Thursday, June 20, 2024

UN 176: What has Victoria's Bus Plan really achieved?

Last week I noted that Victoria's Bus Plan had turned three. I said then that implementation had stalled. This is especially for its most passenger-significant component dealing with networks and services.  

Warning signs that the plan was in trouble included: 

(i) Specifics being held back for a promised 'Bus Reform Implementation Plan' that is yet to appear
(ii) DTP's inability to win funding in the 2023 and 2024 state budgets for anything big
(iii) DTP's apparent inability after 2022 to sell politically acceptable service reforms to optimise the use of existing annual service kilometres (an essential skill if they weren't getting new budget funding)

Prospects for much significant with buses happening much before 2026 are evaporating daily. This is due to the limited funding for new bus services in the 2023-24 and 2024-25 state budgets combined with long lead times for even the smallest timetable tweaks. These range from about 1 year for a timetable upgrade to 2 years (or more) for a new route or local network reform. 

This represents slippage from the promised Bus Plan time-line, which had major network reforms starting in 2023. Little more has also been heard of the northern, north-east and Mildura area bus reviews that were announced before the 2022 state election with public consultation afterwards. 

The main silver lining is the latest GAIC funding round that will add bus coverage in some growth area suburbs. However GAIC funding is (a) temporary (being limited to a 5 year term) and (b) highly conditional (making true network reform both difficult and done well after it was needed). Thus GAIC funding is better than nothing but is inferior to budget funding and savings obtained from network reform, both of which can provide ongoing benefits.    

What got done?

As to what did get done, I have written lots about that here. For example, accounts of 2021, 2022 and 2023. I checked budget measures that got implemented. And did a health check on the Bus Plan when it was 2. The recontracting and electrification aspects have progressed faster but, as the Ivanhoe depot electrification experience where this did not happen shows, service uplift and reform are essential to reap the full passenger benefits.  

My check on all 350 bus routes and timetables confirmed that bus network reform was necessary. Reports from Infrastructure Victoria and Committee for Melbourne agree. 
But there were also many cases where good could be done just by boosting timetables on existing routes. Route 800 being a high-profile recently-funded example. 

Earlier this year I noted that Melbourne was in a per capita service level recession for its busiest public transport modes with buses at best stagnant. An active transit agency could make the best of a fixed service kilometre budget by analysing usage patterns and adjusting timetables. 

But when I compared this to Perth (which has a similar infrastructure-oriented state government to here), I found that Paul Younis' DTP did not have anywhere near the same culture of service optimisation, with the difference diverging over time in Perth's favour. This continues to the current month when you see the timetable tweaks to over 70 Perth bus routes dwarfs what takes a much longer period here to do.    

Need more detail on what the Bus Plan has achieved? Or, more accurately, what has been implemented since the plan came out (as parts were developed and funded before the plan came out)? 

Fortunately it's easy. PTV's list of bus service changes starts about when the Bus Plan came out, making it a handy source. Taking the metropolitan ones only, in chronological order these are set out below. Changes considered to have significant coverage or patronage benefits are dated in bold.



* 13 June: Victoria's Bus Plan launched (my view of it at the time)

* 29 August: Minor routing changes for 511, 525 & Night Coach around Donnybrook station. 

* 20 September: New Route 202 commences. University Shuttle every 10 minutes connects Victoria Park Station with Melbourne University. 

* 20 September: Substantial timetable changes to 19 bus routes. Basically a transfer of service km from low to high ridership routes. Increases the number of routes that are frequent all week with longer operating hours for Doncaster SmartBus services. I described it as an oily rag upgrade but it has shown what you can do at or close to cost neutral as the revised services have been successful.  

* 24 September: Complete reform of Night Network buses. Also very cheap but it really simplified services by shifting much of the network from special routes to regular routes that ran 24 hours on weekends. This greatly improved connectivity early on weekend mornings too. 

* 4 October: FlexiRide replaced Telebus in outer east around Lilydale. Some minor changes to existing network. However operating days/hours remain restricted. Of dubious value; the old Telebus (which had elements of a fixed timetable) was likely a better operating model given the low train frequencies in this area. 

* 4 October: Additional services for St Helena Secondary College students on Route 381. 

* 31 October: Commencement of new Route 390 between Craigieburn and Mernda. Provides a significant link across the outer north. 

* 14 November: Upgraded frequency for Route 788 between Frankston and Portsea. The most important public transport on the Mornington Peninsula, the 788 had been the centrepiece of a local campaign to improve bus services. A significant issue in the 2018 state election, it showed that focused route-based upgrade campaigns work (as confirmed in 2024 with the Fix800Bus campaign). 

* 26 November: Upgraded frequency for Route 525, a relatively new growth area route in Melbourne's north. 

