Sunday, December 31, 2023

Will 2024 be the year of bus reform?

I reflected on 2022's achievements and events in the public transport service space here. On the broader scene, 2023 was most notable for the retirement of premier Daniel Andrews, his replacement with Jacinta Allan and the elevation of Ben Carroll to Deputy Premier. The resultant reshuffle led to Gabrielle Williams gaining the renamed Public and Active Transport portfolio.

In terms of what got done, transport's main service successes in 2023 were initiatives funded in 2022's budget. Almost all of these got implemented and are proving beneficial. However there have been few announcements of anything new. This can be attributed to the state government's underwhelming 2023 budget (for buses & PT service generally) and its now apparently in-recess Bus Plan that emerged with so much promise over 900 days ago. 

Days since Victoria's Bus Plan was launched

link to count-up Bus Plan clock

That not even the promised 'Bus Reform Implementation Plan' has come out after the better part of three years is a poor reflection on the Bus Plan and its lowly status within government. In fact it's hard to find many government activities that the previous premier's famous quote that "we're not wasting a single minute" was any less true.  

Still 2023 was not all bad for bus reform. Substantial research has come from the Committee for Melbourne and Infrastructure Victoria. Both bodies recommended similar - ie that buses must be made more direct, frequent and useful similar to my Future Frequent Network.  This work has sparked significant media coverage, raising the profile of community campaigns across Melbourne which really kicked up a notch in 2023. Buses also got a good run in parliamentary questions and speeches during the year. 

The government might claim it's broke but they have nowhere to hide given that Melbourne's transport needs continue to grow and buses remain the most cost-effective means of delivering the frequent 7 day service the community needs. Questions have also been asked about GAIC and the possibility of more or better use of funds from this tax to fund improved growth area bus services. 

Maybe this will be the future of bus reform? DTP's recipe of releasing a shallow 'plan for a plan', doing a few good things at the start, then wasting nearly 3 years on an increasingly improbable implementation plan as the state's finances deteriorated has turned out a dud. 

This course of action was taken despite there never being mystery about what needs to be done. After all adequate data existed to assess priorities back in 2021 when the Bus Plan came out. Not to mention significant prior planning work, most of which the public doesn't know about

DTP should have pondered less and done more, starting with simple and cheap to grow their currently stunted yet byzantine delivery capabilities. Then new bus routes would no longer take longer to implement than major capital works like level crossing removals and growth areas would get the service they need sooner. 

Minister Gabrielle Williams and DTP secretary Paul Younis could draw inspiration from none other than both the previous and current premiers. While some in 2014 looked at Labor's level crossing removal promise with incredulity, thinking it couldn't be done, it was. Ahead of schedule with the program subsequently expanded.

Yes money's tighter today but a lot of bus (and indeed off-peak train) service boosts are incredibly cost-effective. Especially when you add the broader cost of living and housing access benefits of a more extensive frequent 7 day public transport network. And that the operational costs involved are easier to predict than the current runaway build bills for certain major projects.

Although they've spent nearly a decade spurning service (and reform of it) in favour of big build infrastructure, if this government wants to do something beneficial and affordable in public transport, it's going to have to revive interest in service basics like useful routes, operating hours and frequency. And 2024 will be a critical year to bed down the changes needed before the 2026 state election.

The clock is ticking. The time to start is now.  

Thursday, December 28, 2023

UN 168: Why Melbourne's outgrown the City Loop

While urban rail networks are often described in terms of the number of lines, number of stations and even their trains per hour capacity, there is one thing that we should hear a lot more about.

Network configuration. 

This is particularly critical around the network's core where multiple lines converge and public transport's role is greatest.  

The maps below show the varying rail configurations used in four Australian state capitals. Brisbane isn't shown but currently operates what is effectively a single through trunk for multiple lines.    

Stub terminus

The most basic configuration is where all lines approach the CBD from one direction, terminating at a 'stub station', often inconveniently on the edge of a CBD. This has little to recommend for anything more than a small city. This is because unless the CBD is very compact a single station isn't sufficient for adequate coverage without an inconvenient transfer (which adds time). Also, assuming the CBD is roughly central to the metropolitan area, having the lines come from one direction lessens inner area coverage and directness, thus further increasing travel times. 

Through travel requires backtracking, adding a transfer penalty or at least a delay for inner north to inner south trips. Backtracking is also terrible for perceived time and thus system attractiveness. Thus rail network with stub stations are one-trick ponies, only really good for CBD trips. Stub platforms also requires arriving trains to change ends to depart. Compared to through running this reduces platform capacity and thus the ability to run a reliable and frequent service that moves large crowds. 

