Friday, August 27, 2021

UN 103: The 5 word public transport plan to transform Melbourne

The minister summoned the department secretary to their office.  

The conversation was brief. But its nature made an in-person delivery essential. 

"I present this plan to you. Cabinet has authorised funding on the condition that you implement it in the most widely beneficial and economical way possible. Funding for the first four years will be in the 2022 budget. However early scoping must start today as we have neither minutes nor money to waste". 

The Secretary was expecting a weighty document with hundreds of pages.

"Yet more weekend reading", they must have thought. 

Instead in their hand was a paper slip, hardly bigger than a business card.  

On it were just five words that would change the way many Melburnians travel, especially in the suburbs. Experts brought in to advise the Minister found it would carry more people than the Metro Tunnel and even rival the $50 billion plus Suburban Rail Loop for impact. 

A bit like the level crossing removal program, almost no suburb would be untouched. Instead of a 'big bang' single date opening, implementation would be staged over ten years with a start made in mid-2022 and key parts operating before the 2026 election. Media events almost each week would announce the commencement of some new addition. Backbenchers appreciated the minister's constituency visits but journalists secretly wished most weren't so far from Gertrude Street. Especially as the minister had a thing about giving preference to answering questions from reporters who had raised their mykis.  

The plan?

The Secretary was speechless. Their thoughts alternated between "Is that it?" and "This is impossible!". Old hands who pine for a different era lament that Frank and Fearless had long left such rooms. But even if they hadn't it would not have been astute for the Secretary to disclose such thoughts to a reform-minded minister eager to make things happen. 

A bad sleep

For a moment the secretary was privately hoping they received a 400 page report instead. At least that would have sent them to sleep, as opposed to the five words that would keep them awake at night.

Sleepless nights can sometimes be intellectually productive. As was indeed the Secretary's. 

First their mind churned with thoughts as to the unworkability of the Minister's request. Ordering hundreds more trains and trams, let alone bus vehicle numbers in the thousands seemed impossible. We would run out of rail track capacity without massive quadrupling and tunnelling. Our remaining level crossing boom gates would never lift. We'd also need new signalling, substations and recruitment of train drivers (a specialised skill) at a pace never before seen. Yet the minister wanted everything done within ten years! For a moment resignation seemed the path of least resistance (and not recently unprecedented when a secretary was handed a bold plan from God). 

A more flexible application

Fortunately further reflection on the day's conversation gave the Secretary heart. What if the plan could be more flexibly implemented? 

After all the minister was very interested in it being 'most widely beneficial'. And the entire cabinet, each backing their own portfolio's bids for funding, would have wanted 'economy' in a portfolio that already took the lions' share of state infrastructure spending. All this while the exploding City of Melton limps along with just two public libraries in the whole municipality. Not to mention other pressing needs like new schools, hospital waiting lists and backlogs for public housing and social services. Or payroll tax relief that governments wish to give from time to time to prove we're more competitive than Sydney.  

A more flexible approach could not only be cost-effective but also spread benefits over a wider area, including, as the political mind would not fail to consider, each suburban seat, marginal or otherwise. Which could aid party room and cabinet support. 

By morning the Secretary's funk had receded. With flexibility it might be less outrageous and actually doable. There might still be double the number of timetabled trips but not every line or route need get them equally. The hundreds if not thousands of good stable jobs created would be another plus, especially for suburbanites who have had a tough time lately in a 'gig economy' labour market or  COVID-hit sectors. New jobs could bring new hope to many homes while others will find getting to them easier. 

Quick network assessment

For reasons then undisclosed, the Secretary had been advised several days prior that it would be wise to bone up on the network's routes, timetables and frequencies. This was often considered 'lower level' detail stuff that most above middle management avoided. Some high-flyers instead preferred  attending fluffy 'stakeholder relations' junkets like launching trams with guide dog window wraps that (paradoxically) made passengers blind. 

The secretary though was wiser. Knowledge gained during those winter nights scouring the PTV website was to prove invaluable for the early scoping work the Minister requested. We're talking compressed time-lines involving days not months here. 

Peak train frequencies on the better served lines might not change at all, although revised greenfields timetables could even up spacing and simplify stopping patterns. Off-peak could rise by more than double at certain times. 

