Friday, December 30, 2022

2022: Year in review

This time last year I said 2021 delivered more than expected on the service side of public transport. Not only did we get plans (eg Victoria's Bus Plan) but also action that fixed long-standing problems and improved the passenger experience. 

Notable 2021 achievements include 1. Caulfield group City Loop simplification, 2. 20 min maximum waits for Werribee, Williamstown and Frankston trains, 3. Maximum daytime wait on tram network cut from 20 to 15 min by boosting Route 82 weekday frequency, 4. simplified Night Network including 24 hour weekend operation on some regular bus routes, 5. Transdev (now Kinetic) service redistribution that boosted weekend service on key routes and 6. Ballarat line train frequency increases, especially on weekdays, including a regular 20 min interpeak service for Melton. 

These measures were what you might call 'low hanging fruit'. Things that ideally would be regular business for a transport planning agency to address but here seem to be rare special projects done by exception and incredibly hard to fund.

Because of that they were highly significant compared to the recent past but unambitious compared to elsewhere. For example our 2021 Metro rail timetable upgrades, said to be the biggest in a decade, added 450 extra trips. This is less than one-third the 1500 extra trips that Sydney added in its 2017 train timetable alone that converted many 30 minute waits to 15 minute waits (going through to as late as midnight). 

2021's timetable changes were extremely good quality. They cut maximum waits to 15 or 20 minutes on some important parts of the network across all modes. Implementation on more routes would have been desirable but even so continuation at 2021's pace would have been almost transformative after a decade. If you think that's slow recall that our 7pm - midnight Saturday Metro train service levels were basically set in 1978 with no substantial gains on most lines since. Did 2022 continue the previous year's pace or did we slack off a bit? Keep reading to find out as we go through the months.  

February 2022 saw two significant changes in the outer south and south-east. A revised Pakenham / Cranbourne timetable added peak trips. Most notably for Cranbourne following line duplication. Marketing talked about a 10 minute peak frequency, though this was more an average than a maximum wait as intervals vary including a 15 minute gap around the peak-of-the-peak in the morning. This change also added more trains between Westall and Dandenong with more services stopping at Malvern. Buses in Cranbourne had minor tweaks to times to reflect the new train timetable, though the opportunity was not taken to fix longer term issues like service kilometre neutral earlier Sunday starts on Route 893.

Later that month saw bus reform on the Mornington Peninsula, following on from the much-needed Route 788 upgrade the previous year. The changes improved coverage by extending the 781 south,  added a 7 day express Frankston - Rosebud bus (887) and pruned the appallingly complex 787, with its eastern portion replaced by a new FlexiRide. The result is a simpler network for midday travellers but not much at other times. This is because operating hours remain very short with local routes shutting down around 4pm (or earlier) and weekend service either non-existent or sparse. This is really penny-pinching gone mad as the added cost of running the existing fleet over more hours of the week wouldn't have been much.  

Staff availability continued to be an issue due to pandemic effects in February 2022. Dysons introduced a limited service timetable for many of its routes in Melbourne's north-east. I wrote about that here

I gave Healesville's buses a serve for their complexity a few years ago here. There was a lot of inconsistency with routes having different termini as well as poor frequencies, especially on weekends. News came in March 2022 that DoT was reviewing local bus services with a view to introducing changes later in the year. I thought the DoT proposals made a lot of sense, though the local bus operator spoke out against starting Route 684 at Lilydale in local media. Were they sticking up for their community or undermining the government's reform effort? I'll let you be the judge. Hopefully we'll see progress on Healesville buses in 2023.  

Occupying many peoples' time in March 2022 were the EES hearings for the Suburban Rail Loop. Major issues from a transport connectivity viewpoint includes ease of interchange between the SRL and other transport modes including Metro trains, trams and buses. It was especially desirable that there be direct and sheltered physical connectivity without going through fare gates. Highlights from the hearings here. I discussed SRL intermodal connectivity here and lodged a submission. 

Here's a small win for the year. Back in March 2022 I wrote about the complex and loopy 834 and 835 circular bus routes. These had different route numbers in different directions and if you stayed on long enough you'd end up where you started. Later that year these routes were split to form two conventional linear routes, one north and one south of the railway, greatly simplifying the service. It represents a good (but too rare!) example of exploiting opportunities to reform buses where changes was needed anyway (due to capital works). The new Department of Transport and Planning really needs to work harder in concert with infrastructure delivery agencies to explore and exploit such opportunities.

The biggest service news for the year was the April 2022 upgrade for Craigieburn bus routes. There were some network reforms for improved coverage but the most important move was the upgrade of four local routes from every 40 to every 20 minutes on weekdays. The last time we saw  a  frequency increase of this magnitude on so many routes was probably the new Cranbourne network of 2016. Craigieburn's improvements were well justified; the area contains diverse and densely populated neighbourhoods with some of Melbourne's most productive bus routes on a boardings per kilometre basis (529 & 533). Weekends got some handy operating hours extensions, though frequencies remained at 40 minutes. 

Past recent Victorian state budgets have been strong on transport infrastructure but parsimonious towards service. The 2021 budget nudged the service tap a little. May 2022's state budget opened it a little more. Notable initiatives included funding for (a) more train drivers and staff for unspecified upgrades, (b) transport accessibility upgrades, (c) outer suburban and regional bus network expansions including in Gisborne, Diggers Rest, Donnybrook, Narre Warren, Torquay, Kilmore and a FlexiRide for Greensborough and (d) established area upgrades benefiting Box Hill, Deakin University, Monash Clayton, Chadstone and Southland. 

