serves 'big box retail' in Nunawading area. Service levels likely out of kilter with activity. Eg service to midnight might be excessive but there may be a case for a 20 min weekend service given 7 day trading. Case may exist for any replacement route to continue to Box Hill due to that centre's size and role as a transit hub. 

Blackburn to The Pines: This provides a strong train feeder role despite about half of it overlapping the 906 freeway express to the CBD. Case may exist for peak frequency upgrade to every 10 min (as per Transdev's 2015 proposal). 

The Pines to Greensborough: A weak part of the route. Duplicates other routes along Foote St/Reynolds Rd (280/282, 309) and the 902 SmartBus in Templestowe area. High income residential on large blocks reduce patronage potential making the SmartBus service excessive. Transdev correctly wanted to finish 901 at The Pines to remove SmartBus from parts of this low patronage area. More on this here.

Greensborough to South Morang: An even weaker largely semi-rural catchment that should never have got a SmartBus with service through bush until midnight. Only the slavish adherence to the orbital concept ensured that it did. SmartBus in this area guarantees its uselessness as a reliable train feeder as local trains run every 20 minutes versus SmartBus every 15 or 30 minutes. Service is partly  overlapped by some local routes, further depressing usage. Transdev wanted to retain orbital service of this area with a shorter route offering reduced frequency but the same long operating hours.

South Morang to Roxburgh Park: Serves a growth area across the north. With large shopping centres at Plenty Valley and Epping, along with TAFE and hospitals at Epping a SmartBus is definitely justified. However its frequency does not match trains on any day of the week. For several years this portion overlapped a local route (571) but this was eventually tidied up. Transdev wanted to cut service levels here in 2015 but I think there's a reasonable case for a 10 min peak and 20 min weekend service, especially if reforms are made to partly duplicative local routes like the 556.

Roxburgh Park to Broadmeadows: Parallels the train line but serves a key shopping centre at Broadmeadows and has significant low income catchments at Meadow Heights and Roxburgh Park. Again poor train connectivity due to unharmonised frequencies but its parallel geometry makes it role as a feeder less effective though stations are widely spaced in parts. When the route started there was overlap with Route 544 but this was later shortened to start at Roxburgh Park.

Broadmeadows to Melbourne Airport: Overlaps the 902 SmartBus to Gladstone Park then goes north-west to Melbourne Airport to provide it with its only long-hours public transport connection. Poor signage and remote terminal location at airport reduces visibility of service. Again poor connectivity with trains, particularly on weekends when the SmartBus is only every 30 min, inconsistently meeting trains every 20 minutes. Gets steady but not particularly high patronage.

Route 902 Chelsea - Airport West

Chelsea to Keysborough: Replaces old 888/889 in area (which became local route 858).  Attracts steady patronage. Used as a feeder from Waterways/Aspendale Gardens to Edithvale Station however the level crossing removal, by moving the station north, will break this connection, requiring backtracking via Chelsea.

Keysborough to Nunawading: By far the 902's busiest section. Serves major train stations at Springvale, Glen Waverley and Nunawading. Large low income catchment at Springvale. Overcrowding an issue. Easily justifies a 7.5 min peak, 10 min interpeak and 10 - 15 min weekend service especially on the portion between Springvale South and Glen Waverley. Transdev proposed 10 min peak and 20 min weekend service in 2015 on this section.

Nunawading to Doncaster Shoppingtown: Mostly runs east-west, overlapping the busy 907 SmartBus along Doncaster Rd. Provides connections to Shoppingtown and a rail feeder to Nunawading. Few passenger go beyond Shoppingtown on this segment which is why Transdev wanted to finish it there in 2015.

Doncaster Shoppingtown to Greensborough: On paper this links the area's two largest centres but takes an indirect way to get there, backtracking via Eltham. The partly overlapping 901 goes a more direct way to Greensborough but from the further and smaller Pines centre rather than Shoppingtown. The long-established route 293 overlaps a lot of the 901 and 902 orbitals between Doncaster and Greensborough. It's the best and most direct route alignment of the lot but was unfortunately not made part of a SmartBus route. Overall, with its indirect duplicative routes that don't consistently meet trains, services are performing below potential. Transdev's 2015 plans would have partially tidied this up. More on this here.

Greensborough to Broadmeadows: Here we return to more suburban density. There's significant shopping centres and train stations at each end of this segment. Plus trams to LaTrobe University, light industrial area jobs near Settlement Rd and low income areas east of Broadmeadows. The 902 mostly gets 'clear air' as it replaced the less frequent 560 along this alignment. However there is some overlap with the contemptible 566 and poorly used 538.  Also holding the 902 back is the timetable's unharmonisation with trains and the lack of a station at Campbellfield.

Broadmeadows to Airport West: About half of this segment overlaps the 901. 902 then continues south to Airport West Shopping Centre. It partly overlaps the 477 from Broadmeadows that does a roughly similar thing. Melbourne Airport has city and in fact state wide significance as a key destination. Airport West Shopping Centre has a much smaller catchment. Swapping 901 with 902's destination so the 902 becomes the airport bus might be generally beneficial given 902's straighter alignment across the north.

