The Age ran this story based on data FOI’d by The Greens:
Running on empty: Secret data reveals Melbourne’s ‘ghost buses’
I got to take a look at the data, focusing on Night Bus routes.
The current Night Network commenced in January 2016, following a 2014 election pledge by Labor to introduce all-night trains (on all suburban electrified lines) and trams (on 6 routes), as well as coaches to regional destinations. Night Network started as a trial, but was made permanent in 2017. Night Bus routes were designed to complement the Night Train and Tram routes.
Data has been scarce, but anecdotally the trains and trams have had reasonable patronage. In 2016 it was reported that there were 35,000 people using the Night Network each weekend.
This newly available patronage data reveals details of how the Night Buses specifically have been performing.
Here’s how it looks – the source data included patronage for the entire year, and an estimated average per weekend night. I’ve compared the latter to the number of services, which gives us the average number of passengers per service.
|Route||Description||2016-17 total boardings||Outbound frequency||Passengers per weekend||Passengers per service|
|941||City, Footscray, Sunshine North, Taylors Lakes, Watergardens||1,398||60||20||2|
|942||City, Footscray, Sunshine, Deer Park, St Albans||3,205||60||54||2.7|
|943||Watergardens, Caroline Springs, Melton||707||60||8||0.57|
|944||City, Newport, Altona, Altona Meadows, Point Cook||2,387||30||38||1.31|
|945||City, Geelong Road, Tarneit, Hoppers Crossing, Werribee, Wyndham Vale||3,236||30||51||2.13|
|951||City, Moonee Ponds, Brunswick West, Pascoe Vale, Glenroy||2,432||30||46||1.77|
|952||City, Footscray, Maribyrnong, Airport West, Gladstone Park, Broadmeadows||3,648||30||60||2.14|
|953||Broadmeadows, Meadow Heights, Roxburgh Park, Craigieburn||116||60||2||0.13|
|955||City, Brunswick, Ivanhoe, Bundoora, Mill Park, South Morang, Mernda||3,003||30||48||1.6|
|961||City, Collingwood, Eastern Freeway, Templestowe, Doncaster||5,507||30||82||1.95|
|963||Ringwood, Mooroolbark, Lilydale||90||60||2||0.1|
|964||Croydon, Kilsyth, Mt Evelyn, Lilydale||67||60||2||0.1|
|965||Lilydale, Woori Yallock, Healesville loop||435||120||6||0.75|
|966||City, Kew, Doncaster Road, Box Hill||2,123||30||45||1.67|
|967||Glen Waverley, Burwood Highway, Bayswater (returns via Bayswater North, Ferntree Gully)||448||60||8||0.36|
|969||City, Caulfield, Ferntree Gully Road, Rowville, Wantirna, Ringwood||3,663||30||74||2.64|
|970||Carrum, Frankston, Mornington, Rosebud||1,394||60||14||0.52|
|978||Elsternwick, Ormond, Huntingdale, Mulgrave, Dandenong (returns via Princes Highway)||1,090||60||14||0.7|
|979||Elsternwick, Bentleigh, Clarinda, Keysborough, Dandenong||541||60||6||0.3|
|981||Dandenong, Berwick, Narre Warren South, Cranbourne||213||60||3||0.17|
|982||Dandenong, Endeavour Hills, Hampton Park, Cranbourne||343||60||5||0.28|
|ALL NIGHT BUSES||36,046||588||1.26|
|701||Oakleigh – Bentleigh via Mackie Road & Brady Road|
(For comparison – see below)
Some conclusions from this:
- The City routes do better than the suburban ones. No real surprise there – the suburban routes are timed to meet trains, but obviously people favour a one seat ride, especially at night. (See also footnotes below.)
- The most-used routes are those running every 30 minutes (rather than hourly) except for the 941/942 which each run every 60 minutes but provide a combined 30ish minute service between the City and Braybrook.
- But even the most used routes are only averaging 2-3 boardings per service. That’s really not very good.
