Tuesday, June 20, 2023

TT #184: How Dandenong got short-changed on buses

Greater Dandenong is Melbourne's most short-changed municipality when it comes to bus services.

Especially if we're talking about access to the 7 day service so important to get people to jobs, shopping, recreational and social activities.

First some history. Back in the 1990s the typical Melbourne suburban bus ran 5 or 6 days per week with no evening or Sunday service. Timetables bore the scars of severe cuts early that decade. These made buses decreasingly useful as more shops traded Saturday afternoons and then Sundays.

Some local bus upgrades happened in 2002 but the big change came in 2006 when transport minister Peter Batchelor introduced minimum service standards as the centrepiece of the Meeting Our Transport Challenges (MOTC) plan. These delivered 7 day service to many suburbs that didn't previously have it. That was a big deal for most people who didn't have a station, with its 7 day service, within walking distance. 

MOTC roll-out was fast but haphazard. Some areas got all their routes upgraded while others got only a handful. Neither were improvement priorities related to patronage or social need. For example quiet routes like the 701 got early upgrades, the semi-rural 578/579 got way over-serviced while busy main road routes (eg the 800 on Princes Hwy) received nothing. The 802, 804, 814 and 844 were other above-average patronage performing Dandenong routes that missed out. Yes, MOTC brought the useful 901 SmartBus and some local upgrades but progress wasn't nearly as fast as in other areas like Broadmeadows, Epping, Werribee and even Melton.   

Dandenong's bus neglect continued under the 2010 Coalition government. Maybe Dandenong wasn't on their political radar, though that did not stop politically and demographically similar seats in Brimbank getting bus improvements in 2014. Upgrades in also-safe Point Cook and Werribee were also funded under the Coalition.

Labor in 2014 promised bus upgrades in Cranbourne that had some knock-on benefits for Dandenong when these were implemented in 2016. Later a new Endeavour Hills network improved and simplified some services but not by quite enough to meet MOTC minimum standards. Keysborough South also got some improved coverage, but going from two weekday routes every hour (813 and 815) to one every 40 minutes (813) cannot be counted as a net gain for Dandenong station. 2021's bus plan diagnoses bus service issues like common in Greater Dandenong well but has yet to be backed by significant funding that would fix them.   

To summarise, the Bracks/Brumby MOTC did lots of good stuff with buses but prioritised quieter routes in other areas over busier routes in higher-needs Dandenong. Nothing much happened under Baillieu/Napthine. The current infrastructure-oriented Andrews government cannot claim much so far either. Thus the story of buses in Greater Dandenong has been one of sustained neglect with it slipping behind relative to other similar areas in relation to seven day service.

Don't believe me? 

I checked timetables for buses serving the busiest stations in municipalities selected for their demographic similarity to Greater Dandenong. Those that did not comply with minimum service standards (mostly because they didn't run Sundays and/or finished early at night) were noted. 

With nearly half its routes non-compliant, Dandenong really stands out. Frankston was the next worst, though average incomes in its less serviced areas are much higher than Dandenong's less serviced areas. This makes Dandenong's bus shortcomings more pressing than Frankston's with regards to social inclusion and equity.

The lower proportion of noncompliant routes serving stations like Melton and Cranbourne does not mean there aren't major bus service issues in those places; there are. But they relate more to lack of coverage and frequency rather than the very restricted days/hours that afflict nearly half the bus routes in Dandenong.

Dandenong's usage / service mismatch

What about patronage productivity? One might make a case that quieter routes are less deserving of 7 day service than others. Especially if you were a DTP bureaucrat who talks about juggling scarce resources to where they are most needed. Anyone who writes in gets the same form answer about the department monitoring usage and adjusting service needs accordingly.  

However this claim rarely stacks up; apart from one (worthwhile) change in 2021 when the bus plan came out, DTP lacks the 'incremental optimisation' culture of monitoring and adjusting timetables and services like Perth does even if funding for new service kilometres is scarce. 

The biggest loser in all this? It's none other than Dandenong due to its high social needs and strong usage of the bus services that do run. As an example, some of the non-compliant routes are in the busiest 25% of the network on a boardings per service hour basis. Some others are in the top 50%. This is especially so for Dandenong Station but also for some Frankston routes.

Data on bus routes that don't meet minimum service standards is below. Marked routes have higher than average weekday boardings per bus service hour (either TOP 25% or TOP 50% ) based on 2018 numbers (source DTP).   

