Real time information now available for buses

PTV announced on Thursday that online realtime departure information is now available for some bus routes: specifically, Smartbus routes, which have long had realtime information displays at major stops.

Ironically as I post this, it seems to be down… but when working, it’s a small but welcome step forward in the quest to get more realtime information available to the public — via apps or web sites, so you can check your phone or your computer to see how far away your service is.

Smartbus: real time departure information

It follows the introduction of Tram Tracker way back in 2006, initially available by phone — premium SMS, at 55 cents a pop. Remember, this was before the launch of the iPhone — some phones had got basic web access in about 2001, but at the time, very few people knew how to use it.

Tram Tracker went onto the web in 2007, followed by apps for iPhone and Android (the initial one being unofficial) a couple of years later.

Tram Tracker, by the way, isn’t quite realtime. It uses the “Automatic Vehicle Monitoring” system originally introduced in the 1970s, which records the trams passing specific points along the routes, can track them to an extent between those points, and then interpolates the time at each stop based on that data. Generally it’s pretty close to accurate, but occasionally a disruption between the points can throw it out.

Bus tracking

The new bus tracking is, it seems, linked to the GPS devices inside the Smartbuses which trigger automated announcements and displays for the next stop. From what I’ve seen so far it’s reasonably accurate. (More accurate, it seems, than the hopeless equipment that was installed with Myki which often can’t tell the difference between Melbourne’s two vast zones.)

In the PTV app, and on the web site, it appears the realtime information is distinguished by it being a minutes countdown instead of a fixed time. I think they could have done better on this — it’s not exactly crystal clear.

A myriad of information

Along with service information now provided via apps, Twitter and the web, passengers are starting to get a better picture of how services are running on any given day. There’s actually a myriad of information out there.

Timetables Planned disruptions Service status Realtime departures
Trains tick Stations
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/Train Trapper)
tick Stations
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/Metro)
tick Twitter
tick Some stations
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/Metro)
tick Twitter
tick Stations (displays, green button)
Trams tick Stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Stops
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/TramTracker)
tick Twitter
tick Some stops
tick Web
tick Apps (PTV/TramTracker)
tick Twitter
tick Some stops
tick Web
tick Apps
SmartBus tick Stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Twitter (Transdev/Ventura)
tick Some stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Twitter
tick Some stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
Other buses tick Stops
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Some on Twitter
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Some on Twitter
Not yet
V/Line tick Stations
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Stations
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Twitter
tick Some stations
tick Web
tick PTV App
tick Twitter
tick Some stations (displays)

(Any corrections? Leave a comment below. I haven’t included information available by phone, eg voice. If you know the right phone number and are willing to navigate menus and wait on hold, you can get this sort of info. And on vehicles and at stations, announcements are sometimes made, though these can be sporadic.)

There’s a heap of different online/app ways to get all this information, and it’s fair to say that they’ve really got their act together in the past few years (despite some now-resolved hiccups with Metro’s Twitter feed, and their withdrawal of SMS alerts).

The PTV app and web site seems to have it all, but the individual operators offer more tailored views into the same information.

Hopefully in due course we’ll get realtime departure information available more widely. The biggest gap now is trains and non-Smartbuses — they’re working on both, but they can’t even reliably get realtime train information onto the bus stop signs just outside the stations, so I’m not holding my breath.

Bentleigh Smartbus sign: apology 2

As time goes on, for frequent routes, I suspect departure countdowns and service status will become more important than timetables. It’s already the case with many tram users — they check Tram Tracker to see how many minutes away the tram is; not the timetable.

This in turn may see authorities start to operate services in such a way as to maintain a regular service, rather than trying to meet specific times: if a service is cancelled, shift the others forward or back by a few minutes to even up the headways. As this (unofficial) London bus timetable says: “This route is classed as high frequency, and as such controllers will endeavour to provide an even service rather than necessarily adhering exactly to the times shown.”

In some cities they don’t publish full timetables, just frequency guides. Timetables will remain important for the less frequent routes, of course — any gaps greater than about 10 minutes, and people are likely to want to plan around that.

