Friday, March 31, 2023

UN 147: Ten Super-cheap bus boosts for 2023

It's tricky. 

We have a minister who wants to do bus reform. 

But apparently there's little state government money floating around. 

Victorians have been told to brace for public service job cuts in May 3's state budget with the CPSU claiming 6000 positions could go

Today's tighter budgetary environment is mainly due to rising interest bills on capital projects started when money was cheap and was expected to remain so. Those who believed Reserve Bank assurances about rates staying low are now feeling the pinch. Election commitments like the V/Line fare cuts starting today would also have tightened things, especially as this involves recurrent funding that is scarce at the best of times.  

Tougher public finances makes getting the most community benefit and ridership from existing transport vehicles and service kilometres more important than ever. That needs carefully selected service uplifts and network reform at least partly funded by redundancies on the network.

Keep reading for 10 opportunities of this for 2023.    

Defining the game

There's two games here. A big game and a little game. 

The big game is that more bus (and train) service kilometres per capita is needed. And an ability to deploy it sensibly. The last time the Victorian governments really played the big game for public transport service was 2006 - 2010 for buses, up to about 2013-4 for Metro trains and under this government for weekday V/Line trains. 

Playing the big game needs money. It's not huge by capital works standards but it does need to be ongoing. You look to government budgets rather than departmental plans for the best clues on what's going to happen here. This is why May's budget will be so important. 

The best that can be hoped for is that although parts of government (including transport) might be pruned there's a redirection of resources into transport service. Recent state budgets have shown a small move in this direction, with more in 2022 than 2021 which had more than 2020's. 

The little game is where we maximise benefit from existing service kilometres. That involves cutting inefficient overlaps and optimising service to better reflect community need and usage. A lot of this happened during the last Coalition government. There was also a bit done in 2021 such as the Transdev network service redistribution and the Night Network bus revamp

Small route reforms to remove inefficient overlaps or simplify deviations might also be possible. This is best done at the start of a government's term (ie now!) so that there is time to resolve any controversial issues before the next election. Even if high frequency cannot be funded immediately, a reformed network can make this easier to implement on needed portions, as illustrated below. 

(In case the above looks familiar, this example was based on Route 556 around Epping

Adding new routes over an unchanged existing network is expensive to fund but easy to implement. In contrast optimising service is cheaper to fund but more demanding to implement. This is because such reform needs careful planning, acceptance of trade-offs and more explaining to the public. 

Still that's not to be sneered at as the bus network has a 30+ year backlog of cheap-to-fix problems and many routes should be simplified before they warrant big service increases. The list below concentrates on these due to the current budgetary environment. 

Budget bus boosts for 2023 

Here's the list. Special emphasis is on opportunities to spread 7 day service and simplify routes with close to zero net cost due to offsetting savings.    

1. Seven day Route 800 for almost nothing

Route 800 is Melbourne's best used bus route that lacks 7 day service. Operating hours are very short and Saturday afternoon buses have 2 hour gaps between them. This is despite it serving major destinations including Chadstone Shopping Centre, Oakleigh, parts of the Monash Precinct and Dandenong. It's also the only public transport in low income parts of Noble Park and Dandenong. Service was slashed under Joan Kirner and never restored since despite the growth of 7 day trading and high-rise developments such as M-City. 

A full upgrade would involve the weekday 20 minute frequency being rolled out on weekends along with longer operating hours such as a 10pm finish. A $2 million spend on improved service wouldn't be excessive given this route's importance. 

But what if you wanted to do something for the 800 but had no funding? You'd then have to look at quieter nearby routes that have more service and transfer bus resources from them to the 800. An obvious choice is the 704, as I discussed here

Route 704 takes just under 40 minutes to do its run. Service is every 40 minutes on weekends, thus requiring two buses. Route 800 is about an hour long. Thus its hourly Saturday morning service requires two buses while Saturday afternoons needs one bus. 

A zero cost upgrade could trim Route 704 from every 40 to every 80 minutes on weekends, thus freeing one bus. Adding that straight to the 800 would allow a 40 minute service on Saturday mornings, a 60 minute service on Saturday afternoons, a new 120 minute service on Sundays and some later finishes. Though in practice one would likely prefer hourly on both days rather than 40 minutes for Saturday mornings.    

Pruning 704's weekday service could free up more resources, eg for further (and needed) weekend upgrades. Not ideal but better than now. And in areas like the 800 passes through people will heavily use even low frequency buses such as seen on routes like 813 and 814.  

2. Seven day 404 from Footscray to Moonee Ponds

This one is possible after the Metro Tunnel opens in 2025. Currently the 403 bus runs from Footscray to Parkville to feed regional students to Melbourne University and avoid an extra train/401 bus change (as V/Line trains don't stop at North Melbourne).  

That will become redundant when the Metro tunnel opens as there will be frequent trains direct from Footscray to Parkville. Hence there remains the question of what to do with 403's buses and service hours. 

The fastest route from Footscray to Moonee Ponds is not the 82 tram but the 404 bus. This also serves the dense Kensington Banks development. However the 404 only runs every 40 minutes interpeak and not at all on Sundays. Extra service hours taken from the 403 could enable an interpeak boost to 20 minutes and potentially 7 day running.

As Route 404 already has a 20 minute peak frequency these changes add hours but not the peak bus requirements. A potential use for the bus vehicles could be in the Melton area to accommodate high growth and fill needed coverage gaps. Making this easier is that 403, 404 and Melton routes are run by the same bus operator. 

3. Seven days on Park Orchards' 271

Route 271 from Box Hill to Ringwood is a coverage style route operating via Blackburn North and Park Orchards. Its 30 minute Saturday frequency is relatively good for a Melbourne bus though usage isn't very high. There is no Sunday service which is unfortunate as there are large areas where it is the only public transport. 

Sunday service is doable at low (but not no) cost if Saturday service is pruned to 60 minutes and trips are transferred to Sunday. Sunday trips are a bit dearer to run than Saturday trips due to wages. Hence to be cost-neutral there will need to be other minor timetable changes on the Kinetic network. Potential examples could include deleting Route 281's Deakin extension on university holidays (or even all the time when the upgraded 201 starts) and/or rationalising some peak trips on the quieter outer portions of some routes. 
4. Seven days to Yarraville on the 431

Kingsville, on Route 431, is remote from other public transport except on the busy and hard to cross Geelong Rd. It's a densifying and developing area. The 431 stops suddenly at 7pm weekdays and 6pm Saturdays. There is no Sunday service though Saturday service runs at better than average 30 minute intervals. 

Also feeding Yarraville is the 432. This is a long and windy route from Newport to Yarraville via Altona Gate. Service frequency is uneven. Weekday off-peak gaps vary between 20 and 30 minutes meaning that there is no clockface/memory timetable. Saturday and Sunday services are every 45 minutes although there are longer hours than on the 431. Route 432 is a not particularly heavily used route. 