The latter are particularly significant as they involve upgrades on popular major corridor routes that needed it. Routes involved include 201 (Box Hill - Deakin shuttle), 903 (routed via Deakin), 733 (increased frequency between Box Hill and Clayton) and 767 (increased frequency). Discussed in more detail here.

The main network reform components include a welcome consolidation of Box Hill - Deakin shuttles (rather than having two infrequent routes 201 & 768) and improving connectivity to Deakin from the south via Route 903 (with potential implications for Route 766). With any luck we will see these upgrades start in the first half of 2023. Other opportunities involving these routes include extending Route 733 south to Southland and tidying up buses in Bentleigh East to give the upgraded 767 a clear run down East Boundary Rd (in conjunction with 627, 701 and 822 reform). They would be a worthwhile second stage that would better connect a lot of people with the beginnings of an SRL SmartBus type service. 

As for train drivers and staff, we don't know exactly what service upgrades we'll get from those mentioned. However due to our peak heavy timetable with low off-peak frequencies (especially at night and on Sunday mornings) you do not need to add very many services to make a big difference. And it seems to me that a phased approach would be preferable to doing nothing until when Metro Tunnel starts. I discuss the relatively low costs of getting to 20 minute maximum waits on our trains here.

You don't always need a full bus network review to remove the worst features of Melbourne's complex network. And waiting for a review could cause network simplifications needed now to be pushed off into the undefined never-never. Route 513 was essentially two routes with the one number with a large divergence and then a coming together again between Rosanna and Eltham. June 2022 saw news that they would become two routes - 513 and 514. That got done the following month. It should however only be considered an intermediate step; having two route numbers on a large part of Bell St is unnecessary and there is significant overlap with other routes along the quieter eastern portions of both routes. June also saw a blog post referring to possible cuts in tram frequencies (especially early evenings). These services had been added in 2018 to relieve crowding during Metro tunnel construction work. 

In August 2022 I wrote about the possibilities of adding up to 7 more stations on the Metro train network. These could improve network connectivity in middle suburban areas where the current network requires significant backtracking and/or SmartBus routes cross a train line but lack a station to connect to.  One of those 7 (Keilor East) will become a reality after the Minister advocated for and eventually got it approved as part of construction of Melbourne Airport Rail.

September 2022 saw a welcome announcement about Victoria's next round of bus network reform following the process flagged in 2021's Bus Plan. Areas chosen for reform include Mildura, much of northern Melbourne and much of north-east Melbourne. All up it would be at least 1/4 of the metropolitan population.  I regarded these as good choices as all have many complex, overlapping and confusing bus routes unreformed for years. A survey asked the public preferences on matters like walking distances versus frequency of a reformed network. This would likely give (or validate) the direction taken by DoT's Bus Reform Team.

The choice of such large areas for the metropolitan parts of bus reform makes the agenda ambitious. Possibly even too ambitious. Key unknowns include implementation funding and the sequencing of work given (i) the huge size of each of the metropolitan review areas and (ii) past limited DoT capacity to do very much at once. Just as sportspeople do warm up exercises maybe DoT should too rather than expect to reach top speed from a standing start without developed and tested 'mass production' processes. 

My impression is that the work is best divided into multiple packages of 2 to 6 interdependent routes with one package per review area implemented every few months. It would also be desirable for there to be less formal processes that could deliver faster roll-outs of simpler reforms (eg timetable upgrades) on routes that are popular or serve high-needs catchments such as Greater Dandenong. These could be along the lines of those delivered in 2021 on Transdev routes like 279 and 907. One such smaller scale example was the announced reform of parts of routes 514 and 517 in conjunction with Greensborough's FlexiRide. The 2006 - 2010 MOTC 'minimum standards' upgrades, involving upgrades 4 or 5 bus routes per month, represents good precedent for this with a more operationally convenient gradual workflow.  

Melbourne has few individual turn-up-and-go bus routes operating every 10 minutes or better. Leaving aside the 202, 301, 401 & 601 university shuttles there's just two, the 246 and 402. October 2022 saw two more frequent routes commenced. These are the 235 and 237 linking the CBD with Fishermans Bend. Each runs every 10 minutes. Key limitations include poor reliability due to CBD area congestion, inefficient overlaps with other Queen St routes, no or limited weekend service and limited promotion and information at key interchange points like Southern Cross Station. However it does provide a no-frills frequent service to a redevelopement area beyond trains and trams pending future tram and rail extensions.

Tarneit FlexiRide also started around then. This provides coverage of fast-growing Tarneit North. A good touch is that unlike areas like Knox, Rosebud and Lilydale, operating days and hours are better than most other FlexiRides being more like regular fixed routes. These types of services provide coverage but availability, reliability and speed can be issues during peak times.

November 2022 was dominated by the Victorian state election. I spent a lot of time on this including making lists of upgrades for each seats and examining Labor's record in government. Most of the public transport campaign talk was a bidding war on who could cut fares the most. However service matters got some attention. Labor promised worthwhile V/Line weekend service upgrades while the Coalition went for (also good) bus service upgrades across the state. Labor was returned with a higher lower house majority. However its primary vote fell, especially in parts of Melbourne's west, north and south-east with diverse working-class populations. My summary here

Various parts of the state government apparatus sometimes look at bus services. The Victorian Auditor-General had long planned a performance audit on buses but kept putting it off before deleting it from their work plan. However December 2022 saw an Infrastructure Victoria paper on getting the most from Melbourne's buses which I reviewed here. One result of IV's paper was significant media attention on Melbourne's bus services, some of which I featured in

Despite hopes raised by the substantial achievements of 2021 and 2022 being an election year, the last  twelve months was quieter in terms of services implemented. This was not for the lack of cost-effective opportunities including more frequent off-peak trains and 7 day service on popular bus routes in high needs areas without it. Modest improvements along these lines could be worth considering for 2023-2024 ahead of larger changes such as those arising from the Metro Tunnel and major northern bus reviews. It's budgets not plans that drive upgrades and to this effect the 2023 and 2024 state budgets will be very important. 

