We could have a vastly more usable PT network; PTV has a plan. It just needs funding.

Getting around Melbourne’s inner-suburbs without a car is pretty easy, thanks to a reasonable network of frequent trams. In some areas, such as around Prahran, the trams, trains and buses form a grid, making almost any local trip within that area very easy.

Getting around Melbourne’s middle and outer-suburbs without a car is generally a nightmare. There are some rail lines, but for most trips it’s buses, and they are hopelessly infrequent — generally only hourly on weekends, and only half-hourly on weekdays.

Queueing for the 703 SmartBus at Bentleigh Station

It’s no secret then that areas of good public transport tend to have lower rates of car ownership — the excellent Charting Transport blog explored this in detail a while back.

Of course, there are other factors such as urban planning — are the things you want/need easy to get to without a car, including by walking?

But most of Melbourne currently misses out on frequent services of the type that you can use without looking at a timetable, and without a long wait (particularly if connecting off another service).

A few Smartbus routes have been a step in the right direction, and they’re popular, but still leave huge gaps in the frequent network.

PTV plan: bus service standardsPTV has a plan to fix this problem. As The Age reported on Tuesday:
A network of more than 30 bus routes running every 10 minutes would criss-cross much of Melbourne within less than a decade under ambitious plans produced by Public Transport Victoria.

This kind of upgrade is really important: along with train and tram upgrades proposed, it gives way more suburban areas a much more useable network.

The information has come out in a documentwhich is part of East West Link travel forecasts. It’s a bit vague because the details are in tram and bus plans prepared by PTV but not released — only the train plan has been made public.

But what we do know is this:

  • Most trains running every 10 minutes, 7 days-a-week
  • Most trams running every 10 minutes, 7 days-a-week
  • Some tram route changes to better organise the network (though little in the way of expansion, alas)

The most interesting bit is around buses. Remember that many areas of Melbourne will never have trains and trams, not even under the most ambitious expansion plan imaginable.

A LOT of suburbs will remain beyond walking distance to stations and tram stops, and need frequent bus services.

The plan sorts buses into several categories, and attaches minimum standards to each.

  • Smartbus – at least every 10 minutes – 43 routes by 2021, 49 routes by 2031
  • Direct – at least every 20 minutes on about 70 routes by 2021, at least every 15 minutes on about 75 routes by 2031
  • Coverage – at least hourly – about 180 routes by 2021, about 190 routes by 2031
  • Commuter – a dozen routes by 2021
  • Special – every 4 minutes on two routes – eg the existing 401 and 601 university shuttles
  • InterTown – about 20 routes on the urban fringe
  • Telebus – a handful of routes, but with many variations, on request routes
  • Hybrid – routes which fall into multiple categories, presumably with differing service standards

Yes, by 2031, the proposal is to have over 120 Melbourne bus routes running every 15 minutes.

This is critical for the overall public transport network.

The mass introduction of Smartbus and Direct routes every 10 and every 15 minutes would vastly expand the “turn up and go” anywhere-to-anywhere network across Melbourne, making it possible to use public transport for a lot more trips than at present.

Here’s how my neck of the woods looks at present: 7-day 15 minute services (all modes) — the current situation on the left, and if the PTV plan were implemented on the right.

7 day 15 minute services: 2014 7 day, 15 minute services: proposed by 2031
(Because the detail is vague, I’ve assumed only 822 would change in its upgrade to Smartbus. I’ve also assumed South Road buses 811/812/824 would run frequently on those sections — they’re actually slated as “hybrid”. And it’s quite possible I’ve missed some other proposed routes. Would need to get the full report to get all this cleared-up.)

At present, if your trip isn’t entirely along a tram or train line, you’ve probably got a long wait ahead of you. Going to most areas, it’s hopeless — so most people drive, and will often pack their driveway with one car per adult, putting a big strain on household budgets.

With the PTV plan implemented, a lot more journeys are possible without long waits, because a lot more areas are within walking distance to a frequent service.

This includes being able to easily get to your nearest shopping centre and/or railway station without having to drive.