An opportunity exists to shift service hours from 432 by lowering its weekday frequency from 20-30 to an even 30 minutes. This should be able to fund (and possibly interline with) an upgraded 431 operating every 30 minutes on weekdays and 40 minutes on weekends (both days) with longer hours with a similar service kilometres to now. More detail here

5. Patterson Lakes seven day buses

The only bus accessible to the large part of Patterson Lakes away from McLeod Rd is the 857. This is a limited service route with short operating hours, 90 minute gaps and no Saturday afternoon and Sunday service. Meanwhile McLeod Rd has the 708 and 833 which both operate 7 days. 

7 day coverage would be improved if one of the McLeod Rd routes (eg 833) operated south of there via Gladesville Av. In return the existing Gladesville Av route could be moved to McLeod Rd. In other words an 833/857 swap. 

While this doesn't change the number of stops served, this swap adds extra service kilometres as 833 runs more frequently than does the 857. But if the 833 was shortened then it would even out. 

Is this possible without reducing coverage? As it turns out the answer is yes. When the 833 was extended to Carrum a few years ago its backtracking along Frankston - Dandenong Rd was retained. This is despite there being other routes in the area including the 832 and the more frequent 901 SmartBus. Removing this backtracking would simplify this route and free up kilometres that could fund the extra distance in Patterson Lakes.

Route 857's kilometres would be less, improving directness from Carrum Station to Dandenong. However it may be desirable to add kilometres to Route 708 to retain service in the southern part of Carrum (if moving the station closer to this area is not considered sufficient). 

This change does mean somewhat less frequency on part of McLeod Rd but is an overall greater good gain with much more widespread 7 day service. More detail here.     

6. Four new SmartBus routes

Four bus routes have service levels that almost qualify them as SmartBus routes. In fact their frequencies at certain times (eg weekends) are often already better. However operating hours are often very slightly shorter.

Only a handful of trips per day would allow these routes to be counted as SmartBus, the indicator of premium bus services in Melbourne. The expansion of such as network was a significant thrust of Victoria's Bus Plan and routes 216, 220, 234 and 246 are the lowest of 'low hanging fruit'. 

* 216 City - Sunshine: Requires very minor weekend span improvements.

* 220 City - Sunshine: Requires very minor weekend span improvements. Desirable to reform with Route 410 to simplify Ballarat Rd services and provide a direct Victoria University - Docklands - CBD connection. More here.

* 234 Queen Vic Market - Garden City: Requires very minor weekend span improvements. (~6 extra trips per week)

* 246 Clifton Hill - Elsternwick: Requires earlier morning start times 7 days (2 - 3 extra trips each way per day).

All routes are operated by Kinetic. Internal economies would need to be found for these change to be service kilometres neutral. Possibilities could include shortening Fishermans Bend routes to start south of the current Queen Vic Market terminus, deleting Route 429 (but modifying 428), reducing frequency on or deleting parts of the heavily duplicative and poorly used 280/282, and doing some peak frequency rationalisation on outer parts of some longer routes (subject to patronage counts).  

7. Simplified 600/922/923

Buses between St Kilda, Elwood, Brighton, Sandringham and Southland are a complex mess. Some roads can have up to 4 routes going to pretty similar places, none very frequently. The complexity also means that 3 of the 4 routes don't run much after dark, intervals can reach 80 minutes and some trips finish mid-route. As well buses going the same way might depart from different stops, such as at the newly rebuilt Cheltenham Station. The use of widely separated route numbers (and too many routes in general) make it harder to find timetables on the PTV website and even harder to establish which is the next trip at stops. 

Patronage varies significantly along the 600/922/923 corridor. Its northern part includes Elwood, an area with significant housing density and buses as the only nearby public transport. Its middle bit around Brighton parallels a train line and other bus routes, with quite low patronage. Meanwhile its southern part, with significant unique catchment, provides a feeder service to Sandringham and Cheltenham as well as connecting to Southland.  

These factors make the 600/922/923 ripe for reform. The northern part is arguably unnecessary, especially if Route 606 is boosted. The Brighton section is possibly also redundant while the Sandringham to Southland portion could be simplified from three to two routes. There's different ways to do this with more detail here and here

8. Simpler 770 and 771 in Karingal area

Karingal's main residential area bus routes are the 770 and 771 from Frankston station. Both operate on complex routes, going different ways on the way to and from Frankston. This means that people in the area need to take a different bus back to what they took there. 

Significant simplification is possible if the loops are removed and the 770 and 771 made into linear bidirectional routes. That's possible without loss of coverage. More detail on that is here

9. Simplifying by splitting (380566736)

Complexity is a key reason people avoid using buses. Melbourne contains more than its fair share of complex and underperforming bus routes; people just want to go from A to B and not backtrack or go around in circles. Some routes can be simplified just by splitting into two straighter routes with service retained at all existing stops.  

Three examples include: 

380 between Ringwood and Croydon. A complex circular route that could be simplified to two Ringwood - Croydon bidirectional routes, one north and the other south. Weekend operating hours extensions are desirable but the split can be done without them. This route serves Maroondah Hospital

566 between Lalor and Northland. A complex route that backtracks via Greensborough with some stops served by buses in both directions. No one would ride it end to end. Hence it is a good candidate for a split at Greensborough. Other potential improvements include a western extension to Epping Plaza and improving its frequency from the current ~23 to 20 minutes to harmonise evenly with trains. 

736 between Blackburn and Mitcham. Again no one would ride this end to end as walking would be quicker and there is a train. Glen Waverley is a major centre, interchange and future SRL station. The service would become easier to use if it was split into two routes. Through running and timetables could even remain the same with a route number changing at Glen Waverley.  

10. Removing useless kinks

Some bus routes have kinks or deviations that slow through passengers but do little to improve network coverage. Some kinks may add confusion if they only operate on some trips. Examples of those that may be removable without changes to other routes include: 

279's occasional Blackburn deviation
504's indirectness in Fitzroy North
506's Smith St kink
536's alternating paths in Hadfield
833's Dandenong - Frankston Rd backtracking (more on this later)

Four of these five should reduce route kilometres so marginally reduce operating costs. Route 536's should be unchanged with the main gain being simplicity and avoiding 80 minute gaps at some stops. 

Potentially removable variations and deviations on other routes include those on 273, 432, 469, 503, 510, 555, 558, 624, 693, 732, 737, 742, 733, 894, 895 and many others. However other network reforms nearby may be desirable to retain coverage if these are done. 

What's not listed? 

Many popular routes that strongly justify service increases are not listed above.

The main reason for this is that offsetting cuts are harder to find. For instance Route 506 (a strongly used route lacking Sunday service) is run by a small bus operator with only one other route (503 which also lacks Sunday service). Larger operators in outer areas like CDC in Werribee, Broadmeadows Bus in Craigieburn, Sita in Melton and Ventura in Dandenong have strong justifications to run more of their routes more frequently over longer hours but also appear to lack significant 'fat' from which resources could be simply siphoned. 