An 'off-peak first' approach would quash worries about train ordering, stabling, track capacity or boom gates. Besides the clever data analytics people who wrote the Transport for NSW economic parameter values found that boosting off-peak frequency had a better effect on patronage for less cost. And COVID arguably made some peak frequencies look excessive. Public transport needed to be made more useful for off-peak and local trips anyway. 

Some lines already have suitable timetables that could just be extended to run longer and later. Drivers would still be needed but improved timetables could be phased in, line by line, as their numbers allowed. Even earlier upgrades could happen if some trips were shuffled from peak periods (where they'd hardly be missed) to off-peak (where they could boost frequencies during key times). That would deliver some 'quick wins' to get the show on the rails with an initial threadbare budget.  

Peak frequency improvements dependent on infrastructure or rolling stock could happen towards the later part of the ten year period. So it's not all-or-nothing right now. The first (and low cost) priority could be to get to a 20 minute maximum wait between 6am and midnight 7 days per week. That's quite cheap, mostly inserting just one trip extra per hour each way into the timetable. Similar comments apply to a line like Belgrave/Lilydale where even cheaper reform could deliver 10 minute interpeak trains to Ringwood and 20 minutes beyond, benefiting many marginal seats. Some reforms might even cost nothing.  

Ten minute service would then follow on more sections of more lines over more of the week. On average that would be nearer to a 50% boost than a 100% boost, although frequency at certain narrow times like Sunday mornings on some lines might quadruple from forty to ten minutes. 

Trams already seemed pretty good, especially during the day. Much less than a doubling overall would suffice for all routes but the 82. Because trams generally have higher frequency than trains, the increase in service needed to get to (say) a 10 minute maximum wait all day would be less than the percentage that trains require. However a boost is still needed to reverse the erosion of service - over  much of the day we wait for trams about twice as long as our grandparents did.   

The same could not be said for buses, which provide the nearest public transport to most Melburnians. A few routes are pretty good in the peaks but not many. Only a handful have wide operating hours that match trams. Again application would be selective. You might not do much with quieter routes beyond ensuring they met a minimum service standard. But major routes could be doubled or more in frequency with longer hours, resulting in three or four times the number of trips. 

Currently metropolitan Melbourne has just two (2) seven day bus routes that run every 10 minutes or better on weekdays (246 and 402). We have quite a few routes every 20 minutes but the basic bus frequency in many outer suburbs is nearer to 40 minutes with even this falling off on weekends and vanishing after 9pm. A doubling of service could deliver a strong 7-day 10 minute network on many more corridors and a vast increase in the number of people and jobs within an 800 metre walk of service every 20 minutes or better. Spans could also be lengthened to match trams to work the bus fleet harder. 

This step up need not be as scary as it looks. Some trips could be created out of thin air simply by splitting some over-long SmartBus routes. Network simplification, as often discussed here, can reduce overlaps. This can make 10 and 20 minute frequencies cheaper to achieve than if you were just to add trips to existing unreformed routes (although some existing routes are direct or popular enough to warrant early upgrades). As we don't need to quite double trains and trams, any savings could be put into more instances of buses being increased to more than double.

Since peak bus services can be low (often hardly better than interpeak) there will need to be extra bus purchases to strengthen the network, especially in growth areas. Plus the associated costs of new depots and maintenance, not to mention staffing. However the peak upgrades could be shifted to later in the ten years, with the really cost-effective upgrades 'sweating the assets' happening first. Hence many 'quick wins' are possible. Again not an 'all or nothing' project, though large scale bus upgrades would improve bus' low image amongst Melburnians and drive patronage growth. 

What we'd get

With tentacles penetrating virtually every suburb, a revised network could look something like this. 

This would be a step-change compared to the current network which has so many routes only running every 30 or 40 minutes at most times with 9pm finishes common. 

I didn't show an existing frequent network map as it would be almost blank (just a few overlapping tram corridors near the CBD) if we only showed routes featuring Toronto-type service standards all day. Specific discussion on each route featured can be found here with the busier examples operating every 10 instead of 20 minutes as is now done in Sydney after their bus reviews.  

