Night Network made permanent

I know I was just writing about Night Network last week, but the news that it’s been made permanent came through over the weekend, so here’s another post on it.

My sons are of the age when they get out and about after dark. Recently one was out at a party in Brunswick until about 1am on a Saturday night, and it was great that he was able to hop on a train with his friends to easily and safely get home.

Late nights like that are behind me. Every month or so I do catch trains home around 10pm or 11pm, but it’s rare that I’m out after midnight.

A short history of Melbourne’s after-midnight PT

I remember a time when (with no money for a taxi) I’d be watching the clock to catch the last train home on a Friday night. During the 70s and 80s, the last trains and trams out of the City were around midnight Monday to Saturday, and around 11:15-11:30pm on Sunday nights.

In May 1993, the state government (under Kennett) introduced Nightrider buses, initially running once an hour along 9 routes, starting at 12:30am, and with a premium fare of $5-7.

The route structure was designed to follow the busiest tram routes in the inner suburbs, and the longer rail lines in the outer. Perhaps this was logical when trying to provide a reasonable network from a very limited budget, but it meant routes were unfamiliar to most people, and some inner suburbs had good public transport access during the day, but no all-night services. This is a problem that plagues Melbourne’s night buses still.

PTV Nightrider map 2015
PTV Nightrider map 2015. The routes were largely unchanged since 1992. Click to zoom.

In 1997, a “NightLink” tram (route 99) was trialled, running on Friday and Saturday nights after midnight, every 20 minutes from the City to Richmond along Swan Street, then via Chapel Street and Carlisle Street to St Kilda, then along the light rail back to the city via Collins Street, and up to Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. (Added following Mike’s feedback. I’d forgotten this one.)

From 2000, Sunday night trains started aligning with Saturdays, with “Bayside” lines frequencies upgraded from 40 to 30 minutes, and last services pushed back from 11:30 to midnight. (Thanks to the rail system being split across two operators at the time, it took some years for all the lines to be upgraded. For a while there, when Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday, patrons at the Carols By Candlelight at the Music Bowl would miss the last train home on the Hillside/Connex lines if they wanted to see the concert finale.)

In 2003/04, despite warnings, most New Years Eve services ran only until 1:30am, with only Nightrider after that, resulting in large numbers of people unable to board the last trams and trains, and resulting in sustained criticism of the state government. They fixed the problem, and all-night services have run on NYE every year since then.

During the 2006 Commonwealth Games, trains and trams were extended to 12:30am each night. NightRider buses ran 7 nights a week; hourly from Sunday to Thursday, half-hourly on Friday and Saturday nights.

In late 2006, the government extended trains and trams to run until 1am on Friday and Saturday nights, finally recognising that more people are out and about late on weekends than other nights.

In 2007, the Nightrider buses, still oddly starting at 12:30am (overlapping with trains and trams), started accepting standard Met fares. Daily fares were adjusted to expire at 3am (eg start your trip by 3am) instead of the old “end of day” time of 2am.

In 2008, the government rebranded and upgraded Nightrider to half-hourly, with first services around 1:30am. This combined with the standard fares finally got patronage taking off, leading to some routes running as often as every 15 minutes during summer to try and reduce overcrowding.

Having lost power in 2010, Labor went into the 2014 election promising “Homesafe”, all-night trains on all suburban routes, six all-night tram services, and 2am coaches to regional cities, which became “Night Network” – implemented from January 2016 pretty much as Labor pledged.

It didn’t come as a complete surprise. Internal planning for the possibility of all-night operation on weekends had been happening for some time. It also resulted in changes to maintenance and upgrade works; many have now moved to weeknights, either after last service or from 9pm, which probably has less of an impact on passengers than weekend nights.

(Despite pre-planning, parts of Night Network may have been implemented in a hurry, resulting in inefficiencies such as some trains spending 50% of their time idle at termini. Ironically, it appears the trams and trains, a network essentially designed by Labor in opposition have been more successful for patronage than the Night Bus network, which was designed by PTV. My view is this is largely because Night Bus routes are completely different to day time routes, thus not well understood by most people.)

On Saturday, the government announced that Night Network has been made permanent, which is great news.