As for system information, the ultimate goal would be pulling all the data together in realtime, to help advise you where to go (journey planning) and update you with any changes along the way (the train you’re on is late, so you’ll miss the bus connection; stay on one more stop and get an alternative bus route departing a few minutes later which also drops you where you want to go).

Plus of course we need a coherent reliable frequent network so you need to adapt your travel plans less often — it just works, and you can easily and quickly get from A to B every time, as easily as getting in your car.

Crowdfunded documentaries

I’m aware that my blog has evolved… these days most of the posts are about transport, reflecting my current interests.

I wonder if this is a bit dull for those who have been on the old Toxic Custard mailing list, which is the descendant of the humour-based email list I started while at uni.

Yet transport posts get by far the largest number of comments. Hmmmm.

Here’s a post to mix it up a bit.

Crowdfunded documentaries

Last year I helped crowdfund two documentaries:

Bedrooms To Billions — the story of the beginnings of the computer game industry, from the perspective of UK developers. In the 80s, the first games were written by schoolboy (mostly boy) coders with cheap computers in their bedrooms, manually copying tapes and sending them out by post. I was in that age group, and tried to write my own games too…

I knew much of the story, but the extensive interviews with those involved at the time made this really interesting, especially the first half or so.

I probably got a bit carried away: I contributed enough money that you’ll find my name in tiny writing in the credits somewhere.

Well worth a look if you’re into retro gaming.Thumbs up!

The Outer Circle — Melbourne’s forgotten railway — many would know that the Alamein line and linear parks and bike paths are all that’s left of a line which once ran from Fairfield via Camberwell to Oakleigh.

This documentary manages to have a lot of detail in it, without ever being dull, and has some terrific accounts from actual users of the line, as well as archival footage and photos. I for one had no idea that John Monash built the line. Well worth catching.Thumbs up!

I’m pretty happy my contributions helped these two get made.

I’ve since donated to the sequel to Bedrooms To Billions, and I’ll be on the lookout to see what others get proposed which are worth a look.

Back in the mid-70s when Monty Python was developing The Life Of Brian, they got a sizeable contribution of funds from George Harrison, because he “wanted to see the movie”. That’s not an option most film makers have, of course.

Crowdfunding is something that has probably only become practical since the spread of the internet. The long tail of interests means a special interest group like this can reach the numbers of people necessary to make it viable.

It’s nice to see technology being used in this kind of way — something that would have seemed unimaginable just a decade or two ago.

Handling big events – the real problem is a lack of services

The Herald Sun had an interesting article describing the trip home from the football on Friday night, and the delays suffered by those in the crowd.

Apart from the football at the MCG, there was also a concert in the tennis centre, and soccer at Etihad Stadium. Edit: plus rugby at AAMI stadium.

In fact an earlier Age story had explicitly warned that the city would be busy.

Richmond station, NYE after early fireworks

The Herald Sun article notes a variety of issues: delays at the Richmond station gates, crowded platforms (and queues on the ramps), screens with wrong information, and trains too full to board.

Here’s the annoying thing: getting a hundred thousand people home should be easily handled by the public transport network, the trains in particular, if it’s planned right. The system deals with over double that every evening peak hour, and also on New Year’s Eve (though fare collection is waived then).

Obviously there are a few problems here…

Richmond station doesn’t handle crowds well. The current station is 55 years old; in 1960 it replaced a smaller station built in 1885.

Although the subway (at the MCG end) connecting the platforms is pretty wide, the ramps and platforms aren’t, and crowding tends to occur at the western end (particularly on platforms 9+10) when large numbers of people arrive at once. This is difficult to solve without expensive upgrades, which are needed, but probably aren’t going to happen any time soon. Encouraging people to move along to the far end of the platform will obviously help.

Yes, the gates slow people down, but this is probably not a bad thing if there’s crowding inside the station anyway — regulating the flow of people (and stopping them if necessary — a scenario common in places like London) helps stop it getting worse. So I suspect the populist calls to “throw open the gates” are a little simplistic.

