Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A Queen sized service for a Queen-named hospital?

On Sunday the governing Labor Party promised it would basically rebuild Ringwood's Maroondah Hospital for $1b and rename it after the recently deceased monarch. Thus we would join Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane in having a major hospital named after Queen Elizabeth. While Sydney has a rehabilitation centre.

The promise trumps a Coalition promise for a $400m upgrade to the hospital made the previous day. So whatever the election result there should be some form of major upgrade there. Ringwood is surrounded by seats made marginal by the 2018 landslide. The Coalition will need to win back these seats (and more) to take office. Labor could govern without winning them (like it did in 2014) but it has problems of its own with threats from Greens in inner areas and primary vote weakness in formerly safe often lower income outer seats

Of particular interest is the hospital's public transport access. In my review last month of transport services to hospitals, I rated it as 'poor'. Walking legibility is terrible and its nearest bus is a confusing loop that runs only hourly on weekends. Your best bet is the train (if you can find the station) but even this only comes every half-hour off-peak weekdays, the worst service in Melbourne for a location within 28km of the CBD.

A new Ringwood East station is promised as part of a grade separation but the overwhelming historical record is that these works rarely if ever come with train frequency upgrades and bus network reform. Thus rail passengers must endure months of disruption for works that primarily benefit motorists. 

Transport policy in Victoria is slowly recovering from a one-dimensional obsession on infrastructure to the exclusion of everything else. Big infrastructure can be good but not if pursued to the extent that it saps finances dry so that almost nothing goes towards improved service.

Skewed priorities, informed by low interest rates and budgetary doctrine, have made it easier to find $10b for an infrastructure project than $100m annually for better service. In few places are the consequences of this service neglect more stark than at Maroondah Hospital, whose PT access is rudimentary to say it politely.  

5 cost-effective transport upgrades for Maroondah Hospital

But what if you did want to improve service for Maroondah Hospital? Here's my picks. 

1. Boost Route 380 weekend frequency from 60 to 30 min to match weekdays. Later simplify this complex loop route by splitting into two Ringwood - Croydon routes, one north and the other south, serving all existing stops. The southern route would serve the hospital. If considered desirable it could still through-run into the northern route for passengers who really don't want to change despite the indirectness. 

2. Boost Lilydale train services as follows (highest priority first): 

a.  Off-peak boosted from every 30 to every 20 min (which in conjunction with a similar Belgrave boost would deliver a 10 minute 7 day frequency to Ringwood). Would fix an anomaly where weekend services already run at this frequency but waits for weekday services are currently longer.  

b. Simplify peak stopping patters with a greenfields timetable (they're currently way too complex). 

c. Boost evening and Sunday morning frequencies from every 30 to every 20 min on the Belgrave and Lilydale lines (ideally with all trips continuing in to the CBD to provide a 10 min combined service for Ringwood, as happens during the day on weekends). A 20 min maximum wait for Belgrave and Lilydale would bring service up to the level currently enjoyed by lines such as Werribee and Frankston that extend a comparable distance out from the CBD. 

Ringwood East Station is to be rebuilt due to a level crossing removal. Scope of project to be widened to include pedestrian legibility upgrades for Maroondah Hospital and Maroondah Council Offices.

3. Boost weekend Route 670 buses from 40 - 60 to every 20 min and improve walking access and legibility to Maroondah Hospital (as area currently pedestrian hostile). 

4. Extend bus route 688 from Croydon to Ringwood to provide a faster Mt Dandenong Rd connection to Ringwood and serve the currently unserved Ringwood Private Hospital. 

5. (Later) Subsequent wider bus network reform, likely involving a simpler Mt Dandenong Rd route (every 20 min or better past the hospital as backed by the Eastern Transport Coalition's Bus Considerations paper) and a Ringwood - Ringwood East - Eastfield Rd route (serving a large area without service).

How cost-effective are these? The first three don't require new trains or buses since they just work existing vehicles harder. 2a and 2b shouldn't require that many more driver operating hours. 

Others would require driver operating hours but there are many wider transport connectivity benefits across Melbourne's east, not just for the hospital. 4 on its own would likely require additional buses unless some economies can be made elsewhere. 5. may be more economical in that regard but might require multi-operator planning, swapping or sharing routes.

