Apologies for this very much locally focused (and possibly over-long) blog post:
The main bus route through Bentleigh (both the suburb and the highly marginal state seat), the east-west 703 along Centre Road, is getting a slight upgrade.
It doesn’t seem to have been announced yet, but eagle-eyed timetable watcher Craig Halsall spotted it: on Sundays it will finally run the entire route to Brighton.
Route 703: Melbourne’s fourth busiest bus route
The 703 runs from Brighton to Blackburn, and was one of the first two routes upgraded to run as a Smartbus — every 15 minutes on weekdays, with realtime information at major stops. Patronage on all the Smartbus routes grew strongly following the upgrades. (703 passenger numbers growth was the slowest of all the Smartbuses, but patronage still rose by 49% from 2002 to 2010).
PTV data says the 703 was the 4th busiest bus route in Melbourne in 2014-15, with 2.2 million journeys.
Counting weekdays only, it’s also ranked 4th, though on weekends it’s lower: 6th on Saturdays, 8th on Sundays. This perhaps reflects that its major destination is Monash University, which sees most of its traffic on weekdays. But that’s still pretty good for a route that doesn’t serve any very large shopping centres.
Recently the 703 has benefited from the removal of the Bentleigh level crossing. Anecdotally it seems this has helped punctuality, though the real boost will come when the notorious Clayton crossing is grade separated in 2018.
What’s being fixed?
One of the problems with the 703 is that since the 1990s, the Bentleigh to Brighton section hasn’t run on Sundays.
It’s finally being fixed. From December, buses will run the full length of the route every day.
This is good news — it helps improve the network by providing 7-day connectivity between the Frankston and Sandringham lines, and also makes the service easier to understand.
Access for residents of Clayton and Bentleigh to the beach and shops at Brighton will become easier, as well as Sunday trips from Brighton and the western end of Bentleigh to the Bentleigh shops, Glen Eira Swimming and Aquatic Centre (GESAC) and Clayton and Monash Uni.
What’s not being fixed?
Alas, other than Sunday running the full route, only tweaks seem to have been made to the new timetable.
They don’t seem to have taken the opportunity to fix some of the other problems along the route. The main issue is that it’s the only Smartbus route that doesn’t meet Smartbus standards, nor even the service span of most local routes:
- Services terminate earlier than any other Smartbus routes, with last buses as early as 8:04pm on weekdays (compared to midnight for other Smartbuses, and 9pm for most local routes)
- Evening frequencies are also poor, with gaps of over an hour in some cases — particularly annoying is the gap eastbound from Brighton (between the 7:34pm and 8:38pm buses), given there’s an out of service depot run that could fix this.
- In fact, the 15 minute frequency drops off after about 6:45pm on weekdays. In contrast, many Smartbus routes run every 15 minutes until about 9pm.
- Sunday services will still be every 40-45 minutes, not half-hourly as on the other Smartbuses
No doubt this reflects that the only funding supplied by the government was to run the full route on Sundays.
The other issue worth noting is weekday peak hour crowding, though this is exacerbated by delays caused at the Clayton station level crossing. Fixing this, unlike evening and weekend services, would require fleet expansion, not just extra driver shifts. Hopefully the problem will largely go away when the crossing is removed.
Crowding also occurs on weekends in the Clayton area. (The photo below is from a university open day, but similar crowding happens every weekend.)
There’s also a wide range of bus infrastructure, particularly in relation to on-road priority, which could improve the route.
The 703 is a political issue
The 703 was the subject of a 2010 election pledge, and was raised multiple times in parliament just last week.
Bentleigh MP Nick Staikos on 11th October:
The action I seek is that the minister implements a change to the 703 timetable that will see it run all the way to Middle Brighton on Sundays. The 703 is the most popular bus route in my electorate. Millions of trips are taken on the 703 each year — it is indeed a SmartBus. It is a bus route that connects our community with various railway stations and also Monash University. Currently on Sundays the service terminates at Bentleigh station. It does not go all the way to Middle Brighton. It is something that the Brumby government sought to address at the 2010 state election. It was not implemented in the subsequent term, but it is nonetheless a change that is needed and wanted by the community.
Note that the Brumby 2010 election pledge was to completely upgrade the route to Smartbus standards — not just the Sunday change now being implemented. Brumby of course lost that election.
Turns out Mr Staikos was not the only MP to specifically mention this route last week — so did the Opposition’s Michael Gidley, representing users at the northern end of the route:
The action I seek is for the minister to stop stalling on implementing the work done by the previous Liberal-Nationals state government and turn Labor’s shoddy, short-changed, shortcut SmartBus route 703 into an actual SmartBus route and to stop dudding the good residents of my district.
If you have a look at the SmartBus project on the Public Transport Victoria website and also the former Department of Transport site, it is very clear what that bus service should be. It should run as a high-frequency bus service every 15 minutes between 6.30 a.m. and 9.00 p.m. Its frequency should average every 30 minutes between 5.00 a.m. and 6.30 a.m., and it should run on average every 30 minutes between 9.00 p.m. and midnight on weekdays. It should also run between 6.00 a.m. and midnight on Saturdays and public holidays at 30-minute intervals, and run on average at a 30-minute frequency between 7.00 a.m. and 9.00 p.m. on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day.
He raises some good points (see the full speech for more), though it’s a little cheeky to demand Labor fix the route in 2016, when his side had government from 2010 to 2014 and did absolutely nothing about it.
Towards the end of his speech he specifically mentions the Sunday/Middle Brighton problem. Little did he know a fix was in the works.
What next? When will we see more widespread bus upgrades?
There is huge potential for a bus route like this. It already helps relieve car parks by feeding thousands of people each day into the railway stations and strip shopping centres it serves, as well as Monash University. Improving evening frequencies in particular could help cement this by ensuring people don’t have a long wait on the way home, and would use the existing bus fleet, so should not be expensive.
Bringing the 703 up to full Smartbus standards would provide a lot of benefits to local bus and train users in the area. And of course many other areas around Melbourne also need similar frequent bus routes.
In coming years there are a couple of good opportunities to reform buses in the southeastern suburbs:
Level crossing removals along the Dandenong line will provide a big boost to bus service reliability for many of the bus routes in the area. Connections at stations are likely to improve, and it may be a chance to straighten-out some routes.
And during the project, given construction traffic delays and station car park closures, more should be done to encourage people to catch buses to the station instead of driving.
The Southland station opening in 2017 is also a chance to review local buses, given some bus users heading to Southland Shopping Centre are likely to switch to trains. This applies equally to people in areas like East Brighton and South Oakleigh who want to go to Southland — the most convenient way might be by bus to Bentleigh then by train — provided the connecting bus is good enough.
Let’s hope the government makes the most of these opportunities to fund more bus upgrades that will provide more options to leave the car at home.