The practical experience of all this in Adelaide is a city far more dependent on buses than trains for its public transport because despite being slower the former are more direct and often more frequent. All other main Australian capitals evolved their rail systems away from stubs decades ago. There is however local advocacy for underground rail that if ever built would provide through running and transform the network.

 A CBD loop

A rail loop is one way to add coverage if your CBD is too big to be served by a single stub station or even a few stations in a line. It could also speed trips if passengers previously had to walk, bused or trammed to their destination. And if built in an expensive manner (like Melbourne opted for with 4 underground platforms) it could provide a convenient one-seat ride to all CBD stations from all suburban lines. Speed could be further increased from the newer stations if the loop changed direction in the middle of the day (as Melbourne's did and still partially does).  

Unfortunately the loop's design and operations were driven by the then fashionable single purpose view of the rail network as being only for one-seat ride CBD commuters. This was viewed as rail's last and only role as rising car ownership, inner suburb hollowing and new shopping centres remote from rail led to fewer local and off-peak trips being made on rail. 

Un-named c2008 video explain the evolution of services that lead to the City Loop's operating pattern with only some reforms made since.

Unfortunately optimising the loop for a subset of suburban commuters made central area rail travel and transferring confusing at best and counterproductive at worst for everyone else. Some passengers had slower trips, with them being taken the 'long way around' compared to the previous through-route operations. The huge drop off in public transport's modal share even in Docklands and Southbank when compared to the Hoddle Grid can partly be attributed to the Loop making connectivity worse for areas just outside it. 

The Loop's reversal also made some trips only possible at some times of the day on some days of the week. But even on lines where the reversal has been removed dwell times remain unpredictable and sometimes excessive with huge variations in travel times for short trips in dense areas. Even on the latest HCMT trains passenger information can be ineffective since anything can happen once a train arrives at Flinders Street. The funnelling of multiple lines via each Loop portal also meant that disruptions to one line could affect other lines, making the network less resilient than it should be. 

The City Loop undoubtedly encouraged development and brought coverage gains for rail in the north and east of the CBD. But the version we got was too expensive and had too many shortcomings to be really worth its dollars. Like a squiggly bus route it provides coverage and one seat rides. But unlike a bad bus its effects are felt metropolitan wide, hindering thousands daily. 

A bruise at the rail network's heart, the City Loop's negative effect would only increase as the CBD expanded outside the Hoddle Grid to precincts like Docklands and Southbank, which relied on 'old' stations like Flinders and Spencer Streets. Not to mention densifying South Yarra whose travel to stations like Jolimont and Collingwood is complicated by Loop operations.

The City Loop is as bad as it is because it was planned at a time when commuter access to the CBD was king and we had forgotten the need for a versatile rail network good for diverse trips across a wide area. That's been rediscovered in the last 15 or so years, during which better plans that seek to untangle the loop have been produced. The reason why I say rediscovered is that because concepts like direct and efficient through-routing were well understood and proposed in 1929 but forgotten for 80 years.     

Other cities (eg Sydney) also built city circles but it's unlikely this retarded the usefulness of the rail network for diverse trips anywhere like Melbourne's did.  Besides Sydney has other tricks up its sleeve including an increasingly polycentric network with suburban connection points. Generally speaking though cities should avoid building Melbourne-style CBD rail loops and instead use other configurations to provide the coverage extensions and core capacity enhancements they need. 

Through lines

This is where it starts to get good. Through lines are direct, fast, legible and efficient. They support efficient transport not just from the suburbs to the CBD but between densifying inner suburbs too. This gives trains a speed edge over driving as there's no slowness caused by passing through the CBD or driving the extra distance to a bypass. There is no train reversing or backtracking in the central area so frequency and capacity can be high. Ideally demand  is reasonably balanced in both directions to limit the need to terminate trains in the CBD. It is also desirable that branching is kept to a minimum but if it has to happen then both branches should have similar demand and be free of single track sections to preserve reliability. Avoiding sharing with faster regional and/or freight trains is also desirable to provide both high and even frequencies during peak times.  

The main problem, as anyone in Brisbane or Perth knows, with a through line is that it does not cover the CBD as well as a loop might. However the solution is not to build a geometrically and operationally inefficient loop but to add through line pairs on new corridors that (a) provide needed coverage, (b) boost core capacity and (c) intersect with other lines to provide a network, while otherwise being reasonably operationally isolated to minimise knock-on delays. Equally important is that all corridors, whether existing or new, operate at high frequency to facilitate said interchange.

