Buses, trains, and bus ways

Today’s Movember update here (I’ll post the latest pics to the blog every 2-3 days.)

Bus way signA lot of people express a preference of trains over buses. I suspect it’s mostly about ride quality. Railed vehicles are generally going to be smoother than tyred vehicles. And there’s also perception of permanence (and in Melbourne, perception of service quality, since trains and trams all run until midnight every day, whereas buses are somewhat patchy).

In the theoretical world of public transport planning, it comes down to the capacity and speed required. Trunk routes needing to carry thousands of people per hour need to have high-capacity vehicles, and once you get over about 200 people in a single vehicle, you pretty much have to go to rail.

But rail is expensive, and so you’re never going to get it everywhere. Many parts of Melbourne will never have rail, which is why it’s vital to provide some other mode into those areas, running high quality (frequent) services.

For buses and trams, another aspect to consider is right-of-way. Do the vehicles run in mixed street traffic, or a dedicated lane on an existing street, or a completely separate right-of-way? Buses and trams can run in any of these; heavy rail can only operate effectively on the latter.

One of the notable things about Brisbane is that in recent years they’ve invested in busways… effectively bus-only freeways — known as Bus Rapid Transit in PT planning circles. The result is relatively low-capacity services (conventional or bendy buses), that run quite fast on the busways (since they have no other traffic to deal with except other buses).

Brisbane Cultural Centre bus way station

They can run at high frequency, and in spots where they need to, they can operate on normal streets. In Brisbane’s case, some routes operate on the street in the CBD, and also at the outer suburban ends, using the busway in between.

Melbourne’s only comparable routes are the freeway buses to Doncaster and Altona, but these don’t have separate lanes (just part time bus lanes in some sections).

There are two major catches to busways: firstly they’re quite expensive to build. One recent one kilometre stretch cost $465 million — more expensive per kilometre than Melbourne’s $562 million 3.5 kilometre South Morang rail project (only a portion of which was the actual rail extension). No doubt part of the huge cost is due to Brisbane’s primarily being in the inner-city, thus involving lots of bridges and tunnels — if one compared like-for-like then in theory the busways should be cheaper than rail.

The second catch is that they have limited capacity. Brisbane’s are becoming so popular that now they’re hitting the capacity limits — of the buses and of the busways.

We saw this while in Brisbane, at the Cultural Centre station. These buses are heading out of the city at evening peak.

Queue on the bus way

Queue on the bus way

It must be really frustrating to be stuck in a bus queue like that — both for passengers and drivers. And because of the fencing on one side of the bus way, and traffic lanes on the other side, if things got really jammed up, it might not be possible for passengers to abandon the bus and walk (which is what tram passengers do when St Kilda Road jams up).

Capacity also becomes a problem with regard to storage. This also happens for trains of course — all the vehicles used at peak hour need to be stored somewhere.

The number of drivers involved also needs considering. A single six-carriage train might carry the equivalent of about 10-12 conventional bus loads of people, but with only a single driver. This is the debate at present over some rail corridors such as Doncaster in Melbourne. The current buses provide high frequencies, but require a lot of labour to do it. Trains could move as many people and more, using less labour, but would the resultant frequencies be high enough to attract passengers?

They can of course replace single buses with bendy buses to get more people per vehicle (and also carry more people per driver), but there’s going to be a limit to what they can do, and I do wonder if in Brisbane should have saved the buses for being suburban feeder services into an expanded heavy rail (or light rail) network instead. (To be fair, they are expanding the rail network too.)

The bottom line here is that good effective planning is needed to anticipate the current and future capacity required, the transport mode needs to be chosen appropriately.

Brisbane day 6 – heading home

Thursday 6th October

Alas, the day came to depart Brisbane and head back home.

Perhaps it’s inevitable these days that travelling interstate pretty much requires setting aside most or all of the day just for the journey. I suppose it’s a consequence of modern air travel, which requires getting to and from airports, and lengthy check-in times. (Plus my preference for flights at civilised times such as 11am!)

After checking-out (and verifying that a hole in the wall in one of the bedrooms wouldn’t be a problem — it was caused by a bed on rollers in a tiled room, with nothing to stop it moving around) we headed down to Central station to catch the airport train.

Queensland transport minister makes an announcement

I’d had a message from the Queensland PTUA-equivalent Rail Back On Track’s Robert Dow early in the morning to say there was going to be a ministerial announcement at Central, at 10am, about the time we’d be heading out. When we got there, we quickly spotted the media pack, and Queensland’s Transport Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk, who was announcing that the airport train is to have its hours extended, from the current time of 8pm (which is hardly satisfactory given flights continue for some time after that), to 10pm — starting in December.