Revenue collection is important — and large numbers of people using the service helps pull in the kinds of Real Money needed to keep it running and to upgrade it. On weekends in particular, just leaving the gates open would lead to a large amount of fare revenue lost.

One solution would be to include fares in the costs of event tickets — this is common in other cities around Australia, and might also make it possible to permanently close Yarra Park to car parking. Obviously this would mean even more provision being made for crowds using PT — and it probably needs to be shown first that this is a viable option.

It’s worth noting that free public transport (and a venue parking ban) was included with Commonwealth Games tickets in 2006. This didn’t prevent long queues getting back into the station after big events, as shown below.

Richmond station, Commonwealth Games 19/3/2006

For the Commonwealth Games, they had someone with a PA making frequent announcements, making sure the crowd was kept informed. If they’re not doing that now, it would also help.

I’m told there’s also signage around the MCG entrance pointing “parents with children” to the wide gates. What they really mean is “prams and wheelchairs”. The current wording creates unnecessary cross-flows, and should be re-written or removed.

Richmond station, Swan Street entrance, before an MCG game

PTV/Metro are encouraging people to go the long way around to the Swan Street entrance, and this is a good thing — though maybe they need to try harder, and remind people that apart from it only being an extra 2 minutes’ walk, it’s also likely to be quicker overall, as there is less queuing.

But the real problem here is the lack of extra trains.

You can get away with few extra trains if the base level of service is frequent, but at 10-11pm at night, it’s simply not — it’s a 30 minute service. (Notice how the reports of problems have been primarily at night, not after day games when the base timetable is every 10-20 minutes?)

Here’s how the timetable looked on Friday night: this is the Frankston line timetable being shown, but it also shows Dandenong line trains as far as Caulfield. The yellow shows the extra services.

Frankston/Dandenong line timetable showing extra services, 8/5/2015

On Friday night, PTV and Metro put on just a single extra train on the SE/E/NE lines after the Etihad soccer (crowd: 50,871), and another 1-2 extras on each of the SE/E/NE and Sunbury lines after the MCG AFL game (crowd: 52,152).

But the Herald Sun cited soccer crowds still heading home when the AFL finished almost an hour later, so it’s self-evident that it wasn’t sufficient. And this specific AFL game was a big win for Geelong — how many Collingwood fans left early, reducing the crowd size after the game?

It’s not just a Richmond problem either. Here’s Jolimont a couple of weeks ago (picture from Shane Shingles on Facebook)

Crowds at Jolimont after the football. (Pic: Shane Shingles)

I don’t get to the football a lot, but I’ve been to other big events which should be served well by public transport, and it’s often disappointing how long the crowd waits on the platform for a train home.

I know a bunch of planning goes into big events, but it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that more trains are needed, and they may need a few trains (and drivers) on standby to run if crowds are larger than expected, or the event finishes early or late. This in turn requires the operational flexibility to deploy resources independent of a set-in-stone timetable.

If they were really smart, just after the events start, they could crunch the Myki system data and work out how many people had arrived, and where they were likely to be travelling home to afterwards (their originating station that day), and check that against the services running on each line. At the very least, they should be analysing it for following weeks (though obviously it varies according to who is playing).

Clearly if the PT system is to maintain and grow its market share to big events, it’s going to have to provide a better service, or people will start to switch back to their cars.

A single train can move 1000+ people, and each track can run a train every 3 minutes or so. There’s no better way of moving tens of thousands of people out of the sporting/events precinct — if the system is planned and operated well.

The state budget: transport in a nutshell

Yesterday I went to the State Budget lockup. Basically they “lock” you in a room from 10am to about 1:30pm (when the Treasurer officially releases the budget) and you get to look through a big pack of budget papers before they’re revealed to the public.

I took along the world’s slowest heaviest laptop so I could take notes and draft a reaction while we looked through the information. Thankfully, they do serve you lunch, and I’m happy to report there were some pretty good sandwiches on offer.