This is why important upgrades such as 506 and 536 (7 day service), 406, 408, 410 (improved Sunday service) and 150, 160, 192, 495, 529 and 533 (boosted off-peak and/or weekend frequency) are not listed despite strong rationale for them (including appearance in this Top 40 upgrade list). The same applies to many 7 day and public holiday standardisations of local routes to deliver 365 day service.

If funding for service increases comes available then those in the Top 40 list, along with growth area coverage expansions, should get top priority. These are all strong routes which in some cases just need upgrades on one day of the week to make them good. Despite the straightened times, advocates should not be shy about requesting funding boosts on routes in such high patronage propensity / high social needs catchments.  
Another reason for me not including some initiatives is that several routes and/or several operators might be involved. For example it is highly desirable that Route 903 operate via Highpoint instead of duplicating the 465 west of Essendon. The overall cost would likely be low. However this involves route or at least timetable reform involving other operators routes including 406, 465 and possibly others like 407 and 419.

Network reform requires some capital spending, even if it's mere thousands putting in new bus stop poles and replacing timetables. Even trifling amounts can be hard to source, with DTP scoring much less here than the major construction agencies.  

Similar can be said for much needed network reforms in areas like Keysborough and Dandenong North along with more ambitious examples involving Knox and Doncaster, north-south cross-Yarra connections around Ivanhoe/Camberwell/Caulfield and additional 10 minute corridors such as between Coburg, Northland and Heidelberg and Footscray to Highpoint. Further examples of reform to provide simpler consolidated main bus routes are presented here

Buying buses is another expense but permits needed growth area coverage expansions. As well as completing missing links whose absence makes travel needlessly slow because routes finish just short of a major station or destination. Here's the top 12 with the second 12 presented here.

Trains too! For some higher profile stuff than dinky little bus timetable tinkerings then less waiting for Metro trains is a must. Cutting 30 - 40 min maximum waits to 20 minutes between 7am and 9pm / 7 days should be top priority. Ways to benefit service to 100 stations on key lines are described here.    


Presented are more than ten very low cost bus boosts that should deliver an overall simpler and better network. These could be made better, and extra ones done, with extra bus hours and kilometres funding. 

Your thoughts on these and any other ideas are appreciated and can be left below.  

Index to Useful Network items here

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

TT #181: Footnote Frenzy!

One feature of Melbourne's notoriously complicated bus network is that there are routes where different trips go via different streets and even sometimes to different destinations. 

Some routes might have extensions on certain nights only (eg to cater for late night shopping) while other trips only operate on those nights. There may be connections to a weekly market bus. Or they might only operate on some public holidays and not others (normally because universities have odd holiday rules). 

Whenever there is a variation worth drawing to passengers attention the usual thing is to add a footnote to the timetable. 

This can show up both at stop timetables and online.

Some footnotes can be confusing, hilarious or wrong. And PTV can be inconsistent with some deviations getting footnotes while almost identical ones on another route do not.  

Trains are different again with PTV presented timetables lacking them for different peak stopping patterns, though they appeared on large station specific timetables. 

Here's a tour of some of the notable footnoted bus timetables across Melbourne. It's a Twitter thread I started but you don't need to be a Twitter user to view.

You will see differences in how similar variations on different routes are treated; consistency of presentation is not PTV's strong suit. But I wouldn't blame them too much - DPT through PTV is trying to explain a network that is so unmanageably complex that errors and inconsistencies are inevitable despite best endeavours. 

Thus if you want good information on buses there's only so much you can do until the network is vastly simplified. This is a task that is well stated in Victoria's Bus Plan. However it should be emphasised that much, such as removing reduced summer timetables, non-standard public holiday arrangements and perhaps some quieter deviations, are low cost and can be done without wholesale route reforms.  

Index to other Timetable Tuesday items here

Monday, March 27, 2023

NDP Metropolitan Rail: 10 years since public release

Today is an important anniversary for public transport network planning in Melbourne. The PTV Network Development Plan – Metropolitan Rail was completed in December 2012 but released to the public 10 years ago today

This ground-breaking plan was important for four reasons. 

It was made public

It is multimodal, with a coordination framework encompassing trams and buses

It combined infrastructure and service uplifts

It was structured to deliver important benefits early and maximise asset utilisation 

Few plans before and none publicly available since have matched it in how it would transform public transport. Its impact, had it been funded and implemented in the specified time-frame, would have exceeded that of any single public transport infrastructure project, regardless of size. The Age described it as a "terrific ambitious plan that just needs someone to fund it". 

What was the NDP Metropolitan Rail? 

In terms of passenger benefits, the NDP was a blueprint for rolling out frequent all day service across the suburban rail network. Its aim was to improve service and reliability by simplifying stopping patterns and deliver consistent all-day 7 day turn-up-and-go service every 10 minutes on all main lines. Smaller branches and some outer sections would meet every second train, with service every 20 minutes while parts of the inner core would enjoy a 5 minute service. It envisaged that large steps would have been taken by 2016 with most of the rest done by 2021 with most stations getting trains every 10 minutes or better all week.  

Making the best use of existing assets was front and centre of the plan. Essentially service first, infrastructure second, and only then dictated by what the service needs. In the plan's own words: 

A central focus of the plan is to regularly overhaul and simplify timetables and train operations, getting every extra service possible out of the existing system at zero or low cost, before turning to more costly infrastructure solutions.

The subsequent infrastructure program aimed to improve reliability, remove constraints on parts of the network that restricted achievable frequencies and extend the rail network to growth areas. Outer network extension was a lower priority than frequency and core capacity; Mernda, for example, would be one of the later stages.  

The plan's four priorities are as follows:

It was envisaged that the plan would be accompanied by tram and bus network reform and harmonised timetables. There was a great need for this; unlike cities (such as Perth) which had multimodal coordination as part of their transport planning DNA, Melbourne had buses every 10, 15, 20, 22, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 55, 60 or 120 minutes and trams every 10, 12, 15, 20 or 30 minutes frequently failing to meet trains every 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 or 60 minutes. Even trains themselves didn't reliable connect with the abovementioned frequencies. The NDP sought to bring a pulse to the network to make connections more reliable across the day over the whole week.   

This would be achieved through a simplified hierarchy of routes with more consistent frequencies all week. For example main routes could operate every 10 minutes and intermediate routes every 20 minutes to harmonise with trains upgraded to operate either every 10 or every 20 minutes. The NDP's frequency hierarchy and coordination framework, applying across all modes, made it far more advanced than 2021’s Victoria's Bus Plan that didn’t have one at all.     