To maximise the usage of these upgrades, walking-friendly entrance points that maximise accessibility and minimise walking distances from the station and bus stops should be part of the hospital redevelopment's scope. 

How do other QEII hospitals fare for transport?

Adelaide's Queen Elizabeth Hospital in its western suburbs is a short direct walk from Woodville Station. Adelaide's trains are not known for frequency but Woodville is on two lines so enjoys a 15 minute off-peak frequency. Many bus routes stop outside the front and around the corner on Port Rd.  However times are somewhat lumpy with some 20 - 30 min gaps. 

Brisbane's QEII Jubilee Hospital is in its southern suburbs. It's a bit of a hike from Coopers Plains Station (about 2km) which also sees trains about every 15 min. Buses would be most travellers choice with multiple routes departing. Rarely would you wait 5 or 10 minutes and not see a bus. Even their unfortunately infrequent orbital 598/599 routes serves the hospital. 

Perth's huge QEII Medical Centre is the nearest to the CBD and has even better service. Most notable is the all week frequent 950 between there, the CBD and suburban Morley. However there are also other local routes and the free and frequent Purple CAT from the CBD. 

Sydney's Queen Elizabeth II Rehabilitation Centre is just across the road from the Prince Alfred. The buses outside it (412, 422) combined to provide a combined 7.5 minute weekday frequency to the CBD. Other options include an even more frequent service on busy Parramatta Rd or a 10 minute walk to Newtown Station.  

All these hospitals/centres are closer in to their CBDs than is Maroondah Hospital. If the renaming proceeds then Melbourne's QEII Hospital will be by far the least accessible example by a long margin if service improvements like the above (as a bare minimum) do not proceed. 


Even without the promised upgrades, Maroondah Hospital has long been overdue for better transport. The five steps above would be a good start. 

Friday, September 16, 2022

UN 137: Bus network reviews coming to Melbourne's north!

Victoria is finally getting a major program of bus network reviews. Media release here. They signal a welcome revival of government interest in bus service reform, as foreshadowed in Victoria's Bus Plan.  

The last round of metropolitan-wide reviews was done in 2007-2010 (review reports here). An embarrassingly large number of recommendations remain unacted on, though to be fair, not all were as  direct, economical or efficient as I'd have liked. They should still however be used as a source for inspiration since some themes recur again and again.  

Another round of bus reform was largely due to new and extended rail lines, most notably new stations at Williams Landing and Caroline Springs, Regional Rail Link for Wyndham Vale and Tarneit and the Mernda extension. Not built lines could also stimulate bus reform. Because if the cry for trains and trams was too loud to outright ignore, the government would improve buses instead. That led to upgrades for Burwood Hwy/Knox City, Monash Clayton/Rowville and Doncaster. Doncaster actually got two bites of the cherry, with the unsuccessful Manningham Mover being followed by the very successful DART SmartBuses just before 2010's state election.

The main cases of buses being reformed for their own sake happened on 27 July 2014 with significant reforms in Brimbank and on the Transdev network. These latter types of established area reforms are about the most cost-effective you can get.

Between about 2016 and 2021 the rate of bus network reform slowed. A new station in the middle of nowhere (like Caroline Springs) would still get a bus (as not having one would be politically embarrassing) but level crossing removals and new stations like Southland in established areas weren't enough to trigger reform. This is despite buses being the closest public transport to most Melburnians, some areas having a 30 year backlog in network reform and the low cost of many improvements. We stagnated while other cities (notably Auckland and Sydney) reformed their bus networks. Perth latest reforms will feed airport rail while while Brisbane may finally be stirring after an even longer sleep than us.  

Network review areas

Back to 2022 Melbourne and consultation has started. 16 October is the deadline. Review areas in this pilot round include Melbourne's northern suburbs, Melbourne's north-eastern suburbs and Mildura. The Melbourne components would involve almost one-third of the metropolitan population so they're big chunks. 

These are pretty wise choices. The northern suburbs has a huge reform backlog with a matted tangle of  infrequent, dead-end and overlapping routes that rarely harmonise with trains. The north-east is also a logical inclusion. In between its popular direct SmartBuses are complex and infrequent local routes including the silly Manningham Mover that any good review would put out of its misery. 