A single pair of through lines cannot serve more than two (or at most three) suburban lines if you want each to run at high frequency. To overcome this you either add another pair through the same location or (preferably) add another pair somewhere else. The latter is the better approach where you can increase coverage by adding one or more new stations unique to the new pair. However good interchange at one or more points on the existing network is required for connectivity.

Melbourne's Metro Tunnel will soon provide extra capacity and connectivity of this type. It's a big project so we can't expect something like it to be built every few years. However we can gets many of the benefits by starting to reform the rest of the network with more lines operating as efficient cross-city through services. A start could be made by reforming operations on the cross-city group to provide Metro Tunnel style frequency, legibility and reliability on the Newport - South Yarra axis. After that the worst sins of the City Loop need to be undone by splitting it as proposed as an add-on option in the Metro Tunnel Business Case

In a sense this is 'back to the future'; all these would transition rail from being a suburbs - CBD peak commuter service to a higher capacity, more connected and more versatile 7 day network nearer to what existed in 1939 than runs now.   

As for other cities, Perth has had two through line pairs ever since the new Joondalup and Armadale lines were connected in the 1990s, with this remaining when Joondalup connected to the new Mandurah line instead. Brisbane only really still has one through trunk (accommodating too many lines) though this will change with Cross River Rail which will also add eastern CBD coverage.   


You get this with metro systems internationally but the ability to make circumferential trips on suburban rail does not exist outside Sydney. Perth will be the next city to gain a minor circumferential capability when the Thornlie line gets extended to Cockburn Central. Then it will be Melbourne's turn when the Suburban Rail Loop opens. 

For the foreseeable future the vast majority of circumferential public transport will be by bus, with Sydney, Melbourne and Perth the only capitals with at least semi-premium bus routes for this. Still, in a big growing city some form of fast and frequent orbital transport fully separated from cars will be as much of a game changer for its metropolitan transport as going from stub to Loop is for the CBD area or either of the first two to through lines will be for the inner suburbs. This is something that not all Suburban Rail Loop opponents have necessarily grasped with some critics being reluctant to put out their own proposals (which also won't be cheap if they're any good).      


Melbourne's City Loop had some benefits but the configuration chosen proved an expensive time-wasting diversion. For decades it distracted us from building more connective networks such as could be achieved from a series of bidirectional through line pairs that connect (for passengers) at well-designed interchange stations. Its basic assumption - that of rail being for white collar Hoddle grid commuters and providing a second class service for everyone else - was already fading in the 2000s, with the pandemic and more working from home finishing it off more recently. 

Although its operations are still not satisfactorily consistent nor reliable, the Frankston - Newport cross-city group was the first real challenge to this mentality when it was created about 10 years ago. The next challenge will be the Metro Tunnel, that being free of the mid-line split at Flinders St, should familiarise Melburnians with a new operating culture. If done properly I think people will like it, leading to pressure to cost-effectively modernise the rest of the network in a similar manner. 

More Building Melbourne's Useful Network items here

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

TT 186: Melbourne bus routes without Sunday service - unique portions

A quick plot of Melbourne bus routes without Sunday service. Map shows unique portions only, ie most routes are longer than shown but may overlap sections of other routes. 

A more detailed interactive map appears here

Concentrations of non-Sunday routes form an arc from Melbourne's middle western, northern and eastern suburbs. There are also clusters in the south-east around Dandenong, the outer east around Croydon/Lilydale and some others around Frankston. 

A lot of this is historical accident - there have only been sporadic attempts to correct high patronage or connectivity potential routes that the otherwise large scale MOTC 'minimum hours' upgrade program of 2006 - 2010 left off. Particular concentrations of high usage but underserved routes are found around Dandenong while high connectivity potential routes are the circumferential routes across Melbourne's inner/middle north and east.  

The longest lines aren't necessarily the routes that need 7 day service most due to these being in semi-rural or industrial areas. But the map can still be helpful if you consider routes that serve major destinations, areas of high social needs and/or which have high productivity on the days they do run. And which could provide key cross-suburban links that would otherwise require long train or tram trips into the CBD. 

Conspicuous examples include 503, 506, 536, 542, 546, 548, 609, 612, 800, 802/804, 844, 885 and a few more. Then there are routes with very short unique portions but which nevertheless link key weekend destinations like shopping centres. These are the likes of 468 and 549 that hardly show on the map if at all. 

Another cluster of routes are in the outer east and south-east. Their catchment is mixed, with some low density. Still a basic minimum-standards type 7 day service would be appropriate. Most notable examples include 772, 675, 680 and 689. 