As Jarrett Walker is fond of saying: “Frequency is freedom.”

A frequent network is the type of thing needed to let households really reduce their car ownership and usage.

It would bring Melbourne more into line with other big cities around the world, particularly in Europe, where the fast frequent backbone (principally heavy rail) is supported by connections to a network of frequent buses and trams across urban areas.

And a lot of it is achievable in the short term by making better use of fleet and infrastructure, in particular by getting the large number of vehicles currently in depots outside peak hours and getting them out into service more of the time.

The only question is when will the politicians take note and fund this?

PTV unified rebranding – pros, cons, and is it the last ever?

The PTV logo is gradually replacing the Metlink and Viclink logos across the public transport network.

Patterson station: PTV and Metlink

It’s just the latest rebranding — remember, some trains and stations have had up to seven different logos in the last 20 years… from the old The Met three-pronged logo, to the newer Met logos, to Hillside/Bayside trains, to Connex/M>Train, then unified all to be Connex, then Metlink/Connex, then Metlink/Metro.

Obviously it all costs money, so hopefully there won’t be any more rebranding in the near future. Could we at least try and go a couple of decades with the current logo?

PTV livery tram

Unlike the Metlink logos, the PTV ones are much more prominent on vehicles, and for the first time will (eventually) result in common branding for buses. This is not a bad thing — it helps inform and remind people that we actually have one network, rather than a bunch of independent, disparate routes… helped of course if network service planning is done properly.

I was watching a documentary on London Underground the other week, and it remarked that they realised common branding was an important thing back in 1933! We almost got there in the days of The Met in the 80s, but back then, it was only trams, trains and government-owned buses that were in green and yellow. Private buses kept their own colours. This time, they’re included. Here’s a bus run by Transdev (formerly Melbourne Bus Link) spotted last week — at first glance, there is no indication at all of the operating company.

Transdev Melbourne bus in full PTV colours

Some people have noted that a lot of passengers use the current differing bus operator colours to easily tell when their bus is coming — unlike trams and trains, buses have for a long time been run by different companies, with different colours.

I suppose passengers will have to start more carefully checking the route number. What would make this easier is if buses consistently had route numbers not just on the front, but also on the side and rear of the vehicle. Some buses have this already, but others don’t. And some front displays are not particularly readable. Improvements can be made.

Your local bus company may have changed

Before you complain to the bus company that your bus is late/cancelled/crowded, you might want to check that they still run the service.

Bus 220 - now operated by Transdev

In August, a whole bunch of routes (including most Smartbus routes) formerly run by Ventura and Melbourne Bus Link were taken over by Transdev.

Other recent changes include Ventura taking over Grenda (which includes Moorabbin Transit), and Easttrans (CDC) taking over Driver.

Seems it’s all go in the bus industry these days.

Transdev, in a reply to a query on Twitter, have noted that the stickers (as seen above) are a temporary measure. Eventually they’ll get the PTV livery.

While I quite like unified designs for the bus fleet, there is a down side: some passengers tell approaching buses apart by not just the numbers, but their operator colours. It’ll be interesting to see how people handle that.

It’s logical for #PTV load surveys to exclude cancelled services

…documents obtained by the Greens through freedom of information reveal that the positive results did not include many trains that were affected by the knock-on effect of a cancelled or delayed service. Of the 437 trains surveyed, 113 were excluded.

– The Age, Train overcrowding getting worse: Greens

Here’s the thing. Load surveys aren’t measuring overcrowding for the sake of measuring overcrowding.

You don’t hire scores of people to stand on platforms with clipboards to learn that cancellations are bad because they result in crowded trains, and we should avoid cancelling services. That is obvious.

Load surveys are for designing new timetables, to identify where and when extra trains should run. So while some may disagree, I think it’s perfectly sensible for them to exclude cancellations. To not do so would make it impossible to know where services should be added.

By all means they could publish the raw figures, or a version that does include cancellations, but for the primary purpose — service planning — they have to be excluded.

Crowding, Frankston line

Latest in the Myki saga: a newly discovered Myki Pass bug

Guess what? Another bug has been found in Myki.