Best wishes to all readers for a safe and successful 2023.

Friday, December 16, 2022

UN 139: Testing Tarneit North FlexiRide - Can it survive a morning peak?

For much of the recent past bus network planning, review and expansion has been out of fashion and relatively unfunded in Melbourne. The government's emphasis was almost entirely on road and rail infrastructure.

Train and bus network reform had a bad name in senior political circles after the 2014 election. Contributing factors may have been Labor's thin electoral margin and a fear that 100 aggrieved passengers would be louder than the 1000 who gained from a change. There were also specifics, for example the backlash arising from Transdev's poorly consulted-on bus network reform attempt in 2015 and Frankston line City Loop fears that set Metro train timetable reform back 6 years

Service planning was so much on the outer that there were people saying you didn't need to plan local buses at all. Instead you'd just throw half a dozen minibuses out there with a super-smart app. That can be bought off the shelf with no need to do pesky things like modify roads or install bus stops. The latter would have been music to the ears of a boss who had seen on-ground network delivery capability fall since the Metlink years. It could work as a dynamic self-organising system, with no need for skilled planners to make professional judgements or difficult trade-offs as to route alignments and service levels as would be the case with a fixed route network. 

Fresh from de-regulating commercial passenger vehicles, influential parts of the Department of Transport proved a receptive audience for the tech-bros and their apps who were active spruiking 'flexible transport solutions'. Infrastructure Victoria, which claims to be on the side of economic efficiency, productivity and social utility, has also been favourably disposed towards flexible route buses. 

Early claims were made of FlexiRide's success in Melbourne's outer east. However these comparisons were against the low productivity flexible route TeleBus services they replaced rather than the generally more productive conventional fixed routes. The latter would have been a useful test, especially when deciding between the two approaches in large, growing and dense neighbouhoods. 

The government took up the demand responsive thing with gusto, introducing FlexiRide buses to more suburbs across Melbourne, despite potential reliability risks and opportunity costs. The suburbs that got them varied considerably, from older and sparser Rowville and Lilydale to young, dense and diverse Melton and Tarneit North.  

During all this too few in authority asked 'Do flexible route buses work?' And, if so, 'Under what conditions?' and 'How well compared to alternatives'?

I will answer these questions today. Firstly, I can vouch from experience that FlexiRides are wonderful - if you are the only passenger. 

But add more passengers and it degrades before falling over. Firstly in having to deviate via other peoples houses, extending travel times and risking missed connections. If that happens too much then you are better off with fixed, reasonably direct routes. Secondly the waits can get so long that you might as well have a fixed timetable so you at least know when the bus will come and it can be optimised to connect with trains. 

You can overcome both if you add more buses and drivers but that  increases costs. And, unlike fixed route buses, which get more cost-effective as more people use them, this isn't so much the case with flexible routes which are not so scalable.   

Tarneit North tests

It's all very well to mention these limitations but where's the evidence?

Last month on one weekday morning I used the app to test the performance of Tarneit North FlexiRide (which started just recently in October 2022). I did this by planning hypothetical trips mostly to and from Tarneit Station.

I started this test early. Wait times were often around 10 minutes. Not bad. However they tended to increase as it got later and more people wanted to use the service. Below is a counter-peak direction trip from Tarneit Station. It had an advised pick-up time of 16 minutes.

The trip below is an inbound trip somewhat later (around 9am). The estimated wait time was 35 minutes. Travel time to Tarneit Station was estimated at 17 minutes. Thus it would take the better part of an hour to go a few kilometres to the nearest station. 

What happens if all the FlexiRide buses are used and it's not considered worthwhile to deviate one of the five buses out? Now you get a 'no available vehicles' message. The app include fixed routes with a suggestion to take Route 182 departing in 19 minutes. That doesn't go very near the destination with a 39 minute walk the other end. Alternatively, and quicker, you can just give up on the bus and walk the entire 3.7 km to your destination. 

Both the last two trip plans were around 9am, which appears to be about peak demand for FlexiRide. As this subsided it was again possible to plan trips with shorter waiting times. More discussion here:


These tests demonstrate the basic volatility and unreliability of FlexiRide-type services in populated areas. Having the service come up as being unavailable at certain times indicates that it cannot reliably survive a morning peak in areas with significant travel activity like Tarneit. 

Thus FlexiRide does not scale up well. That's a big problem if you wish to efficiently introduce buses to a large and growing area where you need to be able to satisfactorily serve the most numbers of passengers for the least cost.  

It's true that existing fixed routes also degrade in performance when a lot of people use them. However this degradation is more gradual and starts at a higher patronage level. Unlike FlexiRide, which degrades at an earlier point, regular fixed route buses represent efficient passenger conveyance over a wide range of loadings, from several to several dozen. This wide versatility is one of the under-acknowledged benefits of fixed route buses. 

Tarneit is the sort of area where you can put on a conventional route bus, even if not very frequent, and people will use it at rates higher than in many other parts of Melbourne. This involves passenger numbers more suitable for fixed routes. Thus, instead of FlexiRides, I would favour fixed routes introduced as early as possible and run as frequently as possible. 

Flexible routes may have a use where an estate is very new and only a few scattered homes are inhabited. But as the road grid is completed and people move in then they are past their use by date. If flexible routes are introduced at all I suggest there is an exit strategy including close performance monitoring and a trigger where they get converted to fixed routes before availability and reliability degrades. For this reason performance data should be published for FlexiRide as it is now for fixed  bus routes as public accountability is currently lacking. 