I listed the 13 routes that most deserved Sunday service back in 2019. I discussed cost effective upgrades, based on more recent data here and here. Weekend and particularly Sunday buses are a proven patronage winner, with more and more bus routes recording higher passenger productivity on weekends than weekdays. And the costs are relatively low as weekend upgrades typically involve working the existing fleet harder. 

Index to Timetable Tuesday items here

Thursday, December 14, 2023

UN 167: How much time and money can we save if we straightened our bus routes?

Time is money. Waste it and you waste money. 

Plus opportunities for higher patronage because faster transit delivers the triple benefits of higher speed, higher frequency and higher farebox recovery. 

One of the reasons why Melburnians prefer trams over buses is that although neither in mixed traffic is particularly fast, trams are at least straight, with most routes typically only having one or two major bends.

Whereas buses, even on straight corridors, often have indirect sections (eg pulling into station or shopping centre interchanges) that waste valuable vehicle, driver and passenger time. 

We wouldn't have this problem if we built stations and shopping centres with their entrances right on main roads. 

But we didn't and we do. 

A Glen Waverley example

Back in the 1960s the Glen Waverley line was shortened and the station rebuilt to allow for expanded commuter parking west of Springvale Rd. Back then bus routes were very localised and there wasn't a continuous route along Springvale Rd. That was to come later when the 888 route was created, with this, along with 889, becoming through routes between Nunawading and Chelsea. This was so popular that this became one of two corridors chosen for the SmartBus pilot project in 2002. There were further service improvements and a single route number when this became part of the 902 orbital in 2010.

The busiest part of the 902 orbital is between Nunawading and Springvale South where it can carry standing loads. This is particularly so on weekends due to 30 minute gaps between buses despite high demand.

Springvale and Glen Waverley stations feed a lot of passengers to the 902 bus but there is a significant proportion of passengers who make through trips. Whereas the bus does not deviate off Springvale Rd to serve Nunawading and Springvale stations, it needs to for Glen Waverley station due to the station now being away from Springvale Rd as shown below. 

The need to deviate into Glen Waverley bus interchange adds three extra turning movements and more stops at traffic lights.

All this waiting, turning and backtracking adds to bus run times. Let's say it's a (conservative) 5 minutes added per trip. Multiply that by the number of trips on a week and minutes soon turn into hours. For example: 

M-F: 137 trips x 5 min = 685 min = 11.4 hours
Sat: 76 trips x 5 min = 380 min = 6.3 hours
Sun: 58 trips x 5 min = 290 min = 4.8 hours

This adds to over 68 bus and driver hours per week, or roughly 3400 hours per year. If you assume $100 - 150 per bus operating hour then the extra annual operating cost is in the $400 - 500k range. And this doesn't include a. the foregone fare revenue lost from those who might use the bus but don't because it's too slow and b. passengers' own time. The latter is especially overlooked even though respect for passengers' time is critical for any effective public transport system.  

While unforeseen then, the 1960s decision to shorten the Glen Waverley line and move the station away from Springvale Rd was a mistake that ended up making Glen Waverley's most used bus route slower and less direct than it should have been.

We're not necessarily smarter today  

Unfortunately bad design choices with regards to station location continue today, with the rule that stations should be near (and preferably straddle) major cross-streets to maximise their catchment not always being followed. For example the LXRP rebuilt Edithvale station further away from its main intersecting cross road than it should have been. That put the station further from the 902 bus and reduced connectivity to homes and services on Edithvale Rd. Bonbeach is further from the local shops while the walk between trains and buses (particularly 903, Mentone's busiest route) is much longer at the rebuilt Mentone than it used to be. As for the future, Metro-SRL connectivity at proposed Suburban Rail Loop stations like Southland risks being poor so that is one to watch given that poor connectivity could make SRL fail. 

Luckily there are good examples that should be more widely known. Interchange arrangements at stations like Ormond and Nunawading combine speed (with buses not pulling off their main route) and good no-cross connectivity from station platforms to bus stops on both sides of the road. Good interchange arrangements also exist elsewhere, with Perth's mid-freeway stations on the Joondalup and Mandurah lines being significantly better for bus connectivity than our equivalent at Williams Landing. The new south side bus interchange at Tarneit should save some worthwhile time for some routes, although the area continues to suffer due to the shopping centre's distance from the station. These all provide learning opportunities that should be applied whenever a station or bus interchange is added or rebuilt.  
Opportunities elsewhere

The Glen Waverley example above dealt with only one bus route at one interchange. Some interchanges, like Box Hill, Chadstone Shopping Centre and Monash University, are bigger with more bus movements per day. Even if only 2 minutes per trip average can be shaved off then the operational savings could be millions of dollars per year. This could be ploughed back into improved hours or frequency, allowing further service, connectivity and fare revenue gains.