Greater Dandenong Dandenong station: 19 bus routes - 47% non-compliant

800 No evening service, no Sunday service, limited Saturday service TOP 25%

802 No evening service, no Sunday service, no Saturday service TOP 50%

804 No evening service, no Sunday service, limited Saturday service TOP 25%

814 No evening service, no Sunday service, no Saturday afternoon TOP 25%

843 Late Saturday morning start, early Sunday evening finish

844 No evening service, no Sunday service, limited Saturday service TOP 50%

845 Late Sunday morning start, early Sunday evening finish

857 No evening service, no Sunday service, no Saturday afternoon

861 Early evening finish

Wyndham Werribee station: 12 bus routes - 17% non-compliant

439 No evening service

441 No evening service, especially weekends

Hume Broadmeadows station: 9 bus routes - 11% non-compliant

538 No evening service, no Sunday service, no Saturday afternoon service

 Cranbourne station: 11 bus routes - 9% non-compliant

795 occasional weekday trips only

Brimbank Sunshine station: 13 bus routes - 8% non-compliant

422 No evening service, especially weekends

Melton Melton station: 7 bus routes - 0% non-compliant

All routes run 7 days to ~9pm

Frankston Frankston station: 22 bus routes - 36% non-compliant

772 No evening service, no Sunday service TOP 25%

773 No evening service, no Sunday service, limited Saturday service TOP 50%

774 No evening service, no Sunday service, no Saturday service TOP 25%

776 No evening service, no Sunday service, limited Saturday service, limited weekday service

783  No evening service, no Sunday service, no Saturday service TOP 50%

789 Weekends has 80 min gaps

790 Weekends has 80 min gaps

887 Limited frequency, no evening service

Fixing it

Bus network reform in Melbourne can take ages. Because political support has begat funding and institutions that allow work to be done quickly and at mass scale, we can do major and complex works like removing level crossing and rebuilding stations in less time than DTP needs to substantially reform bus networks. However if you just want to boost services on existing routes and available buses already exist then time-lines for bus upgrades are shorter - say 12 months after budget funding. 

Dandenong's waited long enough for better buses than to be subject to a ponderous review process that may or may not deliver results. And because its existing routes are so strongly used it would seem preferable to deliver 7 day service now and worry about network reform later.

Top priorities, based on improving the busiest routes first, could include: 

* 7 day service on Route 800 to at least 9pm and higher weekend frequency. (see the #Fix800Bus page on Facebook and video below). 

* 7 day service on routes 802 and 804 to at least 9pm (would deliver a major boost for Dandenong North including the hospital - network simplification like this can happen later) 

* 7 day service on routes 814 and 844 to at least 9pm (These routes, especially the complex 814, also need reform, but, existing catchment and usage justify 7 day service now)

* Minor extended hours on Endeavour Hills routes 843, 845 and 861 to meet MOTC minimum standards (very cheap addition of 2 or 3 trips per day per route on average)

* Boosting weekend frequency on popular routes 813 and 828 to weekday service levels (reflects 813's strong catchment and 828's connection to major destinations) with some longer operating hours.

Dandenong's local member of parliament is Gabrielle Williams MP. Most of the abovementioned  underserved routes also cover Mulgrave, held by premier Daniel Andrews MP with 800, 802 and 804 extending into Oakleigh, held by Steve Dimopoulos MP.

All are Labor government MPs. Compared to if they were in opposition, that increase their access to decision-makers but may lessen their willingness to publicly advocate on behalf of their electorate.  

Dandenong is also in the South-east Metropolitan Legislative Council region, with 5 MPs from various parties. One, Rachel Payne MP, recently asked a question on notice about a Route 800 upgrade, with an answer from Minister Carroll to appear soon.


Dandenong has been short-changed with regards to 7 day bus service, with the gap increasing over time with successive governments diverting their limited budgets for bus upgrades elsewhere.

While other parts of Melbourne (eg Knox, Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley and fringe growth areas) also has sparse service that need improving, Dandenong is unique in its proportion of well used routes that don't run 7 days and/or much after 7pm. If you had $5 million per year to improve buses you'd possibly get the greatest patronage returns if you spent it all in Greater Dandenong. 

Either Paul Younis/DTP is not telling the minister that there's a misallocation of bus service resources that's dudded Dandenong for decades or it's known and there isn't the political will to do anything about it. Dandenong is known for its assembly of Volgren buses but the community that builds them hardly gets to see them running a useful service on weekends. 

Dandenong has possibly suffered from its consistent pattern of Labor voting. However old party alignments and loyalties are loosening with huge primary vote drops in booths, especially those with low income catchments and poor community services (including buses). The steady erosion of its voter base should profoundly worry Labor party MPs and officials, even though it has so far been insufficient to cost it seats in the 2022 state election. 

Down in Dandenong the (unfunded) bus plan or even electrification means nothing. 

The top need is 7 day service along with longer operating hours and then better frequencies.

That helps people get to jobs, cuts the cost of living and widens opportunities.

This is possible right now with political will and a modicum of funding to work the existing bus fleet harder. 


Heihachi_73 said...

It's the lack of enforcement which is the issue; the minimum standard is being treated as a guideline rather than an actual minimum service requirement, so bus companies and/or public transport operators e.g. PTV can do whatever they want without ramifications. Why run a bus for ten or so passengers each way after dark when it's cheaper to park the bus in the depot, save fuel, go home early and still get paid the same?

Enforce the standard and Melbourne's bus services have no choice but to run from 6AM until 9PM with gaps of no worse than 60 minutes, every single day of the year, regardless of whether it's a SmartBus in Lonsdale Street, the 694 at the top of Mount Dandenong, or the laughable mismatched one-way once-a-day routes that make up the 745. On the flip side, enforce the standard and you risk the bus companies striking, cutting jobs (e.g. self-induced driver shortage), or pulling a Transdev and running the bus fleet into the ground.

Peter Parker said...

@Heihachi_73 - It doesn't quite work like that. Service levels are regulated by the state government / DTP, not the bus operators. Bus operators will happily run more services but they need to be funded to do so. There is no 'still get paid the same' for going home early.

More services requires political will and budget funding - something this state government has generally regarded as a low priority, especially when you compare what was achieved in the first 2 years of MOTC (2006 - 2008) with the first two years of Bus Plan (2021 - 2023).