Infrastructure Victoria correctly acknowledges in their recent bus discussion paper that flexible route buses are most appropriate for low demand or niche applications. However given actual performance I still think they over-sell their applicability, especially relative to fixed routes which can more reliably carry more passenger per hour. This is something you might wish to comment on if you put in a submission (deadline January 27, 2023). 

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Melbourne's 10 worst bus routes (Age article)

The Age today has an article on Melbourne's 10 worst bus routes.

Pleased to have been able to contribute to it. 

Many will be familiar to Melbourne on Transit readers. 

Welcome if you're a first-time visitor. There's a lot of material here so this introduction could help.  

Monday, December 12, 2022

Welcome to ABC Melbourne listeners!

If you're here as you heard me on Warwick Long's show this afternoon then welcome! 

Melbourne on Transit is a blog about the service aspects of public transport. In a nutshell this includes routes, operating hours and connectivity. Infrastructure enable all this but generally speaking we already have enough to run a very good all-day service so I don't give it a lot of attention. 

I talk about how the network could be more useful for more people. There's special emphasis is on cost-effective improvements that work our existing train, tram and bus fleet harder for a greater overall benefit.   

I mostly discuss networks, routes and timetables though sometimes I also cover other matters such as passenger information and fares. 

My professional experience is as a bus planner with the Department of Transport with other roles in the industry before that. 

There's a lot of stuff here and reading it all will send you to sleep. But the links below might be of interest if you want to know more about public transport services in Melbourne and how they can be improved. 

Melbourne Public Transport Frequent Network Maps Click here if you want to see the most frequent routes near you. Or to compare whether your part of Melbourne has better or worse service than other areas. Maybe you're looking at moving house? These maps will help you find an area with useful public transport. 

Melbourne Future Frequent Network Think that our public transport should be better with frequent buses every few minutes along the main roads connecting with equally good trains and trams? You're not alone! Here's how inner, middle and outer Melbourne can get vastly improved public transport based on a radically reimagined network. Features an interactive map with reformed more local routes there as well.  

Click here for my take on Infrastructure Victoria's discussion paper on bus reform that came out today 

Building Melbourne's Useful Network is a feature where I take a few bus routes in a local area and discuss how they can be made more useful. Trains and trams are sometimes discussed. With over 100 items there's sure to be an item of interest for a neighbourhood near you. 

Timetable Tuesday is where I pick apart a bus or train timetable and again discuss interesting features. There's also often a lot of history (that fascinates some).

Melbourne on Transit YouTube Less active than the blog but there's a few videos on various transport topics. 

On Twitter? Follow me here to stay in touch with everything about network and service planning on Melbourne public transport.

Happy reading and thanks for visiting. 

Missed the interview? Hear it below! 

Infrastructure Victoria paper champions bus reform

Infrastructure Victoria today released a discussion paper on bus network reform. Get on Board: Making the most of Melbourne's Buses says that with the right route design, cheaper fares and more frequent services, much more could be made of Melbourne’s extensive but underutilised bus network. Age report here.

IV's paper found that the existing bus network is unappealing, inefficient and uncompetitive with driving. This was due to indirect routes, poor operating hours and low frequencies. Reform to it is critical as buses are the nearest and often only public transport for 80% of Melburnians, especially in growth areas.

Inaction on buses will lead to road congestion, entrenched social inequality and higher transport emissions. This is a discussion paper. IV will publish a final report in late 2023 with the public being invited to have their say in the interim. They acknowledge the start that the government has made on this, with the release of Victoria's Bus Plan last year (evaluated by me here). 

None of the discussion paper's themes will be unfamiliar to Melbourne on Transit readers. Indeed the paper references my work in documenting previous efforts at bus reform such as Metplan (1988) and Meeting Our Transport Challenges (2006). But it's good that they are all in one place by an authoritative body.  

Existing bus network snapshot

The paper has much good information handy for those curious about issues facing Melbourne's bus network. 

For instance it explains how important bus access is to providing public transport for most Melburnians. This need will only increase as our suburbs grow. Despite the vastly greater reach of the bus network compared to trains and trams it gets the least use out of the three modes (20% of overall patronage, though likely more during COVID as bus usage held up better). 

Limitations with existing bus services with regards to operating hours, frequencies and reliability are also covered. There's some great graphs showing how much service levels fall off on weekends (see graph on p24). Maps show the main bus congestion hotspots. In short buses haven't kept up with modern living and travel patterns, a theme that I've emphasised on this blog. IV (correctly in my view) sees scope for unmet demand on weekends that could be realised if service levels were improved. 

Figure 21 (p40) has a map showing which routes meet MOTC service standards regarding hours and span. I think IV's judgement criteria is tougher than that of the planners who implemented service roll-outs. This is because many routes are not considered to qualify even though others would differ. Since the MOTC standards are a minimum safety net standard, I'd have liked IV to draw on other resources like SNAMUTS and my frequent network maps to highlight areas that have a 'good' (eg every 10 min) or at least 'satisfactory' (every 20 min) level of service based on a tighter frequency but looser walking distance criteria (eg within 800m). 

Page 33 has maps showing the extent to which buses and trains connect (on a Saturday). There's two main cases where connections are good. These are (a) where trains are frequent, eg every 10 min such as on the Frankston, Dandenong and Ringwood lines and (b) where trains may be less frequent but buses have been coordinated with them. The latter stand out in Brimbank and Cranbourne which both had relatively recent bus network reviews (2014 and 2016). 