After the Minister did her grabs, Robert fronted the cameras to make some approving remarks. He then grabbed me and introduced me to the Minister as his Melbourne equivalent, and we had a quick chat… I told her Melbourne could learn a lot from Brisbane’s public transport network, and the only major problems we’d had during our visit was the low frequencies of trains at off-peak times, which she seemed to agree with.

Robert also introduced me to some Translink people, and I asked them about the bus/train coordination we’d seen the day before. I asked if it was the Translink governance structure that makes this possible, eg how the Translink organisation works with the individual operator companies such as, in this case, Queensland Rail and Surfside Buslines. They said yes — the operators write timetables within Translink’s guidelines.

Rail is done first, then bus timetables are written to match. They see it as really important given 30 minute train frequencies outside peak. This is something Melbourne definitely needs to learn from, and the hope is that the Coalition Government’s planned Public Transport Development Authority will do here what Translink is doing in Brisbane.

After a bit of a chat, we headed down to the platforms for our train to the airport, and made our way to the Domestic terminal to check-in.

Not so fast, said the check-in kiosk machine thingy — we’d need to go and see a human. Uh oh, this couldn’t be good.

It wasn’t. The human told us that a late-arriving international flight had caused the middayish Brisbane to Melbourne flight we’d booked to overflow, and we’d either have to fly via Canberra (arriving in Melbourne around 6pm) or get onto the next direct flight with seats, which wasn’t leaving until about 8pm — which allowing for two hours flight time, and an hour to adjust for daylight saving, would have meant getting back to Melbourne at about 11pm.

Blargh. Canberra it was then. Didn’t Jerry Seinfeld do a standup bit on this topic on his TV show? It might have been about hire cars not being available despite having a reservation. I seem to recall that he doubted that the company understood the concept of a reservation. Apparently this escapes Qantas as well.

So we went and waited for the Canberra flight, which turned out to be delayed. I was cursing myself for throwing away the (disposable) water bottles just before we were told of the delay. Damn. Could have refilled them at a water fountain.

While we waited, we heard final boarding calls for a missing group of four passengers for what should have been our flight home. Blargh, we thought — kicked off our plane, and four people who took our seats didn’t even bother to turn up at the gate.

Boarding at Brisbane

The flight to Canberra was delayed by about an hour, and we went and got some lunch from the food court, at exhorbitant 50% higher airport rates, of course. Then eventually we boarded, with a walk along the tarmac, to our waiting Dash 8 aircraft. I suspect the prospect of a propeller plane made Jeremy a little nervous (or maybe he was bummed about there being no inflight entertainment), but the flight was without incident, and we actually got a decent feed on-board.

I had hoped that it would have been clear enough to see some of our nation’s capital as we flew in, but there was a lot of low-level cloud, and nothing to see except fields close to the runway. We had about an hour to wait before our connecting flight, and thankfully could just mooch about in the terminal without having to worry about the luggage, which had been checked straight through. I found and purchased a Mad magazine compilation of sci-fi spoofs for the boys to read on the next plane.

Soggy Canberra

Boarding again at about 4:30, we found this time the plane was full of suited businessmen and public servants (I assume) heading out of Canberra. Almost all of them appeared to have those cases which are effectively luggage, but which are allowed as carry-on, resulting in the overhead lockers being absolutely packed to the gills. No doubt they all do it to avoid having to avoid the hassle and delays of checked luggage, but I wonder if it adds to the boarding times.

Some in-flight delays resulted in us arriving a bit after 6pm, and we found the luggage (only after Jeremy found the right conveyor, which was behind some hoarding) and boarded the Skybus.

After one false turn at Southern Cross (seriously, they could make the route from Skybus to/from the suburban trains MUCH easier) we found the platform for our train home. I was just checking the departure board when I heard a shout of “Hey Daniel!” It turned out to be former Public Transport Minister Martin Pakula, on his way home. We chatted on the train for a little while, as far as Flinders Street where he changed. I assume in opposition he doesn’t get the use of a driver and car, so he might actually be on the train more often than when he was the minister.

It was smooth sailing from there; we finally arrived home around 8pm after a long day of travelling.