After midnight

After the Things Of Stone And Wood concert a few weeks ago, it was of great comfort to know that there was no rush for the last train — no last train!

The concert in Northcote ended about 12:30am, and we hopped on a tram to the city, then walked down Swanston Street to catch the 1am(ish) train from Flinders Street Station. From 2006 and 2015, this was the last train of the evening.

The 86 tram, 12:40am Saturday morning

Northcote was busy. The tram was busy. The City was busy. Flinders Street Station was busy, with plenty of passengers and also plenty of staff.

All-night public transport has followed the development of the all-night economy, but has the reverse been true as well, with the all-night economy now growing thanks to better public transport access? It’d be interesting to know.

I also suspect it leads to more use of public transport before midnight. Given it was a Friday, I’d been at work before the concert — I knew I didn’t need to go home first and drive to Northcote, because there’d be a way to get home no matter how late it went. (Yes, there’s always taxi or Uber, but part of the reasoning for all-night public transport is that taxis in particular aren’t coping well with demand.)

More broadly, does it encourage some younger people to defer learning to drive and/or buying a car? Quite possibly. The more trips are possible by public transport, the less compelling the expense of driving becomes.

Flinders Street Station, 12:55am Saturday morning

The morning after the Night Network announcement, Radio National aired this interesting program looking at 24-hour cities. They talk about the complexities and benefits of enabling the night time economy.

One of the points they made was that longer licencing hours (and related services) help improve safety because a mass of people don’t all leave venues at once. Senior transport people tell me that in Melbourne, the all-night services have helped in a similar way, reducing the phenomenon of groups of people all waiting around for the first train of the morning. They also tell me there have been no major security incidents since Night Network began.

As I wrote last week, Night Network could be better – the buses run routes completely different to daytime, and it’d be nice if the trains ran more frequently (which would improve their efficiency as well as increasing fare revenue).

But at least now people have the certainty of knowing that it’s a permanent feature of Melbourne’s public transport service. With the right upgrades and promotion, patronage should continue to climb.

Old photos from April 2007

Another in my series of ten year old photos.

The old Olympic Doughnuts caravan, well before the shops along Irving Street were demolished to make way for additional station platforms.
Olympic Doughnuts, Footscray, April 2007

Footscray station snapped from the old (uncovered, ancient) overpass. This is platform 1, which has now become platform 3.
Footscray Station, April 2007

Despite The Met having been long since gone, this sign still survived as a guide to which buses departed Footscray from where. In summary: they’re all over there.
"The Met" bus routes sign, Footscray Station, April 2007

Footscray bus interchange. It’s still pretty much the length of Paisley Street (a not-very-handy 3-5 minute walk from the station, whose major renovation a few years ago didn’t touch the bus stops). The biggest difference is that these days most of the buses are decorated in PTV orange.
Footscray bus interchange, April 2007

The PTUA Office is rarely staffed nowadays, but is still in Ross House in Flinders Lane. From time to time, space became available in the window, and we’d decorate it with our propaganda. I don’t know how many members we ever got from it, but I guess you’ve gotta try. (Want to support PTUA? Join Now.)
PTUA display at Ross House, April 2007

V/Line Sprinter trains at Southern Cross Station.
Southern Cross Station, April 2007

It might be hard to believe, but the old tram stop at Spencer and Bourke Streets was even worse than the one that’s there now. The exit was constricted (though only with barriers on one side, so at least people could spread out if there was no tram present). But no platform, virtually no shelter, and not enough capacity for more than one tram.
Spencer and Bourke Streets, April 2007

Bourke Street Mall during the Comedy Festival. I see there’s an Armaguard van parked there. Nothing changes.
Bourke Street Mall, Melbourne, April 2007

Free Hugs in Swanston Street. Does that still happen anymore? Note the “3 Mobile” shop sign — they merged with Vodafone in 2009. There’s also a tram Passenger Information Display — at the time, this was still the northbound tram stop.
Free hugs in Swanston Street, Melbourne, April 2007

This scene hasn’t changed: pedestrians crossing at Flinders Lane against the traffic, despite the oncoming cars. (Snapped for this blog post.)
Flinders Lane, Melbourne, April 2007