Patronage assumptions

The decade leading up to the plan's completion (December 2012) coincided with a huge boost in CBD employment and public transport usage across all modes. Train usage was driven by increased CBD employment (and fuel prices), trams by inner area densification and bus usage by suburban growth and substantial service increases (especially between 2006 and 2010). 

It assumed a continued fast rise for all modes with network usage rising from 517 million trips pa when the plan was written to 1 billion in 2031. Peak demand was projected to be up 50% in 10 years and 130% later on. This continued growth informed the plan's aims to boost core peak capacity (eg through signalling, bigger trains and selected infrastructure) ahead of suburban extensions, notably Mernda which was pushed back very late. 

As it happened the big patronage growth spurt had tailed off just about when the NDP came out. Bus patronage growth was somewhat weak about 5-6 years ago, attributed to factors such as service quality under operators such as Transdev Melbourne, the growth of ride share and e-commerce reducing the need for people to go to 'bricks and mortar' shops.

Hurting rail usage has been the increasingly part-time nature of the network as train testing, level crossing removals and (paradoxically) Night Network (which reduced available maintenance windows) caused multiple closures and sometimes long waits for substitute buses. Then there was the pandemic, stripping the network of its white collar CBD commuter component as working from home became compulsory and later popular for part of the week.

Public transport patronage has since rebounded but more so for evening, off-peaks and weekends than during traditional weekday peak periods. Hence if we are to still reach 1 billion passenger trips pa by 2031 the patronage rise will need to be very steep since it has been so limited in the last decade. And it is increasingly clear that growth opportunities are being held back by long waits at times when people do wish to travel, especially at night and, to a lesser, extent off-peak. 

What got done and what didn’t? 

I’ll mainly discuss service aspects here. The reformed Frankston line timetable is the nearest to what the plan envisaged on all trunk sections. Stopping patterns were simplified and the line generally operates every 10 minutes during the day and 20 minutes at night. This line runs through to Werribee and Williamstown which have maximum 20 minute waits (a big improvement on 40 min Sunday morning & 30 minute evening waits). 

The Pakenham / Cranbourne lines to Dandenong achieve the greenfields 10 minute frequent service ideal on weekdays and during the day on weekends. However early Sunday mornings and weekend evenings remain with a desultory 30 minute service (unlike similar lines in Sydney with widespread 15 minute service). 

The Belgrave/Lilydale lines were only really done on weekends during the day where a 10 minute service operates to Ringwood. Evenings remain half-hourly. Weekday timetables have also stayed unreformed with 30 minute gaps east of Ringwood and a huge number of complex peak stopping patterns. 

Other lines remained with widespread 30 or 40 minute waits with 7 day 10 minute frequencies continuing to be available on only a low proportion of lines (apart from Frankston). And during the day there are widespread 20 minute intervals even on busy main lines like Craigieburn. Because rail frequency boosts under the Kennett and Baillieu/Napthine governments tended to favour 'their' areas in the south and east, the traditional Labor strongholds in the north and west are falling further behind with waits for trains twice as long. This is because Labor hasn't yet substantially rewarded its most loyal voters with frequent service like the Liberals did for some of theirs. 

There was significant activity in achieving such upgrades before 2015, especially on the Frankston line along with weekend services to Ringwood and Dandenong. The plan's first major setback under the new government was the abandonment of a major reformed Metro train timetable in mid-2015. The following 6 years were to be a lean time for metropolitan train service reforms as the government shifted gear to infrastructure, notably level crossing removals in practice, and the even bigger Suburban Rail Loop in vision. 

During this time the government released its own rail plan called Growing our Rail Network 2018 - 2025. A short document, with none of the NDP's detail, it listed key capital projects, notably the level crossing removals, HCMTs and Metro Tunnel. Significantly it did not repeat the NDP's emphasis on simpler timetables, early frequency boosts nor intermodal coordination. However the Andrews government could argue that (unlike its predecessor) it was more interested in construction results than  unrealised plans, with  evidence of the former growing every day.   

I have said before that political fashions and budgetary circumstances can change but good plans can endure. This is because they address truths the responses to which can be deferred but never avoided. The NDP - Metropolitan Rail was an example of a good plan, even if its service first approach was politically out of favour for a while. 

Small but worthwhile progress towards the plan resumed in 2021 with that year’s timetable simplifying services and adding trips in the spirit of the plan on the Frankston, Werribee and Williamstown lines. Completing loose ends from about 7-8 years prior, the 2021 reforms made Frankston the first (and so far only) main line to have a timetable almost entirely consistent with NDP aims, ie maximum 10 minute waits during the day and no more than 20 minute waits at night.

Dandenong trains also got a revamp with simplified and consistent 7 day City Loop operating patterns. However, despite being the network's busiest line, the opportunity to cut weekend evening waits from 30 to 20 minutes (or better) as done on other lines including Werribee, Williamstown and Frankston, was not taken. 

Tram reform was even more limited. The main item of note was the new Route 58 which operates every 10 minutes during the day and 20 minutes at night, ie in conformance with the network coordination framework. Route 82 has also had some weekday frequency uplifts. Scope exists for the Metro Tunnel to stimulate a tram rethink due to the capacity added on the Swanston St corridor. This should enable the tram network to be simplified with some routes shifting to popular but underserved parts of the CBD. 

Bus reform included significant changes in parts of Melbourne in 2014, 2015 and 2016. These included new networks in Brimbank, Wyndham, Geelong, Mernda and Cranbourne which made routes more direct and improved connectivity with trains. There were also big changes on many routes (then) operated by Transdev in 2014. However an even bigger greenfields network got cancelled.  These were relatively cheap reforms and, despite growing in population by about 1 million people, Melbourne has not added a single premium service SmartBus route since 2010. Hence we are overdue for a substantial uplift in resources for buses including the roll-out of ubiquitous 7 day service and many more direct routes operating every 10 to 20 minutes (rather than the more common 30 - 60 minute frequencies).   

Some projects in NDP - Metropolitan Rail were adopted and funded by the successor Labor government. For example high capacity Metro Trains and the extension to Mernda. Ordering could vary significantly with politicians taking a different view to the planners. For example the NDP pushed Mernda off out into what was effectively the 'never never' (Stage 4 within 20 years) but both Liberal and Labor promised a Mernda extension much sooner in the 2014 election. Victorious Labor delivered this in its first term, with service starting in August 2018.    

Rail infrastructure planned during this era was better served by complementary reformed bus networks than that since. For example both Williams Landing (2013) and Regional Rail Link (2015) had complementary bus networks in Point Cook, Werribee/Tarneit and Geelong. Since then project planning has become separated from service with integrated bus network planning only sometimes happening (yes for Mernda, Caroline Springs and Cobblebank, no for Southland and most if not all level crossing removals). 