Brisbane day 5 – Surfers Paradise

Wednesday 5th October

Brisbane: Keep right!The first job was to return the hire car. Similar to the circuitous route filling it up the night before, due to the one way streets, this involved a 750 metre drive (Google Maps estimated time: 4 minutes), and then a 170 metre walk back (estimated: 2 minutes). Turning out of Raff Street I also needed to remember the counter-intuitive instruction to Keep Right.

The plan for Wednesday was to head down to the Gold Coast — Surfers Paradise to be precise — to visit the beach and see where my sister and her family and another brood of cousins were staying.

Am I on the right train?

Trains run on the “Gold Coast line”, but not to the actual coast. However the good people at Translink have got things organised so that — and I know this will come as a shock to Melburnians, who are not used to such concepts — the buses are actually timed to connect with the trains.

Wow.

So in our case, the Translink Journey Planner reckoned we could simply hop on a Gold Coast line train (every half-hour from Central), hop off at Nerang, and 7 minutes later the 745 bus would depart for Surfers Paradise.

Along with the integrated (Go Card) ticketing, it can’t be emphasised enough how important good connections are to make a wider variety of journeys (eg the many, many not possible using a single service) easier by public transport.

(It’s not perfect. Late on weekends, some of the connections from the bus onto the train are longer; in some cases around half-an-hour. But for the majority of trips, there are good connections.)

Nerang station

Even on holiday, I apparently gave the impression that I knew where I was going (or perhaps it was that my snapping pictures screamed “Transit nerd”), as a couple of guys at the bus interchange showed me their (paper) train tickets and asked if they’d work on the bus. I said I thought so, and evidently I was right, as the bus driver waved them aboard. Checking now, Brisbane/Central to Nerang is zones 1 to 14, and the bus is zones 14 to 13.

Come to think of it, I’d also been asked for directions in Brisbane, to the nearest supermarket, and was able to point the people in precisely the right direction.

Anyway, the bus journey allowed us to check out some of the Gold Coast architecture. It’s not exactly the Las Vegas scale of garish, but it certainly has the holiday vibe, with a diverse range of building styles (within the high-rise genre, I mean), and many buildings being hotels and thus having their names printed in big letters on the top — no doubt an aid to tourists trying to find their way back to their accommodation.

Adrian at Surfers Paradise

The bus pulled in at Surfers Paradise and we found our way to the Beachcomber building, a slightly disshevelled hotel/apartment block near the beach where the family was staying.

After checking out the view, which was excellent, we headed down to the beach. It was a bit cold for swimming, but we enjoyed some paddling, sand castle-building, burying peoples’ feet in the sand, all that kind of thing, for a while, before heading back upstairs and having some sandwiches for lunch.

Surfers Paradise

My sister, being the wise Auntie that she is, let us know of a big arcade (in the “arcade games” sense of the word) nearby, and myself and Isaac and Jeremy headed up to look at it with bro-in-law Adrian and his kids.

It turned out to be another Timezone — and according to the signs, the biggest Timezone in the world, no less.

Surfers Paradise Timezone: Multi-player Pacman

I’d believe that. It was vast. It took perhaps a good ten minutes just to walk around it initially to size up what it had, which included many many games (just about all newer stuff; little in the retro genre alas, though there were several pinball machines), dodgem cars, virtual reality thingies, shooting ranges, laser tag, a mini bowling alley, mini golf, and heaps more.

We scattered into various corners for a while to enjoy our preferred amusements — for me it was mostly pinball to be honest. True to form, my first game was the best, and I got steadily worse after that.

Surfers Paradise Timezone: Tron Pinball

After a couple of hours the money loaded onto our cards started to run out, and the noises and flashing lights were beginning to be a bit much, so after retreating back to the apartment for afternoon tea and a rest, we headed out for dinner nearby — on a recommendation, a Turkish/Italian place around the corner, which served up some most delicious food.

Before too long we were back on the bus to Nerang, and then the train ride back into Brisbane. Just as in Melbourne, being an evening train there were copies of MX to be found to read along the way, and although the sign at the back said the toilet was out of order, it seemed to work just fine.

We rolled into Central about half-past eight, and headed back to our hotel for one last good night’s sleep.

Brisbane day 4 – can you identify the animal?

Tuesday 4th October

It was time to go bush. We picked up a booked car at Europcar (around the corner from the hotel, though it turned out Thrifty was also close-by) and after some negotiating of central Brisbane’s one way streets, found the Pacific Motorway.

One way streets don’t affect one as a pedestrian, but certainly make themselves obvious in a car. It’s not something I think about in Melbourne, where thanks to Robert Hoddle all the main streets run in both directions, but from my observations, Hobart, Sydney and Brisbane all have narrower main streets, many of which over the years have been switched to one way.

