Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Timetable Tuesday #106: Where are our truly full time bus routes?

Something that defines our suburban trains is their long operating hours. They will almost certainly be running whenever you’re awake. Even including the wee hours on weekends since Night Network started. Trams are more defined by their frequency. One will turn up within 20 minutes at almost any time. Buses are most defined by their coverage, with over 350 routes serving over 90% of Melbourne’s population. 

To the latter must be added the condition ‘when it runs’. It’s an important rider. Melbourne buses generally have short operating hours. The average person is still awake when the average bus route shuts down for the night. Those who work shifts, in retail or in hospitality can rarely rely on buses to be there when they need to travel.  

Big strides were made ten or fifteen years ago when something like 100 to 150 local bus routes were upgraded to a 7 day service with a 9pm finish under the ‘Meeting our Transport Challenges’ plan. That program though was never finished, with maybe 50 or 60 residential area short hour bus routes missing out. No successive state government has seriously picked up what the Brumby government did so much on but left unfinished. 

Also from that era were SmartBuses. Some provide main road orbital transport to complement the radial train and tram networks. Others enabled access to areas without trains such as Doncaster in the north-east and several major shopping centres and universities. Though their Monday to Saturday hours are long these top tier ‘premium’ routes still have a 9pm Sunday finish, just like many local back street routes. Thus not even SmartBuses qualify as full-time routes like trams and trains do (save the mickey mouse Stony Point line). 

Despite adding more than Adelaide’s population in the last thirty years, Melbourne has introduced not one full-time bus route for its own sake. All of the dozen-odd that operate are either (a) inherited from when the Victorian Railways or Tramways Board ran buses, sometimes as replacements for closed lines, or (b) compensation for more recent decisions (including some broken promises) not to extend a tram or to divert a rail service. 

Don't believe me? Here's the map showing all full time bus routes in Melbourne. The dozen or so shown accounts for less than 5% the total number of bus route in Melbourne. Thus over 95% of bus services in Melbourne are part-time. As opposed to that proportion of train and tram services that run full time (which I define as roughly 6am - midnight, 7 days). With few exceptions our full-time buses rarely extend beyond pre-1960s Melbourne. More in these after 10pm network service maps

Full time bus routes and background

Below is a run through the entire list of full service bus routes in Melbourne and their reason for existence. If anything I've been lenient as some listed still start later than trains and trams, especially on Sundays.  

190 Wyndham Vale - Werribee: Introduced in 2015 when Geelong trains were rerouted to operate via Sunshine's Regional Rail Link instead of Werribee and the electrified Werribee line did not get extended to Wyndham Vale. Geelong passengers could catch any train, alight at Wyndham Vale and ride the connecting bus to Werribee. While this undoubtedly happens Route 190 is likely of greatest use as a direct, long hours and moderately frequent feeder bus to Werribee. 

200/207 City – Kew – Bulleen/Doncaster: Old ex-Met routes inherited from the Tramways Board. Service was greatly simplified in the 2014 Transdev network restructure. Serves former cable tram alignment on Johnston St.  

216 Sunshine – Footscray - City: Ex-Met/Tramways route serving a busy bus corridor through Footscray and Braybrook. Simplified and upgraded when the overlapping 219 was amalgamated into the service. Some trips extended as far west as Melton in the 1990s but service successively shortened to Burnside (sometimes wrongly described as Caroline Springs) and, more recently Sunshine with Route 426 commenced in the outer portion's place. Previously ran to Brighton Beach but this was pruned back when 603 was created.

220: Sunshine – Footscray - City: Ex-Met/Tramways route serving a busy bus corridor through Footscray and Braybrook. For several decades it extended south to Gardenvale but this was pruned back when 603 and 604 were created. Barkly St portion is a remnant of the closed Footscray tram network. 

223: Yarraville – Footscray - Highpoint: Ex-Met/Tramways route with little unique coverage but full service retained. Poorly used Yarraville portion a remnant of Footscray tram network but today services nowhere useful or is partly overlapped by other routes including the 472 bus. Trains at nearby Yarraville have been upgraded over the years to now run a 7 day 10 minute day/20 minute night service. Scope also exists to involve the 223 in a network simplification that could deliver a 10 minute frequency between Footscray and Highpoint.  

234 Garden City – Port Melbourne - City: Ex Met/Tramways route serving a long established government housing area. Became a single number in the 2014 Transdev restructure that simplified local services (previously part of the 250/251/253 group that ran through to Fitzroy North/Northcote). 