Page 34 has a map showing low and high productivity bus routes with a 20 boardings per hour cut-off. Low productivity routes are most prevalent in parts of Melbourne's outer north-east, outer east and south. While 20 boardings per hour might be defined as low it's important to note that it is still vastly better than on-demand flexible routes whose network role is sometimes over-emphasised. 

Another caution I'd apply here is the need to think in terms of productive networks as opposed to just productive routes. If an area had (say) 3 popular direct bus routes attracting 30 boardings per hour but one less direct route attracting 15 boardings per hour as a 'mop up' coverage service then I wouldn't automatically be removing the quieter route without knowing more about its role. It may be that it's worth keeping as a reformed overall more productive network would have been politically impossible to implement without it. The network supporting role of these quieter routes should be acknowledged if there are popular direct routes nearby though this does not mean that they are not subject to efficiency improvements if these can be done without sacrificing significant coverage.    

SmartBus and the university shuttles are identified as higher performing routes. The former is an over-simplification. There are actually sections of SmartBus routes (especially some orbitals) that have their quite poor productivity concealed by only counting very long routes as a whole. Conversely there are non-SmartBus routes that have very high productivity, notably in high demand or higher needs outer suburbs like Tarneit, Craigieburn and around Dandenong. Some are the product of recent reform while others have been unloved for years. The discussion paper should really have highlighted these also as they too present opportunities for cost-effective upgrades.  

Mention is made that our bus network doesn't have much of a hierarchy in speed and service, though SmartBus and the university shuttles are elements of top tier routes. IV try to define a service hierarchy on page 17, based on rapid, connector and local groupings. It seeks to be consistent with DoT's classification for their bus plan which I critically reviewed here. I still think IV should have nominated specific operating hours and frequencies as part of their hierarchy groupings. My review of DoT's Bus Plan contains some suggestions for a simpler hierarchy that could apply across modes consistent with network planning work they did a decade earlier. 

Reform opportunities

Reform opportunities are divided into those that improve patronage, coverage, customer experience and financial competitiveness. 

Patronage improving reforms include network redesign featuring more direct routes with priority and improved speed along with longer operating hours and better frequencies. These are your basics without which you'll have a hard time getting any higher usage. 

The coverage list is very thin with just two main points. These include demand responsive buses, taxi subsidies and integrating land use and transport. Unfortunately the most important is unaccountably omitted - local bus network reform. This was a key theme of successful reviews in Wyndham and Brimbank. Because local fixed routes are often more productive than demand responsive options the result network is often more economical than if you had fixed routes providing patronage oriented service and all coverage service provided by demand responsive (like the University of Melbourne proposal for Melbourne's west). 

The customer experience measures are less important than the basics but are still nice to have.  Elements include quieter electric buses, all door boarding (good for speed too), prepaid fares (can be inconvenient too!), better live network information and improved bus stops, marketing and branding. I think there should have been better emphasis on multimodal network information, especially bus details at train stations. 

The fourth and final was financial competitiveness. Despite it being a major part of the recent state election campaign I think pricing is overestimated - driving is generally dearer than public transport already. It's far more important that a good service is provided. Unfortunately IV is still advocating modal fares despite issues I'll discuss later. 

Bus reform success and implementation

Where have we been successful? The 2014 Brimbank and 2015 Wyndham network reviews are rightly cited as examples. Both resulted in simpler networks, more direct routes and patronage gains. I do think further gains are possible with added service kilometres to boost the main routes to even higher frequencies over more of the week.  (Disclaimer: I was professionally involved in both). 

To its credit the government has announced bus reviews in Melbourne's north and north-east (along with Mildura). These are major bodies of work, each being far larger than Wyndham and Brimbank. 

My personal view is that bus reform should be implemented in a large number of manageable smaller changes involving (say) 3 to 6 nearby related routes each. I've generally made this my practice in the Building Melbourne's Useful Network series presented here. However the real detail we don't yet know about is the extent of resourcing for the extra 7 day service kilometres so important to delivering quality all-day service on the premium routes. That's important so we don't end up with a repeat of last time where many reviews were done but most recommendations were not implemented (which the IV paper mentions). 

The paper refers to bus reform examples outside Melbourne. I'd have liked greater mention of Perth, which I think has consistently shown the best bus reform culture in Australia over many years. Sydney's recent initiatives are also very commendable. Auckland however is mentioned. 

Bus network reform isn't all plain sailing. There are some precautionary stories where it's failed. I'm not sure that Canberra's experience was quite as bad as mentioned. But Adelaide's was. I wrote a detailed item on why that was so here

For a discussion you can watch IV's webinar, featuring various academics, practitioners and advocates here:

IV and modal fares 

The main area where I think IV is wrong is with regards to its advocacy of modal fares. In their case advocating cheaper travel for buses than a similar distance trip if made by train. I believe this risks slowing the very service and network reform that IV claims to advocate. 

Also if it is politically impossible to raise train fares (note the 'race to the bottom' re fares in the recent 2022 state election campaign) the only response is to cut bus fares for an overall weaker revenue take. This imposes an opportunity cost when any available funding should have been used to make the network better rather than cheaper. 

Where does IV's modally fragmented thinking come from? Bodies like them (and IPART in NSW) appear to nurture a certain thread of economist thought inimical to integrated networks. They do not necessarily see the public transport network as a whole that needs to present a united front in order for it to be best equipped to offer a popular alternative to driving. 

Another bias of economists who dabble in public transport planning is a propensity to see too many issues as pricing rather than product (ie service) problems. Modes may be seen as stand-alone revenue and cost centres. There is sometimes a wish for them to be costed and priced differently because of variations in operating costs and a distrust of cross-subsidies between modes (since they make accounting harder, can conceal inefficiencies and could lead to suboptimal resource allocation). This view is different to that held by both passengers (who expect an integrated service) and best-practice transport authorities (who seek to provide it in all aspects including routes, timetables, information and fares). 