Would double frequency boost usage and revenue? 

About 10 to 15 years ago Melbourne greatly boosted bus services with many routes gaining early evening, weekend and public holiday service. Some peak services increased but most of the gains were evenings and weekends. The overall increase in service kilometres was about 25%. Patronage also rose by a similar percentage, indicating an elasticity of about 1. It's a decent result achieved without a lot of detailed network reform that could have increased elasticity further. 

Our experience almost exactly matched what Transport for NSW found. Increase off-peak service and in the long run you get a patronage increase by about the same amount. Short-run and (especially) peak period elasticity is less. 

This means that if you want to deliver the most usage gains you increase off-peak frequency first. The economies especially work where you can do this without increasing the peak fleet requirement by working your trains, trams and buses harder for more of the day. Even if usage only rises in proportion to the service increase you gain because the fixed component of your systems's costs is spread across more passengers. This is why networks with good off-peak frequencies (like Toronto's) often have higher farebox recovery ratios. 

Counting the cost

How much extra would all this cost? 

Only seeking a crude guess, the Secretary first grabbed Budget Paper 3 from 2021-2 (page 329). Across the state buses cost roughly $1.4 billion, trains $2 billion and trams under $400 million. Or a bit under $4b the lot. Melbourne only figures for buses and trains would be lower. A crude doubling of that would add something like $3 billion per year recurring to the budget. And that doesn't include capital (which would also be needed). 

That extrapolation lacks both rigour and fairness, especially for rail given its high fixed costs. And the Secretary would not dare raise such a high guesstimate figure with the Minister who has a whole cabinet to win over. It's not just a big number in the transport portfolio but for the budget as a whole, even if it is less than 10% of the claimed cost of the first stage of the Suburban Rail Loop. 

The Secretary digs further and finds a 2018 Parliamentary Budget Office estimate of the cost of ten minute services for Metro trains and trams. With a much lower number of $200 million per year (or about the same as one grade separation) this comes as a relief. Especially if it works out even cheaper than that. Last week Infrastructure Victoria suggested a $120 - 200 million range in its 30 year strategy. For our purposes it's not quite enough as ideally the 10 minute service would run until midnight instead of 9pm. And you might want to allow for service upgrades at metropolitan V/Line stations in the west. Still even just the unamended proposal would be a great start within say the next four or five years. 

So depending on how good you wanted, $150 to 250 million opex, with a lower number initially, would transform train and tram services. Why would you not do it?

Bus needs more but would be even more transformative given the limitations of existing routes and timetables. Because of this trains and trams need less than double but buses would more than double for an average doubling across all modes. Can we afford this? 

Bus network reform without any increase in operating budget is difficult. This is because a 'cost neutral' network may require you to sacrifice coverage in order to deliver desired operating hours and frequency improvements. Lessening a new network's coverage makes reform controversial, especially amongst those who would lose service. On the other hand, if you had a little more funding you can run a two tier network with both 'frequent' and 'coverage' routes that is far less controversial. This was the successful model that got implemented in the City of Wyndham. 

The good thing is that if you do have a bit of money for buses it can go a long way if you have an unreformed bus network, such as is the case in about two-thirds of Melbourne suburbs. This is because efficient networks can deliver a disproportionate increase in service hours for the extra money put in.  The experiences of Auckland's bus network reforms described in a UITP ANZ webinar delivered yesterday make this point well. 

The other concern people have about buses is their capacity to move big numbers of people. Especially in Melbourne where buses don't have much of a mass transit function outside the Doncaster corridor. Historically thinking here has limited bus' role to local type services. But if bus reform and service boosts gave us 200 million bus trips per year (a rise of about 70% on pre-COVID numbers) it would be bigger (from a passenger mobility point of view) than either the Metro Tunnel or the Suburban Rail Loop. Plus benefits would be more widely spread, especially in terms of access to dispersed jobs and destinations. 

'Small bus' or 'Big Bus'? 

Unlike 'Big Build' infrastructure projects, improving buses is more easily scale-able. 

