Beautifully formatted, but missing half the information

Last month I noted that the State Government has prepared the “Big Build” calendar of major disruptions to the transport network.

This calendar is easy to read, but it turns out it is fatally flawed.

Below you can see how January looks. Note the absence of any disruptions today, 27th January – thanks in part to the early return of trains through Caulfield.

The problem is… that’s wrong.

The whole of the Craigieburn line has been out of action all weekend.

You won’t find it listed on the Big Build web site – but it’s shown on the Metro or PTV web sites.

Metro disruptions: Craigieburn line

Why is this?

Because the line is closed for maintenance works, not project works.

Likewise the Big Build web site doesn’t show the closure of the Werribee and Williamstown lines next weekend… but it does show the closure of the Stony Point and part of the Frankston line for two weeks in February.

It’s a similar story with staffing at the rail replacement bus stops. When it’s project works there are plenty of staff. Turns out they can be thin on the ground when it’s maintenance works.

It’s ridiculous. Passengers don’t care who is running a rail closure. They just want accurate, consistent and complete information.

The Big Build calendar format is excellent, and very readable, but if it’s only got half the information, if you can’t actually depend on it to show you when a rail line is closed, then what’s the point?

Despite the big merger last year of PTV and Vicroads and numerous other bodies into the Department of Transport, the claims of an integrated transport system clearly haven’t come to fruition just yet.


On the bright side, I’m told they’re working on changes so we don’t see a sea of orange notices at central stations in future. Apparently this picture has been doing the rounds.

Works notices at Melbourne Central

The Lonsdale Street bus mess

(This post adapted from a Twitter thread posted yesterday)

Rail replacements on the Caulfield line are not the only major disruptions to public transport at the moment.

Bus routes from the eastern suburbs into the CBD are some of the busiest in Melbourne.

All of them are currently terminating on the edge of the CBD for five weeks due to power upgrade works.

Bus passengers are asked to make their own way to/from Exhibition/Lonsdale Streets.

From the western end of the CBD, it’s a long walk to Exhibition Street, or a ride in a very packed tram.

Smartbus sign advising of Bus diversions on Lonsdale Street

Caulfield rail replacements also drop people on the edge of the CBD, though the frequency of north-south Swanston Street trams connecting to Federation Square and the Arts Centre is far better than the east-west trams along Bourke and La Trobe Streets.

Making it even worse for bus passengers: more roadworks elsewhere this week resulting in more delays even once you’re on the bus.

Back to the signage. Kudos to them for programming the Smartbus sign to say the County Court stop is closed.

But some other routes from the western suburbs continue to serve this section of Lonsdale Street as far as Queen Street. Confusing much?

At least those routes don’t generally pick up passengers along here – because they terminate in Queen Street.

216 bus in Lonsdale Street

Also baffling: remember how some 232/235/237 buses from Port Melbourne are diverting away from Collins St due to heavy traffic?

Some of them are choosing to join the congestion in Lonsdale St. This doesn’t seem like the best idea.

235 bus in traffic in Lonsdale Street

Anyway, it’s understandable that Transdev didn’t get want their eastern suburbs buses getting stuck in heavy traffic every day during the works. This caused lots of problems during the William Street works in November.

Rather than just leaving people to walk (fun this morning in the heavy rain) or catch a packed tram that doesn’t really connect to where the buses run, there are things they could have done.

Maybe they should have set up a shuttle bus service along Lonsdale Street to Exhibition St to help people connect with their service?

It probably makes sense to do these works in school holidays, but it’s a myth that everyone’s on holiday for all of January.

Better co-ordination/staggering of works, and some kind of provision for passengers who can’t walk the length of Lonsdale Street certainly wouldn’t go astray.

The Doncaster area may never get a rail line to the City. It’s important that their bus services run as smoothly as possible.


Train/tram punctuality data is delayed again

In Victoria, public transport performance data (in particular reliability aka cancellations, and punctuality aka delays) is “usually published on the 10th of every month.” – or so they claim, anyway.

This typically gives eligible passengers just under 3 weeks to claim compensation. Applications normally close at the end of the month.

But the publication of this data has been getting later and later. I’ve graphed it back to the start of 2018, based on PTV media releases. (For a couple of months, the announcement is not on their web site – I’ve used the date of media reports instead.)

The last time they delivered the data by the 10th was September’s figures in October.

The publication of November data on 19th December set a new record. And the December data? As of 5pm today, the 17th of January, it’s not out yet – so it’s at least a week late. (Update: published on 20th January.)

When they publish the information late, are they allowing more time to claim? Nope.

How long does it take to publish this data? Unclear – there may be some manual collation and adjustment that has to take place, including dispensations for events outside the operators’ control.

