Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #93: Is bus 890 a weekend wastrel?

Cranbourne got a new bus network on 13 November 2016. Routes got straighter, extended into new areas and were often made more frequent. For an outer suburban area a surprisingly high proportion of its population received a bus every 20 minutes or better, even on weekends. Read the brochure here.  

One of the four new routes introduced was the 890. Operating from Dandenong to Lynbrook, its purpose was to meet local demands for public transport access between the Cranbourne area and the Dandenong South industrial area. The former had lots of residents while the latter has lots of jobs. 

Starting at Dandenong Station, you can see its path here: 

The map below shows the 890 relative to other routes. From Dandenong it overlaps part of the 857 but with far superior frequency and operating hours. Then it heads east, providing some unique coverage of jobs that did not previously have a bus. Then south, east then south to terminate at Lynbrook. 

The concept sounds good. But its alignment makes the 890 almost entirely an industrial route. A change to it will almost certainly be required for all but the small proportion of likely users living near either Dandenong or Lynbrook stations. Others will either need to take a train or bus to these interchanges. Dandenong has many potential feeder routes but Lynbrook has just three - buses 891 and 897 and the train from Cranbourne. As will be mentioned later the almost entirely industrial catchment kills 890's usage at certain times.  


Route 890 operates to minimum service standards for local buses in Melbourne. That is a 7 day service until approximately 9pm. More precisely it runs every 40 minutes during the day (including weekends) and every 60 minutes at night. 

The most notable feature of the timetable is the early weekday start. The first bus leaves Lynbrook at 4:25am and Dandenong at 5:09am. This is a good feature due to the tendency for industrial areas to have early starts. Its inclusion displays a good understanding of the service requirements in industrial areas. 

In contrast the presence of weekend service every 40 minutes is atypical for what is close to purely an industrial route. For example routes in industrial areas like Laverton North or Fishermans Bend have either no or a lesser weekend service. Also 890's 40 minute daytime weekend frequency is not much less than most SmartBuses which, despite their active weekend destination catchments, are typically half-hourly. Is this justified? Keep reading!  


Industrial bus routes sometimes have a poor reputation in some CBD-based planning circles. The latter, with their postgraduate degrees and homes within earshot of a tram ding, could not be more socio-economically different to 'working poor' suburbanites on the buses. 

It is sometimes thought that with some jobs requiring drivers licences, high car ownership, and universal free parking it would be futile to run buses to industrial areas. At best a few apprentices might use them, quitting as soon as they can afford a car. 

890's weekday patronage productivity numbers show otherwise. It gets 25 passenger boardings per bus service hour on weekdays. This is higher than the 20 boardings per hour minimum that Infrastructure Victoria regards as constituting a viable route. And it's very close to average for buses in Melbourne, nearly all of which serve residential areas. Non-school days is only slightly less at 24 boarding per hour on weekdays. Hence you can run buses through industrial areas and have people use them. The weekday numbers indicate 890's worth. I said more about 'job ready' public transport networks with improved service to industrial areas here

Weekends though are different. 890's usage drops to just 6 boardings per bus service hour on Saturday and a paltry 2 per hour on Sunday. Given that Dandenong to Lynbrook takes half an hour, these numbers mean that the average trip would have 3 boardings on Saturday and 1 boarding on Sunday. And some trips would operate empty. Usage this low is rare anywhere on the Melbourne bus network. 

Compare that to some of the most important routes in the south-east, serving centres like Chadstone and Box Hill like the 733 and 800. These have up to 30 times the per-hour weekend boardings yet receive a generally lesser service than the 890. The same applies for local part-time routes like 802, 804, 814, 815 and 885 that serve neighbourhoods near Dandenong with a high propensity to use buses. 

What about a route somewhat comparable to the 890 but on the other side of Melbourne? Take the 400 between Sunshine and Laverton. Like the 890 it has a basic 40 minute 7 day frequency (over most of the route). Although most of the 400 is industrial catchment there is service of residential areas in Laverton, Sunshine West and Derrimut (though the first two have overlaps with other routes). Route 400 on weekdays is slightly quieter than the 890, with 21 boardings per hour.  However 400's weekend usage is a much higher 15 boardings per bus hour on Saturday and 12 on Sunday, with the residential catchment undoubtedly helping. 