The Metro Tunnel under the CBD is an interesting case. A product of the Eddington report the concept was developed under the Brumby government. It featured in the NDP - Metropolitan Rail developed by the Baillieu Coalition government. However new premier Denis Napthine abandoned it in favour of Melbourne Rail Link via Fishermans Bend. This promised to be less disruptive during construction but skipped the already important destination of Parkville in favour of (currently) much less important Fishermans Bend. However Labor, now returned, restored the CBD alignment whose construction is well advanced.  

NDP and politics

The NDP - Metropolitan Rail was a 'planners plan' more than a political plan. The low priority given to South Morang could be seen as evidence of that. It's service first, infrastructure later, if needed, approach is correct if you want to deliver the most benefit for the least spending. It also matches the prudent Swiss approach of tying projects to long term goals, rather than building for its own sake.  

In public transport the 2010 - 2014 Coalition government had a reputation for not building much but raising expectations with regards to Doncaster, Rowville and Avalon rail. It presided over a significant improvement in metropolitan rail reliability from 2012 onwards. However this didn't seem to earn it much political credit despite poor service being a major reason for people to swing against Labor in 2010. 

Their rail frequency improvements were good but neither sufficiently widespread nor well promoted to yield political dividends. The Coalition putting all its eggs in the E-W Link basket (as opposed to the more distributed benefits of Labor's 50 level crossing removals) might also have cost it support (and office) in 2014. 

Urban congestion issues, relatively high unemployment in 2014, low interest rates and the 'cranes in the sky' symbolism of building made capital projects politically attractive even if 'planners plans' might say that they are either not necessary, can be deferred or cost-effective alternatives exist. The extremely low interest rates after the GFC made the costs of servicing billions of debt trivial and given rise to projects that might not have passed muster under other circumstances getting the nod.  

A transport plan that prioritises service frequency is better for long-term sustained jobs than one that emphasises construction projects. However treasuries prefer the latter as the former involves significant recurrent spending that is difficult to wind back. Whereas public construction is a tap that can stimulate the economy when private sector demand is low. However the latter also risks putting pressure on procurement costs and leaves us with large interest bills on debt when rates rise (such as happening now). 

Concentrating almost exclusively on capital construction also means poor asset utilisation and substandard service.  On this Sydney has done better than Melbourne. Their public transport priorities have tended to better balance service with construction than Melbourne's almost exclusively construction-only approach. 

It may be just a coincidence but the 'Big Build' construction focus has greatly widened job opportunities for CFMEU members who no longer need to seek big pay in the Pilbara. A 'Big Service' focus would have done similar for RTBU and TWU members working in public transport with the added bonus being that they are more sustained jobs. However  current projects, priorities and political sway appears to favour builders over drivers.

Labor retained the 'Big Build' agenda in 2018 and 2022, winning big majorities against a demoralised opposition. However changing travel patterns with off-peak travel becoming relatively more important are making existing train and bus timetables look more and more disconnected from the community's travel needs.  And finances are tighter as project costs mount and interest rate rises bite. There might not be much new money to throw around this budget but getting the ball rolling on carefully targeted service upgrades and simpler timetables should be a high priority.  

What could a NDP written in 2023 look like?

Many themes would have continued from 2012's plan. However boosting off-peak service frequency and simplifying peak timetables (some of the first steps in the 2012 plan) would assume even more importance as 'all day good service' replaces 'maximising peak capacity' as the top priority. 

There is still a need for capacity and coverage expansion to accommodate projected growth. Initiatives like removing remaining single track sections, electrification extensions especially in the north and west, second entrances at busy stations like South Yarra and Frankston, high capacity signalling and infill stations at locations like Campbellfield and Paisley remain as important projects.

Splitting the City Loop with some trains running from Richmond to North Melbourne via Parliament, Melbourne Central and Flagstaff could be a cost-effective (though in the short-term disruptive) way to increase core capacity if warranted.

In the longer term, Fishermans Bend can't be taken seriously as a dense development site unless it has efficient Metro-type access from both the west and CBD directions. Also fast circumferential own-right of way transport across the suburbs to feed radial routes from multiple directions is needed to transform the network from a one-trick CBD feeder to the fast multi-directional web it needs to be. Second only to our currently low service frequencies the lack of such connections is the main reason that our otherwise extensive network is less versatile than those in cities like Paris, London and even Sydney.  

Access to stations and local destinations need to be boosted with a mix of connected bike and walking paths separated from cars and revamped bus routes. Flexible route buses have had some devotees but their limitations are becoming more known, especially in our increasingly dense growth areas. Hence they do not present a scalable mass transit solution though they may have some niche 'special needs' applications.  

Public faith in rail's availability and reliability needs to be restored after years of disruption. There needs to be fewer occupations with all measures taken to reduce their number and length. And for those that are still needed a more robust, direct and frequent regular bus route network between parallel rail lines could help relieve pressure on rail replacement buses. And in outer suburbs, the 4% cancellation rate of V/Line trains needs to be slashed to less than 1% as routinely applied before about 2003. 

The 2012's NDP stress on frequency harmonised tram and bus services would remain in 2023 as much remains to be done. This requires complementary tram and bus reform plans. Since there remain major infrastructure projects on the go key themes of these would include service reform to precede and then feed infrastructure such as the Suburban Rail Loop and make the most of infrastructure soon to come online including the Metro Tunnel and North-East Busway.  


The NDP - Metropolitan Rail was a ground-breaking document that charted a course for rail's development in Melbourne. Parts have been overtaken by events but its focus, especially on simpler and more frequent service, remains fresh today. Give it the anniversary it deserves by reading it

Friday, March 24, 2023

UN 146: Victoria's Bus Plan: How is it going?

Today marks 649 days since Victoria's Bus Plan came out (June 13, 2021 in case you're wondering). 

It's also 40 days until the May 3 Victorian State Budget . As the first post-election budget government will likely use it to deliver 2022 election commitments (including regional fare cuts). Outside that it is tipped to be tight, including public sector job cuts as Treasury grapples with high interest rates on borrowings made when they were much lower. 

2020's state budget marked the high (or it it low?) point of the current state government feeding infrastructure but starving service. The 2021 budget (released 6 months later) opened the tap slightly to give a few drops for service. It also gave permission for the (then) Department of Transport to revive interest in bus network reform after a lethargic period of little progress

2022's state budget (the first since Victoria's Bus Plan) opened the flow to a trickle, though due to the typical two year budget-to-implementation lead time for bus upgrades, many initiatives (like the 201/733/767/903 Box Hill/Deakin Uni package) are pending.  

I mention this as budgets are more important than plans from departments in determining what gets funded and thus done. But for now it's back to 2021's Victoria's Bus Plan and where it's at.      

Proposed time-line for Victoria's Bus Plan

Pages 16-17 of the plan gave a time-line. This was divided into three chunks, as follows: 

* 2021 - 2023: Described as leveraging the Big Build, addressing priorities and getting ready for further reform. Major items of work include developing the Bus Reform Implementation plan, undertaking trials, responding to areas of pressing reform, rolling out zero emissions buses, rapid running, bus priority and delivering more attractive networks in high needs areas.  