We stopped off at Westfield Garden City (though finding it was not without its challenges — I had assumed it would be an easy detour off the motorway) to buy Isaac a hat, and also to see if we could locate the local Gametraders store, which I knew Jeremy would be keen to check out.

The hat was easily found, but the Gametraders had disappeared, despite being listed on Google Maps and in the directories inside the centre. (The authoritative source, the Gametraders web site is a Flash-dominated monstrosity that does not display properly on my phone.) The lady at the ABC shop, opposite where it should have been, said it had only recently gone.

Lost in Brisbane

On we journeyed, managing to go in a complete and lengthy circle around the lovely parkside suburb of Macgregor, and then back into the shopping centre before we found the entrance onto the motorway again.

No such geographically-challenged navigation on the rest of the trip to Mount Tamborine and the Rainforest Skywalk, though we did observe a bloke in a 4WD reversing out of a car park space bowl-over a sign, despite having being guided out of the spot by an attendant.

The Skywalk was quite enjoyable… initially along walkways high off the ground, among the treetops, and then heading back to the visitors centre along paths in the undergrowth. We had lunch there, and then headed onwards.

Rainforest Skywalk

The lady at Europcar had recommended the cheese factory, which is co-located with the brewery. That looked interesting, and would have been a good spot for lunch if we hadn’t already eaten, so we headed for the next stop, the Witches Falls circuit walk.

This 3.1 kilometre walk took us all the day down from the top of a ridge to an area perhaps halfway up the mountain, in a zig-zag (like a giant, real-life Donkey Kong). There was some spectacular scenery, including those weird trees that grow around other trees — like a super-powered version of the creeper in my garden.

Mount Tamborine

Along the way we saw a relative of the kangaroo… not sure what it is — don’t think it’s a wallaby, and it’s too big to be a potaroo. Can anybody identify it?

There were also several bush turkeys, and eventually we got to the very impressive waterfall lookout, before heading back up to the top.

We explored a few other spots around the mountain, stopping for ice-creams and then at a fudge shop, where a procession of kids who seemed to be constantly asking for samples of various flavours amazed me by actually buying some fudge. Sometimes I’m too cynical. Anyway, we bought some and then hit the road.

I had wondered if we could make it back up the highway to Logan Hyperdome, where during the day I had verified that there was still a Gametraders. I verified it by ringing them up and asking what time they closed. 5:30.

This would have worked, too, if we hadn’t encountered roadworks heading back to the highway, and then a dreaded portent: a sign warning of major delays near exit 41. Sure enough, it was major delays, and we probably spent the best part of an hour in stop-start traffic. The radio said rocks were on the road (presumably fallen from a truck) and they’d even called in a bobcat to clear it up.

Pacific Motorway

Eventually we got past it, but it was right on 5:30, with no hope of getting to Logan on time. Oh well, we tried. Instead we pulled off the road, stretched our legs and ate some fudge as compensation.

The rest of the journey back to Brisbane was fairly uneventful, apart from some more (minor) delays on the Riverside Expressway, and more battling of the one-way streets to firstly fill up the car, and then get back to the hotel carpark — while the petrol station was only a stone’s throw from the hotel, in the car it was about ten times that far. In fact Google Maps reckons it’s 200 metres vs 1200 metres.

We spent the rest of the evening ordering and munching on pizza, watching TV and admiring the view.

View from hotel window

Brisbane Day 3

Monday 3rd October

Day three in Brisbane, and it was time to get to the whole point of the trip: to visit my Dad’s memorial bench at the University of Queensland.

After waiting for my Uncle Frank (Dad’s last remaining sibling) to arrive (his bus was delayed), we headed down Adelaide Street to find the 109 — not the 109 tram I’m more familiar with, but the 109 bus to UQ’s St Lucia campus.

We probably should have checked which bus to catch down Adelaide Street, because it was a long walk to the relevant stop, but eventually we found it, and didn’t have long to wait.

The bus headed across the river, along Brisbane’s much-vaunted (at least by Bus Rapid Transit enthusiasts) and rather impressive (no matter who you are) bus ways. More about this, and Brisbane’s PT in general, in a later post.

University of Queensland bus terminal

We arrived at the UQ campus, and strolled over to where we thought the bench would be. As we approached, I noted a crowd around one bench, and remarked that it would be embarassing if that was the bench we sought.

It was.