Melbourne has the habit of ignoring cheap connectivity upgrades while also proposing mega-projects to fix them. Even though fixing connectivity without the mega-projects could be done sooner and with better value for money.

For example many of the speed advantages of the proposed Caulfield - Rowville 'trackless tram' would be realised (for a fraction of the cost) if we kept the 900 bus on Princes Hwy and didn't deviate it into Chadstone and arguably Oakleigh station. Local travel for the latter could instead be handled through improved 7 day service on routes like 800, 802, 804, 862 and 903 along with other cost-effective local bus reform. 

To summarise, time is money. The benefits to both network operations and passengers are immense if we were better at monitoring bus slow points and made road and interchange reforms accordingly. And made fast direct connectivity the top priority when it comes to station location and design. 

Thursday, December 07, 2023

UN 166: Time to revive bus reform (Five reform steps for the north and east)

Bus network reform seems to have taken a back seat lately. Zero emissions buses and franchising appear to have the limelight. While important in their own ways, they are peripheral to the 'main game' for the bus network. That is whether its routes and timetables benefit the most number of users, and through this, the general community. 

Bus Plan on the rocks?

Many hoped the 2021 Bus Plan would revive interest in bus services and reform. While some good things happened it hasn't exactly got off to a cracking pace. And 2023 wasn't the plan's finest year.   

For example, partly because it lacked a specific implementable program, the May 2023 state budget gave it short shrift with little new funding for bus services. This caused me to query its health in June. October saw it lose its originator and chief ministerial advocate in Ben Carroll. By November Bus Plan's status within DTP slumped so low that it received no mention in its 2022-2023 annual report and was no longer accessible on the revamped DTP website

We are also still awaiting the 'Bus Reform Implementation Plan' that was to give meat to the rather thin bones in 2021's 'plan for a plan'. The nearest we have to a hint of what's in store is the major bus network reviews for north and north-east Melbourne announced in September 2022. The last progress update the public got on those was 6 months ago

IV's Fast, frequent and fair

More so than DTP lately, Infrastructure Victoria has pursued bus network reform with gusto. It's published several papers in the last two years. Their latest, Fast, frequent and fair: how buses can better connect Melbourne, came out only yesterday. It draws on numerous references, including many Melbourne on Transit items. There's some wonderful maps that show service hours and frequency inequalities across Melbourne. And there's ideas for reformed bus networks in parts of Melbourne's north and east, fitting within DTP's review agenda above.   

Recommendation 8 regrettably perpetuates IV's fetish with modal fares despite these making politically acceptable bus network reform harder. They should have instead stuck to making short and/or off-peak trips cheaper relative to longer trips while avoiding modal penalties. I'd also have picked some different corridors for the proposed BRT routes. Some, like their one from Mernda, duplicate trains and a east-west corridor would have been better. 

Overall though Fast, frequent and fair is a very good paper that the government should sit up and take notice of. In conjunction with rail frequency upgrades and some small tram extensions it would give Melbourne an excellent public transport network suitable for far more trips than currently. And, as the IV report reminds us, bus reform is extremely cost-effective and can generate very strong benefit/cost ratios. 

Where might revived bus service reform happen? 

DTP nominated Melbourne's north and north-east over a year ago. While arguably lower priorities for service than high needs areas like Dandenong and growth areas in the west and north, the area has more than its fair share of complex, unreformed and even over-serviced routes. While DTP hasn't released anything specific on what a reformed northern suburbs bus network might look like, others have. 

Examples include IV's Fast, frequent and fair optimised network for the north-east (Fig 13) and Networking the North from the Victorian Transport Action Group. The latter is the more detailed but reforms were divided into 26 potentially independent packages to allow a staged implementation. My recent list of cost-effective bus upgrades also presented some ideas for the north. 

Today I'll list five steps for potential bus reform in IV's north-east bus reform study area. This is an area roughly between Brunswick/Merri Creek in the west and La Trobe University/Mernda in the east. Or the cities of Darebin and Whittlesea, though there'll inevitably be some overflows.

I'll first list the simplest steps, ie the bottom rungs of the bus reform pyramid, and then move to more advanced changes that would really transform the network.  