246 Clifton Hill – Richmond – Elsternwick: Popular ex Met route serving the major Punt Rd/Hoddle St north-south corridor. One of just two individual regular bus routes in Melbourne that operate every 10 minutes or better interpeak weekdays. 

250 La Trobe University – Northcote – City: Ex-Met route providing a CBD service on a radial corridor between tram and train lines. Previously ran to Garden CIty before 2014 restructure.  Parts overlap Route 251 (a daytime route) to provide a combined higher frequency. Was numbered 256 many years ago. 

426 Caroline Springs – Sunshine: Ballarat Rd route that got its long hours because its Met-operated predecessor (the longer 216) also had long hours. Its introduction a few years ago brought full span service to the Caroline Springs Town Centre, something it lacked for decades when the 216 ran only to Burnside. For a while it enjoyed even spacing including train connectivity at Albion with the overlapping 456 along Ballarat Rd but a timetable change in 2019 broke this evenness. 

429 Sunshine South – Sunshine: A very short relatively new route that got its long hours because its Met-operated predecessor (the longer 219) also ran until late. Two thirds of the 429 overlaps the busier 428. Usage is understood to be very poor and scope exists to amalgamate the route into an upgraded Route 428 operating at a higher frequency and potentially better hours. 

600 St Kilda – Sandringham – Southland: Part of the complex and indirect 600/922/923 group since a botched restructure in 2002. Prior to that the 600 was the only route in the area connecting to trains at Sandringham. The Sandringham – Beaumaris portion of the 600 is an ex Victorian Railways route (901) that replaces a former tramway (hence one of the local street names). Ditto for the St Kilda - Brighton section. Operation then passed to The Met during the early 1980s restructure, then Melbourne Bus Link (1990s franchising) and finally Transdev (2010s refranchising). 600 is almost entirely duplicated by parts of other routes such as 603, 606, 922, 923 and the Sandringham train line, however the Department of Transport has lacked the will to implement substantial network reform along the lines of this

603 Alfred Hospital – Brighton Beach: A relatively new remnant of the previous longer ex-Met Route 216/219 pair that started in the Sunshine area and routed through the CBD and then along St Kilda Rd. This portion of the route is poorly used but largely kept (and in some cases) increased its long operating hours and frequency. 

604 Alfred Hospital – Gardenvale: A relatively new remnant of the previous longer ex-Met Route 220 that started at Sunshine and routed through the CBD and then along St Kilda Rd. This portion of the route is relatively poorly used but kept its long operating hours.

732 Vermont South – Knox City: Labor promised a Route 75 tram extension from Burwood to Knox City in its successful 1999 election campaign. That promise got half-honoured with a tram extension to Vermont South and a ‘Knox Transit Link’ bus, connecting with each tram, for the last few kilometres to Knox. That Transit Link came in the form of trips added to the Route 732 bus that on full length trips runs from Box Hill to Upper Ferntree Gully. Because the tram operated over long hours, so did the bus. However in 2016 when the 75 tram was chosen as one of the six routes that would operate Night Network service the 732 bus did not get extra trips to match. Usage is relatively low, partly because much of the 75 tram is a slow 'bring a packed lunch' route and connections to the not very frequent Alamein train line (that could have sped travel) it intersects with are weak. 

Mention should be made of two former but abolished long-span routes. The 571 was a 'Trainlink' bus that ran from Epping to South Morang. It was born after the government reneged (temporarily as it turned out) on a 1999 rail extension promise. The 571 was deleted when the train extension eventually opened in 2012. 

Then there was the 896. A Cranbourne East station was another 1999 Bracks promise that was even less honoured than the Knox tram. Later a bus meeting every train commenced, operating on a confusing circular route with several deviations. It was the nearest to a 24 hour service (on any public transport mode) Melbourne had with service from roughly 4am to 1am to feed and meet every train at Cranbourne. However the 896 was deleted in favour of simpler and straighter routes serving more of Cranbourne in the 2016 bus network restructure. 


Many of these routes are skewed towards the inner suburban transport 'haves' rather than the 'have nots'. Examples of 'protected species' routes that likely don't justify full time service include 223, 429, 603 and 604 due to their low usage, low catchment population or closeness to full-time trains and trams. 