A group of perhaps 30 students was crowded around it, having a picnic. Somehow my sister managed to find their leaders and ask politely if they’d mind moving… which they very gracefully did, though it appeared that rather than move, they broke up their party. Oops.

Anyway, there we finally were: the memorial bench.

Dad's ashes on his bench

Dad's bench

It was a nice spot. Despite nearby building construction, a very peaceful location by the lake. Dad would have liked it, I think. The bench is nice too, and with a bit of luck should be there for a good few years into the future.

We had a small container with some of Dad’s ashes, and sat him on the bench, before scattering some of them into the lake, and snapped a few pictures. A passer-by helpfully took a photo of all of us.

Afterwards we headed for the ferry terminal, to catch the City Cat back to central Brisbane. The sun was shining, and (after touching our Go cards) we sat out on the back deck as we zoomed along the river, dropping the remaining ashes into the water as we sped along. (Most of the ashes remain at home in Melbourne. I expect they’ll go on the garden.)

University of Queensland City Cat wharf

Giant duck, Brisbane riverFrank pointed out the Regatta Hotel (after which the Regatta wharf City Cat stop is named), and recounted the incident when Merle Thornton (mother of Sigrid) and Rosalie Bognor chained themselves to the bar in protest against men-only public bars. He reckoned Dad knew Merle and her husband, and had later been an occasional babysitter for the young Sigrid in London in the late-60s.

We got off the ferry at Southbank. Frank verified that it was indeed the same area that I remembered from visiting Expo 88 when I was but a teenager. It’s quite different now, though I recognised one of the towers from my earlier visit. We found some lunch (sandwiches or kebabs, according to preference) and ate while a rainshower came through, drenching anything and everything not undercover.

My sister and her family were keen to head towards the Gold Coast before too long, so we found South Brisbane Station and caught a train with them back to Central so they could collect their baggage. As we left Central, it started to pour down, and for a while we took cover and watched the rain come down. I took the opportunity to try out the slow-motion filming on my camera — very cool.

At some point Adrian and I decided to dash for the baggage, and everyone else went back into Central station to find a hot chocolate. We met up a little while later, and everyone boarded a train for the Gold Coast, with my mob and Frank getting off again at South Brisbane to go look at the science museum.

Alas, the science museum was closed, renovations until January.

Instead we headed over to GOMA — the Gallery of Modern Art, and had a look around there. We’d just missed the Surrealism exhibition, which would have been quite interesting, but instead had a look at an exhibit of modern art from the Torres Strait, which Frank noted was where our Chinese ancestors had initially settled before moving on to Brisbane during WW2. There was some interesting stuff, though the boys at one stage decided to just sit and chat on a comfy couch rather than walk around the gallery… fair enough.

After that we walked to the Cultural Centre busway stop, and thanks to the excellent Translink mobile journey planner web site (why doesn’t Metlink have that?), I was able to tell which buses we could catch to a stop back closer to the hotel than we’d set out from that morning.

We farewelled Frank and headed back to the hotel for pasta, TV and sleep.

Brisbane day 2

Sunday 2nd October

We started off with a walk around Brisbane’s CBD, heading down and around Queen Street Mall to look around the shops (nothing staggeringly surprising). Being the PT geek that I am, I guided us down into one of the underground bus stops I’d encountered on my only previous visit to Brisbane in 1988, when they must have been relatively new. Back then I seem to recall the routes were named after native animals — these days they seem to prefer the more conventional (and arguably more memorable) numbers.

Reddacliff Place, Brisbane

At the end of Queen Street we found Reddacliff Place, which in some ways resembled Federation Square — complete with neighbouring garish-looking building. A lot of people appeared to be queuing up with suitcases, which I thought was slightly bizarre. Some kind of flashmob or cooperative art performance perhaps?

We also encountered some pretty cool street art, including some metal kangaroos. A block from Queen Street we found a Timezone arcade — remember when there were heaps of these? Towards the river we found a market, including a farmer’s stall with $5 for two enormous punnets of strawberries. Yum.

Brisbane metal kangaroo

By this point my sister and her family had arrived in town, and we met up and headed to our apartment and made and ate sandwiches for lunch, then headed out for the afternoon.

Our destination: the Brisbane tramway museum. It’s only open on Sunday, so it was now or never. Back to Central station, where my sister bought train tickets (discovering that you can only buy single tickets, not daily/returns), while my brood used our Go Cards for the first time.