In Victoria this strand of thought was most influential in the 1990s when we broke up The Met and franchised our trains, trams and some buses. We even went a couple of steps towards disintegrated modal fares with Bayside train-only tickets and National Bus section fares presented as options to the multimode Metcard. 

We now know that franchising wasn't the money saver its proponents claimed (with it being almost exactly 20 years since the National Express Exit). And, until we came to our senses, we wasted untold millions on rebranding parts of the network every couple of years. Metlink was established to provide integrated  passenger information and single modal fares (as IV want now) were also  thankfully abolished. 

Modal fares actually undermine network reform and reduce public acceptance of it (which the discussion paper itself acknowledges is critical). An example will suffice. 

Suppose you had a bus network with routes that paralleled trains or trams. A network reform proposal might reduce network duplication and improve service frequencies with the trade-off being that you might have to change for some trips. Passengers would pay no more for this under our current fully integrated fare system. There may still be resistance but none will be based on fares. If resistance is purely based on the routes it may be possible to make a small change that makes a new network's implementation politically acceptable while still preserving nearly all of its intended benefits. 

However if fares for train and tram trips were higher than bus trips then passengers required to change would pay relatively more under the reformed network. Introducing a fare difference component would make getting public acceptance for network reform harder. 

Thus less reform would happen and we'd be stuck with more duplication, more complexity and less frequency across the network - all things that IV's discussion paper claims to be against. Other types of fare reform, such as reinstating fare zones, differential peak/off-peak pricing (also supported by IV) or adjusting concession entitlements, may have a stronger case if they harm neither network revenue nor modal integration.  

The role of flexible route buses

Demand-responsive/flexible route buses is an area where some in transport have been prone to accepting tech bro-inspired fads more than evidence. Page 35 of IV's paper has these service types occupying the least productive end of the spectrum. Even often criticised neighbourhood buses running infrequently on indirect routes typically attract more passenger boardings per hour (even if still less than IV's 20 per hour threshold). 

Low productivity basically means high costs per passenger. That's fine if you are willing to bear that cost as part of public transport's social role and your intended role is specialised (eg to help those with limited mobility access basic services). Unfortunately low productivity routes do not scale up if you want more than a handful of people using public transport (which you do). 

IV rightly mentions the poor record of many flexible route trials. To their credit they mention that any role is in low demand areas. However if we're talking about growth areas (where blocks are small, households are large and there is high work, education and other trip generation rates) then these are anything but low demand areas. The high patronage productivity performance of bus routes in growth areas like Tarneit and Craigieburn is evidence of this. You might have a flexible route in the early days of an estate's development but it wouldn't be long until it needs to be replaced by a fixed route. 

Page 66 suggests the following role for on-demand buses: 

On-demand buses offer a method to provide low demand areas a public transport option, instead of fixed route services. With this option, the planning of fixed route services could be more focused on patronage purposes, rather than on trying to imperfectly meet both patronage and coverage purposes.  

I regard this as a poor option. There is no reason why you cannot have a two tier network of fixed routes (such as in the 2014 and 2015 Brimbank and Wyndham networks) where more frequent and direct routes are focused on patronage with less direct neighbourhood routes fulfilling coverage aims. In this way you do not have to compromise the direct route network. As it happens even neighbourhood routes in these areas enjoy patronage productivities several times more than is possible with flexible routes. If coverage is needed add a fixed neighbourhood route. Only if for some reason this is impractical should one consider a flexible route. 

As economic wonks IV should be extremely interested in productivity as it provides a means to obtain maximum value for money from a bus network. Thus even by their own standards they should recommend flexible routes only as a last resort for niche markets.   


It's great that IV has done this paper. Bus reform is one of the top single things that could be done to greatly improve transport access for millions of Melburnians. If the paper is seen as a gentle needling of government (which should have done much more than it currently has) then that will be a good thing, especially given Melbourne's growth and bus reform's high cost-effectiveness.  

With many infrastructure projects now well underway and even drawing to completion in the next couple of years it's now time to think about how we can best maximise public benefit from new and existing assets including our train, tram and bus vehicles. Reimagining our buses (including a big boost in service hours) is one of the most potent (yet too often underappreciated) tools available. 

Comments are welcome and can be left below. You also have about 6 weeks to comment directly to IV on their paper. A webinar discussion is below. 

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

7 ticking transport timebombs that incoming ministers should know about

Although it's become more contestable, providing policy advice to the minister remains a key role of government departments such as the Department of Transport (soon to become Department of Transport and Planning).

A particularly important time for this is just after an election when a new government is formed. Potential outcomes could include (i) different party different minister, (ii) same party different minister or (iii) same party same minister.   

Incoming government briefings, known as red and blue books, are prepared by the department to reflect the likely result, which, notwithstanding the gradual decline in the major party vote, will either be a Labor or a Coalition-led government. 

Labor's victory means that the 'red book' will be used. 

These 'books' advise the incoming minister on how they can implement their promises and key long-term issues facing the portfolio. They are a time for the department to shine with 'frank and fearless' advice less tempered by short-termism or political considerations as might become the case later. Or, less charitably, it could be interpreted by Yes Minister fans as being the first opportunity for the experienced bureaucracy to mould a callow minister. 

We don't know the full contents of these books, though Infrastructure Partnerships Australia has made a summary of Labor's announced promises. They call this a 'red book' though the genuine document from the Department will have vastly more background on key issues and challenges.  

Should incoming government briefings be made public and subject to Freedom of Information? Bureaucrats have argued that they should remain protected cabinet documents. Their fear is that publication of advice could result in it being made less frank than it should be, especially if it could embarrass the government (which may hold unclear or different views on matters). Making advice less frank could potentially reduce its quality and lead to the incoming minister not being told about what they need to know. 