A walk along the river. Perhaps the skyline has changed a bit.
Melbourne, April 2007

Ormond: the Stacks Of Slax shop made famous by The Late Show was finally closing down. Nowadays the left hand side has been painted over, so all that’s left is “Of Slax.”
Stacks Of Slax, Ormond, April 2007

“Evict Connex!” said the protest banners. I don’t think it worked, as Connex got their contract renewed in August 2007 until November-2009. After that though, they got replaced by Metro Trains Melbourne.
Anti-Connex Trains protest, 12 April 2007

Yes, even back in 2007 I was narked off by motorists blocking pedestrian crossings.
Blocking the pedestrian crossing, April 2007

Finally, the fare gates in the Campbell Arcade underneath Flinders Street Station seemed to be left open a lot of the time. The year before, I’d documented it and turned it into a PTUA call for them to staff the gates properly, and a Herald Sun article based on that. Connex hadn’t listened, and continued to prefer to give fare evaders an easy time. Also notably, the number of gates hasn’t been increased despite crowding at peak times.
Flinders Street Station - Campbell Arcade, April 2007

Why is the Night Bus stop for Bentleigh station not at Bentleigh station?

Sometimes the little things matter. Sometimes a bit of thought can result in a better outcome.

Logic says that when they put in a new bus route to serve the station, it should stop at the station.

When the signs for the new 979 Night Bus went up at Bentleigh, I noted that they were not at the route 703 stops next to the station.

Eastbound it shares the 701 stop, which is about 100 metres from the station (positioned so the 701 can do a loop around so it can terminate there). Westbound it shares the 703 stop 120 metres away from the station.

At the time this seemed fair enough — it was the end of 2015, and the station precinct was about to get knocked down and rebuilt for level crossing removal. The closest bus stops would be out of action for a time.

But it’s been many months since the new station opened. The 703 now stops just metres from the station entrance.

Having the Night Bus use the stops closest to the station would be beneficial:

  • Easier train/bus interchange
  • Better security at the bus stop from being visible from the station concourse, where the PSOs patrol and station staff are on duty
  • Passengers could use the benches and the waiting room while waiting for the bus — useful on cold winter nights
  • A more logical, intuitive location for a Night Bus stop apparently designed to serve the station
  • As with the current location, no clash with daytime bus services, as the 703 doesn’t run after midnight

This is just one example of course. Are there others where the service nominally connects at the station, but the stop is some distance away?

And this issue may be obvious, but it’s a pointer to other problems.

Other problems with Night Bus

Some routes have stops chosen for their proximity to stations or hospitals, but stop names have been based on the nearest obscure cross street, which is meaningless to most people:

In some spots, they haven’t thought too much about where the Night Bus stop signs should be installed:

Timetabling is also a problem. In the case of Night Bus 979, there are hourly trains and hourly buses, but they don’t connect at Bentleigh – hop off a train from the city at 33 past the hour; you’ve just missed the eastbound bus at 25 past the hour. Instead they have timed connections at Elsternwick on the Sandringham line. It makes sense in some ways, but how does one explain that to passengers?

These issues might underscore problems with the design of the Night Bus network. While the 24-hour tram and train services have been relatively successful (despite poor frequencies, particularly on the trains) the buses have been less so. I suspect a big part of that is the routes being totally different from the daytime routes.

Even in the Doncaster area, where the backbone of the network is four Smartbus routes, they chose not to run those routes through the night, but instead run a completely different route that does a long loop around Bulleen and Templestowe. (I know there are proposals to revert to using the Smartbus route structure. Even at lower frequencies, this makes a lot of sense.)

Possibly there are some areas where it’s logical to provide night service that is not based on the daytime routes, but these should be the exception rather than the rule.

The stop placement, stop names, passenger familiarity with the routes — all these are solved by running 24 hour routes instead of special night-only routes. This means there’s a great opportunity to improve Night Bus services, and I hope PTV’s review of the Night Network will give this serious consideration.

Time for a car upgrade?

I’m thinking it might be time to upgrade my car at some stage soon.

