Wednesday, April 24, 2024

GAIC comes good on bus funding

Growth areas will get a bus boost with developer contributions from GAIC (Growth Area Infrastructure Contribution) going into community infrastructure and services including buses. 

The details of which areas will get what were announced on Wednesday April 24, 2024 (premier's release here). It follows media reports last year of growth area funds being collected but not spent. 

Bus services in the cities of Cardinia, Casey, Hume, Wyndham will gain from the funding. As will some active transport connections. 

 In summary the bus upgrades will be (direct quotes in red, followed by my comments): 


* New and extended bus services to the growth area of Cardinia around Officer – routes 925, 928 – $22,619,000

There haven't been bus upgrades in this area for many years so these are very welcome. With any luck the short-stopping 925 finally gets extended to Cardinia Rd station that opened in 2012. Given mention of Officer, I'd expect 928 to be extended west. Also welcome due to the need for coverage. With gaps of nearly 70 minutes in the weekday peak the 926 needs boosted service but this wasn't mentioned. Also keep an eye on East Pakenham as the new station will open in June and governments are generally pretty good about having at least one bus route running to new growth area stations on Day One, with Caroline Springs and Cardinia Rd being precedents.    


* Extended bus service on Bells Road in Casey – Route 831 – $23,670,000
* Bus service extension to Clyde North via Hardys Road in Casey – Route 798 – $16,227,000

Both are needed growth area extensions. 831 adds a handy connection to Berwick from the south. Route 798 has better than average frequency for a growth area route so if this is maintained this will vastly improve services in the eastern part of developing Clyde North. 


* Sunbury Station car park and access paths upgrade – $1,867,000
* Roxburgh Park Train Station upgrade – $331,347
* Bus service extension – Route 543 to Craigieburn Central – $13,145,597
* New bus service – Kalkallo to Olivine via Donnybrook Station – Route 524 – $16,406,739

The Mickleham Rd corridor hasn't had a lot of love with regards buses so it's good this is getting a Craigieburn connection. Though some might be asking for this to continue through to the station. The job asked of 525 in the Donnybrook area is now too much for a single route so the introduction of the new 524 will be a positive, especially for isolated Olivine.  


* Williams Landing Station upgrade – $4,552,596
* A new bus connection between Harpley Estate and Cornerstone Estate communities, and Wyndham Vale Station – $21,473,000
* Delivery of a fixed route services to residential areas currently reliant of the Tarneit North FlexiRide which is over capacity. The modified route will also provide a link between Tarneit Station and the employment area of Laverton North – $39,732,000

Very welcome. Parts of Harpley are a fair walk from the 192 and Cornerstone/Mambourin currently has nothing. It's visible from the Geelong train but the proposed Black Forest Rd station remains pending. Some in Harpley may be hoping the new route continues through to Werribee but this is not mentioned in the description. For some time Tarneit North FlexiRide has been insufficient for the area's population.  Tarneit North should probably have had a fixed route from the beginning but at least it's getting it now. Out of my 5 step wish list for buses in the City of Wyndham this package delivers on two and a bit (scrapping FlexiRide, a Tarneit - Laverton North industrial area connection and some growth area coverage).   

Other comments

What's missing? Not all growth areas got bus funding from this package, with Melton, Whittlesea and Mitchell missing out. Melton's Deanside residents might have reasonably hoped for something along Taylors Rd connecting into the Caroline Springs area. There are also coverage gaps in Mt Atkinson and Thornhill Park. This is a recurring pattern with Melton generally faring worse than Wyndham in PT. However all areas except Mitchell received GAIC money for active transport connections. 

The funding dollars for GAIC look impressive but is only for the first five years' worth, ie it is not ongoing. That will need to come from future state budgets. However precedent is that if a route has been funded by GAIC it generally does continue under budget funding. 

When will the new services start? I examined this last year. As a rule of thumb, if it's a simple service upgrade it takes about a year after funding is confirmed. If it's a new route like some of these will be it will take longer - say two years. So all should be running by mid 2026 (a state election year). 

GAIC funding criteria are strict. It is easier to add a route in a growth area (over an existing network) than to reform a local bus network, which may have wider implications (including areas not funded by GAIC). This is an issue in the Clyde area where many routes have been added but some still have weak termini and there aren't through connections between key centres such as Cranbourne to Berwick. Hence it is highly desirable that reviews be done as soon as possible to simplify and connect local networks. 


This is a good set of what should be 'business as usual' type bus service upgrades in our suburban growth areas. Better late than never, they will make a big difference to many peoples' lives. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

What might an SRL precursor SmartBus look like?