Finance Minister Robin Smith Scott made a presentation (which was plagued by his computer continually going to sleep) and lots of officials and ministerial advisers were on hand to answer questions about the figures, which they did admirably (apart from one question I’m still awaiting the answer to).

Certain catchphrases abounded. Apart from the (slightly meaningless) themes of “For families” and “getting on with it” seen in the literature, “the right project at the right time” was heard several times in the speech.

State budget 2015

Expanded from my notes, here’s a summary what’s happening in PT:

Level crossings – 17 funded for $2-2.4 billion – and sensibly they’re aiming at Mckinnon and Centre Roads being in the first batch, so it can be done at the same time as North Road, Ormond. There’s also an emphasis on the Dandenong line in the ones initially funded.

Melb metro planning and early works $1.5 billion – as already announced

Mernda rail $9m – planning only, full funding later. Not unreasonable I think – it matches Labor’s promise, and you need planning to work out how much money it’s going to cost… indeed, it’s exactly what the local group was expecting.

Frankston station upgrade $13m (out of total project cost of about $50m)

20 E-class trams including accompanying infrastructure upgrades $274m – for the switch to bigger, longer, air-conditioned trams, power, for instance, needs upgrading

Bus service upgrades $100m (including $15m on bus/train integration projects) – this includes university shuttles for Deakin and Latrobe universities, which makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately it also means the rest of the money will be pretty thin once spread around to the rest of the bus network, so don’t expect improvements on your local route.

Huntingdale station interchange upgrade $5.6m – makes sense, given the difficult interchange used by thousands each day. Plus $2.6m on parking – must find out how many spaces this buys.

Murray Basin rail $30m (out of $180-220m) – helping rail freight to the northwest of the state

V/Locity 21 carriages $286m – including maintenance facility at Waurn Ponds, which makes sense operationally for the Geelong line, as well as supporting local jobs

Regional level crossing upgrades $50.5m

Bendigo metro rail $2m – hmmm the jury’s out on this one. I’m assuming this is planning money. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to trial local Smartbuses?

Homesafe trial $50m – all-night trains and some trams on weekends – which will also fix the late Sunday trains problem. Bring it on!

5 X’trap trains $90m – beefs up the fleet, and keeps the Alstom plant going until the high capacity train order is ready…

37 high capacity trains $1.3 billion – intended initially to run the Dandenong line service, with those trains cascaded to elsewhere on the network.

Comeng refurb $75m – keeps the 80s era trains running – so they’re not chucking out older trains yet, which is good.

B-class tram refurb $21m (part cost only) – the aim appears to be to keep these in service until 2032, when the state is obligated to have a fully accessible tram fleet

High-capacity signal trial $55.6m – stage 1 of Sandringham line trial only; sounds like it’ll only cover part of the line?

Dandenong line signalling upgrade $360m – conventional technology to accompany the grade separation project, and bring the line up to scratch

Flinders Street redevelopment $100m


For comparison, road funding, which I haven’t looked too far into…

Citylink/Tulla widening $272.8m (out of eventual $1.3b cost!!)
Chandler bridge $110m
Ring Road upgrade $150m and they want the same again from the Feds
Inner-west upgrades $40m (includes bike upgrades; left over from
Westgate Distributor, but still going ahead)
Regional/suburban road upgrades $90m (from memory this was resurfacing, not widening)
Hoddle St $1.8m
Bridge strengthening $76m

E&OE. Some of the information is presented in quite a confusing way, so hopefully I haven’t doubled-up on any items, or left anything major out.

So it’s a much more balanced budget than most, and there’s an obvious emphasis on upgrades for the rail network, which is welcome. Perhaps they really are serious about wanting to encourage growth in rail more than in roads, which is good.

I didn’t spot anything new for cycling, though Labor had promised a new body “Active Transport Victoria” to help with cycling and walking issues. That might be one of the 4% of promises the government says they haven’t quite got to in their first budget.

