Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #86: Melbourne's COVID-19 curfew timetables

Unlike many other cities worldwide Melbourne has valiantly retained its public transport service levels during the COVID-19 epidemic. Patronage fell by more than 80% (especially on train and tram) but the same frequencies including peak express services still ran. Even our Night Network remained running. The rationale was that essential workers still need to travel and lower occupancy is desirable as it keeps people apart. 

Melbourne's fixed funding model for public transport is more robust than transit agencies elsewhere (which might depend on tax revenue that drops when retail sales do). We also don't have a culture of 'on the fly' service variations like you might have with a network with many frequent urban routes running 'headway managed' timetables. Even our confusing reduced service summer timetables are gradually being weeded out with only a handful of bus routes left with them. 

Just over four months ago it was mentioned that there could be emergency COVID-19 timetables with reduced service. Shortly after I speculated about the consequences if we went to a Saturday timetable on buses in case we did. We didn't and the full set of services remained. In fact we even added a few train and tram trips. And, due to reduced traffic and passenger loadings, operational performance has been generally excellent. 

The numbers got better after the initial restrictions. Then they got worse. Much worse. So there's been more restrictions. Firstly 'Stage 3' then 'Stage 4'. These include a 5km distance limit (except for a limited number of essential trips) and an 8pm to 5am curfew. 

The announcement were made the Sunday afternoon before last. The curfew would be effective that evening, ie about five hours notice. It would affect public transport with the Night Network suspended and reduced after 8pm service. 

A network-wide service cut could potentially affect all train lines, all tram lines and many bus routes. There is still the need for essential workers to travel. Even on main train, tram and bus routes existing evening frequencies are not high, being 20 minutes at best and more commonly every 30 minutes. The Geelong train and local buses are more like every 40 to 60 minutes after the pm peak.

A change affecting numerous routes requires a massive retimetabling and rerostering effort at short notice. In normal circumstances it could entail months of work. Even if the transport operators got  advance notice (and we don't know if they did) they might not have had more more than a few days. 

Added on to this are the data upload procedures to the PTV website so that people can view timetables and plan their trips. Because these flow in to the online journey planner publishing the process is far more involved than merely uploading simple html or pdf lists of times such as might have happened 20 years ago (and taken mere minutes).

However PTV were providing some advice. For example on Sunday evening they tweeted that services would be wound back from the following Wednesday (August 5).  

Yet Yarra Trams had already started winding services back from 11pm the Sunday of the announcement. That would have caught people unawares; at the very least if you go out to work you should expect there should be service that day for the trip home. The earlier finish was particularly unexcusable.   

Saying 'a reduced frequency' is acceptable when services are frequent and people hardly need a timetable. However it is not informative when frequency is low (eg every 30 minutes), especially if finishing times are made earlier. Hence the questions here. For now though let's just accept that there will be loose ends during these times and move on to the substance of the changes. 

No Night Network?

This is the easiest to understand change as it was announced  by the Premier on Sunday. At least we thought we understood it. 

Many think that Night Network is just about late night revellers. They're almost all travelling in the small hours. Given the 8pm and 5am curfew it seems logical not to run them. Arguably it was only out of respect to essential workers who might be travelling that Night Network has survived as long as it has during these times.

However Night Network has other functions and benefits as well. These affect travel well into non-curfew hours, especially on Sunday mornings. 

Melbourne trains, unlike trains in Sydney and Brisbane, historically started late on Sunday mornings. This is particularly for outbound trips. For example you could not reach outer termini like Frankston by train much before 9am. That remains the case today for Good Friday (and on most Christmas Days) where a Sunday timetable (without previous Friday or Saturday Night Network services) operates. 

The coming of Night Network largely fixed the Sunday morning problem with Night Network providing fill in trains every hour before the regular Sunday timetable started. However those trains would go if the Night Network is scrapped. There would be a multi-hour period after 5am on Sunday that even though the curfew does not apply there will still be no trains. 

Initial official advice was ambiguous for several days as you can see below.   

Who would you believe? The premier or PTV? 

It was later found an arrangement had been reached and PTV's statement above is fair. That is we got revised train timetables that kept early Sunday morning trips despite the non-running of Night Network.  
After 8pm trips - tearing strips off timetables

No one is meant to be travelling during curfew times except for essential workers (or people escaping domestic violence). Coinciding with the curfew was an approximate halving of already low service levels. In a letter from minister Ben Carroll to RTBU Branch Secretary Luba Grigorovitch transport workers were assured of receiving full pay during this period notwithstanding the reduced service.  