Another possible comparison, also in the Laverton area, is Route 417. Its weekday frequency is roughly similar to the 890 though its hours are shorter. It gets 16 passenger boardings per bus hour, handicapped because it serves one station in a loop and not two in a straight line as the 890 does. However 417, unlike the 890, has no weekend service.  

A counterfactual

I now interrupt this post for a counterfactual. My hypothesis is that weekend usage could have been several times higher had another network configuration that better served popular destinations been chosen. 

Consider what would happen if, instead of the new 890, Dandenong South received service on Route 895 extended from Hampton Park to Dandenong (in conjunction with a tidying of indirect or duplicative routes in the area). 

Multiple areas could have gained as the extended route would be usable for diverse trips throughout the week. Eg western parts of Hampton Park would gain a new 7-day connection to Fountain Gate. Some areas to the east would get a bus to Dandenong, again useful for a variety of trips. 

Even though Dandenong South itself still might not get many weekend boardings, there could at least be more through travellers to Dandenong. And during the week many more homes would get a direct bus to Dandenong South jobs, reducing the need to change.  Plus there's potential to extend to Keysborough or Noble Park for better connections to Dandenong South jobs from the west as well. 

This approach is very different to that taken when the 890 was planned. The 890 is really good for one role only; connections to industrial jobs in Dandenong South. That depresses its use at other times, particularly on weekends. In contrast the extended 895 above, while retaining Dandenong South coverage, has usefulness for many more residential feeder and shopping trips. Unlike the 890, that should ensure patronage is more consistent over the week and 7 day service remains justified. 


There is a point where you tolerate low usage on a bus route on the basis of it providing a comprehensive service as part of a social obligation. On the other hand there must also be a point where usage is so low that you discontinue the service. Especially if there are nearby underserved and low income areas (like Greater Dandenong) where you could redirect resources and benefit maybe ten times the people. That sort of change would stack up on both patronage and social equity criteria. 

Perhaps more interesting than an industrial route getting a generous weekend service in 2016 is why, nearly 4 years later, its service level remains unaltered despite exceptionally low usage. This leads one to ask why the state government can tolerate 'ghost bus' inefficiencies for years, with minimal interest in fixing them, despite abundant opportunities for cost-effective 'greater good' service improvements nearby. 

Having said that, what is overlooked today is unlikely to compare with the 29-year inertia that befell the 479 bus. For years that had a 2pm City - Sunbury weekend afternoon trip, apparently to serve a long-closed asylum that closed in 1985. It wasn't until 2014 that this duplicative trip was removed with resources redirected to other generally beneficial network changes and simplifications. 

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Friday, September 25, 2020

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 63: 8 opportunities for new stops on existing bus routes

Want to increase a network's coverage to serve more people and thus boost possible patronage? 

Ways to do it are as easy as 1 2 3, as below:  

The first approach, ie extending routes, is often necessary but adds operating costs. This is because more buses, or at least service kilometres, will be needed to retain the existing frequency. 

Next we could leave routes as they are but improve access to existing stops. Waiting to cross the road is a significant part of walking time in busy areas and may result in missed buses. If you add zebra crossings, shorten light cycles at signals, build mid-block pedestrian refuges and replace roundabouts with lights you increase the population within five or ten minutes walk of the stop. That improves coverage and thus potential usage. Plus, equally important, there's gains for local walking trips too. 

Thirdly, where stops are far apart on a route, you can add some in between. Like with access improvements intermediate stops are low cost and can improve an existing route's productivity. Major coverage gains are possible where you're plugging kilometre-long gaps. And access to frequent service (and thus the Useful Network) can increase where a new stop goes in just before overlapping routes fan out. 

I could mention road engineers' love for boosting car traffic throughput by designing large turning radii on main roads that push bus stops back from their most convenient locations near intersections. Or the neglect of human scale design that ruins the fine grained walking access needed for coverage within and between suburbs. 

But I won't. 

Instead I'll get straight onto a list of just a few places that need bus stops. These are already built-up areas where buses go past but do not stop. And instead of the desirable 300 to 400 metre stop spacing gaps may be up to 1km or more, making at least one intermediate stop a worthwhile coverage-booster. In other places, where gaps are less, moving an existing stop may be enough to provide adequate coverage or better serve where people need to go. 

My primary source will be the PTV website, whose bus route maps now show stops. Verify, if desired, via the links provided.  