We boarded the train for Ferny Grove, and found it wasn’t packed like Melbourne’s weekend trains increasingly are, but it certainly wasn’t empty either. During the course of the trip, we never got to take a peak-hour ride, but Robert Dow tells me crowding is a problem at those times, and it’s not helped by services only being every half-hour outside the peaks, preventing the kind of load spread into shoulder-peak and off-peak that we see in Melbourne.

Arriving at Ferny Grove, we found the station in the midst of an upgrade, and had to walk the long way round to head to the tramway museum. All up it was about a 10ish minute walk, and when we eventually arrived, we got to ride a variety of trams, though unlike Bendigo and Sydney, they didn’t have a workshop you can look around inside.

Brisbane tram musem

Tram 554, Brisbane Phoenix classThe staff were in the legionaire-like uniforms, and they told us the story of the different classes of tram, including the Phoenix class, famous for having risen out of the ashes of the great depot fire of 1962, and only being run for a few years before the entire tram system was shut down in 1969.

I didn’t hear them refer to him, but the closure of Brisbane’s trams was (apparently) largely the work of Clem Jones, then Lord Mayor of Brisbane, who strongly believed working families should be able to all own and drive their cars, unimpeded by trams, and dismantled the network, replacing them with buses. To this day there are no trams in Brisbane apart from in the museum, though the Gold Coast is building a light rail line.

I assume he was behind the Riverside Expressway alongside one side of the Brisbane River — a stark contrast to the pedestrianised and much more friendly Southbank. The Clem Jones tunnel aka the Clem7 is named after him, and it’s with some glee that tram lovers point out that the tunnel is in dire financial straits.

Brisbane1 172a

After the museum we headed back to the station, via a servo to buy some icecreams. My sister once again struggled with the station ticket machines, with me convincing her at that point that she should obtain Go Cards for the rest of their holiday (which would involve some bus rides around Brisbane and heading to Surfers Paradise the next day, as well as a further buses around the Gold Coast), given paper ticket costs of $5.40 each way versus Go Card fares of $3.68 meant the $5 (refundable) cost of the card would have almost paid for itself on the trip to Ferny Grove alone.

Back at their serviced apartment (which was a block from hours ours — they’d tried to book in the same building, but couldn’t) and we ordered pizza from the very fine Pizza Capers for dinner.

Then we headed back to our own apartment, with a quick detour up to the nearby Fortitude Valley to have a look around and check out possible restaurants for another night. Naturally the spotting of a restaurant called Bow Thai resulted in cries of “Bow Thais are cool!”

Brisbane day 1

Saturday 1st October

It’s probably almost inevitable that when leaving on an interstate holiday, you will head for the airport and reach the point of no return before remembering some vital thing you’ve left behind. In my case, it was medication — sitting on the bedside table at home — which is prescription-only and for which I didn’t have the paperwork. Happily I was able to convince my sister to bring it for me, as she and her family were heading up to Queensland a day after us.

Other than that the trip to the airport was uneventful — train to Southern Cross and Skybus as usual. It may not be as cheap as the train/Smartbus combo via Broadmeadows, but it’s frequent, quick from the city and doesn’t drop you in the boondocks at the airport. In fact the Skybus was as popular as ever, with virtually all seats taken.

We met Marita at the airport, and checked-in at the automatic kiosk thingy, failing to comprehend the full meaning of the warning about emergency rows. I assumed it meant just two of us would be in the emergency row, but in fact it meant it wanted to put all four of us in the emergency rows, and this is a No No according to CASA, who want all occupants of emergency rows to be over fifteen. Fair enough, but I suspect Qantas need to make the booking kiosk text clearer on this point.

This caused some disruption as we boarded, with the gate staff swapping us to different seats, but we still departed the gate more-or-less on time… which was where the punctuality ended, as the poor weather and a terminal security breach earlier in the morning had caused a queue of planes for take-off. I could see them all in a row in front of us, and it took about an hour to actually get airborne.

On the flight, which had personalised screens for every seat, I watched the movie Source Code, which was quite good (though rather far-fetched), and a couple of episodes of Parks And Recreation, which was very funny. (Though I was slightly miffed by a character claiming a loud noise was setting off her cluster headachethat’s not how they happen.)

Despite being a scheduled 11am-1pm flight, there was no lunch served — thanks Mr Qantas — just a fruit cake and an optional apple — which I took, thanks very much.

Brisbane AirTrain at the Domestic Terminal

We flew into Brisbane about an hour late. Fortunately the checked bags turned up pretty quickly, and we collected our pre-booked Airtrain tickets and made it to the platform with five minutes to spare — unlike Skybus, it only runs every half-hour. (More about Airtrain vs Skybus in another post in the near future.)