If you were going to cut services to reflect the curfew and had sufficient time to plan driver rosters the ideal would have been to have an even frequency with timetables produced in advance. Or even have left night services as they were (given their already low frequency) and trimmed peak services instead.

With months-long processes compressed into a few hours a more rough-and-ready approach appears to have been taken. That is quickly tearing strips out of train running plans and rosters. The trips that remained would not always be evenly spaced. This happened in at least the first few days the reduced timetables were introduced. 

This is operationally expedient but hostile to passengers. Even some trips more than an hour before the 8pm curfew no longer run. Not that many should be travelling, but it is tough on essential workers who need to, especially where making connections with potential waiting times of up to 60 or 80 minutes.

Social media commentary is below: 

Nearly a week on and things are stabilising but are not there yet. An example of confusion from last night is below. The text part of the PTV website mentions an update being 'available later today' However the last update was 5:53am and it's less than two hours until before the curfew timetable starts. One just has to hope that the website timetables are correct (as it is known that the text and data processes of the PTV website do not always work hand in hand). 

Bus information

PTV's website has long had an internal culture that favours providing train and tram information over buses. This carries through to information provided on curfew cancellations. As an example, below are route by route details for trams. 
Buses rely on a long drop-down list. These did not specially highlight the night's curfew cancellations. 

This fragmentation means that, just like in the old pre-Metlink days, we need to go to bus operator websites to find this information. As now as then operators vary in information provided. Transdev, who run the most number of bus routes with comprehensive evening service has a page here, This features a consistent pattern with the same services not running each night.
Ventura routes are to be confirmed. Interestingly, even though it has a significant number of night services, the Route 900 SmartBus that Ventura half-runs with CDC is not listed. 
Some other bus operator sites checked also didn't mention after 8pm cancellations. However most routes only have two or three trips after the curfew so these may well still be running for essential travellers. 

Note: Since the above was written PTV has added at least Transdev bus changes on their site. For example this list deals with 901, 902 and 903. Times of cancelled buses are mentioned but not always with the days of the week this applies for. Passengers are told to "Please continue to check this website before you travel". 

Sometimes PTV doesn't publish as much information as the operator. See PTV website information for Route 216, 220, 223 and 234. This page does say that it's for weeknights. However these are not the only nights that bus trips are cancelled. Transdev's complete version of this information here has tabs for weeknight, Saturday and Sunday night cancellations. PTV forgot to mention the last two, though the online timetables look OK, with trips on all seven nights removed on the versions after yesterday. 

Identifying cancelled trips can be needlessly unclear. On weeknights PTV has the weeknight Route 234 departures from the city that are not running as the 8.30pm, 9.05pm, 9.45pm, 10.25pm, 11.05pm, 11.45pm to Garden City. However these times do not exactly line up with departures from the City. It may be that they've used times from the Casino (Southbank) instead. Also of note is that one of the trips cancelled is the last trip from the city - never a good idea! 

Another point of ambiguity is Night Network buses. These are still listed as running on PTV timetables despite the premier's announcement that they wouldn't be more than a week ago. Countering this are 'fine print' service information announcement saying they're not running. It would have been better for the date ranges for the online timetables to be altered to provide a 'belt and braces' approach to clarity.  

These Night Network bus routes are similar to Metro trains in that their later trips provide an early Sunday morning transport role after the curfew has finished but before regular routes have started. A minor example are the 5 and 6am Sunday departures from Broadmeadows on the 953. More significant is routes like the 970 with scheduled trips still running as late as 8am. If these after-curfew trips were treated like Metro trains they could still operate (and should if PTV's message about a normal network operating during non-curfew times is correct).   


This is a quick rundown on services and information provided to passengers during these extraordinary emergencies times including curfews. It is included here mainly for posterity in case people are curious how things were done in 2020. 

To summarise it's been a rushed, rough-as-guts job. The curfew timetable is good for transport workers, who keep their pay despite working less. But it's not so good for another group of workers - that is those who need to travel. For them the network has become much less usable. Meanwhile we still run an intensive peak service for now almost non-existent and wealthier (on average) white collar workers. 

Even short notice cancellations on better served lines would cause delays of maybe 10 minutes as opposed to 30 minutes plus for some evening trips, particularly those involving connections. It should be noted that those who are working at these hours typically have a weak status in the labour market and have less ability to influence their start and finish times compared to others, yet hacked back timetables leave them waiting the longest. 

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Route 234: It looks like the Transdev and PTV notices have transposed the directions. The times quoted in the notice "From Garden City" match the actual times from City/Queen Vic Market, and vice versa.

Which also means the last service does run.