Route 903 Mordialloc - Altona

Mordialloc to Mentone: A scenic but generally quieter part of the 903 as half its catchment is salt water. Its inclusion in the 903 is a legacy of its predecessor, the 700 SmartBus. However it does provide handy connections to schools in the Mentone area. 

Mentone to Oakleigh South: Serves a mix of postwar light industrial areas including jobs near Warrigal Rd, Moorabbin. Attracts steady patronage. Use as a rail feeder to the Frankston line is constrained by it arriving at an acute angle to it, with passengers having to go south before going north.  Transdev's 2015 network would have increased service on this segment, especially on weekends. 

Oakleigh South to Doncaster: This is the busiest segment of the busiest orbital. It serves key stations at Oakleigh and Box Hill, TAFE at Holmesglen and large shopping centres at Chadstone, Box Hill and Doncaster. It also intesects with some tram routes. Many students without cars live and work in the area. Service should be turn-up-and-go seven days per week. Weekend service, in particular, falls short, though there are some trips on Saturdays that are unevenly slotted  between the full route's half-hourly service. Transdev's 2015 plan would have operated a 7.5 minute service on weekday peaks, 15 minutes weekday interpeak, 10 minutes Saturday and 20 minutes Sunday. 

Doncaster to Heidelberg: A direct and handy link across the Yarra via a residential area. Quieter than the previous segment but still worth having. Potential feeder to Heidelberg station but unharmonised with train timetables off-peak and weekends. 

Heidelberg to Coburg: Largely operating along Bell St and Murray Rd this segment serves many closely spaced destinations including stations (Heidelberg, Preston, Coburg), hospitals and shopping centres. Also  links numerous tram lines and quite good residential demographics for buses. I think it justifies a 10 minute 7 day service rather than the current unharmonised-with-train 15 and 30 minute frequency. Unlike in the east largely duplicative routes, like the 527, were not merged into the new service when the SmartBus started. Scope exists to do this to allow a low-cost turn-up-and-go service on this high patronage potential corridor as discussed here.   

Coburg to Essendon: Patronage here drops compared to other parts of the 903. However it provides a cross-suburban service connecting into DFO during shopping hours. 

Essendon to Milleara SC: Here's another case of unproductive network duplication. The 2000s-era decision to route 903 via Buckley St (where it overlaps the 465) to miss the large Highpoint shopping centre is one of the oddest made on the whole SmartBus network. Whereas the 465 operates every 20 minutes (better in peak) to meet trains at Essendon, the 15 and 30 minutely 903 cannot given the 20 minute train service. Its main benefit appears to be to improve operating hours on Buckley St, something that could have been cheaper by adding 465 trips. And a westward connection from Milleara could have been done by extending another route, eg the 406, rather than to bring the 903 over. Transdev in 2015 wanted to reduce services on this segment but not amend the general poor network structure. While undesirable this is understandable since their change was confined to their routes only and serious reform (like discussed here) would have involved other operators' routes.

Milleara SC to Sunshine:  The 903's catchment here is a mix of not much, residential and industrial in about equal proportions. One might argue that service here is excessive but you wouldn't now remove it without providing a useful alternative. 

Sunshine to Altona: The first part of this segment is residential in Sunshine South, where it overlaps other routes. Then its catchment becomes low density industrial. Afterwards land use on Millers Rd changes to commercial and residential. Finally the 903 parallels the train line before terminating at Altona Station. Bus services on Millers Rd are numerous and complex. The number of buses per hour here is excessive (over 8 buses per hour off-peak weekdays) but intervals between them are uneven, increasing maximum waits to more than is necessary. For example it is served by the 903 from Sunshine (4 buses/hour) and the mostly quiet 232 from the CBD (2 buses/hour). Probably the highest patronage potential route is the 411 from Footscray but this only has one bus every 40 minutes. While Millers Rd justifies a SmartBus service (including buses operating until midnight and a frequent weekend service) the industrial area in Brooklyn does not. In contrast the 411 would justify an upgrade. Because it could only concern itself with its own routes, the only instrument Transdev had in 2015 was cutting its own quiet services in the west rather than wider network planning that a proper area review would tackle. A better approach might have been to finish the 903 at Sunshine and use its Altona North area resources to boost 411 to SmartBus standard instead. More on this here.


SmartBus is a 'one-size fits all' service. With minor exceptions it provides the same level of service in dense areas with lots of students, universities and shopping centres as it does through sparse bush or industrial areas. Its headway is almost always incompatible with train frequencies, especially in Melbourne's north and west. Slavishly sticking to the orbitals is leading to overcrowding on some segments and excessive service on others. On the other hand there's a certain simplicity of service that seems attractive. And it's undeniable that the orbitals coming marked a step change in bus services available in Melbourne's middle suburbs. 

What are your views? Should the simple orbitals be kept or is splitting beneficial? Maybe there are other places they could be split not suggested here. Please leave any comments below.

PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.