I (and a few others) have sometimes mentioned the desirability of establishing a premium bus route as a precursor to long-term rail projects such as Sunshine - Melbourne Airport and the Suburban Rail Loop. 

While slower and with less capacity than rail, precursor buses would bring some project benefits forward by 10 to 30 years. It would also make the project appear more tangible and build confidence amongst those making location decisions, whether it is to live, work or invest. 

For brevity I've called this concept (for the Suburban Rail Loop) 'SRL SmartBus'.

This is largely because SmartBus remains the nearest there is to a widely recognised premium bus brand in Melbourne. From a car driver's point of view, there is nothing more powerful than a convoy of 12 metre long moving billboards saying 'SmartBus' going faster than them in its own lane.

Unfortunately such sights no longer exist because DoT/DTP retired the special SmartBus livery. And no more SmartBus routes have been added for 13 years despite some having sufficient service to basically qualify already (eg 216, 220, 234, 235, 246 etc). This deprecation (by a department notoriously lacking marketing skills) has in my view has been a mistake given the especially low social licence of buses in Melbourne versus other cities, but I digress.

So what is SmartBus and why should we continue to be inspired by it? Operating on nine routes, SmartBus services feature earlier starts, later finishes and more frequent service than average for buses in Melbourne. They also have real time passenger information and more distinct stops. Its three orbitals made circumferential travel easier while freeway expresses greatly improved all-day connectivity to the Doncaster area. SmartBus has been a success and contributed, along with the roll-out of more 7 day service on local routes, to the large increase in bus patronage between 2006 and 2011. 

Today I will go into more detail on what form an SRL SmartBus (or better) might take. I will concentrate on SRL East (ie Box Hill - Southland) as this is the first stage with occasional remarks for  later sections of SRL (which also need benefits brought forward with upgraded buses).  

Bronze: precursor SRL bus at SmartBus standards

To its credit the government has made a start here, with the 2022 state budget funding improved frequency on Routes 733 and 767. Implemented last year, these have been appreciated by passengers.  

The next logical step would be a further upgrade to SmartBus standards, notably longer hours and better weekend frequency. The routes that would be front runners for this include the busiest portions of the 733, 737 and 767 for SRL East. 733 would also need extending to at least Southland/Sandringham.

SRL North is best addressed by upgrading the existing 902 SmartBus with a 901 swap at Greensborough and again at Broadmeadows to provide, like the SRL plan, a Doncaster - Melbourne Airport portion. This is zero operational cost but misses La Trobe University, which could get other upgrades.

Melbourne Airport - Sunshine needs a new route as there is none existing to modify.  The western portion is likely best addressed by upgrading popular Werribee - Tarneit routes including 170 (via Werribee Plaza) and some others either side. Labor's 2022 election promise of Geelong weekend trains being boosted from 40 to 20 minutes would also help orbital trips here.  

Silver: precursor SRL bus at above SmartBus standards

While SmartBus was a big step forward for Melbourne at the time, it is well short of what a premium bus service looks like in other cities. For example it mostly lacks the consistently high 7 day frequency as found on Brisbane's BUZ routes or Perth's High Frequency Buses. The gap is most notable on weekends (30 versus 15 minutes) and to some extent evenings. Also most SmartBus routes shut down at 9pm Sundays. Good 7 day service with longer hours, such as offered on other cities' routes, would be highly desirable for an SRL precursor route. 

As for speed, this comes with frequency, directness, widely spaced stops and priority over other traffic. Freeway SmartBuses to the Doncaster area are quite fast but large parts of other routes are not. Good speed is also important if you want a bus to be a credible precursor to what will (still) be a much faster SRL. 

One could increase spacing between SmartBus stops but there are portions of SmartBus routes that are very heavily used. Longer stop spacing reduces in-vehicle travel time but may increase walking distance. This is significant given that a high proportion of bus trips, including on the long SmartBus orbitals, are relatively short and expressing wouldn't necessarily save much time. Given that SRL stations will be a long way apart there will still need to be substantial bus services from various directions, including potentially parallel to the SRL line.

Overall the main way to get to a silver level of SRL SmartBus service is to boost weekend (and preferably evening) frequencies from 30 to 15 minutes and add Sunday evening service. Two routes that got upgrades along these lines include the 234 and 907 in 2021, so there is precedent. Sydney has recently gone one better with their key eastern suburbs routes being boosted to every 10 minutes 7 days a week.   