Other reasons why the north-east is an inspired choice include previous word of a network review with the north-east busway and it immediately abutting the northern area to the west. That should help with synergies as some routes that need reforming cross both areas. The Mernda rail line forms part of the border and the removal of level crossings may enable more east-west through routes, especially in the Reservoir area. 

For regional Victoria Mildura is another good selection. While their networks are not without problems, other cities like Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Warrnambool, Traralgon, Moe and Morwell all got network reviews all within the last 10-15 years so have relatively simple bus networks. Whereas Shepparton, Wodonga and Mildura badly missed out, with Wodonga also losing its CBD train station to a failed city centre redevelopment. Mildura is second only to Wodonga in having a messy bus network so is ripe for review. There may also be a political dimension since successive governments have said no to returning passenger trains to Victoria's most remote regional city. 

Greater Dandenong is entitled to be disappointed that it wasn't chosen. With so many complex routes that don't run 7 days and high social needs, its bus reform needs are more compelling than other places. As an interim though it should get 7 day service, higher weekend frequencies and extended operating hours on existing routes. As a simple timetable upgrade possible by working the existing fleet harder it requires neither public consultation nor new buses. The increased service hours would then provide flexibility for a subsequent review to propose even higher frequencies on a simpler revised network. 

Timing and consultation

Outlined here. Consultation finishes 16 October. Pilot consultation reports December. Then considering it in 2023. 

Mildura has 5 in-person consultation events listed in September/October. No in-person consultations are yet listed for the Melbourne reviews. 

An email address is given for questions; it's busreform@transport.vic.gov.au . That's a good feature. Too many organisations don't and just have a website form which doesn't always allow you to keep a copy of what you send. 

You can do a survey online or by paper + post. What do they ask? There's 20 questions. Firstly they want your postcode and connection with the review area. For instance whether you live, work or visit there. And how often you currently use buses. 

Following that are questions like whether you would use simple fast and reliable buses for what type of trip and destination. They also want to know times you'd be travelling, both for weekdays and weekends. You can tick as many boxes as you like here. 

But you can't for the next question where you must select 5 out of 15 options dealing with things like walking distances, operating hours, frequency, connectivity and directness. This data could aid planning decisions such as to have a smaller number of direct and frequent routes versus a larger number of routes that are less direct but have shorter walking distances to them. That's reinforced by the following question that asks how long you are prepared to walk to a frequent service (longest option is 15 min or 1.2km). 

To tease this out even further are questions that invite you to make trade-offs including walking distances versus frequency and a one-seat ride versus having to change. The latter is elaborated on further with a specific question about factors that would make changing more attractive (eg better frequency, information, shelter, etc). 

All of these are general questions that ask about the approach to network redesign. They don't specifically ask whether you want a route between A and B or better coverage of C. But question 19 is a space where you can volunteer wishes if you want, with 20 being an opportunity to receive further information. 

How will the information be used? DoT says that the information will help them understand peoples needs and preferences in their bus planning work. There is a clear preference by them (and it is hoped also by survey respondents) for simpler, more direct and more frequent bus services. Melbourne's north, north-east and Mildura are the pilot areas for this reform. A 'step change in how we can deliver improved buses' is also promised for the Doncaster busway opening in 2028. 

What will proposed networks look like? 

Four bus route categories will guide reform. 

* Rapid routes will be most direct and most frequent with on-road priority. Services could be turn-up-and-go with rapid running. Melbourne has very few of these types of routes with the weekend frequency of our high profile examples (the SmartBus orbitals) typically collapsing to 30 minutes.  

* Connector routes will be the next level down. Still fairly direct and frequent. I would guess that reform will aim for most people to be within about 800m of these routes, and for them to carry the majority of bus passengers. In some areas reform could create more such routes by straightening or combining local routes. 

* Thirdly there are less direct and less frequent local routes. Coverage is their main aim, though there might be cases where though they aren't strictly needed for coverage there is still demand for them to serve certain destinations eg local shops that rapid and connector routes don't. Most will be fixed, as now. But this category also includes FlexiRides, particularly in growth areas with incomplete road networks.