You could get small scale bus reform for a couple of million per small area involving a few routes. That's great locally but is not transformative over a wide area. We've done so little with bus service reform lately that even that looks big news when it occasionally happens

Tens of millions will deliver many more improvements, including a big revamp in a targeted area or fixing a lot of long-standing timetable annoyances across Melbourne like lack of Sunday service or early finishes on major routes. But even that can only go so far. 

Victoria's Infrastructure Strategy, tabled last week, proposed a spending boost of $115 to 135 million per year on bus services. This would mainly go on 'next generation' bus routes, operating at better but not specified operating hours and frequencies. Mid-tier connector routes would also be rolled out. However IV is vague as to how far their plan would extend since they did not publish conceptual frequent network maps nor data on how many more people and jobs would be near high quality service.   

For serious Melbourne-wide reform something big, involving hundreds more buses on the road, is needed. Like with trains and trams a couple of hundred million per year would go a fair way. Even semi-revolutionary provided it was well targeted. 

Poor targeting was an issue with some of our SmartBus orbitals which overservice sparsely populated areas while underservicing busy corridors. Still SmartBus did really change how people got around and was a major contributor to increased network patronage via top-performing routes like 900 and 907. However SmartBus timetables today look decidedly second-rate against premium routes in other states like Perth's Route 950 let alone Sydney's iconic 333 so are in need of a refresh.   

Putting in say $200 million per year for buses would be amazing. But it probably won't get us to quite Toronto level bus service (particularly at night) on as many routes as we'd like. To give a rough idea, boosting weekend SmartBuses from 30 to 20 minutes adds 1 bus per hour to the timetable so is relatively cheap (ie 2 to 3 bph). Whereas a Toronto-style 10 minute service would require 4 more extra buses per hour to run (ie 2 to 6 bph). That's four times the service kilometres needed at certain times. 

We might be able to get Toronto-style service on a few key bus corridors but my tip is you'd have to settle for something nearer to a Perth  premium style service with less consistently high night frequency if you wanted to do a lot of routes for the money. Especially if you also wanted to boost some mid-level corridors. Still that would be a huge advance over now.  

Frequent on-road buses could provide good connections out to maybe 5 or 6 km from a station (pretty good for most Melburnians). The limitation is travel speed due to traffic, making them slow for longer trips (for which significant demand exists) especially to job-rich health, education, shopping and innovation precincts. Once basic frequencies are fixed speed improvements should be the network's next evolution. Quicker running times should allow further increases in frequency which would release capacity for the higher patronage the improvements would unleash. 

A high quality intersuburban network requires higher speeds with buses having their own priority and never having to wait for cars. That requires both capital expenditure for substantial bus-only infrastructure (see my item on Bus wormholes) and ultra-high frequency (say every 2-5 minutes) to spread the cost of 'Big Bus' works over millions of passenger trips per year. The three examples below would feed rather than duplicate large rail projects such as the Metro Tunnel and Suburban Rail Loop while connecting major outer and middle area destinations. 

Although bus rapid transit is described here, the mode is less important than its speed, frequency and connectivity, with light rail and even light metro being other possibilities. The trade-off with dearer modes per kilometre to construct is that you get less of a network with fewer connection points for the same budget. This is important because a dispersed suburbanised city like Melbourne needs at least ten (and preferably more) new L-shaped and circumferential lines to link radial corridors and activity clusters in the CBD fringe, job-rich middle areas and more densely populated outer growth areas with 'Ubiquitous Network' mobility. If you're going to have that number of high quality links then infrastructure costs for each one need to be kept down. 

Bus users in the outer east are still smarting from a local campaign to remove a bus lane from Stud Rd. The main service that used it, the 901 Smartbus, ran only every 15 minutes even in the peaks. Hence car drivers saw it was mostly empty and successfully agitated for its removal. The lesson is that bus lanes are politically unsustainable if not backed by high frequency and usage that would see buses  carry more people than car lanes. 

Toronto compensates for its relatively small frequent urban rail network by having express feeder buses. Unlike other cities where express buses generally operate during commuter peak times only, these buses operate at high frequencies over long hours. They complement a slower all-stops bus that also runs a frequent service along the same road. 