(No, this is not an April Fool’s joke.)

You know how you can load a Pass (weekly, month, yearly etc) onto your Myki, and use it, and load a second Pass which won’t activate until the first one has finished?

Well there’s a bug which sometimes causes the second one to activate before the first has finished.

I know this, because my new Yearly activated 13 days before the old one had finished, leaving me with two active Yearly Passes.

It was clearly visible on the web site:
(Above screen grab 21/3/2013)

…and when checking the card status on a Myki Check or vending machine:
IMAG0446a IMAG0445a
(Above pics 22/3/2013)

So far PTV is saying three people have contacted them about it. I did… at least one person reported it on Whirlpool, and possibly even a second — surely that couldn’t be the only three people it has affected?

Or are there more people who haven’t yet noticed? It’s unclear if this happens to everyone who (quite legitimately) loads two Passes onto one card.

What is particularly surprising is that this is a part of Myki that has worked flawlessly since I’ve been using Passes on it in 2010. For something so fundamental to go wrong smacks of a new software version being rolled-out without having been fully tested.

If you use Myki Pass, now would be a good time to check your transaction records and the card status and make sure it’s doing what it should be doing.

Update 12/4/2013: Commuter Club co-ordinators were contacted with the following information:

We are writing to provide you with some important information about a matter that has affected some of your Commuter Club customers.

As you are aware, when a Commuter Club customer renews their annual myki pass for another year, we add that second pass to a myki a few weeks before the current pass expires, so it is ready to use straight away.

For a small number of customers, the second myki pass loaded to their myki, started before the first had expired.

We are contacting those affected customers to make them aware of the situation and advise that a reimbursement for the number of days the pass activated before it should have is being refunded to them via cheque.

Please be advised this matter has been corrected.

Update 13/4/2013: Yesterday they finally came back to me by email and said a refund is being issued for the lost 13 days:

Our records indicate that the second pass loaded to your myki card [removed] started before the first had expired.

Our investigations confirm that your second myki pass activated while you had 13 days remaining on your first pass and as such a cheque reimbursement of $70.00 will be mailed to you within the next 10 business days.

$70 is enough to buy 2 x 7 day Zone 1 Passes ($35 each), making up the 13 days lost plus one. However, given the current Yearly Pass I’m on expires next year, after next January’s price rise, it may not cover those 13 days.

At least some others affected are getting their refund as Myki Money loaded onto the card instead of a cheque.

It’s still unclear how many people have been affected, and whether they have proactively sought them out, rather than just waiting for complaints to come in.

Update 18/4/2013: The last communication to me said they’d refund me $70, which sounded about right. But today I got an email saying:

After considering the details of your special consideration claim, a reimbursement has been granted and an amount of $ 35.00 will be posted to you as a cheque within the next 10 days.

Ummmm.. Hmm. Better get in contact, I suspect.

Update 29/4/2013: A follow up email acknowledged that the one quoting $35 was wrong, and said I’d get a cheque for the full amount (eg $70).

Then a cheque arrived for $35. It was mailed before the last email though.

Better contact them again.

Update 2/5/2013: They’ve acknowledged the error and are sending out a second cheque for $35, making a total of $70.

Which are the most crowded carriages in a train? Typically, the middle ones.

PTV yesterday released the results of the October 2012 train load surveys. These are primarily to measure how crowded trains are, against the 798 benchmark (which is not a capacity figure).

Overall most lines are improving or about the same, the exception being the Dandenong and Werribee lines, both of which are becoming more crowded.

One of the side-effects of counting all the people on a train is they have published figures on which carriages are, on average, carrying the most people. It’s probably no surprise that the most crowded are the carriages near the middle.

PTV average carriage loads, by percentage of total train load

The graph shows what percentage of the load is in each carriage, on average across the whole network for AM and PM peak.

In the AM peak it’s the 2nd and 3rd carriages; in the PM peak it’s the 3rd and 4th. In both, on average the last carriage is the least crowded.

