Melbourne buses: many less frequent than 25 years ago

The Public Transport Not Traffic campaign organised a story in this week’s local paper, via campaigners Tony, Danita and Oscar setting up a fake bus stop to call for better bus services.

Leader: Fake bus stop

Among the quotes in the story from locals is this one from me:

“Bentleigh has less frequent buses than it did 25 years ago.”

I’ve been (quite reasonably) asked if this is actually true.

Yep, it is (though not universally). Let me present some examples — some within the Bentleigh electorate, some just beyond.

The quote deliberately says 25 years, not 20. This is because in late-1991 (towards the end of the Kirner state government, before Kennett arrived on the scene in October 1992) there were sweeping bus service cuts to middle and outer-suburban routes right across Melbourne. Some routes were changed, combined, and renumbered, but the overall move was towards reduced frequencies.

Just in case you think I’m relying on my shaky memory, I’ve linked to scans of some of the old timetables that I’ve somehow managed to keep in my collection. (It’s not a huge collection. I’m not a timetable collector per se.)

It’s worth remembering that in those days, most shops, including at centres such as Southland, closed at 1pm on Saturdays and weren’t open on Sundays.

Bus 822 — Chadstone to Southland and Sandringham, and in 1992 some trips also extended to North Brighton to through-route to the 823.

  • In 1992, this ran every 20 minutes in morning and afternoon peak hours, which helped commuters making train connections at Murrumbeena and Sandringham, particularly in evening peak when it’s harder to accurately guess what time you’ll need the bus. Today this is every 30 minutes in peak hours.
  • Going further back to 1987, the route was known as the 655, and extra buses ran between Murrumbeena station and East Bentleigh, meaning a bus about every 15 minutes in peak — double today’s frequency.

Bus 617 — Brighton to Moorabbin and Southland. This has become part of route 811/812 from Brighton all the way to Dandenong (it was also re-routed through the industrial end of Moorabbin, making for a much slower trip from Brighton to Southland):

  • Back in 1991, this ran every 20 minutes on weekdays. It’s now every 30.
  • In peak it was about every 15 minutes. It’s now every 30.
  • On Saturday mornings it was every 30 minutes; in the afternoons about every 50 minutes. It’s now hourly.

(Note also the mention of buses to/from the football at Moorabbin. This sheet also shows the timetable for route 616 from Brighton to South Caulfield, which was scrapped and hasn’t been replaced.)

Bus 618 — from Brighton to Southland, now route 823.

  • Back in 1991, this ran every 40 minutes on weekdays. It’s now every 60.
  • It also ran about every 45 minutes on Saturday mornings. Now there is no weekend service.

Bus 641 — from Hampton to Highett, with most buses also going to Southland. This route became part of route 828 (Hampton to Berwick):

  • The timetable from circa 1990 shows it running about every 12 minutes in afternoon peak between Hampton and Highett stations, with most buses extending to Southland — this is now every 20 minutes.
  • For Friday night shopping buses were every 20 minutes to/from Southland. These are now every 30-40 minutes.
  • On Saturdays, buses were every 20 minutes in the morning, every 40 in the afternoon. They are now about every 30 minutes in the morning, and every 60 in the afternoon.

Bus 623 — from St Kilda to Chadstone and Glen Waverley:

  • Back in 1990, this ran every 30 minutes on Saturday mornings. It’s now hourly.

So as you can see, many buses are less frequent now than they were 25 years ago. In particular, peak hour frequencies dropped markedly — pretty much killing a lot of these routes as effective peak hour feeders to/from the rail system. You can time your walk to the bus stop in the morning, hopefully knowing the train might be frequent enough to avoid a long connection time. But in the evening, with train punctuality not being terribly reliable, it’s risking a long wait if you try and time your connection to a half-hourly bus.

As I said, this is not unique to this area. Cutbacks occurred right across Melbourne, and in most middle and outer suburbs, to this day, bus frequencies are poor.

Not all bad news

It’s not universally true that all buses are less frequent. The Centre Road bus 703 was upgraded from 20 minutes to 15 minutes between the peaks on weekdays as part of the Smartbus program, originated by the Kennett government and largely implemented last decade by Labor.

The 703 also ran only every 40 minutes on Saturdays; it’s now every 30 minutes. It was only hourly on Sundays, compared to about every 45 minutes now. (Hourly is of course easier to memorise). But locals may be intrigued to know that back in 1991, Sunday services did run between Brighton and Bentleigh (but not north of Monash), with some buses extending to Brighton Beach — nowadays there are no buses between Brighton and Bentleigh on Sundays.

Bus route 703 - Sunday timetable towards Brighton, dated 11/11/1991

Mostly better operating hours: Sundays and evenings

Also: On most routes, operating hours are now longer than they were in the 90s, thanks to funding from the 2006 MOTC (“Meeting Our Transport Challenges”) transport plan under Labor. This introduced (or re-introduced) Sunday services on a lot of bus routes, as well extending hours in many cases to 9pm (though mostly with only hourly services).

These extended hours apply to most of the routes above — the 703 being the exception; despite being tagged as a Smartbus, this route fails to meet the government’s Smartbus standard.

MOTC also resulted in some additional Smartbus upgrades, including the Doncaster area “DART” routes.

Bus 822 navigating a side street in Bentleigh East

Changing times

The 80s and 90s were a time of cost-cutting and mostly declining patronage in public transport. Of course cost cutting and declining patronage feed on each other.

It’s only in the last ten years or so that patronage began to climb again, helped along by factors such as in-fill development (and population growth) in established suburbs.

In this time, a lot of attention has been paid to trains, with those running through some parts of middle and outer Melbourne now every 10 minutes, seven days-a-week. This huge (but largely unadvertised) boost could scarcely have been dreamt about 25 years ago, when Sunday trains were only every 40 minutes, and generally with short trains. Since then, improvements have been delivered by both sides of politics.