Gold: precursor SRL bus with 2 tier express/all stops route

Toronto has several cross-radial bus routes that could inspire a 'gold standard' SRL SmartBus. And other middle and outer suburban orbital corridors that lack a public transport equivalent of EastLink or the M80. 

Finch Avenue East, like the Suburban Rail Loop, is in Toronto's established middle suburbs, about 15km north of downtown. Route 39 is the all stops east-west route. It runs every 10 minutes or better from early morning to late at night. Its consistency of frequent service is not matched by any single train, tram or bus line in Melbourne. It feeds the subway and numerous other bus lines it intersects with. 

Overlapping the 39 is the 939 express route. It runs all day from before 7am to 1am on weekdays and approximately 8am to 10pm on weekends. Service is normally every 10 minutes 7 days, improving to about 5 minutes in the peak.

Thus unless it is very early or late at night a two tier service, comprising the 39 all stops and the 939 express is available on Finch Avenue at excellent frequencies almost unknown of in Melbourne outside CBD trams.  

The 39/939 runs a similar distance from Toronto's downtown as the SRL operates from Melbourne CBD (at Box Hill). It intersects the U-shaped subway Line 1 at two major stations and suburban centres (as the SRL intends to do at Box Hill, Clayton and Southland). Development density along Finch Av varies, with it being highest near subway stations. Thus its service pattern is a good match for at least the Clayton - Box Hill/Doncaster portion of our Suburban Rail Loop as a precursor service.  

Below is a possible Melbourne/SRL adaption of the TTC Finch Avenue service model. Based on an extended and upgraded two tier Route 733, it would provide an excellent precursor service.

The red line is the limited stop route, which I've called 733E (although it could, to borrow Toronto practice, be the 933). This would operate a frequent service 7 days and offer substantial travel time savings for those making longer trips. There may be more stops than indicated, for example the Monash Medical Centre and Warrigal Rd (for a Route 903 connection). There is also scope for it to be extended north to Doncaster, though there are already other routes (including the 903) that already operate there. 

The orange line is the 733, serving all stops. This would operate from Box Hill to Clarinda. This is a minor change to the existing 733 which finishes at Oakleigh (after paralleling other routes on Centre Rd). Major stops between Box Hill and Clarinda would get 12 buses per hour as both this and the 733E would stop. This is considered justified due to higher population density and trip generation compared to the Clarinda - Southland portion which will be covered by local routes. 

Something should be said about the two SRL East locations not served by the above 733/733E. Deakin University already has a frequent connection to Box Hill via the rerouted 903 and the 201 university shuttle. Connectivity to the south could be improved if at least the Box Hill - Chadstone section of the 767 is upgraded. Monash - Glen Waverley connectivity could be improved through a frequency upgrade to Route 737 which could also provide a direct connection to Knox City and even further east. The other gap is between Glen Waverley and Deakin University. A potential connection could be possible by extending 766's currently weak terminus to Deakin and then to Glen Waverley via Highbury Rd, though it would be less frequent than the other routes discussed. 

Network transition post SRL 

Unlike (say) a railway to Doncaster, the SRL won't exactly replace an existing bus route. However its success is predicated on excellent access to its relatively small number of stations. This is where good feeder services come in. 

The Gold standard SRL East precursor bus above featured a two tier service with both limited stop and local routes operating frequently for long hours all week. The SRL will replace the need for the express 733E service, however a frequent all stops service will need to be kept to operate as a feeder. On the map above the 733E might be removed with the 733 extended to Sandringham via Southland to retain connectivity for those in Clarinda. 

Bus and driver hours resources from the 733E could be put towards delivering an upgraded SRL East feeder bus network as discussed here (though many upgrades are justified beforehand). 


All three levels of upgrade will require significant additional bus vehicle and driver hours. And the Gold standard will need new buses too, especially for the express route. However the ability to bring many of SRL's benefits forward by between one and three decades should be regarded as a major countervailing gain.

It would also be a good proof of concept for other bus corridors such as boosted Warrigal, Springvale and Stud Rd orbitals, growth area Taylors Rd and Wollert links and a potential future western orbital. Such high order routes would also be fully consistent with the post 2023 mass transit role for buses identified in Victoria's Bus Plan (now 1045 days old with no implementation plan sighted yet). 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

UN 172: More guessing on our post Metro Tunnel timetables

It's not yet out but we're starting to get more hints of what the post Metro Tunnel metropolitan train timetables might look like.

That's important because it is, in minister Danny Pearson's words, "the biggest change to metropolitan timetables since the '80s". Even much smaller changes have been rare because Andrews/Allan government public transport policy has been 99% about building infrastructure and maybe only 1% about service. 

