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.