But most people are beyond walking distance to trains (and the other frequent mode, trams), and many major destinations (such as Monash Clayton, Chadstone, and including, for now, Southland) are also. Apart from the few Smartbus routes, they remain mostly unusably infrequent.

Better buses — more direct, and more frequent — are vital for helping people make those trips via public transport, as well as providing connections to the train network without people having to drive to over-crowded station car parks.

PTV finally starts promoting the good stuff

You might recall a while ago I posted about the lack of awareness of $3.50 cheap weekend fares, and frequent (every 10 minutes) trains on some lines on weekends.

Well, finally PTV are promoting both.

This is a step forward.

It’s a shame the imagery in the frequent trains ad uses the outer stations’ buildings — likely to be unfamiliar to the vast majority of people along the line. I suspect they’d have done better to use something that more clearly articulated that all the stations along those lines will benefit.

Still, hopefully it helps spread the word. The ten minute services are terrific… but we may never see them spread to more routes if patronage doesn’t grow as a result of them.

Update Wednesday: Advert noted on numerous trams:

PTV advertisement for cheap weekend fares on a tram

#FrequencyIsFreedom – even in the country

Overheard near Nagambie, about travelling to Melbourne:

“A lot of people go to Seymour to catch the train. There’s one once an hour from there.”

Yep.

Nagambie railway station

At stations beyond Seymour, where the Shepparton and the Albury line branch off, there’s usually only about 3 trains each way per day.

But at Seymour, there are 20 to Melbourne on weekdays, and 13 on Saturdays and on Sundays. The more services, the more options, more freedom.

Some people will drive to Seymour to get that… just as in the past some people would drive to junction stations like Caulfield — I suspect this happens less now that the Frankston and Dandenong both run every 10-15 minutes, 7 days-a-week (at least in the daytime).

10 minute trains are great, but why is the promotion of them so incredibly vague and uninformative?

If you improve a product, and want it to sell well, you need to make people aware of it.

When they launched trains every 10 minutes between the City and Ringwood, Dandenong and Frankston last year on weekends, there was an initial bit of publicity via the media, but very little else.

Metro did some advertising via MX and billboards which was incredibly vague:

Metro billboard near Caulfield station, October 2012

Witty? Perhaps. But what does it tell you? It could mean anything. And it implies the boost is on Sundays only.

Even now, while the excellent Dumb Ways To Die campaign has gained a lot of awareness, as far as other promotion goes, they’ve reverted to non-specific advertising:

My Metro - billboard near Caulfield station, January 2013

It might build brand awareness, and hint at the idea that people should consider PT for travel everyday, not just to and from work/school, but does nothing to tell you that, actually, weekend train services are better than they’ve ever been — and let’s face it, that’s what’s going to get people on board.

While those who know have started using ten minute trains more (and loving it), and it’s relieved the crowding, a lot of people are completely unaware that Melbourne’s three busiest rail lines have such a frequent weekend service.

The problem was brought home to me a couple of years ago (before the latest upgrade) when my stepfather said that he wished they’d improve Sunday (daytime) train timetables from running every 40 minutes. In reality on his line they haven’t run every 40 minutes since 1996. In that year they changed to every 30, then to every 20 in 1999. He had been thoroughly discouraged from using trains on Sundays many years ago, and hadn’t heard they’d improved.

Many people are also unaware that you’ll pay a maximum of $3.50 per day on weekends and public holidays to travel anywhere around Melbourne.

There are good examples in the not too distant past of targeted, clear promotion that gets the message across. Here’s a local newspaper advert from 1992:

The Met: advertisement for improved Sandringham line services, 11th Feb 1992

With Melbourne’ CBD booming on weekends, and inner-city traffic and parking often causing hassles, fast frequent trains have real potential to help people get around Melbourne.

Not every line runs frequently, but if we’re going to see that happen, the ones that do need to be successful. Proper, clear promotion is vital to help make it so.

Have higher weekend train frequencies resulted in huge traffic jams at level crossings? No.

There was speculation from some quarters that introducing 10 minute train frequencies would result in long traffic queues at level crossings, similar to those seen in many suburbs during peak commuting hours.

I think this was unfounded. Looking around Bentleigh on a recent weekend, it seems no worse than when trains ran half as frequently.

Bentleigh level crossing

I think there’s a couple of reasons for this:

Less trains than weekday peak hours — this crossing gets 3-4 trains every 9 minutes (counting both directions) in peak; about 23 trains per hour. On weekends it’s about half that.

Less motor vehicle traffic than weekday peak hours, so it’s never going to be as bad as peak.

For a train that stops at the station then goes through the crossing (eg southbound), the gates are down for about 75 seconds. For a train in the other direction, it’s about 45 seconds. So every 10 minutes, assuming the two trains aren’t crossing at the same time, the gates are closed for about 2 minutes, or 20% of the time. This is less than a typical road intersection (about 50%) and much less than an intersection with a major road such as Nepean Highway (probably over 70%).

The other thing is that more frequent train services should, in the longer term, attract more people out of their cars, reducing traffic. It’s a bit hard to tell if this has had any effect yet, or if a north-south railway would ever take a substantial amount of east-west road travel, of course. (This is why Smartbus services also need to be expanded and boosted.)

Perhaps it’s worse at other locations, such as the notorious Murrumbeena Road crossing. But other hotspots I’ve seen such as North Road, Ormond, appear to be managing okay.

There are genuine concerns that roads will clog up if a large number of extra trains are added in peak hours — grade separation is the only long-term full solution to fix that.

But in off-peak hours including weekends and evenings, there should be nothing stopping the government bringing the huge benefits of 10 minute train services to the rest of Melbourne.