Obviously this will vary line-by-line, and even service-by-service. All the figures are on the PTV web site.

I suspect a lot of people aim for a carriage close to the exit at their destination, to minimise queuing on the way out, though you might also end up in the carriage close to the station entrance at the start of your trip if you have to run for the train.

For instance PM peak Sandringham trains have the most crowded rear carriage, with 17.6% on average — this might be partly because passengers for Elsternwick want a quick exit, but a big factor would be large numbers of people arriving at Flinders Street Station via Degraves Street and Elizabeth Streets, and boarding the train in the dungeon at platforms 12 and 13, where the rear carriage is the closest.

Meanwhile on the Alamein line, almost half the passengers (48.8%) are in the middle two carriages in PM peak.

PS. There are proposals overseas to add sensors inside carriages that can detect how crowded each carriage is, and transmit that information to screens at stations. I don’t think this has actually been implemented anywhere yet.

Many systems around the world have indicators of how many carriages are in approaching trains. This arguably isn’t an issue in Melbourne anymore — unlike the bad old days when they skimped and ran short trains some of the time, virtually all trains now run as 6 cars.

Public transport: more openness, accountability, and consultation is needed

One of the problems plaguing public transport in Victoria is the secrecy. Historically the Department of Transport has kept its cards very close to its chest. There’s a lack of information, and a lack of consulation.

As some people sitting around a table during a parliamentary inquiry into train services a couple of years ago remarked:

Mr BARBER — I think your evidence is quite clear — despite being seasoned observers of Melbourne’s public transport system, you guys are telling us you do not really understand how the government is going about planning public transport for the future. Would that be a fair summary of what you have been telling us this morning?

Mr BOWEN — If it is going on to a high degree, it is invisible to us, yes.

Secrecy in Melbourne

To this day, many people think that the South Morang rail extension was $562 million for a simple 3.5 kilometre rail extension along an existing reservation. There was more to it than that.

Back in June 2009, an Age feature article noted widespread concern and confusion over what seemed an astronomical cost for the project:

Liberal Opposition transport spokesman Terry Mulder says that while grade separations are expensive, the cost per kilometre for South Morang is still too high. “Taxpayers have a right to expect that they are getting good value for money spent. If Perth can build a 72-kilometre double-track railway with 11 stations including two underground stations for $1.2 billion, you’d have to say that for effectively 8 1/2 kilometres of new railway in Melbourne to cost $562 million then Victorian taxpayers are being dudded.”

Around that time, I remember that myself and PTUA Treasurer Kerryn Wilmot went to meet with the project manager. He expressed surprise that people were unaware of the full scope of the project. We told him that it was simply the case that nobody from the Department of Transport (DOT) had told anybody what was really going on. All the public information being put out by DOT’s public affairs people at the time was extremely vague. What other conclusion could people come to other than that DOT was paying ridiculous sums of money for a few kilometres of track along an existing alignment?

As I subsequently noted in this post on the Transport Textbook blog, there was actually a lot included in the project, including some major bridges and grade separation (in other words, big changes to the existing alignment), duplication of part of the existing line, two entirely new railway stations (Epping and South Morang, the latter with a big car park) and rebuilding of station buildings at Thomastown, electrical substations, communications systems, parallel bike/walking paths, extra stabling, and re-signalling most of the way down to Clifton Hill and on the neighbouring Hurstbridge line.

In short, it was a wholesale upgrade of two rail lines, and (arguably) a bunch of catch-up maintenance, as well as the short rail extension.

It was only well after this that DOT bothered to put this information out in the public arena, but it was too late — many had already got the impression that this simple project was way over-priced, and that DOT and the government had no idea what they were doing.

Daniel Bowen and Darren Peters at the South Morang station open day

Some things have gone right with the project. It was thoroughly welcomed by the local community, completed early, and was wisely timed to include changes to local buses to re-focus routes around the new station. But even that has gone sour, with local residents campaigning against some of the changes, saying they were not consulted with, or informed.

