Tuesday, July 07, 2020

How Perth makes bus reform work: its frequent route 915 and how we can do it here (Timetable Tuesday #81)

Last Friday I wrote about the collapse of bus network reform in Adelaide. In just three weeks a bold network proposal went from being 'a new era in public transport' to 'never again' as the state premier pulled the rug from under minister Stephan Knoll to cancel all changes. The backdown couldn't have been bigger, especially given how buses dominate transit in Adelaide. 

Reasons for the failure include them trying to do too much too soon, the severity of some coverage losses, insufficient information on alternatives for those affected, understating the number of stops losing service and poor public consultation. 

Today's item is about a place where bus network reform succeeds. Perth. Transperth's recipe is different. Gradual network refinement for them is regular day to day business rather than being a special project tied to a new transit operator, contract arrangement or rail upgrade. This contrasts with bigger but less frequent changes in Canberra (which seems to have 'big bang' network reforms about every 10 years and smaller ones roughly yearly) and what was just attempted in Adelaide. 

Melbourne sits near the other extreme. Its natural state is stasis, punctuated by the occasional new route, often inefficiently layered over an existing network. Even small changes need to go through the government budget process, adding a year or more to when it can happen, and, more often than not, ensuring it doesn't (remember the iceberg?). Brisbane is another place where little happens, stymied by their ungovernable mix of state and city government involvement in buses. 

Today I'll talk about Perth's latest announced bus network reform. I'll ignore the odd added or withdrawn trip. Instead I'll concentrate on two changes of network importance. One is about what they are adding while the other is about what (I believe) they wish to remove. 

Perth's new high frequency Route 915

Most cities have a premium tier of bus routes or corridors offering frequent all-day service. For example Adelaide has Go Zones, Brisbane has BUZ corridors, Canberra has Rapid routes and Melbourne has SmartBus. Perth has its 900-series routes. 

While a 15 minute frequency is standard on weekdays there is more variation on weekends. For example Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne typically halve frequency to 30 minutes, far short of 'turn up and go'. In contrast Brisbane and Perth maintain a 7 day 15 minute or better frequency, although their frequent networks are sparser (especially Brisbane's). Having high all-week frequency makes buses more like trams in their ability to board at all times with only a short wait. And it has potential to lower car ownership rates, further encouraging patronage. 

Almost all premium routes serve radial corridors, to or towards their city's CBD. Key exceptions are orbital and other cross-suburban routes in Melbourne and Perth. However even these are typically frequent on weekdays only, not weekends.  

Perth's upgraded Route 501 will break this mould. Although the timetable change involved is quite small, It will deliver the first non-radial, non-CBD 7-day frequent service long hours bus route in any Australian city outside Sydney.

What is the 501? It's a direct east-west route through Perth's southern suburbs. It runs from Fremantle to Bull Creek Station via the large Garden City Shopping Centre. The catchment is best described as middle-class middle-suburban. 501 has multiple functions, including feeding people to stations at both ends and serving the shopping centre. It can trace its origins to 2007's Mandurah railway where it soon became one of its strongest feeder services. 

Subsequent upgrades saw weekends boosted to every 15 minutes during the day. Evenings remained with 60 to 90 minute gaps, although these were steadily pushed later. Finally, with the gaps closed to 30 minutes and later trips added, the 501 will join Perth's family of 'high frequency' all week bus routes in two weeks. Like similar frequent services it will get a new 900-series route number (915). The Sunday timetable extract below shows how few extra trips were needed to make it qualify. 

Click on the links if you wish to compare the 2018 Route 5012019 Route 501 and 2020 Route 915 timetables in more detail.

501's changes took place over several years. They have been simpler than other 900-series routes, such as the 930, 950 and 960, that required consolidation of several routes in a corridor. This example gives an insight into how WA's PTA plans bus networks. There'll be more on Perth later. In the interim we'll look at what scope Melbourne has for 915-style service upgrades to routes that almost but not quite meet SmartBus service standards. 

Ten cheap new SmartBus corridors for Melbourne

Melbourne last expanded its SmartBus network in 2010. We've since added nearly a million more people. But no more SmartBus routes have since been added.   