Inattention to service matters has led to continued complex peak timetables on some lines, widespread 30-40 minute gaps between trains and per capita service declines on Melbourne's busiest transport modes (metropolitan train and tram).

The stagnation has been particularly notable during off-peaks, evenings and weekends - the very times that have become more important due to changed post-pandemic travel patterns. It has also left us lagging Sydney, which since service boosts in 2017 now often has 10 to 15 minute maximum waits for trains (6am - midnight / 7 days) versus double or more for Melbourne.   

When asked about service matters ministers and premiers might deflect to 'Big Build' projects such as the Suburban Rail Loop and Metro Tunnel. Or claim that "it will be a "decision of the train timetablers". Even though the schedulers' brief will include a service specification that includes maximum waits. That will have come from the department, and by extension the government. 

If pressed further on service ministers might reaffirm improved timetables when major projects are completed. This bundling has raised expectations about what we'll eventually get. Especially as there has been such a service drought in the years preceding. Key benefits like off-peak frequencies could have been independently delivered across the network sooner, but apart from 2021's upgrades, largely were not. Such a 'service first' approach was proposed in the Network Development Plan Metropolitan Rail and got fully implemented on one line only - the then politically marginal Frankston line.  

Will the 2025 Metro Tunnel and associated timetables finally 'bring home the bacon' (as Paul Keating would say) on public transport service across Melbourne? Or will its benefits be largely confined to one corridor and a handful of new CBD fringe stations?

I'll discuss this further here, though it should be emphasised that even in the most limited case we're likely to be in for a welcome and historically large boost in Metro rail service.  

Business case service plan - pros and cons

The Day 1 service plan attached to the 2016 Metro Tunnel Business Case would help spread the project's benefits from a corridor to a network. If implemented we would have 7 day 10 minute daytime service to Newport, West Footscray, Craigieburn, Upfield or Gowrie, Clifton Hill, Dandenong, Frankston and Sandringham.

Maximum waits at other times like evenings and Sunday mornings would not exceed 20 minutes on most of these lines. This is a bit under half the network, with Craigieburn, Sandringham and at least part of Upfield being the main winners. A substantial gain, especially since off-peak Metro rail frequencies outside the south-east have been stagnant for years. 

The service plan's key omission is that, like the 2012 Network Development Plan Metropolitan Rail from which it was possibly derived, it would have left busy stations like Sunshine, St Albans and Watergardens with a second-rate 20 minute off-peak daytime frequency. That's no better than today, would reinforce existing west-east inequalities in transport service and shower (deserved) ridicule on the project.   

2022 state budget staff and driver funding

Funding for 'nearly 300 new drivers and station staff' was provided in the 2022 state budget. This is  key to the Metro Tunnel getting service to match the infrastructure.

What difference to service can one train driver make? My guesstimate is 647 additional service hours per year. It's a lot. Because cutting maximum waits from 30-40 to 20 minutes requires so few extra trips per week, if they're not able to deliver at least this to most stations then something seems wrong.

Indeed it could be possible to get more lines up to a 10 min off-peak daytime service all week. Ringwood is the front-runner on cost grounds (with not many extra service km needed) while Craigieburn looks the leader on patronage and 2016 business case grounds. A strong justification also exists for other lines like Mernda and Werribee (with the former actually a Coalition 2014 election promise).   

Will we get business case service levels on all lines?

Sunshine's short-changing is one good reason for the government to deviate from the business case service plan, in this case delivering more than envisaged. However the opposite can also happen, eg a descoping if costs blow out or to operations after completion. So it can sometimes be a case of 'swings and roundabouts'. 

Speaking more generally, when major projects are being developed there is pressure to look wide and high for benefits to strengthen their business case (since each project competes with numerous others for funding). That may include cost-effective add-ons that, while not strictly necessary for the project and possible independently beforehand, may add disproportionate benefit or political acceptance (eg new freeways getting parallel bike paths). So they get included. 

Examples for public transport projects could include service upgrades on intersecting lines with 'network effect' connectivity and patronage gains. However once funding is secured there are likely few consequences for government (except possibly political) if there is a subsequent de-scoping. Given the time elapsed between project development and delivery, changed circumstances (eg altered pandemic travel patterns) or budget priorities can be claimed as reasons to modify what's delivered.

In other words it is not implausible that the service levels we get next year are different from the outline contained in the Day 1 (2026 opening) service plan attached to the Metro Tunnel Business Case prepared nearly 10 years earlier.

It could also be worth comparing services against the peak capacity uplifts claimed on the Big Build website (though as peak service is dearer to add and patronage is less elastic it is fair to run this below capacity on Day 1).

