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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John said...

Perhaps the railway through wodonga CBD can be electrified to run passenger trains or light rail (From latrobe uni in Wodonga to Albury showgrounds/airport perhaps), with urban renewal focused around this corridor where possible.

Aj said...

An improved bus network with multiple routes. I have actually made a bus network

Ricky said...

I feel realistically speaking that a change will be very unlikely to happen, given state powers that be, however if it were to, I'd take inspiration from Bendigo's (or the Latrobe Valley) network.

A single fixed 30 min 7 day main route (let's call it 9) from Latrobe & Tafe through Birralee, Wodonga Hospital, Wodonga CBD, Albury CBD, Albury Hospital, Airport, would probably be enough.
Couple of fanning out local routes either side, basically Albury-Lavington and Wodonga-Birralee via various estates, with either half hourly or hourly service. Keep it simple and clean.

Ricky said...

Actually on second thoughts, route 9 would probably be better off being Latrobe/Tafe-Birralee-W Hosp-Wodonga-Albury-Alb Hosp-Alb Airport-CSU-Lavington, as confusing as it seems. Just pick up and focus on the generators, anything else can transfer onto the trunk.

But it's not the only messy cross border network. Echuca/Moama is probably the best of them, but the mess that is Mildura/Wentworth is just astounding. Definitely needs it's own post, especially with the fun of dual numbers, 211/311/312, the mess of 600/601/602..

Peter Parker said...

UPDATE: The development that motivated the railway to close and move the station out of town has collapsed. Development Victoria has cancelled its deal with the developer. https://melbourneontransit.blogspot.com/2020/07/timetable-tuesday-84-victorias-most.html