Yesterday's announcement revealed little change in the public transport portfolio with Jacinta Allan keeping infrastructure/SRL and Ben Carroll keeping public transport. However Melissa Horne gains roads and road safety with Josh Bull getting a parliamentary secretary role. Sonya Kilkenny becomes Planning minister with this moved in to the portfolio as part of 'machinery of government' changes. The relative stability means that both main ministers responsible for public transport have a head start due to experience. So much less will be new to them compared to if new ministers were starting.   

Below are seven issues that I think incoming transport portfolio ministers and any parliamentary secretaries need to know about. The first arises from an election promise while the remaining six are long-term festering issues. All will get worse if not addressed in this term. However addressing them will make public transport more useful, accessible, reliable and cost-effective than it is now. 

I will sometimes cite political vulnerabilities that a department briefing might skirt around. This is often virtuous as genuine community needs and good politics sometimes match. Nevertheless some suggested savings and revenue measures will be controversial. To quote the premier's election night victory speech, it's "about doing what's right, not what's popular".  

1: V/Line 'rail fail' risk if fares cut before service boosted

The 2022 election campaign featured a 'race to the bottom' in public transport with parties trying to outdo each other with cheap fare bribes that cost far more than was ever promised in (more beneficial) service improvements. 

The Coalition's $2 daily fare was most egregious with this starving the system of revenue if it ever got implemented. Greens had their own crazy scheme while the Socialists wanted to scrap fares entirely. Labor was more restrained, opting to slash regional fares only with a $9.20 daily cap from March 2023.  It also promised some worthwhile weekend V/Line train service increases, mostly starting in 2025.  

See the problem? There will be a two year period between when fares are cut and services are increased. And even when the boost does come the every 60 to every 40 minute increase for Melton (one of Melbourne's fastest growing corridors) is nothing to write home about. A period where trains run crush-loaded and even leave passengers behind is not conducive to network goodwill and sustained long-term patronage growth. 

Labor also risks setting up the conditions for a 'perfect storm' of V/Line rail fails if its rushed fare cuts are unbacked by increased capacity, service and reliability on key lines. 

Does this ring a bell? It should. The 2006 election campaign featured 20% V/Line and a metropolitan Zone 3 abolition fare cuts that were delivered in March 2007. With rising fuel prices and strong CBD employment these delivered a rail patronage surge. A fragile, under-prepared under-serviced network couldn't cope. People couldn't board trains and reliability plummeted. Discontent around this, especially on the Frankston line, helped vote the Brumby government out in 2010. 

This time those hardest hit will be in western growth areas like Wyndham Vale, Tarneit, Melton and Caroline Springs. Most swung against Labor in the recent state election. While Labor retained its seats this time, a series of service fails, a more tired government and a potentially revived opposition could make 2026's result closer.  

The government would be silly to ignore these risks. They are more likely than theoretical given that existing weekend V/Line trains to places like Melton and Wyndham Vale are already heavily used as below. 

Recommendation: Labor should defer its V/Line fare cuts until extra capacity and frequency can be added on stressed lines such as Geelong and Melton, especially on weekends. It should also expand on its underbaked 60 to 40 min proposal to deliver 20 minute weekend services to Melton. Any political hit of such a deferral won't be as bad as news pictures of crushed trains and overflowing platforms.  

2. Metro train crowding as off-peak service lags

Travel patterns have changed post-COVID. The CBD has become more a place to play than to work, with many opting to work from home for at least some of the week. Peak trains on some lines remain very frequent but are now often quieter than off-peak, weekend and evening trains. However timetables have not yet substantially changed with typical 30 min evening waits between trains the worst service of any comparable developed world city. Crowding and long waits can discourage usage, weaken network connectivity and give rise to increased traffic congestion and parking pressures. 

Recommendation: Identify most pressing service gaps on rail network (eg 30 - 40 min intervals) and seek to redistribute peak service to cut maximum waits to 20 min at important off-peak periods (eg weekday interpeak, mid-late evenings and Sunday mornings) on key lines currently without it. Consider as a temporary measure  (which could become permanent) with campaign to boost CBD visits in conjunction with the City of Melbourne. Step up Metro train driver recruiting and advance planning for simpler greenfields timetables with 20 min maximum waits and more 10 minute service. 

3. Bus service backlogs in high-needs areas

Labor kept seats but suffered large drops in primary votes in areas widely considered neglected with regards to government services (including buses). These same areas have strong patronage and social cases for improved bus services especially where they can be delivered with the existing fleet. Failure to act is contributing to peoples cost of living pressures, lessening access to jobs and reducing the pool of labour that employers have access to. Compared to the 2018 campaign political interest in buses increased in 2022 with the Coalition promising numerous specific bus service upgrades.    

Governments may be tempted to bring forward land release for housing but commensurate attention to the early delivery of services such as buses is not always given. The Growth Area Infrastructure Contribution process does not always work well with regards to the provision of bus services. Lack of attention here places thousands of Melburnians in areas without even a minimum level of public transport access, especially if estates are built 'leapfrog style' without local connecting roads that would facilitate direct and efficient bus routes. Flexible route buses are sometimes suggested but these often have poor passenger boardings per bus hour productivity metrics compared to fixed routes.   

The government has announced bus network reviews for Melbourne's north and north-east. However  it will be years before these translate to new services on the ground. In the meantime the DoT's currently limited internal capacity to more quickly roll out improved services needs to be strengthened. Opportunities exist for sooner timetable upgrades in high priority areas such as Tarneit, Craigieburn and Dandenong as smaller scale warm-up exercises to test streamlined DoT's processes ahead of wider use. 

