One final blog before Christmas.
PTV published this data some time ago, covering Melbourne’s train/tram/bus patronage from 1947 to 2011, but I’ve added the most recent figures using numbers from the Budget Papers.
The data starts just after WW2, with the highest number of trips shown being 587 million in 1948-49.
There was a big dip for trams in 1949-1950, and another for trains in 1951 due to extended industrial action. The PTV report also notes that post-war petrol rationing finally ended in 1950.
It’s notable that the early figures show more tram trips than train, perhaps reflecting that until that point, Melbourne’s suburbs were mostly still within reach of the tram system.
Trams also play a continuing role for inner-suburban destinations, including for trips partly served by train. There were still more tram trips than train most years until early this century, when train patronage started to accelerate fast.
Across all modes from the 1950s, there was a sustained downward trend until the 1980s. The public transport network wasn’t expanding – in fact it was contracting, with most Footscray-area tram routes closing, and other services being reduced. Cars were getting cheaper, and governments were spending up big on roads, encouraging more and more people to drive instead.
The low point is 1980, with just 90 million train journeys, and 262 million trips on the network overall. From there, with the opening of the City Loop in 1981, and the introduction of multi-modal tickets also in 1981, things begin to pick up a bit.
There wasn’t much change through the 1990s – but by the end of the decade, moderate increases are seen. I’d tend to attribute this to recovery from the 1990s recession, and big increases in Sunday tram and train services in 1999 (suddenly it became practical to use public transport on any day of the week), and the continued roll-out of new (air-conditioned) trains and trams.
The virtuous circle
It’s in the mid-2000s that Melbourne’s population starts to take off, alongside CBD growth, and for trams and trains (not so much buses) we’ve got into a “virtuous circle”: extra patronage leads to crowding. Crowding prompts action and investment, which results in service upgrades, which ultimately makes the system more attractive, leading to extra patronage. Rinse and repeat.
Even relatively small things like running 6-car trains right through the week (instead of 3-cars in evenings and on weekends) helped remove a barrier to patronage growth. Better information including apps, and signage is a help as well.
Helping all this along, I think, was an increasing awareness of the importance of public transport in a big city. It’s also worth noting that in the mid-2000s, the headquarters of the two leading television networks (7 and 9) moved into the CBD, and the trend in recent years has been for more journalists to use the public transport network themselves, helping to bring issues such as crowding into focus.
Where the virtuous circle has been less apparent is on the bus network. The big upgrades in recent years were the introduction of the Smartbus routes, in stages mostly between 2005 and 2010, and university shuttles (especially the Melbourne Uni 401 in 2007, the Monash Uni 601 in 2011), with some local network upgrades in areas like Wyndham, Brimbank and Mernda.
All these have resulted in more patronage. The problem is that regular crowding has not prompted a very strong government response.
In 2008, train patronage surpassed the 1950 peak. The overall network total hasn’t yet beaten that peak, nor have tram or bus patronage figures, though they are on the way.
The numbers don’t show it, but I would expect some key differences between 1950 and now are:
- Fewer people had cars back then to cater for non-work and non-CBD commutes, so trips now tend to be more concentrated on work commutes these days. This means bigger fleets and more track capacity are required now, because lots of people are travelling at once into major destinations like the CBD.
- The spreading of Melbourne means trips tend to be longer, especially train trips – helped along by the 2015 introduction of largely flat fares
- That said, in inner suburban Melbourne, increasing numbers of people are choosing to live without a car, meaning non-work trips are on the rise again, helped by the completion of projects like Southland station.
Overall, public transport usage is increasing. And while there might be growing pains as investment catches up, ultimately, it’s got to be good news.
PS: There will be a follow up post that looks at population growth over this time.