Because we have more rail lines and stations, such an arrangement is less widely applicable in Melbourne. But two tier bus corridors with frequent all-day express services may still be appropriate for SRL SmartBus type services. Frequencies will need to be consistently high (at least 10 minutes, preferably 5, for each route). This would inflate costs, including requiring a large bus buying program. That could be tied in with other plans, such as for zero emissions vehicles. And because a quality precursor service is already there it could increase confidence in the SRL project which is so important for investment and development decisions. 

Even ignoring the infrastructure, we might be talking about nearer a billion dollars rather than tens or hundreds of millions. A billion dollars recurrent for service is a large amount but is still under 1/30 the estimated cost for SRL Stage 1 and would have sooner and larger network gains than it (although having both together would be even grander, especially if frequent buses were only a minute's walk from train platforms).  

The first known association of buses with billions of dollars (rather than just being 'cheap transport') was with a local government-based campaign a few years back called 'Billions for Buses'. Unfortunately it was weakly executed, didn't make a splash then and is rarely remembered today. However its aims were laudable and, if only they said which 30 routes would be upgraded on a map (they didn't) could have formed the basis of a great plan.  

The Secretary will by now be aware about how scale-able bus reform it. It can be big or small. That is good in that the department's sails can be trimmed to suit the prevailing budgetary environment (largely set by a small number of central ministers and agencies). Hence you might still be able to have small service reforms even when money is tight (assuming a minister interested and engaged in service issues).   

However when we've been scrimping on service for too long (as we have for buses) the network can atrophy. So now could be the time for 'big bus' reforms, given the population served has been left out of transport plans for too long. Like people in residential Campbellfield who have fewer buses now than 35 years ago or Glenroy that saw their Sunday bus cut 30 years ago and never restored. Another advantage is that, especially in the early years when you're just working the existing fleet harder, much of the extra funding goes to create jobs and into bus drivers' pockets as wages. 

Remember that Toronto bus timetable again. Service every 10 minutes until after midnight even on Sundays. Whereas Melbourne has nothing of that frequency on any myki public transport mode due to our tendency to lock trains, trams and buses in their stabling or depot for too much of the day. The more our vehicles are idle the less they are in revenue service, which makes the network recover less of its costs. The TTC area of Toronto is an interesting comparison with both higher all-day service levels and higher farebox cost-recovery than us.    

Integration with Metro Tunnel, SRL and other rail projects 

Although we should have had large scale bus, tram and train service level reform earlier than our two  rail mega-projects were announced, we didn't. That history can't be changed. 

However improved buses and trams can be rolled out any time (sooner the better). And they can complement the mega-projects after and even before they come on-stream.  

For the Metro Tunnel better buses could support higher rail usage on the emerging Watergardens to Dandenong major corridor by efficiently bringing people to stations and permitting access to destinations just away from the rail network. These include institutions like VU and Monash University, hospitals and key shopping centres such as Chadstone. Filling in network gaps to major stations such as Caulfield is important too as discussed here. And the added speed and capacity on the Swanston St axis could provoke a rethink of trams, with the aim being to distribute them more evenly over the CBD and boosting the widespread 12 minute (weekday) and 15 minute (weekend) frequency to 10 minutes with a simpler network.

The Suburban Rail Loop needs network integration to work. Not only when it starts but before it starts. The SRL SmartBus concept provides frequent service along the corridors that the SRL will operate along, preparing the ground for SRL usage and encouraging faster uptake (a point IV makes in its new strategy). The operating cost for ten years wouldn't even be a rounding error in SRL calculations. Also, because the SRL stations are far apart, these routes would continue as strong feeder services after it opens. 

SRL SmartBus was presented as an affordable concept that would provide good frequency but be much slower than the SRL. That's acceptable for local and short feeder trips but less so for longer trips. But SRL SmartBus could be sped by running a two-tier all stops and limited stops service, both at high frequencies like Toronto does on some of its key corridors. Then when SRL opened you would remove the express services and retain the all stops service. This would however require excellent bus - train connectivity at stations. Unfortunately Melbourne hasn't always done this well, even recently; some new stations like Mentone were poorly planned with concerns recently raised about proposed SRL station designs

Also key to the SRL's success is train to train connectivity given that most of its stations intersect existing radial lines. Not only must it be good physically, with no road crossings, barriers or long walks, but also feature frequent service in all directions to minimise waits. It would be no good, for instance to have SRL trains every few minutes but 20 to 40 minute gaps on the radial lines that feed it. This five word plan would ensure that this doesn't happen and connections are good from SRL Day 1.  