In contrast whole local government areas such as the cities of Hobsons Bay, Melton, Hume, Whittlesea, Manningham, Maroondah, Monash, Greater Dandenong, Cardinia, Casey, Frankston and Mornington Peninsula contain not a single full time bus route despite wider spacing between, and in some cases no, train or tram lines. Our population growth has overwhelmingly been in these areas but the number of full time bus routes has not increased to suit. And jobs tend to be only rarely near stations in these areas. 

It would thus appear there is little relationship between whether a bus route is full time and local needs. History is a far better guide to whether a bus runs full time than any objective data like populations, demographics, demand or any sort of conscious planning. Hence, despite its formal duties in bus network planning, the positive influence of the Department of Transport (and predecessors) in the area of full-time bus routes is best described as minor for at least thirty years.    

Conclusion: Ask for a train if you want a good bus

My advice remains that if you want a full time bus route you should always advocate for a train or tram, despite sneers from professional transport planners who might dismiss your scheme as inappropriate, expensive or not cost-effective. 

They might suggest a bus instead and they may well be right. The problem is that advocacy directly for the full-service bus of the type discussed here has had a 100% record of failure. I remind you again that although Melbourne has grown by about the population of Adelaide in the last 30 years, we have not added a single full service bus route for its own sake.  

Planners' barbs about 'crazy schemes' or dark mutterings about 'poor cost-effectiveness' are not fatal to a project getting political support and then funding. All it needs is for some numpty in the department to think it a good idea for some non cost-effective proposals to get up. 

For example the government is dragging the chain on reviewing dysfunctional bus networks in areas like Knox. But introducing service styles known to either collapse under pressure, overlap other routes and/or underperform on patronage such as FlexiRide Rowville are apparently top priority. Such styles of service are apparently spruiked by transport executives in places like Infrastructure Victoria and the Department of Transport who, in the latter, wield more power than its rarely heard and seen expert planners.     

If asked privately before it was announced as a political promise, many such planners would not have endorsed the biggest project of the lot, ie the Suburban Rail Loop. Yet it was instantly publicly popular and is now government policy.

Urban and transport planners are less influential than some think, especially on the big infrastructure decisions. However if transport executives want some intellectual firepower to help explain why certain things that aren't policy should not be done then their department's on-tap cadre of planners is a handy resource to have as a sort of " 'no' army" when responding to correspondence etc. 

Notwithstanding that, what something that the Suburban Rail Loop (along with low interest rates) has done is to lift the threshold on what you can suggest without being laughed out of the room. After all, even if your pet project is large it will almost certainly still be cheaper and quicker than the SRL. That makes it easier for advocates who want something badly enough to hold firm, even in the face of a lukewarm or negative official response. 

And if you campaign for rail well and a hungry political opposition or desperate government takes the bait then you may get something that marks an improvement. Even if they break their rail promise in favour of an enhanced (ie full-service) bus like what South Morang, Cranbourne East and Knox City got. 

This might seem a roundabout, and some might say underhanded, way of getting stuff. But there appears no history of anything else working, with even SmartBuses (which Doncaster and Rowville, who also asked for rail, got) not qualifying as full services that genuinely match trains and trams with regards operating hours and frequency. 


Unknown said...

The 216/220 is very competitive with rail at night, with Sunbury line trains only every 30 minutes. And competitive in terms of journey time, too, depending on your start/end point (helps that there's nothing between Docklands/North Melbourne and Footscray!). And consequently has pretty good patronage - being a radial route probably helps too.

Since they are no longer cross-town routes, would they be more effective feeding into rail at Footscray to reduce those dead service kms to the CBD (rarely seen anyone use the stops on Dynon or Footscray Roads)?

Simon said...

Definitely as this article points out major bus reform and improvements are required across all of Melbourne, it is shocking that only a small percentage of bus routes qualify as full time, compared to all tram and trains. We definitely need more smart bus routes running 530am to Midnight, as your other articles have pointed out with frequent 10- 15 minute day time and 15-20 minute evening services to connect seamlessly with trains and trams and make people consider leaving their car at home.

The problem as you say is bus reform and service improvements is looked at unfavorably in contrast to big infrastructure upgrades by the state government. Often such bus improvements, as you have highlighted are relatively inexpensive, and yes building more buses, hiring more drivers, stop upgrades and on road priority will cost money, but no where as much as mega projects such as Suburban Rail Loop and can be implemented in the next 1-5 years! If our buses were as good and popular as our trams and trains than we would be a lot closer to a more integrated and user friendly public transport system.