Friday, February 26, 2021

Building Melbourne's Useful Network Part 83: How fast can you add a bus service?


Unlike trains and trams, buses are touted as being flexible services that can be readily extended to new growth areas as people move in. Or even ramped up temporarily for a summer shopping or holiday season. Provided the scale required isn't too much, capacity is easy to increase with buses cheaper than trains and drivers quick to recruit and train. 

That's the theory anyway. Let's see if we can establish whether this is really the case. How much lead time does a bus service need? That's the question I'll tackle today. 

The short answer is that it depends. It can range anything from an hour to several years. 

Here are some examples that I hope can explain that wide time-scale. 

The unplanned rail replacement bus 

Despite their physical heft, railways are incredibly fragile. So many things have to work to get a train from A to B. When just one element fails, such as a signal, points, overhead lines or a train then service is suspended. The train operator phones bus companies and (normally) within an hour or two bus replacements start flowing. 

This responsiveness is aided by train operators having standing arrangements with bus companies to provide substitute services. Response can't be instant, particularly in peak times when the fleet is almost all out and spare drivers may be hard to source, but it's still impressively quick. The main issue is peak period capacity; a packed train of 1000 people needs to be replaced by 20-odd buses to carry its load.    

The council-funded summer bus 

Here's an example from last year. On December 10 the Surf Coast Shire Council was considering a shuttle bus between the popular resorts of Torquay and Jan Juc. In little more than two weeks, on December 26, the service was on the road. It ran for 32 days over summer. 

It didn't get a lot of use although that doesn't concern us today. What was impressive was that the council was able to introduce a service with so little lead time. Consider this when we draw some later comparisons.  

The planned rail replacement bus 

Sometimes railways have to be shut down for maintenance or construction works. This also means replacement buses for passengers. However the prior warning allows sufficient information, staffing, buses and drivers to be arranged so the scenes at stations are more organised than the apparent chaos during an unplanned  rail disruption. Work might be planned several months or even longer in advance, based on the maintenance or building program.  

The regular Department of Transport route bus service 

Here's the main thing I want to talk about. Permanent bus services. These take more time to set up. A family can get a house built in much less time than it takes to make even small changes to a bus timetable. And a new suburban route can take longer to establish than many infrastructure projects. 

Don't believe me? Bentleigh MP Nick Staikos has documented what he did to get the new route 627 bus up and running. I took a dive through his Facebook page to find the key dates involved. 

To put this in a wider context, at the time Bentleigh was a marginal seat key for whichever party or coalition formed government. Nick Staikos was one of many first-time MPs whose victories flipped the state to Labor in 2014. 

His Facebook page gives a useful account of when and how the 627, as we know it, came to be. 

As far as I can see, his first foray into buses (as an MP) was in May 2016 where he held a local forum on buses. This sought views on how buses could be improved. 

Then in October 2016 he asked the then transport minister Jacinta Allan about running the 703 all the way to Brighton on Sundays. Doing this would correct a timetable anomaly where the 703 only ran its full route 6 days per week with the Bentleigh - Brighton portion unserved on Sunday. 

The 703 Sunday upgrade happened soon after - in December. Daniel Bowen's analysis on it here. That was quick! Maybe October's question was a Dorothy Dixer? Anyway the 703 upgrade was much needed.

The May 2017 state budget included funding for bus improvements in Bentleigh. Formal consultation was promised later in the year

In September 2017 Staikos, possibly hoping for a pre-election implementation, was getting restless and did this Benny Hill skit to emphasise bus coverage issues in parts of Bentleigh. 'Later in the year' had arrived but no sign of consultation yet. 

However there was consultation in April 2018 with two options presented for the as-yet un-numbered route. 

By September 2018 there were more details including a route number - 627. It would commence in early 2019. Hence he had something funded and concrete to sell for his November 2018 re-election campaign. 

In June 2019 minister Melissa Horne visited to announce that the 627 was starting on Sunday 16 June. Hence the schedule had slipped slightly from 'early 2019' mentioned before.  

I was on the first bus (as was he) and wrote about it here

So how long does it take?

The time from the first meeting to implementation was 37 months (3 years, 1 month). The period from when the money was committed to in the budget was 25 months (2 years, 1 month). There's a whole process of pre-budget work involving various departments that would be several months before the budget so even if it was something the Department of Transport was working on the lead time would be around 30 months (excluding its earlier design and planning work).  

I should mention that the 627 was a new route. With a 30 minute run time and a 30 minute frequency it would have required two new buses to have been bought. Parts of the route overlap other routes (like the 822 - inefficiently in my view) but parts did not. That would have meant that new stops, unique to the 627, would have had to be created. That involves survey, resident communication, data system and signage work. You'd also need to factor in time for public consultation early on if there were significant network reforms, though some recent changes, such as the Rowville FlexiRide, went in with zero consultation. Plus there's driver recruitment and training, though you can take that off the critical path if done concurrently with other work (possible if requirements are known early). 

In case you think this is atypical, consider the 469 bus through Valley Lake (in the current transport minister's electorate of Niddrie). This was funded in the 2018 budget (1 May) and commenced service in July 2020. Hence a 26 month time from budget to delivery, which is similar to the 627 experience. 

The next state election is just 21 months away. Hence if we want any new bus routes by then it is too late with current business processes and pace of work. Even added frequency on existing routes may be a stretch. 

Fixing these is something that must be looked at. Especially if the Department of Transport is sincere in its stated aim of adding 78 million more bus passengers per year (which would require substantial network reform and service addition). 

However a faster roll-out of improved bus services should be doable.  

There was skepticism early on that level crossings would be able to removed at the promised rate. 

Yet they have been, with some ahead of schedule. 

These have been much bigger and more complex projects than adding train and bus services. Doubly so for upgrades that can be done with the existing fleet and with minimal consultation, such as more off-peak/weekend trips or minor route straightenings. 

The level crossing experience has taught us that when there is the will and the budget then the means will follow. 

If we want better buses then the Department of Transport will need to ditch its quaint 'cottage industry' one-by-one practices. It will need to think about how it can efficiently deliver industrial-scale mass bus and train service upgrades and network reform, involving thousands of extra services, such as what we've seen Sydney do in recent years (under their Liberal government). 

With such ramped up capability then we might just be able to get things happening before (or just after) the next election. But only if there is the budget, will and direction from the government. 

See other Building Melbourne's Useful Network items here

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