- Passenger numbers are probably higher for outbound services, lower for inbound services. But even 6 people per service isn’t outstanding for what are mostly quite long routes.
- Hourly suburban Night Buses perform very poorly. Those routes are timed to meet hourly trains, so upgrading them to half-hourly may not help unless the trains switch too (which would be good).
- For comparison I’ve included figures for regular daytime route 701, one of my locals. It only runs every 30 minutes on weekdays, 60 on weekends/evenings, but it gets 7 times the number of boardings per service of the best performing Night Bus route. And on a typical weekend that one route gets 369 passengers; more than 60% of the number of passengers on the entire Night Bus network.
- The worst performing Night Bus routes are only getting a passenger on one in every ten services. 90% of trips don’t pick up anybody. That’s an absolutely appalling waste of money.
- The total number of Night Bus boardings per weekend in 2017 was 1,133.
- The Age reported in 2016 that there were 35,000 boardings each weekend across all of Night Network: train/tram/bus. If we assume these figures are comparable (at least for the purposes of a rough estimate) then that means only about 3% of night trips are on Night Buses. (And that’s with only six Night Tram routes, and Night Train running only hourly!)
- In comparison, for all public transport boardings, buses usually account for about 21% of trips around Melbourne.
So what can be done?
It’s not hard to conclude that the Night Bus network urgently needs a shakeup.
As noted in a previous post, a big part of the problem is that the route structure, unlike the trams and trains, is completely different to the daytime routes.
This means that the routes are unfamiliar to passengers. It also means in some cases people can’t get a bus before midnight, but can after midnight. This makes no sense.
They would do better to scrap the Night Bus routes and start again, by using those resources to convert the busiest daytime routes into 24-hour routes. This could include both buses and trams – since Night Tram only covers 6 of the 24 routes that run during daytime.
Even running as nighttime variations of existing daytime routes would be better than the current situation.
For instance, route 966 is similar to daytime route 207 (one of the busiest bus routes), but diverts along Tram 48 (which does not have Night Tram service) for some of the distance, and terminates at Box Hill at the outer end. So call it 207, or even 207a or N207 so that people know it’s basically the same route.
And if service coverage is absolutely needed to areas which are barely getting any passengers, maybe other cheaper options can be examined, such as on-demand buses or carefully targeted taxi/Uber subsidies. (Noting that these can be even more expensive to run, and don’t scale up if they become popular.)
With so much pressure elsewhere on the public transport network, including on buses, resources have to be carefully allocated. There’s no point running buses that nobody uses.
Some notes on the data as provided:
- Any transcription errors are entirely my own fault
- The data set included all Melbourne bus routes, with boarding data provided for 2016 and 2017. (I’ll look at non-Night Bus routes in a later post.)
- It was broken up by weekday/Saturday/Sunday. In the Night Bus context, this appears to mean before 3am Saturday; Saturday 3am to Sunday 3am; and Sunday after 3am – this is complicated, which is why I’ve used total numbers for the whole weekend.
- A few numbers appeared in the 2016 data for old Nightrider routes. This might be because it was by financial year. I’ve concentrated on the 2017 data, which only shows the Night Bus routes.
- It is, of course, possible that some quiet routes have seen patronage growth since 2017. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
- Some services only run part of the route. This is one reason I avoided trying to measure boardings per service kilometre, which is sometimes used to evaluate bus service performance.
- Suburban hourly Night Buses are timed to meet outbound trains. But some Night Bus stops are located too far from “connecting” stations to provide a seamless connection.
- What happens when Night Trains are replaced by buses for planned works? Well here’s an example: outbound Craigieburn Night Trains normally reach Broadmeadows at 55 past the hour, and the 953 bus departs five minutes later. But this weekend it’s bus replacements – arriving at 12 past the hour. The “connecting” 953 schedule hasn’t been changed. And planned works are not a rare thing at the moment.
- Thanks to the Victorian Greens for FOIing this data, and to The Age’s Timna Jacks for passing this it on.