1. Route 782/783 on Frankston - Flinders Rd

The gap is obvious on the map below. There's a built-up section of Frankston - Flinders Rd where it's 1km between stops. The lack of stops prevents access to the 782/783 corridor. This is the area's most direct bus into Frankston via Monash University and the hospitals. Routes either side, in contrast, are confusing and indirect loops that may not operate seven days. Hence at least one pair of bus stops would greatly improve local coverage. The local member is Labor's Paul Edbrooke MP.  

A growth area that already has a bus but is getting more next year. Again the lack of a stop is conspicuous on the map. The area is at the intersection of three state seats, including Cranbourne (Pauline Richards MP), Bass (Jordan Crugnale MP) and Narre Warren South (Gary Maas MP). More detail in this Timetable Tuesday item


3. 811, 813, 902 on Springvale Rd southbound near shops

The gap here is less than the previous two. In fact there's no need to add stops to plug it. The problem is more the poor location of the southbound stop. This spaces it unevenly relative to those either side and means that Springvale Shopping Centre lacks a stop at its nearest point on Springvale Rd. There used to be such a stop but this was removed when the new station was built. However the area's extremely high patronage would make a relocated Ash Gv stop popular and relieve pressure on the crowded station stop. It is near two seats: Keysborough (Martin Pakula MP) and Clarinda (Meng Heang Tak MP). 

4. Route 356 and 357 near Fletcher St, Epping North

This is a classic case where buses are there, housing is there but the stops are not. This is Epping Rd near Fletcher St. New stops would improve coverage and enable the most to be made from two routes that run together before they fan out. Epping Rd forms the border of two seats, including Mill Park (Lily D'Ambrosio MP) and Thomastown (Bronwyn Halfpenny MP). This service gap was discussed in detail back in January. 

5. 543 near Somerton Rd

Greenvale is a major outer suburban growth area. Older parts of Greenvale are low density but have bus coverage from two routes while newer parts are higher density but lack coverage from any. It's understood that new or extended routes are planned in the area but scope exists to add stops to improve coverage from the existing Route 543. Greenvale is in the state seat of Yuroke held by Ros Spence MP. 

6. 525 on Mickleham Rd

The 525 is a fairly new route in Melbourne's outer north. Given existing wide stop spacings on parts of the route there are likely coverage opportunities from added stops in the area. This area is also in the state seat of Yuroke.   

7. 823 no stop near Highett Rd

The 823 isn't much of a bus service, with hourly trips and no weekend service. But it is the highway route to Southland Shopping Centre. And there are gaps between stops near Highett Rd. This gap is near the Moorabbin Justice Centre and densifying housing on a brownfields site. Local member is Brad Rowswell MP (Sandringham). 

8. Princes Hwy near Eastlink on Route 800

Route 800 has a limited timetable but is a busy route serving Chadstone, Oakleigh and Dandenong as well as employment areas near Clayton. However stops along it are uneven. An opportunity may exist for a Heatherton Link Rd stop to improve connections to a poorly served residential part of Dandenong.  Local MP is Gabrielle Williams (Dandenong). 

Too many stops?

I've discussed widely spaced stops and the coverage gaps that can ensue. But stops can also be too close. When that happens stops eat into each other's catchments and can reduce travel speeds. An extreme example is along Forrest St Sunshine West where stops are barely 100 metres apart. Widening their spacing would reduce maintenance costs with little effect on coverage.  


Adding stops on existing bus routes is a highly cost-effective way to improve the coverage of our existing bus network. And we need as much coverage as we can get with recent population growth outpacing network expansions, especially in fringe areas. Conversely there are cost savings in areas where stops are too close. Removing these could speed buses, lower maintenance costs and free poles for stops in growth areas. 

Having the best locations for bus stops is not without difficulty. For example road authorities jealously guard space near intersections and local traders are equally precious about parking. However the improved access and coverage benefits of better located bus stops are overwhelming and should prevail if government is serious about wanting transit to succeed. 

Do you know of other locations where there should be more bus stops on an existing route? Or other places where some are redundant or badly located? If so please leave your comments below. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Timetable Tuesday #92: Overlaps aplenty on the 385 bus

If you built 500 more 'free' parking spaces at a popular place like Tarneit or Doncaster (at a cost of $10s of thousands each) they would almost certainly fill up. Do the same at Altona North Park & Ride and none will. How do we know this? The first two places fill each day while Altona North is never more than 2% occupied. Adding more spots to the latter will make no difference. 