You saw before how Transperth continually looked for cheap opportunities to expand its 900-series frequent bus network. If they didn't have the money to go the whole way in one year they would gradually add service so it wasn't as big a leap the following year. 

Where can we do this in Melbourne? Here's ten routes or corridors that are 'nearly there'. Service is often already quite high so only minor upgrades, more intensively using existing buses, are all that's needed. 

* 200/207 City - Kew (combined corridor) 
Very minor span improvements desirable. 

* 216 City - Sunshine
Requires very minor weekend span improvements.

* 220 City - Sunshine 
Requires very minor weekend span improvements. Desirable to reform with Route 410 to simplify Ballarat Rd services and provide a direct Victoria University - Docklands - CBD connection. More here.

* 234 Queen Vic Market - Garden City 
Requires very minor weekend span improvements. (~6 extra trips per week)

* 246 Clifton Hill - Elsternwick
Requires earlier morning start times 7 days (2 - 3 extra trips each way per day).

* 250/251 City - Northcote (combined corridor) 
Requires slightly improved operating hours. 

* 302/304 City - Mont Albert North (combined corridor) 
Require improved operating hours, particularly evenings and weekends. Complaints made regarding overcrowding.

* 402 Footscray - East Melbourne
Requires extended operating hours, particularly in evenings. Also improved weekend evening frequency (from every 40 to every 30 min). 

* 406 Footscray - Highpoint 10 min service
Requires merging with the largely duplicative Route 223 to form 10 minute corridor and compensatory rerouting of 409. Desirable for 10 min service to operate 7 days. More here

* 904 Coburg - Heidelberg 10 min service
Requires splitting of 903 at Heidelberg and merging with 527 to deliver increased frequency. This route is actually an existing SmartBus (part of the 903) but this change delivers true turn-up and go service with more even connections with trains. Desirable for 10 min service to operate 7 days.  More here.

You'd also boost 201 to provide a better Deakin University to Box Hill shuttle. There's no weekend service so it won't be a SmartBus. But, like the other successful university shuttles, it could provide a good weekday connection to the university for very little money by incorporating the duplicative 768. Details here

The above corridors were chosen because they would be cheap to do. The Building Melbourne's Useful Network series discusses other key corridors that could be candidates for SmarBuses. 

Perth's diminishing Route 103

Returning to Perth, another function of bus reform (especially if you wish to free up resources for frequent services like the 915) is to simplify the network, particularly where routes inefficiently duplicate and frequent alternatives exist. 

Bus route 103 provided the historic north-of-the-river road connection between Fremantle and Perth (with 106 - now 910 - doing similar south-of-the-river). It was particularly useful for travel between the south-western suburbs (whose buses mostly ran to Fremantle) and destinations off the rail network including the University (UWA) and major hospitals. 103's Stirling Highway catchment also included affluent suburbs whose children might attend the prestigious UWA and some student share houses. 

Although that catchment sounds promising for a bus route, 103's relevance to the broader transit network has been declining for nearly 30 years. About half of the route closely parallels the Fremantle rail line. After being closed in 1979 train service was restored in 1983. Electrification occurred a decade later. This was accompanied by frequency upgrades making the train relatively more attractive for those with a choice between it and the bus.  

Several years later Perth commenced its 'Circle Route' (then 98/99, now 998/999). With a weekday service every 15 minutes it greatly improved cross-suburban travel in Perth's middle suburbs. However in this area it overlapped most of the 103 along Stirling Hwy, sapping patronage from it. Parts of Stirling Highway also have other routes, for example the 102/107 corridor and some others not shown on the map (shown later or you can see the network map here). 

Route 103 has thus lost many reasons to exist. The main thing propping up its patronage has been the growth of the QEII hospital precinct. Parking there is scarce. Public transport use is encouraged with initiatives like the frequent 950 Superbus. The 103 helps with connections from the West Perth area. However it contributes nothing but a little extra capacity from the Fremantle direction due to the overlapping and already frequent Circle Route. 

Route 103's existing timetable is already well down on that which ran in its halcyon years. Today most trips operate between Perth and the hospitals only, with only a quarter extending to Fremantle between the weekday peaks. Catching the 103 from the city in the afternoon is particularly complex with buses terminating at four possible locations.  

