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.

The memorial bench

At the University of Queensland this week, they installed a park bench, a memorial to my father, who studied there and was editor of the student magazine Sempor Floreat sixty years ago this year.

Dad's memorial bench at UQ

Dad's memorial bench at UQ

Dad's memorial bench at UQ

I’m told it’s beside the lake (obviously) next to College Road, close to the intersection with Staff House Road.

Judging from the pics, I reckon Dad would have liked the spot, though I bet he’d have his head buried in a book rather than be enjoying the scenery.

I’m hoping to get up to Brisbane later in the year with the family to see it for ourselves.

Many thanks to the Property & Faculties division of UQ for being able to organise this for us.