Add evening or Sunday bus services on routes without them in areas like Springvale or Dandenong, or boost existing meager services through busy places like Northland, Box Hill and Chadstone and you'll get a similar rapid take-up. Do the same through Yarrambat or Brighton Beach (which already have  frequent buses that carry fresh air until midnight) and you won't. 

Transport use, whether it's public or private, is supply led provided there's a willing catchment of users and alternatives are enough of a hassle. Widen a road or boost public transport frequency and demand will rise. Ditto for building a freeway or extending a railway. Some of that will come from generated trips previously not made while another part will come from people switching modes. 

The short-term component of mode shift is people changing their travel as the mode that's had the spending becomes more convenient relative to alternatives. There's also a long-term component caused by location decisions and land use changes the improved transport locks in. 

Retail businesses (like the K-mart our transport minister Ben Carroll used to work at or the Dick Smith I spent years with) love increased sales. However in transport higher demand is not necessarily a good thing, especially when it's more driving that's induced, like new freeways tend to do. And a switch from walking to public transport, like encouraged by silly policies like the 'free' tram zone, isn't always smart either.  

You won't get take-up if usability is poor or the service is not useful to many people. No matter how cheap the fare is. One reason why 'flexible route' buses usually fail is the need to phone or book ahead, giving notice that make their use anything but flexible for the user. That's a high barrier to use. Then there are cases where a route overlaps other services or serves unpopulated catchments. Both of the latter apply to at least sections of the poorly used Route 385, which is today's topic.  

Route description

What is the 385? It basically has two segments. Whittlesea - Mernda provides a feeder to Mernda Station from the long-established country town but now peri-urban Whittlesea. It's very direct, being one of two routes operating parallel to the railway which closed in 1959. 

Then there is the Mernda to Greensborough part. This runs via Doreen and Yarrambat. The latter (especially) has a long history of having a bus to Greensborough, well before trains crept nearer with South Morang and Mernda extensions.    

All this looks straightforward on the map below. However the story gets more complicated when you look at the timetables as you'll see later.  

The area map tells more about the 385, especially in relation to other routes.  The Whittlesea - Mernda portion entirely overlaps Route 382 for over 7 kilometres. Given that Whittlesea township has a population under 6000 such an overlap appears extraordinary. Regard should be paid for the populations living in surrounding peri-urban areas like Kinglake. However their high incomes and car ownership may depress demand for bus services. We'll see if it does later.  

385's southern half is below. It serves the southern part of Doreen. Then it overlaps Route 381 (also from Mernda) near Yarrambat Park. There's another substantial overlap through Plenty with the 901 SmartBus. Apart from Doreen the other area where the 385 has unique coverage is in the difficult to serve Apollo Parkways pocket north of Greensborough. 

A section of Apollo Parkways is shown below. Likely named after the spacecraft used in the moon missions, (and nearby Watsonia North) represents the zenith of auto-oriented subdivision in Melbourne where public transport was planned out of having a useful role. Some walking was catered for school trips but none for other purposes. Hence bypasses and roundabouts sever the area from the main town centre at Greensborough while local street layouts prevented direct buses that could efficiently serve destinations like the Civic Centre while retaining sufficient residential coverage nearby. 

The effect of these short-sighted decisions remain today with the Nillumbik Civic Centre and Melbourne Polytechnic (reopened a few years ago) being located there, to the chagrin of anyone who attempts to reach them by public transport.   

Route 385 is in two state seats. These include Yan Yean (Danielle Green MP) and Eltham (Vicki Ward MP). Both are considered safe or fairly safe for the Labor Party. Both members hold parliamentary secretary positions in the Andrews government, with Ms Ward having transport.  


Like how I described the route, 385's timetable is in two parts. Whittlesea to Mernda operates Monday to Friday only. Services are roughly every 40 minutes in peak and 80 minutes in the middle of the day. Additional service is provided by Route 382 trips, which operate every 40 minutes 7 days per week on this section. 

Mernda to Greensborough service is more intensive, with a 20 minute peak and 40 minute off-peak service. This harmonises with trains every 20 minutes at Mernda and Greensborough. Operating hours meet minimum service standards on all 7 days with weekend starts slightly earlier than average. 

Overall 385's service levels can only be regarded as generous, especially given its numerous overlaps with other routes. This is particularly in the Whittlesea section overlapping with the 382 and the Plenty area overlapping with the 901 SmartBus.