* 2023 - 2030: This is the main body of network reform based on planning work done in 2021-2023. A greater use of buses as mass transit is promised. Key elements of this would be directness, speed and frequency on simpler trunk routes. Mention is made of reformed networks suitable for the Doncaster Busway and Metro Tunnel (my three part series on the latter is here: Metro WestMetro East, Central area). 

* 2030 onwards: These are longer term actions, including further developing the network's mass transit capability and supporting employment clusters and the Suburban Rail Loop (my concepts on the latter presented here). 


Where are we up to on all this? Is the time-line likely to be met, including the commencement of major network reforms this year? Let's look at what's been achieved. 

Firstly there were the timetable reforms of 2021. These were in two main chunks - Transdev (now Kinetic) network and the Night Network spring clean

The former, which I describe as 'oily rag' reforms basically took resources from poorly used routes to deliver frequency boosts on busy routes, especially nights and weekends. Main Doncaster area routes also gained Sunday evening service. All very worthwhile but limited in scope.  

The revised Night Network removed many special routes and replaced them with 24 hour weekend service on regular routes. This was a major improvement, again for very little cost. Beneficiaries included not only evening travellers but also those travelling early on weekend mornings who gained a service. 

FlexiRide has also been greatly expanded. These are flexible route buses summoned by an app. Roll-out areas include Rowville/Lysterfield, Lilydale/Croydon/Mooroolbark, Rosebud, Melton and Tarneit. The first two examples replaced the very similar long-established Telebus service and were simply plonked over an existing largely unchanged fixed route network. Rosebud's was accompanied by regular network reforms while Melton and Tarneit's serve growth areas. Greensborough/St Helena will be getting its FlexiRide in late 2023 with this also accompanied by local network reform.

Apart from temporary stop-gap services in some other outer or growth areas (notably in Melbourne's north and possibly outer south-east), I think there are limitations to FlexiRide that I'm not sure are as widely appreciated as they should be. They are inherently low productivity, meaning that a high number of buses and drivers are needed to move a given number of people (limiting their scalability). They also cannot effectively handle peaks in high demand areas such as Tarneit North with the service becoming delayed or unavailable. Hence FlexiRide's potential to contribute to the transport task is over-hyped. 

The move to zero emissions buses has been another theme with progress made. Ventura's Ivanhoe depot is an early starter. While other considerations were no doubt decisive for the choice of this location, it is noted that just one of the depot's nine routes (527) operates 7 days per week and even this drops to about every 50 minutes on Sundays. Thus marketing opportunities and synergies to associate electric buses with direct and frequent 7 day service are not possible unless networks are reformed and service hours and frequencies boosted.  

What about the 'more attractive networks in high needs areas'?

Notable gains include new growth area routes in Tarneit, Melton, Clyde and Craigieburn/Mernda, the three step Mornington Peninsula bus upgrade, Endeavour Hills network reforms and major Craigieburn weekday frequency upgrades. The pending Healesville/Yarra Valley network simplifications and the results of 2022's budget for improved 733 and 767 frequencies will be other gains to look forward to. 

Despite those one can't help thinking that the Bus Plan hasn't lived up to expectations, especially for the 'low hanging fruit' of simple service upgrades on high patronage routes in high needs areas. These are the sort of reforms that modest amounts like $200k to $2 million pa per route here and there could deliver as 'quick wins' limited only by the time it takes to recruit drivers and other operator staff. 

Faster progress here would show the government is really genuine about better buses. While high needs areas do need the longer sort of bus reform that requires public consultation and buying new buses, there are a lot of 'loose ends' comprising very well used bus routes that run only 5, 5.5 or 6 days per week that would easily justify 7 day service. The first round of such off-peak upgrades could be boosted hours and frequencies only, with new bus purchases and route reforms done later. 

Selected 'bus hours only' service upgrades in priority areas can deliver amongst the highest potential patronage gains on the network. The need for them is highest in diverse low income traditional safe Labor seats like Broadmeadows, Mulgrave and Dandenong. Routes in seats like these often missed out on 2006-2010 round of 'minimum service standards' upgrades so have a large service backlog despite their social needs and proof that the upgraded routes would get strong usage.

Politically the demographic in these 'taken for granted' areas is not as rusted on as it was with huge (~20%) drops in Labor's primary vote from these groups in both the 2022 federal and state elections.  While it was electorally unsuccessful, the Coalition managed to tap into the bus backlog in safe Labor seats, with 2022 policies to upgrade bus routes in high needs areas including Routes 414, 536, 538, 542, 800 etc. Regrettably Labor did not follow suit with its own election bus service upgrade package.

However even on purely non-political metrics, such as patronage potential or social need, routes like these deserve first consideration for early 7 day upgrades even if it's a while before other network reforms start. Such action would also maintain momentum for the Bus Plan as the view from outside is it's fallen into a bit of a hole since the small but worthwhile upgrades of 2021 (along with the train timetable boosts earlier that year). 

At the other end of the scale are bus reviews. The ones for north and north-east Melbourne announced last year will be massive pieces of work. Even though the areas selected have a lot of merit, I can't help thinking they've bitten off more than they can chew given that DTP's delivery capacity is currently so limited (unlike industrial-scale level crossing removals where it is high). It might be that concentrating on a larger number of smaller scale service uplifts and local network reforms might deliver more benefits sooner. 

Very broad in-principle (ie not route specific) public consultation for these (and Mildura) happened last year a bit before the state election. We have been told to expect a summary of this feedback in early 2023 (so hopefully any day now!). 

Having said that DTP is also consulting on other reviews such as Armstrong Creek / Torquay. This is more of a scale that will hopefully permit prompt implementation. 


Bus reform can be good and it's great that we're doing it. But it needs more momentum including budget backing for added hours and frequency on well performing routes. Instead of waiting for the results of some (potentially drawn out) reviews, early delivery of simpler service boosts on existing routes in high patronage / high needs areas would help show people that Victoria's Bus Plan is truly alive and is delivering the services Victorians need. 

See other Useful Network items here

Friday, March 17, 2023

Our transport leaders: How can we learn their thinking?

Do you know the name Paul Younis?

If you don't recognise it, he's the secretary of the Department of Transport and Planning. 

In other words he is, on paper, our top transport bureaucrat. His roles include inheriting the duties of the old Director of Public Transport from a previous structure. 

Ministers and departments

Not knowing the secretary's name is forgivable as Victoria's ministers mostly have much higher profiles than their mandarins. Except for a couple of cases where they are more evenly matched, such as police (where the commissioner is very public) and health (recently due to COVID). 