While there’s plenty for (heavy) rail, there’s not much for trams, and comparatively little for buses, so in terms of encouraging people out of cars, it’ll only go so far.

Indeed, to really get the rail network humming (and cater better for crosstown trips), effective feeder services are essential. Relying on always limited car parking spaces at stations just isn’t going to cut it into the future.

Level crossing removals en masse – important to get them right

I was planning on writing a blog post on the potential of close to 40+ railway stations being completely rebuilt via the fifty level crossing grade separations the state government is intending on doing over 8 years — most of which are adjacent to railway stations.

But last Thursday night’s PTUA member meeting with Ian Woodcock, who has studied this in some detail, somewhat stole my thunder.

I can’t do justice to all the great material in his presentation, but to my mind, his main points were:

  • Doing a series of grade separations makes the most sense, to allow more trains to run on a section of line (or an entire line)
  • Some of the architecture of recent stations is pretty horrible — needs to be improved
  • Integration with surrounding urban form is really important. Shops, businesses, “destinations” are vital.

Balaclava station

But his big idea was to consider elevated rail. He says it’s cheaper than trenches (the default method of grade separation) — about 1/3 of the cost.

It allows more places to cross the line, and in fact can make use of the land underneath — something which is generally not economic with trenches. It’s also operationally cheaper — trains can slow down coming up the hill into a station, and have gravity help them accelerate away as they depart.

There are old examples of elevated rail working well with the urban landscape, such as around Glenferrie station, providing good proximity for the station to the connecting trams and the shops and the university around it. Canterbury, Balaclava, and others also have elevated rail, though these were all developed many decades ago.

A more modern (Australian) example is the Sydney North West rail link, much of which is elevated through parks and suburbs.

I think he’s got a point. Elevated rail may be the best solution in some cases, and it doesn’t have to be ugly or impinge on the community if it’s done well. The cost difference alone — saving up to two-thirds — should have authorities carefully considering where it can work.

For some examples, see these designs on the ABC web site: Dream train stations designed by Melbourne students.

Proposal for Moreland station, by Evelyn Hartojo (Ian Woodcock's Dream Stations)

Closer to home: Ormond/Mckinnon/Bentleigh

Vicroads had an information tent for the North Road level crossing grade separation, at the Ormond traders festival a month or two back, and I also had a brief chat about it with local MP Nick Staikos about the same project when I ran into him one Monday morning at Bentleigh station.

The new line will be in a trench. As Ian Woodcock noted, the only two options presented to the community for this project were: rail under road in a trench, or road under rail. (Elevated rail may or may not have worked in this spot, though it would have resolved the problem with the Dorothy Avenue underpass, which looks set to close to motor vehicles and/or pedestrians and cyclists. The point is it doesn’t even seem to have been considered.)

As was already known from the information they have put out, the project is set to start major construction in 2016, with major works including a complete rail shutdown for a month in the 2016/17 Christmas holidays.

Other partial shutdowns will occur, including closing the westernmost track for a period of time, which will obviously require a modified peak hour timetable to operate. (Not impossible: it’s been done during Glenhuntly rail crossing rejuvenation works.)

What’s interesting is that Vicroads said, and Nick confirmed, that they are studying whether they can do the Mckinnon and Bentleigh crossings at the same time. This makes a lot of sense; the latter two are less challenging, narrower roads, and it would minimise the rail closures and costs.

Vicroads said they are hopeful, but it’s subject to the state Budget funding the extra two crossings. If I were Nick I’d be pushing for it, as if they can finish them all well before the next state election in 2018, it’s a better look for him being re-elected than if the job’s only half done, the stations are piles of rubble and replacement buses are running every weekend.

I guess we’ll see tomorrow (Tuesday; State Budget day) how many level crossing removals get full funding — as well as what other projects, such as Mernda rail, go full steam ahead.

Update: The State Budget provided funding for 17 crossings, including Mckinnon and Centre Roads, and the 9 crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong.

Update 19/5/2015: Sure enough, the government has announced the contracts have been awarded for these three, as well as Burke Road. All four will be rail under road.