If you thought the above description of the 385 bus bodes poorly for its patronage you'd be right. It has about half the passenger boardings per kilometre as average for a Melbourne bus. For example on school days it has 12 boardings per bus hour. This falls to 10 on school holidays, 9 on Saturday and a paltry 6 on Sunday. 

These are similar numbers to Route 381 (Mernda - Diamond Creek) which has a similar mixed rural/urban catchment in the area. Other routes that parts of 385 overlap, such as 343 near Greensborough and 382 at Whittlesea, are also below average patronage performers, recording 14 and 17 boardings per bus hour on weekdays respectively. Infrastructure Victoria sets 20 passenger boardings per bus service hour as the point below which bus services cease to become economically viable. Almost no bus route in this part of Melbourne would be considered viable by this standard.  

Likely causes of this include substantial duplications of routes, low population density catchments and local demographics not conducive to high bus usage. If you wanted to carry the most number of people with the existing bus fleet and operating budget then a reappraisal of the network in north-east Melbourne is needed to better balance coverage and patronage aims.    

More on how you might reform the poorly used buses in the north-east in Useful Network Pt 23


Mernda is a new area with most suburban-density housing going up in the last ten years. Doreen is more established. Whittlesea and Yarrambat go back much further. Hence they have had buses for a long time, and, in Whittlesea's case, a train until 1959. 

Before the 385 bus there was Route 520. You can see traces of it if you try some zoomings of http://www.street-directory.com.au in the Mernda and Greensborough areas. Zoom in for old network and zoom out for the current network, including the 385. The 520 ran from Greensborough to Doreen. Then it formed the 572 that ran to South Morang Station (where trains terminated before the Mernda extension). 

The 520 existed even earlier when trains terminated at Epping and there was nothing much at Doreen. It was then effectively a school service from Yarrambat to Macleod Technical School. See 520 timetables going back to 1986 at Krustylink . Service in the Plenty area can be traced back to at least 1972, with routes 581 and then 580 appearing on these network maps

Whittlesea township would have had service going back at least 1959 when the trains stopped. The 1971 map (link via above) shows the 562 bus down Plenty Rd to Northland. There's been some changes over the years but today's 382 is very similar despite major suburban growth and network extensions including the tram to Bundoora and the train restoration to Mernda. 

Because the geometry makes it difficult to serve, various bus network options have been tried for Apollo Parkways over the years. Its demographics and layout are unfavourable but its population is too big to ignore. 1971's map had nothing but 1972's had an extension of Route 566 beyond Greensborough. That vanished in the 1978 map. Even though Apollo Parkways was clearly established then, with the primary school opening the following year. Later much more of the estate was covered with the 565 from Greensborough. This served the area from the 1980s to 2003, with timetables at Krustylink. Its 1980s service was typical for local bus routes with evening and Saturday afternoon trips added later that decade but withdrawn in the 1990s. It appeared to be basically a shopper route to Greensborough with the 30 minute frequency not harmonising with trains. 2003 saw the 565 incorporated into the extended 563. This was a very long loop route from Greensborough to Northland via South Morang (which was then not a station). The 563 was eventually scrapped in the 2000s as other routes changed to take its place.  


What should be done about Route 385 given its low patronage? Does it need to run to Whittesea given the existence of the more frequent 7-day 382? Does it need to overlap routes like the 901? Or should it be joined with the similar, equally poorly used 381 to provide a loop serving built-up areas in Doreen with another solution found for Apollo Parkways? Your thoughts are invited and can be left below. 

PS: An index to all Timetable Tuesday items is here.

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

EXCLUSIVE: Franchising but not as you know it: About our proposed Metropolitan Bus Franchise

The Tenders Victoria website published details of the new Metropolitan Bus Franchise on Wednesday. For background read my thoughts on what should be in them from just over a week ago. 

An online industry briefing will be held on September 23 for would-be bidders. It's set for 12am. If this is not a misprint, I suppose midnight is more attractive to foreign bidders.  

Intending operators need to submit an expression of interest (EOI) by October 19. Then the serious bidders really start cracking. After a call for proposals (RFP) in December they need to be in by April 2021. The government evaluates them and announces the successful tenderer in September 2021. This sets in train the transition arrangements (if needed). Any new franchisee will start in January 2022.  

Nine news report from Monday says that improved passenger information and new technology will be priorities. Significantly, 2022 is an election year. If preparation with the new or returned franchisee starts early it should be possible to deliver some pre-election network upgrades in that year. Nothing's been promised. Although one might speculate about precursor network changes that prepare for high-profile projects such as the electorally popular Suburban Rail Loop and/or Airport Rail. 