Peak frequency

We do however already have an idea of Metro Tunnel's peak frequency. On March 5 2024, minister Gabrielle Williams told Parliament that Metro Tunnel trains would run every 3 minutes (presumably during peaks). 

This matches (allowing for rounding) the 18 trains per hour as successfully tested. Such a frequency is somewhat better than what currently runs from Dandenong and much better than which runs in from Sunshine.

In all cases a solid turn-up-and-go peak service, so the main effect will be to make certain trips quicker, especially those to destinations around Parkville and St Kilda Rd. And boost capacity massively, thanks to the new longer trains. 

Off-peak frequency

All-week all-day frequency has potential to be the really transformative thing about the Metro Tunnel and allied timetables. It determines whether people can use trains all week without a timetable. And even live reasonably without a car. The latter can bring housing supply, jobs, entertainment and cost of living benefits.  

Things are less clear here. Especially on related lines cited in the Business Case but not directly served by the Metro Tunnel.

Later last month, in a report about Melbourne's declining per-capita public transport service, The Age reported the following statement on Metro Tunnel timetables

Only those lines? What about the Sandringham, Craigieburn and at least part of the Upfield lines cited in the 2016 Business Case as getting a 10 minute interpeak service? 

DTP, who undersold the new 475 bus, aren't the sharpest of marketers. But one would expect better from their political masters. After all their decade-old government is known for its messaging prowess and dominance over a weak opposition. Either not all the Business Case off-peak frequency upgrades on non-Metro Tunnel lines are going ahead or they, like Christopher Pyne, are withholding details to make it a surprise

The guessing

Metro Tunnel services

My best guess on the service we might get for the Metro Tunnel lines (ie Sunbury, Pakenham, Cranbourne) is in the right hand column below: 

One tick indicates expected service matches the business case. Two ticks indicates a better service than the business case. Either due to a higher frequency or it being delivered to more stations.

The main difference between the two is that I have assumed that the busy Watergardens - West Footscray section gets full service, and not half service as proposed in the 2016 Business Case. I suspect the latter may have been due to a wish to leave room for electrified rail to destinations like Wyndham Vale, Melton and/or Melbourne Airport. Since the Metro Tunnel has beaten them all, I've assumed that it will run a full service to Watergardens. Anything else would be an embarrassment that would only entrench perceived (and real) east-west divides in public transport service. 

'Other off-peak' would be evenings and Sunday mornings. Currently the Dandenong line has a well used 10 minute service until relatively late on weeknights. And there is high usage of the currently half-hourly Sunday morning service. Not to mention weekends, where there's a huge (10 to 30 min) service cliff after 7pm

So I'm going to assume generosity including a 10 minute Dandenong - Watergardens service to late at night (if not last service) and it starting earlier than now on Sunday. Doing this would create a genuine Metro type service (with maximum 10 minute waits) with almost all Pakenham and Cranbourne off-peak services running straight through Dandenong, even at night. This would make the Metro Tunnel line the most frequent on the network, outstripping the Frankston line, which runs its 10 minute service until about 7 or 8 pm only. 

A real European (or even Canadian) style metro would have better than 10 minute frequencies on at least its core section off-peak at least during the day. Parts of Perth's rail network enjoys a 7.5 minute midday frequency. While shoulders might be better than today I'm going to guess we're not going to get this. With 10 minute service still relatively rare, Melbourne has not developed the culture to go higher outside the peaks. Even with trams, where frequent service is most prevalent, the culture is to get bigger vehicles rather than increase frequencies (which have been unchanged for years). 

While a 10 minute off-peak train service is amazing for a Melburnian it still represents a 20 minute gap if one train is cancelled or a 15 minute gap if one is slightly delayed. And even if everything runs on time a 9 minute gap (and the walk down to the platforms) is a significant transfer penalty. This means that those making short trips in the CBD will continue to use the trams, especially given the 'Free' Tram Zone's financial incentive for some. However the Metro Tunnel should still take some load off trams for Parkville and Anzac station passengers coming from or going to the suburbs. 

Non Metro Tunnel lines

The government quote didn't mention the non-Metro Tunnel lines. The two lines most at risk of missing out if the Business Case upgrades are not implemented in full are Craigieburn and Upfield. 

If this eventuates it would limit the Metro Tunnel's benefits. While services on the core Tunnel section may be frequent at all hours, a risk is that people step from a frequent Metro Tunnel train to one on another line that may still only be running every 20, 30 or even 40 minutes. 