Twenty-five-ish minutes later we were stepping off the train at Central, and despite taking the wrong exit out of the station, found the hotel without any trouble.

I say hotel, but I mean serviced apartments: The Republic Apartments in Turbot Street. I assumed the street name was some sort of sophisticated silent-trailing-T name, pronounced Turbo, but my uncle reckoned it was the rather more conventional-sounding Turr-butt.

The check-in desk had a pleasant surprise for us: we’d been upgraded from a two-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom, complete with en suite for the adults, and on the very top floor of the building, providing rather splendid views.

View from our hotel window

By this point it was almost 4pm, and we were pretty hungry, and went out to find some lunch. A noodle place was open across the road, and we devoured some food, then bought some supplies from the Woolworths in the Spring Hill shopping centre, next to the apartments.

I made a mental note of the Woolworths’ curious and slightly restrictive hours: until 5:30pm Saturdays, 6pm Sundays, and 9pm weekdays — a far cry from the usual midnight closing times back in Melbourne, but not impossible to work with.

After a little TV (including the penultimate Doctor Who of this season) and a quick dinner (roast chicken, potato and salad from the supermarket) we had a walk down to the riverfront, snapping pictures of passing ferries and the very impressive Story Bridge… though actually I think it looks more impressive in the daytime:

Brisbane Story Bridge

Then we headed back to the hotel to watch Big Bang Theory and/or The Simpsons… I can’t actually remember which, but found during our stay that the two are almost interchangeable — when you have Fox8 and the Comedy Channel as well as Channel 9 and Go in a hotel room, one or the other is almost always on… before heading for bed and a well-earned sleep.

Queensland’s Go Card vs Myki

I’ll get to writing up our Brisbane trip in full excruiciating detail in due course, but first what everyone wants to know: How is Go Card compared to Myki?

First impressions

Go Card seems faster; more responsive. On buses, ferries and railway stations we consistently seemed to get sub-second response times when touching the card — clearly faster than Myki. This might reflect that the Go Card, provided by Cubic (which built London’s Oyster card system), is a more mature technology. It also doesn’t have Windows CE on all the devices, which may help to slow down Myki further.

The caveat however, is that major station fare gates open a good deal slower than Melbourne’s — both the older Metcard gates fitted with Myki readers, and the new Myki-only gates seen at Melbourne Central and Parliament stations. Quieter Brisbane stations had no fare gates, only standalone readers, like in Melbourne.

I didn’t notice any Go Card readers or machines that weren’t working, though on the bus between Nerang and Surfers Paradise, I did see a nearby reader go to “Please wait…” status for an extended period on the trip to and from the beach. Perhaps it does that when crossing zone boundaries or something.

Judge for yourself:

Go card:

Myki:

Given the fast response times, peak hour buses didn’t seem to be a major problem for Go Card, with hordes of people able to enter and exit, touching their cards as necessary. However I didn’t see any crowds or conditions that were comparable to crowded Melbourne trams (with wide doors used for both entry and exit at the same time).

It appears that if you fail to touch-off a Go Card, you get charged a “fixed” (default) fare which is often more than the cost of simply travelling to the zone at the end of the line as on Myki.

Costs and refunds

Our Go Cards cost a refundable deposit of $5 each, half the cost of getting a Myki card — however this is because there is also a Go Card issue fee of $5 which is currently waived.

As tourists into South-East Queensland, we can return the Go Cards by mail, and get full refunds on unused balances, plus (I assume) the $5 deposit.

This is a feature that Myki does not yet have (unless you are willing to pay a $9.80 administration fee). This is particularly important given the Myki plan to have no short-term/paper tickets available.

Top up

Like Myki, Go Cards can be topped-up can be done online or at the machines, or via bus drivers in $5 increments. (Top-up via bus drivers is currently possible with Myki in regional cities, for any amount, but it’s not clear if this will ever be available in Melbourne). You can also register for auto top-up, as with Myki.

We used station machines to top-up. They had touch screens which perhaps weren’t as sensitive as they should have been (nor as responsive as the Myki machines), and sometimes took a few more presses than necessary to get to the right options.

One top-up via a credit card didn’t work, just moments after I’d used the same credit card to top-up another Go Card. But it didn’t seem to be an issue with doing two transactions on the same credit card, as that worked on another day. Using cash worked fine.