When you improve access to something (like a train) you generally increase its usage. The bus component of this plan would do just that for trains and, to a lesser extent, trams. Thus consideration needs to be given to train upgrades that would support this improved usage if capacity looks like being approached.  

Last year academics Ian Woodcock (Swinburne) and Dr Jan Scheurer (RMIT - of SNAMUTS fame)  analysed an augmented version of the series of Useful Bus Networks presented here. They found a substantial improvement in access and connectivity compared to the current bus network. Further additions, more 10 minute frequencies and higher bus speeds in 'pinch point' areas enabled by 'bus wormholes' would give an even bigger lift. 

Depending on the extent to which patronage recovers post-COVID this improved bus network might put pressure on our rail network. There will likely be a need to consider rail capacity and frequency in the latter half of this ten year plan. Potential projects that could assist include high speed signalling, orders for more or higher capacity trains, continued level crossing removals, track amplification and of course the Metro Tunnel currently under construction. Infrastructure Victoria's 30 year strategy discusses further capacity-enhancing initiatives such as splitting the City Loop, Melbourne Metro 2 and demand management approaches including cheaper off-peak fares. 

Relationship with other plans

The Secretary was still smarting from the VAGO Integrated Transport Planning report that found that the Department had no overarching transport strategy. Lots of little plans, yes, but nothing that encompassed them all. That's what the auditor wanted, even though the Secretary said that their surfeit of separate strategies, despite some not being public, should suffice. Also adding pressure was Infrastructure Victoria who said last week there should be a plan, with about $10m allowed for its development.  

The five word plan would change everything for public transport with implications for related areas like planning, road space and parking policy. So much so that it would become the overarching strategy at the top of the tree, at least for public transport. That could (sort of) make the auditor happier. As doubling frequency changes conditions for everything else, from network design, to vehicle procurement to the zero emissions transition, all other plans, which would become subservient, would have to change to support it. These could be amended to suit and published (another thing the auditor wanted). 

Starting with service (like this plan does) could change how we think about and plan transport infrastructure. We'd assess the requirement, plan the service, write the timetable then use that to determine what infrastructure we build. That can be anything from passing loops to enable higher regional train frequencies, faster signalling, capacity amplification near the network's core, new bus depots or even new suburban bypass or loop lines. This is the reverse of an 'infrastructure first, service second' doctrine that can compromise connectivity, frequency and asset utilisation. 

Having a five word strategy at the centre of everything is definitely unorthodox. 

To keep uncomfortable insiders happy words may need to be written to buttress it. That's easy though. For frequency has many benefits that furthers the aims of dozens of other plans, including those that go beyond transport. Whether it be enabling access to jobs, helping household budgets, growing suburban centres, improving commutes, boosting social inclusion, better placemaking, 20 minute neighbourhoods, encouraging physical activity, relieving parking pressures or the transition to a low carbon economy, 'doubling frequency on everything' supports them all in a cost-effective way. 

This allays the Secretary's first concerns about whether the five words was all there is. In fact, when considered more thoroughly it said more than most of the other plans put together. 


That's it. 

It's fast to roll out, affordable and goes to more places. It is as significant as current mega rail projects and will directly create more ongoing jobs for Victorians. It will also relieve many household budgets and lessen spacial inequalities due to its widely spread benefits.  

Double Service Frequency On Everything is the only plan that works our transit system harder to connect more people to more opportunities. It makes the most of what we have and sets our city and suburbs up for a fairer, more prosperous and sustainable future.  

Comments are appreciated and can be left below. 

PS: An index to all Useful Networks is here.

PPS: A 2 min video summarising the plan is at the head of this item. You can also see a 90 sec preview video released before the plan was. There's no need to see if it you've seen the 2 min video but if you want to it's here .


Claws said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is an excellent idea to boost public transport frequency and make, public transport usage more viable compared to car travel. Services running every 10 minutes or better will be seen as convenient and user friendly.