It's ministers, not bureaucrats, who are on the TV each night. They accept the limelight and take the blame if something goes wrong. Or at least that's the lore according to an oft-stated (but debated) Westminster convention of ministerial responsibility

Departments can advise and recommend but it is the minister who decides on many matters. Unless  it's something that needs budget funding or it's so big that cabinet and/or the premier's backing is decisive. 

A particular strength of front-line departments is that they have practical experience of what works and what doesn't. This could give them an edge over the gaggle of other voices (including infrastructure advisory bodies, academics, private consultants and vested interests) pushing various schemes. Public servants sometimes get a bad rap but only they have specialist knowledge on the hows of service delivery. After all it's their departments who get stuck with implementation. 

The Australian public service of the 1960s was widely described as "anonymous, neutral and a career service". However the first epithet never applied to department secretaries.  And it doesn't apply to transport leaders elsewhere or at one time here. Especially when those leaders had titles like 'commissioner' leading semi-autonomous outfits like the Melbourne Metropolitan Tramways Board or Victorian Railways.

For a while it seemed we were returning part way back to this with the formation of Public Transport Victoria under the last Coalition government. I thought it was a good structure with significant results in areas like bus reform. 

However it proved short-lived, with PTV remaining as a network brand and its functions being folded back into an enlarged Department of Transport under more direct ministerial control (something the vanquished Liberals wished they exercised more of when they were in government - see page 49 of their post-mortem). 

Department functions

As well as providing policy advice, government departments also get their profile from being service providers, ie doers. However transport is weaker here than other major departments like education and health. 

For a start they don't actually run much as metropolitan trains, trams and buses are franchised or contracted out. V/Line had returned to government operation but, as a state owned enterprise, was viewed as a law unto itself that once had its own board. Though possibly less so now with governance changes that lessened its autonomy in 2021 following a maelstrom of issues including poor operational performance, corruption scandals and IBAC investigations

DTP is more a franchise and contract manager than a direct operator. Performance on this has varied. Metropolitan trains and trams have mostly met operational performance targets. However weaknesses including the 2017 Transdev fleet management crisis, the more recent failure to get V/Line to meet service targets and  sloppiness on maintenance planning (as reported by VAGO).

Planning is another department function (with it now even in its name). However DTP's advice is merely one source that a government can draw on. Its ability to give effect to its work is weakened with the department not yet having a big, high profile and funded program it can call its own (unlike the orbital SmartBuses and minimum bus service standards of the 2007 Jim Betts era DoT). Infrastructure Victoria inhabits some of this space with its higher level and longer term strategies. And our biggest transport project of the lot, the Suburban Rail Loop, was hatched in the premier's office. So DTP does transport planning but is by no means the only government body to do so. 

DTP has network operational support roles. It keeps the system ticking over with duties like  administering ticketing and passenger information. It also has carriage of smaller projects, albeit lower profile and underfunded eg bus service reform. It's not unfair to say that DTP's project delivery capacity is like a small cottage industry incompatible with what a growing city demands with even modest changes like adding a small bus route taking longer than (say) a level crossing removal. 

Hence if the government wants something big done they will often look elsewhere. Large signature projects tend to be entrusted to dedicated authorities. For example the Major Transport Infrastructure Authority (which incorporates the former LXRA, RPV and others) and the Suburban Rail Loop Authority. The LXRP, in particular, has a good reputation for on-time delivery of projects on a mass scale, with its CEO recently being promoted even higher.   

Relative position of DTP

Government departments and agencies wax and wane in their relative standing as priorities and political fashions change. 

Despite the money flowing into transport the DoT (now DTP) sometimes appears more like a bit player than its encompassing name suggests. Whereas the major project authorities hold centre stage as infrastructure became the 'thing'. Contracting out of service delivery has possibly also limited DTP's direct influence relative to other departments that do more in-house.

If DTP had funding for carriage of large 'Big Service', 'Big Bike' and 'Big Accessibility' agendas, then its profile would undoubtedly be much higher. Even departmental leaders touring the northern suburbs and articulating the necessity of the current bus reform program would help, rather than leaving commentary on this to IV (and this blog). 

What about the post-election merging with the DoT gaining planning (to become DTP)? The integration of transport and land use planning is somewhat of a holy grail for those in the urban planning field. The previous split wasn't conducive to that. Bringing the two together raises hopes that transport and planning will at least talk to one another and create scope for more coordination (in theory). 

On the other hand 'super departments' can be unwieldy and cause focus to be lost. An example was when PTV was rolled into DoT and interest in bus reform fell. This may be why big projects have their own single purpose construction body to get the job done and retain focus. 

If I was a graduate looking to build a career in a major transport initiative then the latter would appear to have more to offer than the department. Unless you were a bus reform nut then by all means you'd aim for DTP hoping that resourcing for mass implementation comes soon!  

Individual leaders' profiles

We've discussed the department. What about individuals and transport operators? 

The very top tier of transport leaders, like Andy Byford, have global recognition. They also presented a strong public face of the network that helped unify people under them (although relations with the unions were not always good). Prominent Melbourne examples from last century include VR's Sir Harold Clapp and MMTB's Sir Robert Risson. Ministers ignored these larger-than-life personalities at their peril. 

VR's Harold Clapp was a leader not afraid to say no to parochial interests, MPs and even ministers.

While not as big names as Clapp and Risson, more recent leaders, including Jim Betts, Ian Dobbs, John Merritt, Hubert Guyot and Andrew Lezala, also had significant profiles in their time. All, with few exceptions, spent decades in transport. Many also possess operational backgrounds, earning legitimacy and respect from others (ie they're not just a business school blow-in or a dime-a-dozen engineer).  

Today's DTP management style is to lie low and leave the public stuff to the premier and ministers (of which the department currently has 4). 

For example the current DTP secretary rarely appears on TV nor writes op-eds in the papers about the role, challenges and opportunities facing transport. On LinkedIn he has 2000 followers versus 7000 followers for his NSW counterpart. He sometimes appears at professional industry & stakeholder forums but recordings are scarce with a YouTube search finding nothing (unlike MTIA's Corey Hannett who fronts his own organisation's videos).  

The anonymous thing can apply at lower levels too. If quizzed by the media DTP comment may be unattributed rather than named . Whereas if you go back 10, 15 or 20 years the Department of Infrastructure, Department of Transport, Metlink or PTV spokesperson was often named, a practice which attaches a needed degree of accountability.

Neither DTP nor PTV have a publicly given email address, though the former may seek comment on specific matters and the latter has a website feedback form and call centre

Hence if you want to find how senior DTP people think you'll need to delve deeper. More on that later. 

Leaders like Vicroads' John Merritt often publicly discussed the challenges facing their network 

Transport operator leadership

What about the bosses of franchised and contracted operators? We seem to hear from them less too.

Part of this may be because transport (especially operational aspects) is less in the headlines than it was say 15 years ago. Our trains then were full and disruptions plagued the network. Reliability improved thanks to more frequent and robust timetables so news coverage fell. Plus we look at our own social media more than newspapers, with mX, the free afternoon commuter paper that most covered rail disruptions, ceasing publication. 