Some people turn them over every few years. Not me — I’ve been driving a 2000 model Astra hatchback since 2008, almost nine years. The previous car was a 1993 Magna, which I had from 1998 to 2008.

Of course, I drive far less than the average person.

In fact it’s common for the car to not leave the driveway for almost a week at a time.

If we had car share in my area, I’d be seriously considering it. But we don’t, and with weekend PT (other than north-south on the trains) being lacklustre, it’s still needed.

With my sons now moving towards learning to drive, and the Astra nearing 17 years old, I think it’s time to consider an upgrade.

The other big reason? My mechanics told me at the last service a few weeks ago that the next one would be a biggie.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Steam engine, Warragul

So, if I’m upgrading to a “new” secondhand car, what should I buy?

Car size — probably similar. I want something reasonably economical, and easy to park. A 5 door hatch has been good. Though it needs to be not too squishy in the back seats.

Safety — the prospect of my offspring driving makes me think now is a good time to move to a five-star safety rating, so it would need to be a reasonably recent model.

Goes without saying — aircon, power windows, remote locking, cruise control, all those modern conveniences.

Some kind of modern music connectivity would be nice (though not essential) — who’d have thought a CD player in the car would ever seem old hat?

Auto or manual? Mostly I like driving a manual, but sometimes it’s a pain. The boys started out happy to learn on a manual, but early lessons have proved frustrating — the mysterious workings of the clutch are holding them back from learning everything else. So I’m leaning towards an Automatic, and later they can learn manual driving.

Gears of car

Price — I’m thinking up to about $15K.

Of course hopefully I can probably trade-in or sell the Astra. Private sale might actually be a bit of a chore, given the need to get a Roadworthy. Theoretically it’s worth about $3-4000, though it’s probably not in the best shape. Not that it’s been in any prangs, but it’s aging, and if the mechanic is warning me of costs to come, the best I might get is a couple of thousand from a dealer trade-in.

(I lost the handbook during a service last year, which was annoying. The mechanic swore blind they didn’t have it, but I always put it on the passenger seat when I take it in, and it didn’t show up anywhere at home… until, relief! Months later they rang back to say it had turned up again!)

Possible models

Toyota Corolla — apparently October 2012 onwards gets a 5-star safety rating. There seem to be quite a few around the $12-15,000 mark.

Hyundai i30 (2015 onwards gets 5-stars, which might price it too high for my budget).

Prius or Mazda 3 would suit but are probably out of my price range.

Any other suggestions?

The real challenge: can I get it done before the rego expires in August? (With a multitude of other things happening, perhaps not.)

  • Why does the default search on drive.com.au not filter by location? Do they really think it’s useful for the default results to include cars that might be thousands of kilometres away?
  • Carsales.com.au isn’t much better. Start entering criteria in the quick search option; realise you want to filter by age of car and need to go to the Advanced criteria, and it wipes everything you entered so far!

V/Line peak patronage 2012-2017

Five years ago I published some figures on V/Line’s peak patronage, based on their capacity reports, where they show the number of seats occupied in each service in peak hour.

Here’s an update comparing with their figures for February 2017.

Line 2012 2012 2017 2017 Change 2012 2012 2017 2017 Change
  Trains AM ๐Ÿ˜ Trains AM ๐Ÿ˜ AM ๐Ÿ˜ โฌ†๏ธ Trains PM ๐Ÿ˜ Trains PM ๐Ÿ˜ PM ๐Ÿ˜ โฌ†๏ธ
Geelong 11 2917 16 5920 102.95% 8 3292 13 4800 45.81%
Ballarat 10 2771 13 4131 49.08% 9 3059 11 3978 30.04%
Bendigo 10 2612 8 2229 -14.66% 7 2572 6 1609 -37.44%
Seymour 4 792 4 883 11.49% 4 831 3 820 -1.32%
Gippsland 4 746 4 741 -0.67% 3 859 3 619 -27.94%
Total 39 9838 45 13904 41.33% 31 10613 36 11826 11.43%

Apologies for the emojis; this blog format is not well-suited to wide tables. The face means it’s measuring the number of passengers. (Yeah they’re not smiling.)