* Fourthly school routes would meet specific high school student needs the regular routes cannot. Note the specific wording 'high school'. This is either an observation that few metropolitan primary pupils actually do take the bus to school or that few should (as most have a state primary school within walking distance). If it's the latter there may be an unstated planner judgement that if it happens then parents should not expect the network to cater for small numbers making dispersed trips, especially if a one-seat ride is desired.  

Specific frequencies are not given for the route categories. I said that they should when discussing Victoria's Bus Plan. Best practice (as articulated by the Network Development Plan - Metropolitan Rail) would be to have a multimodal network framework with trains and trams either very frequent or, failing that, operating to a 10 minute frequency pulse (maybe 20 min on branch lines or at quiet times).  

Suitable harmonised bus frequencies would thus be 10 minutes for Rapid routes and 20 minutes for Connector routes. Local coverage routes would most often be every 30 to 60 minutes though there may be certain pockets of local high density or ridership propensity that justifies more.  

It will be interesting to read the results of the review - hopefully there'll be some sort of published report like there was for the earlier reviews. For other things to compare against, or maybe to aid your own submissions/comments, I discuss many northern and north-east network reform opportunities in the Useful Network series that discusses opportunities for Connector and some Rapid routes. The Victorian Transport Action Group presented a more coherent set of ideas just for the north in 'Networking the North'. Or for an all of Melbourne perspective there is the Future Frequent Network whose interactive map includes not just Rapid Routes but also Connector Routes. All proposals can be compared with what we have now via the Frequent Network Maps or PTV's website local area network maps.  

Making it work

Melbourne has had both successes and failures with bus reform. Point Cook, Brimbank and Wyndham in 2013, 2014 and 2015 clearly succeeded. Mernda, Cranbourne, Endeavour Hills and Cragieburn reforms can also be counted as successes. Transdev's 2014 reforms simplified services a lot. But partly due to weak consultation and its stand-alone single operator planning approach, their 2015 greenfields proposal had too many 'nasties' and was scrapped by the minister

At an even bigger scale was the complete abandonment of Adelaide's radical reformed network in 2020. Read how Adelaide went wrong here. Perth treats bus review and reform as everyday business and has a better record of success


These bus network reviews are welcome. Areas for the pilot networks have been well chosen. Bus reform is highly cost-effective that can deliver huge accessibility gains to the majority of Melburnians who live away from trains and trams. 

While there are instances of overlapping bus routes where reforms can be done cheaply, there will still be some capital funding required to implement. When compared to big projects the amounts concerned are peanuts but without them upgrades can't happen. 

There also needs more recurring operational funding - something that appears vastly harder than one-off capital funding to obtain. This is required to work our bus fleet harder all day and all week rather than current often restricted operating days and hours. Fleet expansion is also needed, especially in fringe areas. 

Even in established areas I would expect the reviews to find instances where two or three extra buses here and there could have a transformative impact on the network. You might be able to squeeze 20 minute connector style routes out of reforming or straightening some 22, 24, 30 or 40 min local routes. But where you already have direct 15 minute frequency routes, getting them to rapid routes every 10 min where peak service isn't already at that level will require substantial new bus purchases (which will all be zero emissions from 2025). 

There's also implementation capacity. When we compare the fast time it takes to remove a level crossing with the slow time it take to implement a single bus route (even a simple 'quick and dirty' layering over an existing unreformed network) it is clear that delivery capability within the Department of Transport needs to be beefed up massively (to be like the better resourced LXRP). 

Otherwise little will happen and we risk a rerun of 15 years ago where only a small proportion of bus review recommendations ever got implemented. We have an enthusiastic minister now but reshuffles can change things. So there's a degree of political risk if bus reform and service expansion funding isn't locked in now.

Even though there's now a review process underway for Melbourne's north, I still think stakeholders and others should still be advocating specific service upgrades in this state election campaign. This is especially if they are (a) simple service upgrades to existing routes like Sunday service or boosted weekend frequency, or (b) frequency uplifts  or new direct routes on grossly underserved corridors that a review would almost certainly endorse (think 508 east-west SmartBus, Coburg - Heidelberg MegaBus, frequent Chandler Hwy and Burke Rd links etc). I also wouldn't be waiting for a network review before boosting operating hours and frequency on existing routes where a strong social and patronage case exists, such as many in  Greater Dandenong.   