Step 1: Fix complex holiday-related timetable oddities 

Catching a bus in Melbourne is a chancy exercise, especially on weekends and public holidays. You don't necessarily know what timetable will run or even if the service will operate at all. This is because the MOTC program to standardise service arrangements made a good start but was never completed, even on some quite important routes. This can be addressed with the following low-cost upgrades:

a. Abolish reduced service summer timetables on Routes 503 and 506 so the same service runs all year. Many more routes used to have reduced summer timetables but no longer do. Hence finishing the job off involves only a few extra service hours per year to make the network free of summer timetables.  

b. Introduce public holiday service to all routes with Saturday service. Currently this is a mish-mash with no logic in what runs and what doesn't. While most routes that run Saturdays run that timetable on public holidays, there is a substantial minority of routes that operate Saturdays but not public holidays. The consequence of the latter is confusion amongst passengers. This is exacerbated by PTV frequently getting timetables and communications wrong as arrangements are too complex for even them to understand. Service may also be out of kilter with demand (eg some shopping centre routes not running on Boxing Day eg 549) while some neighbourhoods (eg parts of Reservoir on the 558) may not get buses for days on end over Christmas and Easter.  

Northern area timetables that need standardised holiday arrangements include 506, 526, 538, 549, 550, 558 and 559. Routes 503, 512, 536 and 548 are close to the study area and run by operators that serve it so should also be upgraded to simplify rostering and communication. Indeed the same could be said for Melbourne generally as doing only 15 more routes would fix this problem everywhere and the low cost makes it worth it.   

Step 2: 7 day upgrades and minimum standards upgrades

Many routes in Melbourne's north don't run 7 days or finish early at night. In other cases there may not be any Saturday afternoon service, reflecting pre-1980s shop trading hours. That limits the usefulness of buses for many work and leisure trips. 

Routes in the study area lacking 7 day service include: 350, 389503, 506, 526, 546, 548, 549, 550, 551, 558, 559 and 609. Those in bold are relatively simple routes that could be upgraded on their current alignment, or with only very minor straightening (see Step 3). In addition Route 251 runs 7 days but needs a minor increase in operating hours to bring it to minimum service standards. 

The other routes have major problems meaning you might only upgrade them after other reforms (assuming they survive at all). For instance 350, 550 and 551 have relatively little unique coverage while 548 and (especially) 558 have complex reversals and weak termini. These may require reform in conjunction with other routes to prevent the issue of upgrading a route's timetable only to delete or greatly modify it a short time later. 609 has almost all these problems and very few weekday trips.   

Step 3: Timetable harmonisation with trains and minor straightening 

The study area is full of bus routes with timetables that don't evenly meet trains. For example around Reservoir/Epping it is common for buses every ~23 minutes to not meet trains every 20 minutes. Example non-harmonised routes include 517, 526, 548, 552, 553, 555, 556, 558, 566, 567 and others. Then there is the 577 which sought to feed trains by operating its two buses per hour at an irregular interval.  

Some of these are very complex routes (including indirectness, overlaps and weak termini) that need other reforms too. Out of the list the most promising to get to every 20 minutes are 517 (potentially shorten to operate Northland - Greensborough only with other arrangements for St Helena) and 556 (remove Derby St loop). There is a chance that the latter may free up enough time for an improvement on another route such as 555.

Route 552 retains an archaic weekend timetable with high Saturday morning frequency (15 min), a low Saturday afternoon frequency (30 min) and a non-clockface 45 min Sunday frequency, none harmonising with trains. It may be an overall better outcome to aim for a 20 min all day Saturday frequency along with an improved Sunday frequency (even if 40 min) and a potential stronger northern terminus eg Keon Park Station.  

Harmonisation is desirable for the other routes but may be best done with wider reforms, some of which are discussed later, to maximise efficiency. 

Step 4: 10 strong 7 day east-west Connector or Rapid routes

These involve weekend frequency increases, improved operating hours (IV suggests 6am - 11pm) and stronger termini. Most upgrades are operating hours only, so do not increase peak fleet requirements. Candidate routes include: 

390: Longer operating hours and service boosted to every 20 min 7 days to provide an efficient link across the outer north harmonised with trains. 

506: All the abovementioned upgrades plus longer operating hours and 20 min weekend frequencies (similar to weekdays). 

508: Longer operating hours and 20 min weekend frequencies (similar to weekdays). Review eastern terminus. This is a potential Rapid route with potential for the existing 15 min peak frequency to be operated all day.   

510: Longer operating hours and 20 min weekend frequencies (similar to weekdays). Potential extension to Heidelberg for a stronger eastern terminus, though this will increase the bus requirement. 