One problem we had is that it’s hard to work out how much your trip will cost. The fares are on the web site (if a little difficult to find, as they are not linked from the Go Card pages), but the (excellent) mobile web Journey Planner didn’t mention the zones or costs. Printed timetables and maps did show zones.

This made it difficult as we didn’t want to put too much money on the cards since we were only staying for five days. In the end we had about $8 left on our cards when we flew home, though this can be refunded (see above).

Go card machines

Fares

South East Queensland’s Translink system has 23 zones, much smaller than Melbourne’s two zones (though bear in mind the comparable area would include places like Geelong, which is slated to be zone 4 under Myki). Suburban Brisbane, as far as I can make out, stretches up to about 8-9 zones from the CBD.

This is both good and bad. Lots of smaller zones means travel across zone boundaries isn’t such a big jump, though the cost of a short trip is not that much cheaper (a single zone trip on Go Card: $2.65; on Myki $3.02 or $2.02).

I wonder if the smaller zones encourage more people to drive to zone boundaries to get a cheaper fare, or if the smaller increments prevent this problem. In Melbourne this happens, but because there’s only one zone boundary, it limits how many locations get swamped by park and riders.

Go Card offers off-peak fares at 15% off, including all weekend, which is quite good, though not as bargain-basement as Myki’s $3 all-day weekend fares.

Go Card does not have a daily cap system, so if you happened to be making lots of trips all day, it could add up, though you do get up to five hours and three transfers onto other services, with a maximum of an hour between transfers.

There are no weekly/monthly/yearly passes on Go Card. All they offer is a “frequent user discount“, which is a 50% discount on any trips after your tenth journey in any Monday to Sunday period. Robert Dow from the Queensland lobby group Rail Back On Track (the PTUA-equivalent) tells me it’s a weakness of the current implementation, so there may be not a lot they can do about it, though he says they could adjust the discount amount, and when it kicks in.

Go Card can be used on Airtrain, but you don’t get the same discounts, because Airtrain has special fares. In contrast, Myki can’t be used at all to pay Skybus’s premium fares (though rumours abound that it will eventually be possible).

Go card on bus

The alternative: paper tickets

My sister was wary about the expense of getting Go Cards for her family, and spent the first day travelling on paper tickets. This turned out to be quite expensive, as those fares are about 45% more. No wonder 80% of trips in South East Queensland use Go Card. She got Go Cards for the rest of the holiday, including travel to and around the Gold Coast.

The paper tickets are thermal paper. They appear to have more restrictive transfer rules, and you have to find a human to let you through station barriers — along with the cost, these all encourage you onto Go Cards instead.

They are also only available as single trip tickets. This may have been to further encourage people to switch, but caused Translink and the government major embarassment in August at the Ekka (Brisbane’s Royal Show equivalent), as thousands of occasional users had to queue to buy tickets to get home, with police eventually ordering rail officials to let people board trains without tickets, to prevent a crowd crush.

In contrast, for many fares, Myki is only marginally cheaper than short term/paper/single Metcard fares. For instance, regional bus fares are only 10% different, resulting in many people continuing to buy single short term tickets off drivers (which are an expensive cardboard semi-smart card).

The plan for Myki of course is to have no paper ticket option at all. This would be a retrograde step, since occasional users and those unable to obtain a Myki card before travel would have no fare option.

Translink single tickets

Conclusions, and lessons for Myki

Go Card is quite obviously more mature than Myki, despite being initiated around the same time, with the system going live about a year before Myki started in regional cities. It’s older technology though, using the (now hacked) MiFare Classic cards.

Myki has more secure cards, better fare options (with daily caps and passes available).

The key lessons for Myki, are, I think:

  • Response times have to be made consistently fast (as well as the other well-documented problems ironed-out).
  • Some sort of paper ticket option should be provided, preferably with thermal paper tickets, which are cheap to produce and require staff assistance to get through gates. Myki fares should be at least 30% cheaper to further encourage their use.
  • A refund system should be provided for Myki.

(There’s a bunch of other stuff they should fix about Myki, too.)

Update: Some discussion on the points above on the Rail Back On Track forum. Regarding the Journey Planner showing zones, this is true for the main Translink web site, but not the mobile version. And I did know that Go Card refunds can be done over-the-counter, but assumed we wouldn’t have time to do this when catching the Airtrain back to the airport.

Update 2: Note that the Myki $9.80 refund fee was removed in January 2012 — however although you can get a full refund of the card balance, the cost of the card itself ($6 full, $3 concession from January) can’t be refunded. And unlike Go Card the refund can’t be done over-the-counter — they send you a cheque in the mail.