* 28 November: New bus route 816 for Keysborough South in conjunction with a boost to Route 813 and removal of Route 815. It was a step forward but there was (and remains) potential to do much better with buses in this area

* 12 December: Introduction of FlexiRide in Melton South. While it provided needed coverage to new estates, this style of service is at best a stop-gap service due to poor reliability, poor train connectivity and being susceptible to maxing out if too many people try to book at once. The Tarneit and Melton FlexiRides have poor reputations by overstaying their welcomes. Unfortunately they were introduced without an exit strategy to convert to fixed route as soon as needed. Processes to convert take too long and (in Tarneit's case) may depend on GAIC funding which is only temporary.  

2021 total: 8 major initiatives (second half of year only)


* 30 January: Minor timetable adjustments to Lilydale area bus routes and duplicative 673 deleted. 

* 30 January: New Thompsons Rd Route 881 improves coverage in growth area, feeding trains at Merinda Park. 

* 31 January: School deviation added to Route 626. 

* 13 February: Minor timetable changes to routes around Cranbourne to connect better with trains. 

* 20-21 February: Package of Mornington Peninsula bus changes including reforms to existing routes and new FlexiRide. Most notable being 781 extension and express 887 service. Follows 788 upgrade the previous year. The fixed route component of this was good but operating hours remain terrible with very early (eg ~3 or 4 pm) finishes, little weekend service and an unreliable FlexiRide. 

* 11 April: Change to Route 511 due to road changes.

* 24 April: Major change to Craigieburn area bus routes 525, 528, 529, 530, 531, 532, 533, 537 and 544 including new coverage, longer hours and weekday frequency on many doubled to every 20 min. A massive improvement for a high-patronage area that needs it. 

* 24 April: Minor route changes around Chelsea station for new bus interchange. 

* 26 June: Minor route change for Wyndham area bus routes due to Hogans Rd completion (for Route 182) and new bus interchange at Hoppers Crossing.  

* 3 July: Minor route and stop changes to buses at Glenroy station including splitting of 513 into 513 and 514. 

* 7 August: Boosted Route 390 frequency between Craigieburn and Mernda. 

* 28 August: 897 and 898 extended to Clyde North for additional growth area coverage.

* 23 October: Original proposal was for fixed routes (154 & 155) for Tarneit North but a FlexiRide unfortunately got introduced instead. It wasn't long before this proved unsuitable for the area's high population and demand. Will now be replaced by fixed route services following GAIC funding. 

* 31 October: Major upgrades for buses between the city and Fishermans Bend (235 & 237). 

2022 total: 7 major initiatives


* 30 January: Route 624 school deviation added. 

* 12 February: Extra weekday trips on Route 505 between Moonee Ponds and Melbourne Uni. 

* 30 April: Minor changes to bus routes 200, 305, 309 and 905 to coincide with opening of Bulleen Park & Ride. 

* 30 April: Routes 733 and 767 from Box Hill gain significant frequency increases. These are popular but historically underserved routes in the Box Hill/Deakin/Monash/Chadstone area. 733 is also the route nearest to the proposed Suburban Rail Loop. A much-needed middle-suburban bus service uplift. 

* 28 May: bus routes 343, 356, 357, 358, 381, 382, 383, 384, 385, 386, 387, 388, 389, 564, 569, 577, 578, 579, 580 and 582 get new timetables. 

* 26 June: Route 863 extended south and 895 simplified in Hampton Park/Cranbourne area. 

* 15 October: Boosted buses for Box Hill, Burwood and Deakin passengers. Include rerouting 903 orbital via Deakin and boosting 201 shuttle. A significant service uplift on high performing routes.

* 15 October: More major upgrades for Fishermans Bend routes 235 and 237. 

* 19 November: Some Tarneit bus routes moved to south side of station with new bus interchange. 

* 26 November: Yarra Valley bus network reform that greatly boosts and extends Route 685 while deleting 686 and 687. Timetable for 684 also amended. Review greatly simplifies buses around Healesville with improved weekend service. This is the sort of cost-effective local bus network simplification there should be much more of. 

* 3 December: Route 821 deleted and 631 made less direct (but more frequent in peak) due to road changes as part of the SRL project. 

* 17 December: Route 538 run more direct along Camp Rd with Saturday afternoon service added. This change actually increases duplication with the 902. Potential for other network reforms in area to widen access to 7 day service. 

2023 total: 6 major initiatives


* 7 January: More trips on Route 390 between Craigieburn and Mernda including longer hours. 

* 7 January: New Route 501 provides express shuttle between Craigieburn and Donnybrook. Basically a fill-in for the train which drops to a less frequent V/Line service beyond Craigieburn. 

* 29 January: Minor changes to Route 400, 410, 420 and 422 timetables. 

* 24 March: New route 475 between Diggers Rest and Sunbury commences. Its 20 min interpeak frequency is unusually good for a growth area route but PTV initially undersold it. 

* 19 May: Route 606 between Elsternwick and Fishermans Bend gains improved frequency and a minimum standards span upgrade. Continues the thrust of government investment in Fishermans Bend bus services, building on previous major 235 and 237 boosts. Minimum standards span upgrade (eg ~9pm finishes) were the type that were common about 15 years ago but have almost ground to a halt in recent years. 

