My smartcard collection – I’ll report on Opal soon!

Here is my collection of Australian public transport smartcards.

The ones I’m missing are Adelaide, Canberra and Tasmania — all of which have been introduced since my last visits there.

Smartcards: Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney

Notably Perth’s SmartRider is the only card that is blank on the back, which is why the card number (which I’ve blacked-out) is on the front.

Some friends and family have also given me cards from overseas, though what I find most interesting is not the card designs themselves, but how the systems work for users — the response times in particular, but also the opportunities to top them up, the availability and pricing of single tickets, and so on — and to judge those, you really need to use the systems.

Expect a report on Opal soon!

#HighSpeedRail may not happen anytime soon, but it’s critical that the corridor be reserved

The Phase 2 Report from the High Speed Rail study was released last week — predicting that although HSR would cover its recurrent (running/maintenance) costs, it’d first take some $114 billion and 45 years to build it.

As I’ve said before, I think a 3-ish hour trip from Melbourne to Sydney would be time-competitive with flying.
Taiwan High Speed Rail
$114 billion is obviously an incredible cost, and taking decades to build it is a totally unambitious timeframe. I’m sure if you outsourced it to those who have built such lines elsewhere, they could get it running much more quickly and cheaply. Or if they got tough on the airlines and proclaimed a forced heavy future reduction in emissions, and particularly if oil prices skyrocket and a second Sydney airport is put on hold, they could coax Qantas and Virgin into the railways business.

(It’s interesting that much of the debate since the report was released has ignored emissions issues, and focussed on the benefits to existing rail passengers, not those currently travelling by air.)

But even if you assume it could be built quicker and cheaper, the question is: should one heed the calls of the optimists and start building it now? Or follow the cynics who say it’s all too expensive, that we don’t have the population, and we should forget it?

I’m not sure. Fact is, across the country, there are probably a lot more important infrastructure projects that need building first. That money (even if you assumed it could be built for half that cost) could solve a lot of other problems.

And realistically, the political and economic climate means there’s no hope of it being built right now.

But… as this piece in The Conversation says, they should definitely go ahead and identify and reserve the corridorjust like the roads people do all the time.

All that said, it seems prudent to plan and protect a corridor. It’s not overly expensive to work out a detailed alignment and preserve it from incompatible land development. This does little harm and ensures we can move forward if and when circumstances change and/or the time is right.

This is a must. Not doing so — even if actual construction work isn’t to start in the foreseeable future — could make it impossible for it to ever happen later.

My dad and the Brisbane PT campaign, circa 1951

I was interested to see this post complaining about Brisbane bus services to the University of Queensland.

In this Courier Mail article it appears that the most overcrowded bus services in Brisbane all serve university precincts.

My dad was editor of the UQ student newspaper Semper Floreat in 1951. UQ has recently put many (possibly all) old editions of it online. To my surprise and delight, I found that he put a series of front page stories about the UQ bus services into several editions of Semper, highlighting crowding and in particular the lack of concessions for university students.

Semper Floreat 6/3/1951

In the March 6th edition, they asked various politicians, a representative from the Transport Department, and one from the Bus and Tramways union if they favoured fare reductions for students, and concluded:

We know that students at the southern universities get fairly generous concessions. And as the University of Queensland is scattered all over the face of Brisbane, we think we deserve them even more. We also consider that, with full bus-loads guaranteed, the City Council could afford to reduce the St Lucia fare piecemeal.

Semper Floreat 15/5/1951

In a follow up article on May 15th, Semper reported that a student delegation to the council with little result, and pleads for the students as a whole to make some noise about the issue in the hopes of getting it resolved.

These days, fulltime tertiary students in Queensland do get a 50% concession fare.

Dad never told me about this. Of course, there were others involved, and Semper took on many causes, but I find it fascinating that 61 years ago he was campaigning on this particular issue. There’s something in the blood, eh?

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.