More recently peak commuting has dropped with the pandemic. We still have many train disruptions (more often now due to planned 'Big Build' works occupations) but the number of politically influential middle-class peak commuters affected has fallen with many having work from home options. 

Contractual arrangements is another factor. Rail Franchising Mark 1 was based on franchisee operators operating as businesses to boost patronage and reduce public subsidy. Separate marketing, branding and ticketing was attempted but this (rightly) was considered to be fragmenting the network so it got centralised to Metlink and later PTV. 

The first version of train and tram franchising was based on an unstable mixture of governments wanting too much for too little and market share grabbing foreign operators promising too much for too little. It didn't last with National Express, the biggest operator, handing the keys back after two years

Franchises were renegotiated with higher public subsidy. Each successor contract shifted a bit more commercial risk (and requirement for initiative) from the operator to the government. That could work if you had an active transport agency like PTV with network planning and reform capability, funding for service improvements, patronage growth targets. However the incorporation of PTV into a larger less agile DoT smothered its 'network voice' and stymied marketing.

"Articulating the network" is a key duty of transport leaders. In 2008 Yarra Trams added modern touches to the classic 1960s 'Citizen Tram' film to draw attention to the benefits of trams and giving priority to their movement. 

Operators could advocate for improvements. This can be difficult to do publicly since they have contracts with image-conscious governments and it would not do to bite the hand that feeds you. 

They can sometimes get around this by encouraging research with academics and channelling advocacy through professional or industry organisations. These have also ebbed and flowed over the years. UITP had a local chapter but part split off to become PTAANZ which runs industry events and interviews. 

Bus operators here have BusVic. They actively advocated for more metropolitan services about 15-20 years ago with significant success. But except on matters directly affecting industry (such as contract negotiations) they don't seem quite as prominent now with membership increasingly skewed to smaller, regional and family operators. However they may have had input in to the comprehensive bus upgrade plan that the Coalition took to the 2022 state election. 

Bus companies vary in their attitude to network reform. Attitudes can cover the whole range from full cooperation to internal resistance to (rarely) public opposition. There remain views in the industry regarding 'ownership' of routes (sometimes literally 'grandfather rights') even though they would not run today without government subsidy. The government on its part might contend that maximising community utility and value for money requires an ability for it to reform networks and even potentially retender services. 

The most recent case where a bus operator has been critical of departmental network reform plans was McKenzies of Healesville whose concerns appeared in local media. Overall though the vast majority of bus operators leave public commentary on bus services to the department and government except for routine disruption information matters. 

Past DoT engagement

As mentioned before the current DTP secretary comes across as the model anonymous public servant who leaves media to government operatives and commentary to academics and others like Infrastructure Victoria. He has no big projects to back and advocate, unlike the heads of major construction bodies. Service initiatives DTP does get funding for are hardly marketed. The 'simple connected journeys'  network vision gets wheeled out when DTP executives meet stakeholders but lacks publicly visible championing from the top nor evidence of much 'meat'.    

The subdued (or lack of) discussion from leaders is quite different to about 15 years ago. Followers then would not have failed to notice the spats between the government and academic Dr Paul Mees who acerbically criticised the competence of the DoT Public Transport Division led by Jim Betts. Mees was particularly critical of rail franchising (with which Betts was closely associated) but also opposed major infrastructure projects, arguing that we could get better value by planning centrally, not building freeways and working existing public transport assets harder.  

Outsiders then rarely grasped the extraordinary loyalty that Betts earned from staff, largely because he trusted them. This was during a time when soaring myki ticketing cost blow-outs and plunging rail reliability competed for bad headlines in the newspapers. Regardless of this 'noise' Betts maintained morale in the department, defending it and its people from outside barbs. However if taken to excess such solidarity can become a groupthink that retards progress if it causes good ideas to be dismissed due to the pugnacious personality of their then most prominent advocate. 

During this era some staff (and Betts himself) also engaged with (mostly transport enthusiasts) online.  This activity helped press the department's view on matters raised by Mees and backers in organisations such as the PTUA. Also such interactions also gave those involved (and lurkers) valuable insight into how the Department thought. 

That happens much less now. Not only have the personalities changed but so have the forums. What we now call social media went from a geeks' plaything to a more formal and corporatised tool in the communications adviser arsenal.

This, along with a trend to that function's centralisation, restricted the range and depth of matters discussed as few communications professionals possess substantial transport technical or operational expertise. And, because so many flit from job to job and transport departments have dumped their libraries, corporate knowledge and historical context may be lacking (especially if Trove dies). Similar comments could also apply to the mainstream media where there are fewer newspapers and specialist journalists to test some of the assertions made.  

Getting information

With these changes, how can interested outsiders get a grasp of current thinking inside the portfolio if its leader is publicly heard from less than might be desired?  

One way is to see if executives under them are saying anything. LinkedIn is like a strutting zoo for careerist peacocks who share their likes and may write articles. So you'll find lots of executives active there along with the department itself

It helps if you know their names. You can get the deputy secretaries names from the organisation chart. Then you can find them on LinkedIn with links from others lower down the tree. 

Professional and industry associations is another avenue. They sometimes have conferences, publications, interviews and podcasts. 

One such example is Public Transport Association Australia New Zealand. Women who Move Nations is a long interview podcast series with senior women in transport. Some of its guests are current or former DoT/DTP heads or executives. 

Examples relevant for Victoria include: 

Loretta Lynch

Jacinta Allan

Megan Bourke O Neil

Dr Gillian Miles

Stephanie Speck 

One should also sit up and take notice of those within the transport portfolio even if outside the department. Especially, in the current climate, those responsible for projects closely associated with the government's agenda. For example Frankie Carroll, the SRLA head, wrote an item advocating his agency's project last year. His authority also has generous funding for community outreach (eg staffing at 2022's Monash Maker Faire) and local promotions. Major projects may have stakeholder liaison groups via which additional information can filter on local social media. 

Infrastructure Victoria has profile with its reports frequently getting media coverage on topics like bus reform and fares. They also get radio interviews and seeks public submissions for its strategies. The range of topics may however be limited as IV is an advisory body that normally does not comment on already committed to projects. 

The state government is free to take or leave IV's advice as it sees fit. So what IV has in media profile it may lack in influence. Which is not always a bad thing given IV's proposals are of varying merit. For instance it commendably advocates bus service reform but its batty modal fare obsession is a force for harmful network disintegration inconsistent with the pro-integration talk from (then) DoT's Natalie Reiter.   


I've presented ways where you might get a grasp of current thinking within the transport portfolio even one whose leaders emphasise internal relationships and communication.

If you're wanting to find out stuff for research purposes you'll also want to read my Researcher Sources Revealed for more tips.