* 16 June: Route 863 has minor route change to operate via Merinda Park Station. 

* 7 July: Local network reform for Bacchus Marsh with two routes amalgamated and extended. 

2024 total: 4 major initiatives (first half of year only)

Has progress accelerated or not? 

This is going to be a bit arbitrary as some dates have multiple routes under a single item while others separate them out. And initiatives vary in size. However it is difficult to find evidence of increasing reform activity under the Bus Plan. 

Indeed the reverse is more likely to be true. And that is before accounting for the slowdown of the tight 2024 state budget (although there should be a pick-up when the GAIC funding comes through for growth area upgrades).

You can see the general fall in the totals above, with the second half of 2021 (the year the Bus Plan was announced) delivering more than the entirety of any subsequent year. And 2023 had less than 2022. 

Other ways of measuring progress include checking service kilometres per capita (the best approach) or, more qualitatively, looking at what its three years has achieved versus what got  done in the past. For this I will pick three tests, as follows: 

* Last 3 years of the Bracks/Brumby Labor government (2007-2010)

This period coincides with the MOTC-era rapid growth in bus service kilometres including three new SmartBus orbitals around Melbourne, four Doncaster area SmartBuses and local routes in most suburbs upgraded to run 7 days and longer hours. Some growth area routes were added. Area-based bus network reviews were done though implementation was limited. Nevertheless I have no hesitation in concluding that this was a golden era of bus service upgrades with progress at least five if not ten times faster than 2021-2024

* First 3 years of the Andrews Labor government (2014-2017)

This period had some significant bus network reform and selected service expansions. Some, such as the major bus network revamp of Wyndham and Geelong, coincided with the Regional Rail Link commencing service in mid-2015, and, for Caroline Springs, its station opening in 2017. There were others as well, some promised by Labor in its 2014 election platform. For example Cranbourne gained a major bus network overhaul in 2016. Same for Epping North/Wollert. That year also saw new university shuttles and of course Night Network, which significantly reformed the previous NightRider buses. 

Labor had almost entirely honoured its 2014 bus promises by 2017. But by 2015 its emphasis switched to 'big build' infrastructure, with falling interest in further metropolitan train, bus or tram service reform. Nevertheless it's still fair to say that more happened with buses in Andrews Labor's first three years than the most recent three years

* A single date (27/7/2014) under the Napthine Coalition government

It might seem unfair to compare what bus routes got reformed on a single day with the last three years. But the exercise is still worth doing. If only to demonstrate what DTP's predecessors could achieve on a single day with the appropriate focus. 

On that one day the following network reforms commenced: 

* Major overhaul of the Brimbank bus network simplifying routes and bringing them up to run 7 days
Major Transdev network changes in areas like Fishermans Bend, Kew, Doncaster, Northcote and more
* Simplification of bus services to Melbourne Airport with more regular timetables
* 7 day service and longer hours on Wyndham area bus routes 

These included some pretty lean reforms that left some worse off, although most changes were for an overall greater good. Still, that one day achieved more than any one of the last three years. This example, along with the continuous improvement approach taken in Perth gives heart to those wanting faster bus service upgrades (whether it be community advocates, local MPs or even the Minister's office).  


The Bus Plan might have provided some form of philosophical guidance, informing processes like bus recontracting. While these excite bureaucrats, and may in theory add planning flexibility, new contracts are no guarantee of better services. That mostly only happens if supported by the state budget. Thus, as an unfunded plan the Bus Plan has had limited status except for perhaps a honeymoon first few months. 

While mention of the Bus Plan has persisted in official documents like the budget papers, DTP has allowed it to become a zombie by (a) not making a convincing case for funding in the 2023 and 2024 budgets and (b) not significantly continuing the successful 29 September 2021 approach of identifying and implementing 'greater good' trade-offs that redistribute resources between routes and/or reduce network duplication. On the latter, Yarra Valley was good but small scale, while Keysborough was underwhelming given the low frequencies remaining and the area's high social needs.

To summarise, Victoria's Bus Plan had a reasonable first four months. But it then lost altitude, with no fuel in the budget tank. Instead of taking advantage of no-cost tailwinds to regain some altitude it continued its descent as those on board debated an ambitious northern suburbs review for which there was neither funding nor capacity to implement. 

Thus it may be coming to a whimpering demise. 

At best its spirit could be salvaged by continuing network reform involving several small clusters of routes at a time in selected high-needs areas such as Dandenong, unserved parts of the west and some northern suburbs intended for the 2022 review. Even Mildura's existing complex network could be greatly simplified just by renumbering to make every route a bidirectional single number. 

But there will need to be more clarity on what is needed, with ponderous processes that regard three years as acceptable to devise an implementation plan being out.    

PS: Subsequent upgrades after this item was written

* 14 July 2024 Service boosts for routes 402, 505 & 546

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