Likewise, when one PTUA member complained about his local bus route regularly getting caught in traffic, and asked what was being done about it, he was basically told DOT were talking to the bus company, but they couldn’t and wouldn’t be informing the public of any progress.

And one final example: In June PTV posted a (very welcome) list of upcoming tram and train closures so people could plan ahead. But the recent near-complete shutdown of the Glen Waverley line was not mentioned until much closer to the date. If the upcoming works list isn’t complete, that rather defeats the purpose doesn’t it?

Contrast: Openness in North America

Vancouver. Over there, the transport agency Translink has a number of communication channels with the public, including public Annual General Meetings, regular consultations, their magazine The Buzzer, and its accompanying blog.

The blog has reports from the various parts of Translink, including Q+A with the CEO, route changes, and summaries from the AGMs.

A Buzzer article from a few days ago talks in detail about how Translink designs their routes. This stuff is a goldmine of information.

Of course, PTV (formerly DOT/Metlink) in Melbourne posts route and service changes on their web site, but Translink go a long way beyond that. The posts are open for comments so people can offer their points of view, and their blogger actually goes away and makes enquiries on behalf of commenters to help answer their questions.

This post specifically caught my eye: it summarises new legislation designed to fight fare evasion, as well as tweaks to Translink’s structure and reporting, and links to past posts on these topics. The post and comments try to explain some of the thinking behind the legislation changes, giving those reading a better understanding of what’s going on.

It’s a stark contrast to the recent Melbourne changes that have allowed limited sharing of Myki cards, but have not been publicised at all.

Another page on Translink’s web site goes into detail on individual bus route efficiency (even down to things like measuring costs per passenger).

In Portland, Oregon, the public transport authority Tri-met recently offered an online tool to let people see how budget cuts were affecting their operations, and offer their opinion on how it should be dealt with. The tool let people click around and try different measures to meet the defecit, such as fare increases, changing fare rules, removing a free fare zone, cutting services, and so on. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s the sort of thing that can not only let people make their views known, but also ensure they are aware there are real constraints and not a bottomless bucket of money for transport.

(The tool is gone now; replaced by detail on what Tri-met are now proposing.)

What’s needed here?

More openness is what’s needed. Proactively volunteering information about what’s planned, what’s happening and why, responding to questions without spin, and actively getting feedback (not just waiting for people to be annoyed enough to complain).

True, there has been some progress. Yarra Trams have recently got a lot better at responding to queries on Twitter, and one of their customer service people recently gained fame for responding to a customer email complaint informatively and with good humour. They’ve also got quite a good web page flagging upcoming track works.

And true, some members of the public have been able to ask questions of Public Transport Victoria chief Ian Dobbs recently on talkback radio and at the recent PTUA Member Meeting.

But this kind of direct contact and accountability needs to be more than just the CEO running himself ragged going to public/semi-public meetings. It needs to be commonplace throughout PTV and the associated agencies and organisations, including operators. And it needs to be genuine consultation — not just telling people how things are, but letting them participate in the planning process.

The other big positive change is that PTV have started publishing documents that previously have not been for public distribution, such as these documents relating to the proposed Metro rail tunnel and this study of long-term patronage trends from 1946-2011.

PTV: Patronage graph 1946-2011

But these documents are often highly technical, and very difficult to read. Unlike the example of Vancouver, there’s no explanations of much of the jargon, nor highlighting the sections that will be of particular interest to people, and why, and no public avenue for questions or two-way discussion.

In conclusion

This post has rambled a bit, but I’ll try and reach some kind of conclusion.

Ironically, when bloggers write about the true scope of the South Morang project, mentioned above, rather than link to the official DOT page, they’re more likely to cite the Transport Textbook post.

Ditto, I see regular links pop up to my blog post which published station-by-station patronage figures.

People do want information about how the public transport network is being planned, and how their (taxpayer) money is being spent. It helps inform debate and discussion.

Social media such as blogs and Twitter can help; public meetings can help; radio talkback can help — just being more open can help.

The more people are offered the chance to voice their opinions and concern, the more they’ll feel involved in the way the system’s run, and who knows, all those ideas might also result in a better transport network.