It was thus little surprise to read that in two weeks Route 103's timetable will include fewer services. All city - hospital trips will operate on a new Route 26. Longer trips will remain with the 103. Route 26 will operate every 10-15 minutes on weekdays and hourly on weekends. Route 103 will operate hourly 7 days per week with peak service roughly half-hourly (less than now). Weekend services will however be timed between the two routes to provide a 30 minute combined service between the city and the hospital precinct. This is a doubling of Sunday service due to the 103's current hourly service with no extra short trips as run Monday to Saturday. However sharing it between two routes increases complexity compared to now for people travelling on the common section. 

The map above shows the revised network. Thicker lines operate approximately every 15 minutes with thinner lines every 30 to 60 minutes (on weekdays). With nearby frequent service from other routes, the transfer of most trips to the shorter (new) Route 26 and its remaining hourly frequency it does not look like the 103 has much of a future.

Rather than scrap the 103 overnight (as Adelaide was planning to for many routes under its New Network), Perth is taking the more gradual road of reducing service through timetable changes. This has the possible added advantage (for them) of not requiring public consultation as much as would be expected for a network change. Then after a few rounds (death by a thousand cuts) the route could be uncontroversially deleted with the resources being used to boost or simplify other services. For example weekend service on the 103 could be deleted with some resources being transferred to boost Route 26 to 30 minutes. This would restore simplicity as people would no longer have to remember two routes for connections to the hospital area. 

Another possibility for Route 103 is to reform rather than delete it. Transperth (sensibly) like using consecutive route numbers for overlapping routes whose times are evenly offset from one another along their common section before they fan out. 102 and 107 is the example in this area; both operate half-hourly on weekdays with a 15 minute combined service between Claremont and the CBD. The logical option then is to renumber 107 as 103 to provide a simpler 102/103 corridor. Resources freed could then be used to upgrade 26, 102 and/or the revised 103 depending on patronage potential.  

The last three paragraphs are highly speculative. However it does seem that there are ideas for the 103 given the creation of a new route from most of its trips. What is proposed in two weeks looks like a somewhat ugly transition stage that, though initially more complex, could be a staging post to an ultimately simpler, less duplicative and more frequent network.   


This has been a look at two Perth bus network reforms due to be implemented in two weeks. One involves small upgrades to form a new 7-day frequent route. The other involves some cutting back in (what could be) a step to reduce duplication and potentially boost frequencies on remaining routes. If enough reforms like these are done then it may be possible to deliver a transformed network within several years with a greater chance of success without the problems Adelaide  had. However for this to work network reform must be a part of regular business rather than something that requires an operator contract change or special budget process to initiate. 

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Arrow Productions said...

Regarding Perth reforms and how they aren't tied in to contracts and all that, it's not always the case. Most bus network reforms, like this one here, are as stated, a day-to-day review basis. We regularly get roughly 6-monthly small network reforms - once on the Sunday of the first week of February and once halfway through the year, like now. However, of course, when the contracts change, there will be a larger-scale reform, like this March, 2 months after the contract for Joondalup changed.

Andrew SItu said...

501 getting upgraded reminds me of 37 (now 935). The latter didn't exactly ply any major corridor, except a small part of Great Eastern Highway.

Wonder if 507 might qualify for an upgrade. It serves two high schools and two major shopping centres on its route.

Bemused said...

With respect, the 501 is not the first 15 minute 7-day non-CBD oriented route in Australia. A number of the 7 such routes on the Gold Coast arguably go to a "CBD" but not all of them - centres no larger in some cases than Fremantle anywhere on the route.

Unknown said...

Peter I think you are on the money with the 103 - as much as I hate to see it.

You mention the CircleRoute. A year or two ago, without any warning Transperth silently converted it to an all-stops pattern along Stirling Highway. All the 103-only bus stops suddenly had full CircleRoute serivce. Then the cuts came to the 103.

Now the axe is being sharpened again - and I think you're right in predicting that more cuts are to come. As you probably noticed, the new timetable eschews all coordination between the 26 and the 103 on weekdays. Instead of running an even 26-26-103-26 pattern each hour interpeak, they've splurged on extra 26 trips running on top of each interpeak 103. Perhaps this is a waste of money they've justified in the name of a clockface timetable. Perhaps instead this is a ploy to sap passengers from the 103 and prepare the public for its eventual deletion.