AM peak is all trains arriving in Melbourne before 9am; PM peak is all trains leaving between 4pm and 6pm. And note that the maximum load quoted by V/Line is 100% — if a train has all seats filled and passengers standing, it is under-represented in these figures.

Why is AM peak higher than PM peak? Because it covers a wider span of time. A number of people would travel into Melbourne in AM peak, but travel back either before or after the PM peak, and those numbers aren’t published by V/Line.

Overall, clearly there is a lot of growth (41% in AM peak, 11% in PM peak), but this is focused on some lines far more than others, partly reflecting the changes on the V/Line network since then.

The biggest change in this time is that the Regional Rail Link project was completed, giving trains from Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong their own tracks through suburban Melbourne. It’s not perfect, and V/Line’s operations on the line leave a lot to be desired, but it has opened up the way to far more trains and passengers.

Waiting to board a Geelong train at Southern Cross, PM peak

The Geelong line has seen the biggest growth, with a 53% increase in the number of train services, but a massive jump of passengers of 103% in AM peak, and 46% in PM peak. A big factor is that the line now serves the new stations at Wyndham Vale and Tarneit (the latter being the busiest V/Line station apart from Southern Cross) as well as Deer Park.

The irony is that having fixed the problem of large numbers of suburban commuters on the Bendigo line (see below), Regional Rail Link re-created the same issue on the Geelong line. There are proposals to extend Metro services to Wyndham Vale and Tarneit, but don’t hold your breath on that.

The Ballarat line is also showing strong growth, with 49% more passengers in AM peak, 30% in PM peak. Caroline Springs opening in January would have contributed, but I suspect there’s far more growth at the existing stations of Melton and Bacchus Marsh, as well as Deer Park, which are all growth areas.

Note that V/Line train lengths can vary. In the case of Ballarat, 19 peak hour trains in 2012 vs 24 in 2017 is a 26% increase in services, but in that time the seat counts have jumped from 3195 to 4811 in AM peak (up 50%), and from 3711 to 4375 in PM peak (up 18%), or a total increase of 33%. PM peak in particular is well below the growth seen on the line, so clearly more carriages are needed.

(Sorry, I don’t seem to have the detailed figures from 2012 for the Geelong line handy.)

Over on the Bendigo line, patronage has actually dropped, as has the number of trains. Why? Because the Sunbury electrification opened in November 2012, taking a lot of passengers from one the Bendigo line’s busiest stations to Metro services — the definitions for peak are different, but it’s about 1500 people from Sunbury, and about 180 from Diggers Rest.

While passengers at Sunbury still have the choice of boarding V/Line trains, they only run about once an hour, even in peak, compared to a Metro train about every 12 minutes, and the travel time is much the same, with no fiddly changing trains if you want one of the Loop stations or Flinders Street.

With the limited figures available in public, it’s difficult to determine how much Sunbury patronage has grown since electrification, but I’d expect the rest of the Bendigo hasn’t lost any other passengers overall, and has probably grown.

The Seymour line seems to have seen moderate change, with 11% growth in the AM peak, and a very slight decrease in PM peak. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a bit more growth thanks to the price cut in 2015 — $4.10 one way is dirt cheap to get all the way out to Wallan or Heathcote Junction, but there might be other factors — some stations might have no or very poor connecting buses, a hostile environment for walking and cycling, and a full car park. As always, the fare is only part of the equation — service quality matters more.

Gippsland line patronage is stagnant in the mornings, and well down in the evenings. This is probably due to a lot of Pakenham passengers having shifted to Metro — of the three PM peak services, two are marked as Pick Up only at Pakenham (this changed since 2012), and one runs express — all designed to ensure seats are saved for those travelling longer distances.

Boarding a Geelong train, evening peak

Investment in public transport usually goes where the crowding is. It might be some time before we see major infrastructure changes on the Seymour or Gippsland lines, though there are proposals to duplicate and upgrade the latter to counter the job losses in the Latrobe Valley by providing better access to employment in Melbourne.

The Ballarat line is being duplicated to handle more trains, and cut reliability problems, which is good. Hopefully the Bendigo line is coping for now. It’s unclear what will happen with the Geelong line in the short term, but clearly V/Line and the government need to deal with the growth that’s occurring across the network.