Provided they are backed by implementation funding, these reviews are exciting news for public transport connectivity in Melbourne's north and north-east. There is no other transport project bigger than this when it comes to better linking a catchment containing over a million people and jobs. So read the material, do the surveys and attend any sessions if you can.

Comments are welcome below, especially if you've had experience of bus reform elsewhere working or not.   

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

TT 172: Graphic: Dandenong line's weekend service cliff

Since the largely unreversed timetable cuts in 1978, Melbourne has had the least frequent urban evening trains of any comparable city in the developed world. 

With typical 30 minute gaps between them, many trips can be driven in less time than it takes for the next train to come. Sunday mornings are even worse with 40 minute gaps on about half the network. 

Even Atlanta, Georgia, hardly known for its transit, beats us with a consistent 20 minute first to last train frequency, even on Sundays. 

Sydney used to be like us but large service upgrades in 2017 reduced maximum waits from 30 to 15 minutes at many stations. That's been a game-changer, building the trust that you can turn up at a station late at night and be on a train within a reasonable time.  

Melbourne City Council and the State Government talk endlessly about us being a sophisticated global 24 hour city. However the latter doesn't 'walk the walk' when it comes to all day / all week frequent transport. While Night Network added a skeleton hourly 'safety net' service, after 7pm train timetables still shout a loud 'go home before dark' message to those who may still be there at dusk. That's especially on a weekend due to train service levels falling off a cliff to the half-hour gaps like seen in backwaters like Brisbane (which can't even build continuous footpaths). 

The curfew effect is further reinforced by our suburban buses, most of which shut down around 9pm, and evening trams that run half as frequently as in our grandparents time. This service fall-off is most an issue for those who need transport to jobs for reasons explained here

Getting back to trains, Dandenong (our busiest line) still has them leaving every 10 minutes at 6:50pm from Flinders Street. That's good. But within 20 minutes (from 7:08pm) waits have blown out to 30 minutes, even though there's no way that demand will have collapsed by two-thirds. The quieter Frankston, Werribee and even Williamstown lines fare better with 20 min maximum evening waits thanks to 2021 upgrades

What about weeknights? The Dandenong line is special in that it keeps its 10 minute frequency running later than any other. But other key lines, notably Sunbury (to Watergardens), Craigieburn and Mernda, have big cliff with service falling to 30 minutes early on all nights of the week. The main difference is that if you draw a similar diagram to above its less dramatic since their midday frequency, at every 20 minutes, is never very high to start with. 

This is due to a pattern, discernible since Jeff Kennett, for Liberal governments to roll out improved 10-15 minute daytime rail frequencies in its favoured south and east, but Labor governments failing to follow in their north and west heartlands due to these historically been such safe seats for them. 

Cost of living is a key 2022 state election issue all across Melbourne. But when you visit the west there's a strong second factor. This is a palpable feeling of neglect at the expense of the east when it comes to government services. As I keep telling advocates in the west, all the data is on their side, at least when it comes to public transport service levels. That flows into the cost of living conversation where services are so sparse as to be almost unusable and driving is the only option.   

Below is another representation, this time across the whole network, not just one line. Each arrow is one train.

I checked published timetables and counted the number of times that 10pm appears in them. Or a time that's very close if trains are between stations at 10pm. Also if a train starts at an outer terminus at (say) 10:05pm I've counted that as it will be laying over and will otherwise evade detection if I relied on public timetables alone. 

Notable examples were Pakenham where trains arrive at 9:18, 9:48 & 10:18pm but departures are at 9:45, 10:15 and 10:45pm and Upfield (arrivals 9:17, 9:47, 10:17, departures 9:38, 10:08, 10:38). Long layovers can be a sign of scheduling inefficiency and could present an opportunity for frequencies to be boosted for less cost than expected. 

Very roughly I count about 53 Metro trains and 14 V/Line. Though there may still be a handful on long layovers or V/Lines on outer sections of line not captured. A proper count would need reference to a train graph or at least a serious reconciliation of timetables across multiple lines. Still, the exercise is enough to demonstrate that only a small proportion of the train fleet is out at this time. 