What do we know about the new franchise agreement? A lot of information is in the Invitation to Expression of Interest on the Tenders Vic website. That came out on Wednesday. This is split into two documents - General Information and Returnables. 

What's there now

The current franchise, which started in 2013, is run by Transdev Melbourne. Key statistics (from the General Information document) are as follows: 

* 49 network routes and 134 school routes operating 36 million km pa

* 527 buses housed in 6 depots with an operations control centre

* 1267 full time equivalent employees including 1064 drivers and 100 maintenance staff

All up it covers about 30% of the Melbourne network. As mentioned before these include Melbourne's most frequent and longest hours bus services including many CBD routes and most SmartBuses including all orbitals and DART services. Plus other trunk and local routes that can trace their histories back to MetBus and further back.  

The agreement with Transdev included an obligation for the franchisee to develop a new greenfields network (they did but the government rejected it) and rewards and penalties for patronage and reliability. There had been improvements on reliability but even pre-COVID 19 they were struggling on the patronage front (PTV tried a 'Melbourne by Bus' marketing campaign with some nice posters but it didn't seem to work). 

New service initiatives

Under this government bus network reform has rarely been done for its own sake. That's despite low costs and significant benefits. Even level crossing removals and new stations like Reservoir and Southland included nothing more than minor stop relocations, notwithstanding opportunities for simpler and better connected local bus networks

Our largest projects, in contrast, will likely trigger bus network reform. Those named in the invitation document include the West Gate Tunnel, Metro Tunnel, North-East Link (including its dedicated busway) and the Suburban Rail Loop. It is even said that as a precursor to rail "consideration may be given to aligning orbital routes with the future SRL stations". That sounds akin to the 'SRL SmartBus' concepts I proposed here and here

Priority precincts are named as Fishermans Bend, Arden, Parkville, Sunshine, Richmond to Docklands and Footscray. Fishermans Bend, Sunshine and Footscray (in particular) are heavily served by buses operating under this franchise.  

Also, existing services throughout Manningham (eg Doncaster and Balwyn) and Whitehorse (Box Hill and Mitcham) will be reviewed as part of the North-East Link busway and new Park & Ride at Bulleen. 

Franchise structure

It is envisaged that there will be three parties. The state (Franchisor), the operator (Franchisee) and a special owner of the fleet and depots (AssetCo). The state has rights over the assets held by AssetCo. Operators have use of the assets via a lease agreement with AssetCo (which is owned by a financier). A franchise agreement governs relationships between the state and the franchisee. Then there's a tripartite agreement binding all three. However operators are invited to make other proposals.

The agreement has an initial 7 year term with a potential 2.5 year extension if the franchisee performs. 

Allocation of risks and responsibilities

Who does what? It's a little different to last time. Basically a bit less commercial and a bit more government planning. Some might expect that under a Labor government. However there's been an even bigger swing under the Conservatives in the UK with them effectively abandoning rail franchising

Network planning and service changes are clearly with the state (in practice the Department of Transport) in this agreement. Provided that they are active in reviewing networks (there were long periods in the '90s and early 2000s when they weren't) this is overall a good thing for reasons described in my earlier post

However a network view, including potential sharing or swapping of routes between operators is desirable in some areas to deliver the best frequency, connectivity and coverage for the least duplication and cost. That will need some smart leadership to pull off. It's been successfully done before but is today's DoT up to it? Time will tell. 

Unambiguously leaving planning with the Department of Transport is a departure from the previous ill-fated arrangement where the franchisee was required to develop a revised greenfields network. Transdev seemed to expect that the state would rubber stamp their poorly consulted on plans of mixed merit. Minister Mulder's easy-going style might have encouraged such a view. However Jacinta Allan, the new minister after the 2014 election, proved a tougher customer and vetoed the whole shebang.  

Almost any private business aims to get more customers and make more money. Although public transport is normally a financial loss-maker, the philosophy of operator franchising is about introducing similar commercial pressures as an incentive to boost patronage and improve farebox recovery. 

The success of such initiatives depends on the extent to which operators have control over their product and service quality. A major part (and I'd argue the most important part) is whether routes and timetables provide a useful service to as many people as possible. That depends on planning and resourcing, which, as we saw before, now lie with the state. As can happen now the operator can propose improvements through business cases but there is no obligation for government to accept them. And an aversion to political risk may leave some to sit on the shelf, despite the proposal being sound.  