High all-week frequency is the entry price for full participation in a transit network. If you don't have that then you only have a series of lines that people are wary to change between without detailed trip planning. Much-vaunted apps and journey planners are no substitutes for a frequent service that people know is always coming soon. 

I would be happy to be pleasantly surprised. Without inside information my expectations of off-peak frequencies on the lines listed in the Business Case are as follows. 

Whereas I'm optimistic for the Metro Tunnel lines, I am less so for the other lines. This is even though lines like Craigieburn and Mernda have amongst Melbourne's longest waits (twice that of Frankston most times) and cutting 30 to 40 minute waits to 20 minutes requires a trivially small number of  extra trips in the timetable.

These low expectations are based on government and DTP lacking a robust service frequency culture. This is exemplified by a record of rarely backing infrastructure builds with service, particularly off-peak, despite this being proportionately more important post-pandemic. The contrast with Sydney has widened hugely since about 2017, with that city having a stronger frequency improvement culture and funding across all modes.  

Sandringham's position is interesting. It replaces the Frankston line as the eastern end of the cross-city group in the Business Case. For this to happen its current 15 minute weekday interpeak frequency would likely need to be harmonised to 10/20 minutes like the Frankston line currently is.

Hence the 2016 Business Case service plan mention it as getting an upgrade to every 10 minutes. But this is also not backed by the latest statement reported in The Age. If its service was to be maintained at its current 15 minutes there would be variable wait times and inconsistent patterns over what forms what at Flinders Street if there is through running. I'm going to give the government the benefit of the doubt here so have put a question mark on the table above. As for the other off-peak, Sandringham's evening service is already the planned 20 minutes so it's only really the early weekend morning timetables (notably Sundays where it's a 40 minute service) that need boosting.  

While Sandringham isn't the busiest Metro line off-peak there is a possibility of the Metro Tunnel still upgrading this line's services to enable (admittedly troubled and transposal-ridden) cross-city group operation. Despite its lower frequency the Craigieburn line actually carries more passengers than the Sandringham line and has higher growth prospects. Thus if Sandringham deserves a 10 minute day service (with a maximum 20 minute wait at other times) then so does at least Craigieburn on equity and patronage grounds.  


The above is some speculation on what we might see in the new Metro Tunnel and related timetables. They should represent a very worthwhile service uplift on at least three and possibly up to six lines.

Only time will tell how well spread the improvements are throughout Melbourne and whether we'll get the big reductions in maximum all-week waits our trains need to form a truly useful network.  

Index to Building Melbourne's Useful Network items

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

PT service lagging apartment builds (RMIT research)

Nothing from me today but there doesn't need to be. 

Instead I recommend this RMIT paper by Chris De Gruyter, Steve Pemberton and Eric Keys tracking apartment growth versus public transport service growth.

Interactive dashboard at

It reaches similar conclusions to me, when I noted Melbourne was in a per capita service recession for its busiest modes (Age article here). 

The moral is that public transport service counts, and can make or break a network. 

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Welcome to new readers

A warm welcome to those seeing Melbourne on Transit for the first time due to The Age article examining Melbourne's public transport service levels over time

If you'd like to learn more about these trends, including viewing some tables and graphs, then please head over to PT service levels - Are we better served now?

Once done there browse the rest of this blog, which has items going back nearly 20 years. If you live on a quirky bus route the chances are I'll have written somewhere about it - the search function could be useful. 

At other times I describe public transport services in an area and examine how they might be improved, with an emphasis on cost-effective bus upgrades. You'll also find profiles of various transport ministers, reporting on state budgets, examinations of hour other cities do transport planning and much more. 

If maps are more your thing, you might like the Frequent Network Maps for Melbourne's public transport. These show you which areas get the best service on various days of the week and times of day. This is handy for anyone from home hunters to demographers in examining the differences in transport service across Melbourne's suburbs. 

Also, while less prolific than this blog, I also have a small YouTube channel with nearly 100 videos on various aspects of public transport in Melbourne.

Finally, for a bit of fun enjoy this Public Transport marketing ads video playlist and the recent '40 minute city' Metro Tunnel April Fools gag that apparently got a few people. 

Monday, April 01, 2024

The '40 minute city': A look at Melbourne's new Metro Tunnel timetables

Last month Minister Williams confirmed in Parliament that trains will operate every 3 minutes through the Metro Tunnel. Being the first public indication of what part of the new Metro Tunnel timetable might look like, this was a noteworthy statement. 

What about the rest of the Metro Tunnel timetable? While key to how people use a rail network, its development, like most transport service planning in Victoria, was done in high secrecy. Not even have broad specifications, like maximum headways at various times, been released.