Yet another representation is provided on the after 10pm frequent network maps

Each of those trains needs a driver. How do their numbers stack up against PSOs securing our stations and passengers?  If we assume two PSOs at each of our 222 Metro stations, that gets us to 444. Bigger stations will have more so that's a conservative guess. 

There's also regular station staff at Premium stations and a huge unsung support crew needed to keep the system working and clean. Hence drivers are only a small proportion of the rail workforce. 

This illustrates the point that railways have high fixed costs. If you're are going to have a railway you might as well run its services frequently all day. The marginal additional costs of doing so are relatively small for the dramatically increased utility such as shorter waits and faster end-to-end travel time.

The benefits, power and cost-effectiveness of frequency is a lesson Melbourne would do well to heed, especially as parties prepare their transport policies for the 2022 state election. 

Index to other Timetable Tuesday items here

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

The Making and Unmaking of East-West Link: A must-read book!

I'll cut to the chase right now. You must buy this book

That's if you have any interest at all in how Melbourne transport projects happen. 

Or, in this case, get so close to happening and then don't.  

The Making and Unmaking of East-West Link started as James Murphy's Melbourne Uni PhD project. Unlike some other such endeavours it has both academic and broader public interest. Hence this book. 

It's a sort of whodunnit. 

Who was responsible for getting modern Melbourne's most controversial toll road project on the construction agenda and then off it? 

Was it political leaders? Was it bureaucrats? Or were community outsiders decisive?

I'm not going to tell you here. Instead buy the book. If you do so you'll get fresh insight into the anarchic world of transport planning in Victoria, the weakness of certain departments who outsiders would assume had control and the key role of policy entrepreneurship in an institutional and strategy vacuum. 

All this has lessons for people wishing to get transport projects, whether roads or PT, onto the agenda. In the case of East-West Link, the Coalition had assumed office, ditched Labor's 2008 Transport Plan, but didn't have a full plan of their own. 

Organisational restructuring had weakened the Department of Transport, spinning off roles like public transport planning into the new PTV while retaining residual transport roles in a less focused Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure

The world wasn't waiting while these agencies, which were supposed to plan the network, were preoccupied with their own organisational charts. Nature abhors a vacuum. This turmoil and the lack of an official plan created openings for policy entrepreneurs like Ken Mathers. Working from within the relatively obscure Linking Melbourne Authority, he built 'Roads Club' stakeholder and government support for East-West Link. 

Government support became emphatic after Denis Napthine, who wanted something bold for the 2014 election, became premier. This was necessary but not sufficient for East-West Link to happen as later events, involving ultimately decisive local council, community and then Labor Party opposition, proved.   


East-West Link may (at least now) be off the table but the themes continue. Last year the Auditor-General found that Victoria lacked an overall transport plan though it had many specific plans. One of those smaller plans was Victoria's Bus Plan. It usefully diagnosed problems but is better viewed as being a 'plan for a plan' as there is no budget, implementation program nor the all-important lines on maps

In years of yore train and tram heads like Harold Clapp or Robert Risson, were household names. Post-franchising, some private operator chiefs like Andrew Lezala were known. PTV's Ian Dobbs also had a profile with frequent media appearances. Some past V/Line CEOs were more infamous than famous. But these days it's unlikely that more than two passengers in a hundred could name the Department of Transport's secretary (Paul Younis if you're wondering). 

This has not been for a lack of media coming out of the transport portfolio; rather it's because under this government initiatives projects like level crossing removals and the Suburban Rail Loop seem to have their own arrangements (including generous PR and social media budgets). These projects appear to have wide discretion over what gets built and design decisions. 

While it undoubtedly includes some who understand connectivity issues, collectively the Department of Transport has not always been able to effectively take a network view and veto bad design choices. For example in 2022 we are still building stations (like Keon Park) that lack platform entrances on both sides of main roads to enable easy no-cross connections to Principal Public Transport Network bus routes. And, at a bigger scale, the proposed Suburban Rail Loop appeared more stand-alone than integrated with poor connectivity with intersecting lines being a recurring theme of EES submissions and hearings

While the organisation names are different and we're discussing different projects, pre-election 2022 has some parallels with pre-election 2014. 