I think Transperth are being a bit harsh here. The 103 is definitely a useful and direct connection between Stirling Higthway and offices in East and West Perth, duplicated as it may be. Importantly, it's also surprisingly well used. I can name plenty of routes with far worse patronage that retain better service. The peak trips down Stirling Highway can be quite busy.

I still think the 103 has a place in the weekday network, and I was dissapointed to see it cut to hourly past QEII last year. But I can see why - in theory - we could do without it, and I definitely think the poorly-patronised weekend service can go. The PTA definitely know what they're doing. I trust they'll make a good call.

Steve said...

Speaking of the 915, I don't know why they don't join it to the 507 and have one service from Freo to Cannington. The existing timetables could easily be kept with their respective short trips either side of BC station. Have a peek at the 915 & 507 TTs. They're operating hours and frequencies are almost identical. Throw in a few minor tweaks and give the public an even better service, the drivers more variety and let the service be operated by more than one contractor as is the 950, 998-9.

Peter Parker said...

That makes sense - there should be better Garden City connections to the east. Similarly one might also merge 500 & 508. Again frequencies are similar, except for Saturday where Brentwood would get a boost to 30 min.

Steve said...

There's usually a fairly narrow definition of what can constitute a 900 series service.
Unfortunately the 500/508 don't meet frequency requirements.
Similarly, he 507 probably suffers from a little bit of "wonkiness" at the eastern end....another barrier to it attaining 900 status. Still, worth a mention I thought.

Peter Parker said...

Thanks Steve. I wouldn't boost 500/508 to a 900-series service just yet. But if they were merged as an extended 508 (the 500 would go) that would improve access to Garden City (despite being slightly indirect).

Steve said...

I agree with that completely! In fact, I'd go a lot further and re-introduce a lot more through-routed services (either side of CBD) and many other conjoined runs outside the CBD. It works everywhere in the world to ease layover congestion. Most train lines without a city loop in their CBD have always done this.
Initially, they scrapped these services in Perth when private contractors took over and the Govt carved up the whole of greater Perth into those contract areas. It still much the case today but as mentioned above and proven since, multiple companies running the same route I(950, circle) is no big deal. Well not to the public at least.
Sorry for butting in on your Melbourne blog Peter......

Peter Parker said...

Thanks Steve. I also love the idea of through-routed routes (rather than things terminating at the Busport which delays through passengers - even though there was hype at the time about its convenience). My main worry with through routes is punctuality which can get worse when routes are run through a busy area eg a CBD. But if you have good bus priority that could lessen delays.

Steve said...

You seem to know a lot about Perth Pete!
But, you're in Melb nowadays?

Yeah, there used to be a few probs pre privatisation days with Terrace services. In fact the M-Th timetables were constructed solely to take account of the extended/busy Friday peak.
So too early M-Th, generally on time F. lol

EQBS and the Busport generally are good for through routing I've found however.

Steve said...

Something that really surprised me was the lack of a decent train service to Geelong.
Compared to Mandurah over here WA, well, it's not really comparable is it?
Ok it is if you look at the distance from the Capital city. Almost identical.
But Geelong's greater population is approx 265k? whereas Mandurah's is only 100k approx.

Peter Parker said...

Geelong's train service was once hourly (until 2015). Now it's every 20 min weekday (not that much worse than Mandurah) and it has lots more local stations and better local bus routes (many every 20 min). Weekend trains drop to 40 min so on that it's far inferior to Mandurah.

The big contrast is between Mandurah and the Gold Coast, whose trains are only half as frequent as Mandurah's (normally half-hourly) and much slow. Although the Gold Coast has a good tram service and better buses than Mandurah (whose connections to places like Pinjarra and Bunbury are woeful).

Steve said...

I can see your points. Mandurah's weekday service is similar to Geelong's (albeit 10 min return service most of afternoon). However, 15 mins all weekend with less than half of Geelong's pop. is something else. Buses? Yeah, rubbish! Pinjarra? Rubbish too but not much going on there to warrant much more in the near future.
Bunbury is the worst-served for sure.