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). 

1 comment:

Craig said...

Worth mentioning the original 703 SmartBus features limited stop trips in peak hour stopping only at Blackburn, Burwood Hwy, Syndal and Monash Uni but they aren't marketed beyond footnotes - really need to be called 703X

They save 8-12 mins by not stopping two dozen times along Blackburn Rd

Would be really useful on other routes - yesterday afternoon it took me 90 mins from Edithvale to Nunawading on a 902 along Springvale Rd, when it's possible in under 70 mins during the day 💀