Like 2014 we don't have something that the Auditor-General considers an overall transport plan under the Transport Integration Act 2010. Unlike then though we don't have a vacuum in major projects. Some are so big that the Andrews government parades them to justify its record. Its supporters, from Minister Jacinta Allan down, say that its 'Big Build' agenda constitutes the plan. Detractors, who tend to be sticklers for orderly planning processes, beg to differ, pointing out the risks and opportunity costs of such aggressive project-based-planning.  

Although there has been at least two major bouts of restructuring since, the Department of Transport still comes across as weak, both in the public's mind and in its delivery capability. Telling examples of the latter include it taking over two years to start even a minor new bus route after winning budget funding and recurring issues with data accuracy on the website and at station bus information displays). DoT has a bus network reform team (to develop the BRIPs) but I'm not sure how well this is integrated with existing planning areas (who work on upcoming changes) and FlexiRide (which appears another world, not always integrated with the existing network).  

In contrast the project delivery arms (eg LXRP) appear stronger in terms of public recognition and delivery ability (albeit imperfectly in aspects like bus and active transport connectivity at some sites). Certainly the marketing budget and effort for projects (that are obvious to everyone) far exceeds that for often beneficial (but less obvious to non-users) network and service frequency upgrades.  

Another indication of DoT's weakness may be a lack of internal confidence and/or control from above that keeps it on a short leash. The lack of a substantial implementation program in the Bus Plan indicates an unwillingness to propose even low-cost upgrades (even in vague corridor form) before full funding is found. 

In contrast funding matters never stopped highway authorities having their proposals published in the Melway and thus getting them accepted as an inevitability (which attracted funding). Neither does it stop SRLA today. 

To repeat what I've said before, if a transport plan doesn't have lines on publicly available maps it neither qualifies as real, captures the public imagination nor can drive political agendas (like the 1969 freeway plan so successfully did and the SRL might well do so currently).    

Hence some of the conditions described by Murphy nearly a decade ago remain so today. That includes the lack of an overall transport plan and a weak Department of Transport. Political and organisational support around specific projects is strong but resourcing rapidly dissipates away from them. This includes critical gap areas like intermodal connectivity, active transport, all-day service levels and bus network reform. Thus now, like then, at least a partial vacuum exists in important areas. Progress is painfully slow (and sometimes backwards) despite high benefit cost ratios that would put almost any major project to shame. 

Time for optimism in 2022?

One could be pessimistic. But this year I'm not. 

Higher interest rates, ballooning construction costs, widening government budget deficits and a degree of public fatigue may make mega projects harder to promise and fund in 2022 than they were in 2018. Candidates and parties preparing for November's state election will however still want something to offer. 

Offering that something in just a handful of marginal seats won't cut it these days. Major party loyalty is decreasing, with big swings in formerly safe seats. We got a taste of this in 2018 in western Melbourne seats like Melton and Werribee. 2022's federal results saw 'teal' independents taking formerly safe inner Liberal seats along with big collapses in Labor's primary vote further out. People in many of the latter areas are currently facing cost of living pressures, notably in food, fuel and mortgage interest rates. The federal results should be a warning sign that their votes may be up for grabs in the state election too. 

All this is where suburban public transport services can come in. 

Making trains and buses practical for more trips can certainly aid cost of living pressures as driving and car ownership costs are reduced. Upgrades can be low cost and distributed over a wide area. A package that delivers worthwhile bus reforms in most seats could cost maybe $100 million per year. 

Not much more is needed to slash maximum waits at many train stations in Melbourne's outer east, north and west with a second stage delivering widespread 10 minute frequencies. 

These are great value initiatives compared to the multiple billions that would be needed for slower to build infrastructure whose benefits are more narrowly concentrated. Popular support for improved public transport, especially amongst the majority who rent or are paying off a home, is also strong according to surveys

If you're interested in the possibilities then The Making and Unmaking of East-West Link is essential reading. Why? It talks about the role of 'policy entrepreneurs'. Ken Mathers cited as an example. An earlier version of this part of the book appeared in The trials and tribulations of Ken Mathers, policy entrepreneur (2020 journal article). 