Recommendation: If not already done, propose bus service upgrades for key routes in high need suburban areas in Melbourne's west, north and south-east. Seek funding in the 2023 budget and early delivery thereafter. Commence planning for 7 day service on all residential area bus routes and large-scale SmartBus upgrades to be funded in 2024 with implementation shortly after. 

4. Mounting tram delays and looming accessibility deadline  

Although Melbourne professes a love for trams they haven't had the same degree of investment that roads and rail have had. It's hard to remember when the tram network was last extended. But leaving that aside, their two greatest needs are separation and priority from cars (for improved speed and reliability) and better accessibility

Trams are a major supporter of activity in Melbourne's most economically productive areas. They also contribute to liveability and home creation including redevelopment of underused inner-suburban sites. Trams are performing at their best when they largely replace driving rather than walking or cycling trips. 

Other tram needs include timetables to better reflect all week travel trends, network reform in the CBD and short extensions in inner and middle areas to provide a more connected network. Consequences of a failure to act on these matters includes a clogged city and inner suburbs (since there's no room for new roads and tunnelling is expensive) and a further degradation in tram travel speeds and unnecessary fleet acquisition costs to maintain frequency (as trams are having to spend too much of their time stuck in traffic). 

Recommendations: Government provide and fund a tram network development plan focusing on improved separation, speed, accessibility and logical extensions. The Free Tram Zone should be abolished early this term, possibly as part of other fare reforms. As a benefit for retail businesses, street view-obscuring tram window wraps also need phasing out. Scrapping both would aid tram travel comfort, speed and accessibility. 

5. Falling V/Line service delivery 

V/Line now cancels twice the proportion of trains that Metro does. The rate of cancellations has been steadily deteriorating since 2016. Cancellations are now also worse than those of much-maligned trains in the UK. V/Line's problems start at the top with previous recent CEOs dogged by performance and/or integrity issues.  

A failure to electrify to areas like Wyndham Vale and Melton has meant that V/Line is as much an outer suburban rail operator as a regional one. While few regional travellers take trains frequently, outer suburbanites may take trains almost daily across the week. The effects of cancellations would thus affect more people more often. This could become a political issue for the government given a common view of neglect in services held by people in outer suburbs. The 2010 election result is a precedent for what could happen when the government loses control of rail service performance as it did about 15 years ago. 

Looking ahead to 2026, the heavily regionally-based Commonwealth Games will be held in this term. V/Line will need to be prepared to play its role in doing the transport heavy-lifting here (and not embarrass the state with unreliable services). 

Recommendation: Government does whatever required to extract better operational performance from V/Line with an ultimate target of reducing cancellations to 2002 levels.  

6. Increasing tolerance of cost inefficient projects

We have become too accepting of transport projects that are very expensive for the benefits they provide. Rising interest rates, increased material costs, skilled labour procurement difficulties and government budgetary pressures are all pointing to a harsher funding environment in the foreseeable future. It's increasingly important that what gets built is the best of the bunch as regards benefits versus cost. 

We can't afford to keep waving through low BCR freeways while ignoring high benefit active transport projects like paths and crossings. Neither should we accept space-inefficient train station parking expansion in dense inner areas on prime land with huge costs per spot and passenger gained. On the other hand initiatives like more station entrances increase station catchments with benefits for patronage and surrounding precinct development.  

Within public transport asset utilisation should be improved as too many of our buses and trains sit idle off-peak or at night when they could be carrying passengers. Where inefficient overlapping bus routes are a problem then the start of the term is the best time to simplify the network, even though slow Department of Transport processes might make this difficult. I discussed potential opportunities for network pruning just after the 2018 election. Some got done but most remain today. 

Tram and bus priority are also worthwhile due to their ability to allow a given section of road to efficiently carry more people. And, while currently 'flavour of the month', FlexiRide type bus services are inherently lower productivity than fixed routes so have more limited applicability than many people assume.   

Recommendations: More rigour when analysing and comparing projects. An overall transport plan as required by the Transport Integration Act and recommended by the Auditor-General. Encouraging better utilisation of public transport assets through network and timetable reform including 2021-style resource re-allocations where desirable. A funding stream for small service upgrades and better processes for faster delivery of simpler, mostly timetable-only changes.  

7. Falling fare compliance

The 2022 Network Revenue Protection Plan shows an alarming decline in the proportion of passengers paying their fare between 2019 and 2021. This is attributed to various factors including a changing passenger mix (basically fewer peak commuters, most of whom must pass through station fare barriers) and the removal of cash top-ups from buses. 

Buses, closely followed by V/Line, recorded the largest drops in fare compliance. Reduced fare compliance costs the system revenue and reduces the revenue gains of potential service improvements.  

Recommendation: Make it both easier and 'the done thing' for all passengers to pay for their trip. 


Cognisance of and action on these seven matters will make public transport services more useful for more people, start to address some of the network's long-term issues and improve the system's efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Hence they should be early priorities for the incoming government, with the most controversial done first. 

Similar looming matters no doubt exist with roads and planning. Issues here could include (i) high costs of mega road projects and acknowledgement of their harm to sustainable development patterns, (ii) a road maintenance backlog (partly caused by more and heavier vehicular traffic including freight), (iii) the need for parking and road space pricing for revenue as cars electrify, (iv) underprovision of space for active and public transport, (v) a need to reverse the trend to bigger and heavier cars for safety and other reasons, (vi) urban consolidation to provide more affordable 'gentle density' housing in well serviced middle suburbs, (vii) more walkable outer suburbs with more services nearby and several more.  

Thoughts on these (and any more) are appreciated and can be left below.