514: Incorporates 513 trips with operating hours and weekend upgrades to provide 7 day 20 min service between Glenroy and Greensborough. Other arrangements should apply for Lower Plenty/Eltham portion of 513. The main benefit here would be a single simple route along Bell St along with upgraded weekend services. 

517: Abovementioned split at Greensborough with portion to Northland with longer operating hours and 20 min weekend frequencies (similar to reformed weekday service).  

561: Longer operating hours and 20 min weekend frequencies (similar to weekdays) 

565: A new route created from the Greensborough - Lalor half of the very complex 566 but extending to Epping Plaza and potentially Wollert. Longer operating hours and every 20 min 7 days. An alternative could be IV's idea to reroute the 901 via this alignment but this would require a replacement route for McDonalds Rd. 

570: Longer operating hours and 20 min weekend frequencies (similar to weekdays). Examine scope for simplification at Plenty Rd end in conjunction with 564. 

904: A new Rapid route every 10 min formed from consolidating the existing 527 and 903 between Coburg and Heidelberg with an option for a new 903 La Trobe University connection from Doncaster via Heidelberg. While the most complex to implement out of this list its value for money would be high with the strongest likely patronage. More details on the 904 Murray Rd Megabus here.  

In addition to the above, Route 386 already has a 20 min combined frequency along its overlap with 387. However it could gain some extra Sunday - Thursday night trips (being the busier of the pair) to add to the network's versatility down The Lakes Boulevard and to provide night connections from the 86 tram. 

Step 5: Up to 6 strong north-south Connector routes

These involve weekend frequency increases, improved operating hours (IV suggests 6am - 11pm) on existing routes. There are also some new routes that will require significant changes to the existing network for maximum efficiency. More radically maximum cost-effectiveness may require use of resources obtained by rationalising low usage or duplicative routes in the Greensborough/Eltham area.  Candidate routes include: 

356/357: Upgrade both with longer hours and each route every 20 min 7 days for a 10 min combined frequency via Epping Rd. Commencing both at Epping should allow easier scheduling for a more even offset. Option exists to extend routes north to intersect with Route 390. 

548: La Trobe University - Camberwell route operating over longer hours and at least every 20 min 7 days. All trips would operate directly with Springthorpe estate served by a separate local route. Networking the North has a more ambitious version of this via Heidelberg that it calls the Route 550 with a potential extension as far south as Caulfield. This is a potential future Rapid route. 

555:Abovementioned upgrade to every 20 min plus longer hours and 20 min weekend frequency. 

556: Abovementioned route simplification for better directness, upgrade to every 20 min plus longer hours and 20 min weekend frequency. 

567: Reformed route extended north to La Trobe University and south to Hawthorn / Swinburne University via Chandler Hwy in conjunction with network reform west of Northland and replacement of 609. Networking the North calls this the Route 560 with more detail presented there. This is a potential Rapid route. 

NEW: Reservoir - Epping. This would be a new Connector style route (ie every 20 min) serving Reservoir West and Edgars Rd, with the latter replacing the 357. This connects more people to Reservoir Station and enables reform of the existing 558 which can become a more direct east-west route from Reservoir to Campbellfield Shopping Centre and arguably onward to Glenroy merging with the existing 536. This would greatly improve connectivity to a lot of places from the west including La Trobe University which is accessible from Reservoir via the 301 shuttle. 

Concept network maps

Only show the 7 day Connector or better routes. Coverage type routes operating at lower frequencies are not shown. More discussion of what these might look like appear in Networking the North, noting that many potential combinations exist.  

Resourcing and conclusion

This reformed bus network for the cities of Darebin and Whittlesea will require additional funding, though some very simple changes (eg splitting 566) need not add service kilometres. The gains from it are however high, especially with regards to 7 day service, connectivity to major destinations and cross-Yarra service. This network is consistent with the aims of the IV report of improved directness, frequency and simplicity without it likely to be too controversial. Note again that it emphasises connector routes so I haven't discussed potential new growth area routes in the north that may be needed. 

Potential sources for resourcing trade-offs exist outside the review area, notably around Greensborough, Eltham and Diamond Creek where there are overlapping but not necessarily heavily used routes, including semi-rural segments of the 901 orbital. Within the study area there are routes like 350 that do not add significant unique coverage, the substantial overlap between 527 and 903, the terrible 553, the dead end 526 and the weak terminused 567. Also some areas like Bastings St Northcote and parts Heidelberg can have routes removed without sacrificing 400m coverage. Some might also query the service levels of routes like 382 and 555 that parallel tram or train lines and look at those for savings. Having said that the above steps are easily scalable to suit resources and priorities.    