While Mathers did not succeed with East-West Link, his approach to winning support for a project in a polity (a) without a strong transport plan, (b) with a weak or fragmented bureaucracy and (c) with urgent political needs due an upcoming election could be instructive. That's because all three remain so today. 

An anarchic transport policy space with formal leaders seemingly unable to fill the gaps could well suit a fresh round of policy entrepreneurialism. It could apply to public transport services just as Mathers tried with roads. Implementation would need political and government support but the initial spark needn't come from within it. Indeed it probably can't as processes strictly separate bureaucrats from MPs and (especially) candidates. Especially during the 'caretaker' period. 

While people might consider buses unsexy and not think there's much ribbon cutting associated with launching a more frequent train timetable, you also won't get the opposition that potentially disruptive megaprojects can attract (fatally in E-W Link's case). 

A 'service first' transport agenda could benefit any side that chooses to run with it. Non-Labor parties and independent candidates can fairly exploit this government's past lack of interest in extending even minimal 7 day service to buses, especially in 'taken for granted' safe Labor areas whose votes are now up for grabs. And Labor MPs and candidates (not all of whom have local connections) can advocate for overdue improved services to revive their image as a force for community good (which has taken a beating due to widely publicised internal factional wars).   

Unlike certain social issues, on which bitter divisions exist across (and especially within) parties, improved public transport is neither ideological nor divisive. It can be comfortably advocated by all sides. Benefits are dispersed. And improvements can be fashioned to target today's cost of living issues with expedited roll-out (provided DoT's delivery capabilities are improved). 

Useful public transport services change lives and helps people achieve their dreams. 

If you sniff political opportunity for better transport in this election lead-up then The Making and Unmaking of East-West Link can get you thinking as to how.    

Buy yours from bookshops around Melbourne or via the link below.  

(Note: I get a commission from sales via this link. No extra cost for you.)

Friday, September 02, 2022

The one button that would revolutionise PT feedback

"A picture says 1000 words". Rarely is this more true than on our public transport network. 

Whether it's  identifying trip hazards on station stairs, errors in published timetables, dirty buses or car drivers not giving way to alighting tram passengers, there's nothing like a picture to identify problems. 

Citizen photo journalism on social media with shots like this has assisted bus safety investigations. Including those that gave weight to the government decision to kick Transdev out of Melbourne by not renewing their bus operating franchise.    

Pictures are good for other reasons too. Thanks to smartphones, most passengers can now take and share pictures in close to real time. With more passengers than staff on the network that gives unrivalled coverage and immediacy. And in a busy diverse city not everyone has time or language skills to write 500 word essays to explain an issue.

Potentially the technology in their pocket can save people from having to do so. But only if official systems allow. Which they currently don't. 

If you go to PTV's website feedback form you'll see spaces for the usual details and a text window for your comments. But you can't send or upload a photo. It's the same with their mobile app despite a new version being released only last year . In theory you could include a picture in a tweet or via PTV's Facebook page but the general process is that you be referred to the abovementioned feedback form. That doesn't allow photos so it's Catch 22.

On the other hand if you wish to have a fine reviewed then our Department of Transport has an email address that substantiating material can be sent to. Hence at least part of our transport apparatus already appreciates the value of people being able to send images. 

Do others accept pictorial feedback? 

The well-known Snap Send Solve, whose whole business idea was based on making it easy for people send pictures of problems, has been around for years. It bridged a gap created due to the people having better technology than bureaucracies were then (and often still now) were willing to embrace. 

Transport for NSW, PTV's rough Sydney equivalent, has a photo upload feature on their feedback formThey know this feature is good for both customers and business. Both parties save time and the risk of misunderstanding is reduced. As TFNSW says, "A photo or screenshot helps us to investigate your feedback". 

How about it PTV? 

Shouldn't you also embrace the efficiency and customer service benefits that technology can offer? 

What is there to lose by enabling picture uploads on your website and mobile app? 

You would then connect better with the community, get more useful feedback, waste less time in clarifying it and thus be able to fix more things faster. And wouldn't all these be benefits worth having?