Several of my usual internal sources separately hinted that the timetable is pretty much finalised but gave nothing away. Thus all I could do last month was to
speculate on three options with the middle (reference) choice most plausible most of the day.

All that's just changed. It is my pleasure that you will be the first to know the contents of this radical document that will transform the way millions move around Melbourne. 

A draft obtained

It was very late Good Friday evening outside the Banana Alley vaults. More than a few rungs below the Qantas lounge, it is not the most salubrious place to do business. Anyone there at a small hour would be on a mission, probably nefarious. The normally rumbling viaduct had just the occasional night train passing over.

At this spot two men exchanged several boxes of 7-Eleven sprinkled donuts for a nondescript four ring binder with white, yellow and green pages. They shook hands and parted. The man with the binder loosely wrapped it with a kebab-stained Herald Sun fished off Elizabeth Street - apparently its cover was sensitive. With obscured binder under shoulder, the intermediary, known to mingle in rail planning circles, made haste past the Milk Dock to just make an hourly night train to a second, suburban handover destination. 

That's the background on how an 'advanced draft' of Metro Tunnel Group Working Timetable 2025 Day 1 came to reach my hands. But content is king so that's what will be discussed next. 

The timetable's peak service reflects the minister's undertaking so needn't be shown. But below is an off-peak extract. Most notable is the 40-minute off-peak interval on this and all other lines. "Unbelievable!" you might say? No, there's reasons for this so good that DTP hopes will make you not just a convert but an evangelist for a new way of experiencing Melbourne.  

Melbourne the 40 Minute City

Just like the Suburban Rail Loop is considered more a 'city building' than purely a rail project, the same applies to the proposed Metro Tunnel timetable. It's part of a plan to make Melbourne a 40 Minute City, with synchronised public transport all running once every 40 minutes. 

Unlike Victoria's money-hungry Bus Plan, the 40 Minute City is actually money saving with nothing to stop it happening. For example, a huge slice of Melbourne's transit already runs every 40 minutes. This includes Ballarat weekday and Geelong weekend trains, most buses in Melbourne's west and north plus Sunday morning Metro timetables on the Sunbury, Craigieburn, Upfield, Mernda, Hurstbridge and Sandringham lines. 

Most SmartBuses on weekends are close, with their timetable just needing to be tweaked from every 30 to every 40 minutes. That frees resources to upgrade hourly local buses to every 40 minutes, which will become the new service standard. A state government spokesperson added that a flat statewide 40 minute frequency complemented the flat statewide fares introduced last year in furthering its transport equity objectives. "City fares with Country service" was how they put it. 

"Current off-peak timetables, notably the 10 minute all-day frequency the Frankston line enjoys, were unfair to passengers on other lines like Craigieburn and Mernda", they remarked. "Frankston's generous timetable also required replacement buses we don't have on the many days its trains don't run. Thus every 40 minutes to everywhere makes a lot of sense".      

With such solid arguments and a widespread precedent, it was logical that the Metro Tunnel also runs every 40 minutes outside the peak. That would move us towards 'One Network, One Frequency' (ONOF) and thus deliver 'simple, safe connected journeys'.  As opposed to the current cacophony of 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 and 60 minute headways that plague our network. 

Frequency-based marketing is something that only the Swiss have done well, in conjunction with their Taktfahrplan. The Metro Tunnel Day One Communications Plan brings such best practice to Melbourne.  It suggests the slogan 'Life begins at 40' to sell the new rail headways (and appeal to Gen Ys). 

Service rationale

The pink explanatory pages for the working timetable quote Deputy Secretary Service Planning Mr Ray James, who said that the worth of 40 minute headways was demonstrated by their persistence in Melbourne timetables for over 40 years. "If there was something wrong with them they'd have been fixed. But there's not so they stay.".  

DTP considered that every 40 minutes was adequate for Melbourne's low density since we were not Paris and loved our cars. The Dep Sec also wrote that "by lacking 40 minute train headways cities like Sydney and Perth had no idea what they were missing out on".

"Just like any living being has just one pulse, so should a transit network". It was also a matter of city pride. "With other Australian cities basing their trains and buses on 15, 30 and 60 minute headways, nothing screams Melbourne more than service every 40 minutes. Thus 40 it is.". 