Comments are appreciated and can be left below. 

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Tuesday, December 05, 2023

TT 185: Full on Sundays - Why Highpoint's 408 bus is leaving people behind

Notwithstanding the state auditor-general finding that their portfolio's staffing payroll swelled by 85% in the three years from 2021/22 (the highest of any department and nearly triple the 29% state public service average), the Department of Transport and Planning, constrained by a strongly infrastructure-first government policy agenda, is rarely very responsive when it comes to boosting bus and train services. 

It pretty much only happens when there's a sustained period of leaving people behind, with media, community or parental pressure often instrumental. And when funding appears even minor changes can take years with the 31 month gap between the May 2021 budget funding for the Route 538 straightening and December 2023 implementation being an example. This isn't good if you want to grow network patronage and reap the benefits arising therefrom.  

A truly efficiency-minded benefit-maximising agency also ought to be playing a stronger defensive game than DTP currently is. For example fare revenue protection appears weak and unproductive but overserved bus routes can retain unreformed timetables for years. Both are to the detriment of potential cost-effective bus reform some of which fund themselves with only a tiny one-off capital expenditure needed for implementation.  

That's a long introduction to today's example of a recurring and indeed increasing need. 

Back in August I mentioned that more and more bus routes had higher passenger boardings per hour on weekends than on weekdays. This was because weekend usage was growing but bus timetables rarely reflected this. For example it's not uncommon for key bus routes to operate at half, one-third or even one-quarter their weekday frequency on weekends, especially Sundays. 

This pattern is particularly prevalent on bus routes to major shopping centres despite these being major weekend destinations and employment sources. I looked at Chadstone here and here.

Highpoint Shopping Centre is another example. It has the 82 tram but this is less convenient to the shopping centre than the bus interchange with seven routes. Two of these routes don't run Sundays and one that does (215) finishes early. The others are typically every 40 or 60 minutes on Sundays, with only 1 of the 7 (the 223) operating every 20 minutes or better all week thanks to some 2021 upgrades.

The last two columns are particularly telling. Most trains and trams have a Sunday : M-F wait ratio of close to 1. That is waiting times midday Sunday are not much more than midday on weekdays. However buses are much more variable, even though these are the main public transport mode to major shopping centres which are busiest then. 

Most notable for Highpoint is the 408, with 60 minute maximum waits on Sunday versus 20 minutes on other days, or a 3:1 ratio. 406 is not far behind with 40 minute Sunday headways, or a 2:1 ratio versus the other days. The ratio is infinite for 407 or 468 as these don't run Sundays. 

Finally there's the Sunday passenger boardings per hour column. This was based on August - November  2022 productivity data obtained from DTP. Both 406 and 408 are strong routes all week but have highest average loadings on Sundays since their frequency then falls off much more sharply than ridership. 406 and 408 Sunday numbers are also strong on a metropolitan-basis and would remain so if their Sunday frequency was doubled as I recommended here.  

So much for the numbers, what do high loadings on the 408, the route with the biggest mismatch between  Sunday patronage and service provision, look like in practice? For the answer, watch this video (from 26 November 2023).

The above video is not a one-off, with other accounts of full buses leaving intending passengers behind  on other trips (notably the 6:11pm). Hence a strong case exists for added Sunday trips on the 408 with Route 406 also well deserving of similar improvements. This will require extra funding given that 408's operator (CDC) already has the most efficient network of the major bus operators with little obvious 'fat' to trim thanks to previous reform.

The benefits of a 408 boost include not just Highpoint but also Sunshine (for which the 408 is an important feeder from two directions), Sunshine Hospital (whose only bus is the 408) and St Albans (with a large and diverse low income high bus using catchment). 

Longer term bus network reform for Highpoint could include consolidating the 223 with the 406 for a simpler 7 day turn-up-and-go Footscray - Highpoint route as well as reforming the 903 to provide Highpoint with an east-west SmartBus (to compensate for the promised but never delivered Blue Orbital).  

With the need now established, the question now is whether minister Williams and the government respond with targeted bus service improvements and network reform. The 2024 state budget would be a great opportunity to revive interest in better bus services after getting little in the 2023 state budget, Bus Plan notwithstanding. 

And, with such high recent growth in the portfolio's staffing establishment, it's over to DTP Secretary Paul Younis to ensure that planning and delivery capability for improved services is as high as it can be to maximise efficiency and responsiveness. 

Index to other Timetable Tuesday items