Reliability and punctuality are more within the operator's control. But not entirely as buses share the road with cars. Support from other parts of government is needed for bus priority and that might not be a given. Then there's basics like driver hiring, industrial relations, maintenance and cleaning which is pretty much entirely with the bus operator. Competent management can do that, though experience shows that good contract supervision is essential to stop them cutting corners. 

Then there's curve-balls like COVID-19. That's cut patronage, and with it the stability of any contractual arrangements that rely on patronage for a large part of operator revenue. Those writing these contracts know this well. Hence while the contract will reward achievement of a patronage target with a Patronage Incentive Regime (PIR) payment, there will be no penalty if patronage goals are not met. Hence all risk for low patronage remains with the state. I suggested this was probably sensible here

The other variable payment is the Operational Performance Regime (OPR) dealing with service delivery and time-keeping. That both penalises poor performance and rewards good performance. In both cases the payments are capped. Again this limits downside risk to the operator. The upside limitation might be seen as being less entrepreneurial for the operator but give the government an interest in seeking above-target patronage gains. Which is arguably fair since it also bears all risk.    

Other things

Also notable about the revised arrangements: 

* Staff conditions are maintained and carried over. Everyone apart from senior management keeps their job under any new franchisee. 

* Franchisees must purchase the fleet and depots required (probably via AssetCo). However they must be sold to the state or a successor franchisee at the end of their term for a fixed price. The total worth of these assets (mostly buses and depots) is currently about $145-150m. 

* There is a plan for fleet replacement involving approximately 340 new buses over the life of the contract. A graph is presented for procurement out to 2031, with the peak in the 2026 - 2028 period. New buses are promised from 2022 but some deliveries might be pushed later as lead times are tight. 

* Depot procurement, ownership and improvements is basically a state government thing, although there may be arrangements with the franchisee in delivery. 

* The franchisee is responsible for advertising on buses. Information to come out later. Nothing yet on whether passenger-hostile wrap-style ads that obscure views from windows (and thus wayfinding) will be permitted. Banning this will cost money but has passenger experience benefits. 

* Shortlisted respondents need to submit asset management and technical maintenance plans and schedules. You might recall the problems three years ago when it was found that the incumbent franchisee wasn't looking after its buses. They really can't drop the ball on this one.  

* Payments to the franchisee will comprise (i) service payments (with potential additions for PIR and additions and subtractions for OPR), (ii) fleet payments and (iii) adjustments for approved service changes based on changes to kilometres and hours operated. 

The above came from the general information. Then there's the EOI Returnables document. This is basically to sort out the dabblers from the serious guys. Operating over 500 buses from multiple depots is big business. You only want credible bidders to avoid wasting everyone's time. This form helps establish this by requiring applicants show they have the financial backing, experience and capabilities to be considered. They also have space to explain how they would look after buses and run their depots. 


This has been a quick look at where we are with the Metropolitan Bus Franchising process. 

Today's context could not be more different from the world-travelling market-grabbing private operator adventurism of twenty or even ten years ago. Recent performance issues with the current bus contract has weakened faith in franchising's ability to deliver benefits. COVID-19 and its recession has eroded transport franchising's underpinnings, even amongst former industry and political backers. Possibly for the first time in their privileged lives they got a big serving of humility; that bigger forces can affect (and sometimes end) our lives in ways  thought either impossible or unlikely a few short years ago.  

Operators and their managers are now likely more risk-averse, having seen patronage drops beyond any plausible worst case scenario. What was accepted wisdom with regard to commercial incentives and transport franchising is beating a hasty retreat, most notably in the country that spawned it. For businesses involved in the sector a steady consistent income at a lowish return from a financially-sound government is more attractive than schemes that promise massive gains but carry with them huge risks. 

It would appear that despite the commercial-sounding name of 'franchise', the new agreements will be somewhat less commercial than today's. This reduces risk for the operator but presents other issues. For example if not actively managed it could mean a continuation of the stagnation in network reform seen since about 2016. With it now bearing full risks for patronage losses and having full charge of service planning, all eyes will be on the Department of Transport to plan and commission the simpler, more direct and more frequent networks that areas served by this franchise need. And unlike last time there is now no ambiguity with whom this responsibility lies. 

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