City of Melbourne councillors, who received a private briefing last week, are said to be strongly backing the move. Lord Mayor hopeful Darren Hunch added that off-peak trains every 40 minutes will supercharge CBD commerce at a much needed time, especially if the Free Tram Zone was made the Free Train Zone and extended to Pakenham East. With council elections soon lord mayoral candidates are starting a bidding war over policies they don't control, with the Lord Mayor incumbent firing the first salvo on cheap fares last month via the Herald Sun

A senior Melbourne council officer explained their thinking as follows: 

Managing expectations

PTV realises that the way passengers use a train line that operates every 40 minutes is different to one with services every 5 or 10 minutes. Accordingly it has hired user experience professionals to develop a 'perception management plan'. This would help passengers manage and eventually modify 'unrealistic' expectations with regards to train waiting times that they might have picked up in Europe, Asia or even Sydney. 

During a transition period labour hire staff (dubbed "Forty Minute Friends") will be on platforms to offer tips on journey planning, fun activities while waiting and time management. Rail photographer Marcus 'everywhere' Wong just happened to get this shot of a training exercise at Southern Cross. 

Zen Buddhists and yogis will also be engaged to help those who panic if the train they are connecting to does not arrive within a few minutes. It turns out that the singing PTV funded last year was a test exercise for such diversions.  


Marketing will be a joint venture between the City of Melbourne, Visit Victoria and PTV. Tourists will be urged to try a slower approach to life, including embracing our 40 minute waits between trains and for coffee and airport taxis. It is understood that this will give Melbourne a major point of marketing difference over Sydney and other cities that are more rush-rush-rush. Expect to see the logo below around the CBD and beyond as a symbol to attract longer staying higher-value visitors.   

Demonstrating its astute commercial acumen, the Department plans to use $500k (a repurposing of almost the entire Bus Plan budget) to buy the rights of the under-appreciated 1983 NZ No 1 hit Life Begins at 40. It believes that playing this after each off-peak train at Metro Tunnel stations will lift the spirits of late-arriving passengers who have 40 minutes until the next.  

Frank talk on the Suburban Rail Loop

The 40 Minute City is not just about Metro Tunnel off-peak timetables. It is also a game changer for the Suburban Rail Loop, ensuring the project's survival amid recent uncertainty over state finances.

During a tense pre-Budget meeting with Treasury officials, who, as the Grattan Institute's biggest private fans, never really liked the SRL, project head Ms Carol Frank reached an agreement that would save the massive project. Economies included shortening the tunnelling to run more directly via Mt Waverley instead of Glen Waverley and consolidating Clayton and Monash stations into one under the Monash Childrens' Hospital.

These changes would cut journey time from 22 minutes to 18 minutes, increasing speed yet massively reducing costs. For example value engineering would reimagine the SRL from two tracks / twin tunnel to single track / single tunnel. Portions could be elevated due to the reduced width. 

In a major reduction of project risk, the need for signalling would vanish since the SRL's new 40 minute headway could be run with a tight but doable 2 minute turnaround time using a single 2-car set, much like current operations on the Stony Point line. That works because if there's no other trains to collide with you just need a single track, no signalling and only half the tunnelling. Also the proposed Heatherton stabling yard would become a minor siding for the one train plus spare, assuaging most local concerns. 

A crack team of Spanish and South Korean project managers would speed construction to ensure completion by the 2030 state election so we'll get SRL benefits sooner.  Overall about $15 billion could be shaved off the SRL's cost, making it cheaper than the North-East Link and contributing to budget repair. 

Ms Frank is understood to be delighted that the SRL could participate in the 40 Minute City program by adjusting its frequency to the new network standard. Preserving the state's finances while still building the SRL was considered a win-win. The agreement also protects thousands of jobs whose workers and families would have otherwise faced a bleak Christmas.   

User reaction

In contrast to support from local and state governments, passengers have slammed the proposed 40 minute frequencies, calling it a 'Poor Useless' plan that only Spring Street bureaucrats could dream up. Here's the Public Transport Users Association's reaction, as exclusively captured by 6 News.  


The 40 Minute City and resultant off-peak intervals between trains is possibly not what many were expecting from the Metro Tunnel. However it is consistent with present widespread operational practice and 'infrastructure first' state government priorities, so no one should be too surprised. 

We'll know in a year how this pans out. It is understood that the Metro Tunnel will commence service (for a free family fun day) on the morning of Tuesday April 1, 2025. 'Metro Tuesday' will be proclaimed as a one-off public holiday given the significance of the Metro Tunnel's opening for all Melburnians.

Just remember to plan travel carefully as, in a nod to some historic (and still current) public holiday bus timetables, there will be no afternoon service. More so than other cities, Melbourne loves to preserve its past while building the future and its Metro Tunnel timetables will be no exception.