But keep in mind that some data is published daily by PTV, and the operators certainly use near-real-time data internally.

It’s bad enough that public transport services are delayed, but it’s pretty poor form when even their punctuality data is delayed.

If this is going to keep happening, then at the very least they should allow more time for compensation claims. (Really it should be automatic. They use Myki data to reject claims. They could use it to find eligible passengers.)

Bentleigh station train delays

But at least train and tram data is published.

Bus punctuality and reliability data is not normally public, despite it having been automatically collected via GPS since 2016 (no doubt the same systems supporting real-time information).

Taxpayers fund the transport network to the tune of billions of dollars every year, much of it paid to private operators.

Obviously the investment in these services brings huge benefits to society… but transparency is also important. We have a right to know how well the public transport network is performing.

Update 20/1/2020: the December results have finally been published. The graph above has been revised.
Yarra Trams is paying compensation to eligible passengers, and – apparently due to the late publication – Passengers have until 10 February to apply for performance compensation.


Ten years of Myki in Melbourne

Happy birthday Myki!

Yesterday marked ten years since the Myki system’s implementation in Melbourne. It was switched on for Melbourne trains on 29th December 2009.

The roll-out and first ten years of operation ended up costing a whopping $1.5 billion. The only Australian system of comparable size, NSW’s Opal system, was a little bit cheaper, but is still the same order of magnitude. My conclusion is that the size of the system (number of devices, and all the supporting infrastructure) is a more important determinant of cost than anything else.

Currently there’s a $700 million, 7 year contract in place to keep Myki running and for the current round of upgrades.

(If you’re wondering, the $100 million a year of costs is more than covered by fare revenue, which the PTV Annual Report says topped $900 million in 2018-19.)

After a very shaky start, and a long protracted roll-out that took more than four years (from regional town buses in early 2009 to V/Line in 2013), the Myki system has improved over time – and I suspect most passengers have become accustomed to its quirks.

But there definitely is still room for improvement, even without wholesale re-engineering of the system.

New Myki signage on trams, October 2015

How can Myki be made better?

Here are a few issues that should still be fixed:

Passes are confusing, and can result in passengers who travel every day paying more than necessary. This should be replaced by a Myki Money weekly cap, which was originally promised. (Monthly too? Perhaps.)

With readers often awkwardly located, touch-on and touch-off sounds should be made different so it is easier to identify that the card has been touched successfully, and in the intended manner. Sounds should also be consistent across Myki reader types, and made louder so they are easily audible in noisy environments. (There’s no need for them to beep once or twice depending on the type of ticket. Nobody uses this.)

Myki reader speeds are inconsistent. New faster readers have been deployed at many stations, and increasingly on buses and trams as well, which is a big improvement. (Thank you, open architecture.)

It would be good to know if this roll-out is going to eventually replace all of the older readers. Their response times were never acceptably fast and consistent – and are probably why the terminology changed from “scan” to “touch”.

The new readers either don’t display the card balance/expiry, or display it so small that it can barely be read. I know they’re trying to ensure people don’t dawdle at station gates, but some people now never see their card Pass expiry.

Mobile Myki: touching at a reader

Myki Mobile for iPhone would be a big plus – take-up on Android seems to have been reasonably good, despite some glitches, but making it available for iPhone mean almost all mobile phone users have the option.

If this can be achieved, arguably being able to use credit cards directly on the system (as in London and Sydney, both using variants of the same system) becomes less important.

Fare anomalies need to be fixed. This is not strictly a Myki issue, but the result of years of governments of both stripes fiddling with the fare system – first getting rid of zone 3, then making zone 1 and 2 an almost flat fare. The result is that Melbourne to Lara (58km) cost $4.40; to the next stop at Corio (64km) is $12 (peak). That’s completely ridiculous, and encourages people to drive across Geelong to Lara station before catching their train.

Expansion to the rest of V/Line would be useful, to make train usage beyond the commuter belt easier. This was originally the plan, but was “de-scoped” by the Baillieu government in 2011. I suspect there are probably issues getting Myki to handle First Class and seat reservations, which is why it was decided it was all too hard.

Free mode. Myki readers need this for the now regular bus replacement operations, to prevent issues with passengers touching-on when they don’t need to, and for regular free travel periods such as Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. (They might still need to be partly functional to cater for touch-off for people ending their trips, for instance just after 6pm when free rides start on New Year’s Eve.)

Myki reader on Christmas Day
Myki Reader prompting users to Touch Here on Christmas Day

Tickets for occasional users need to be easier to get. Single use tickets were also originally planned for the system, and de-scoped in 2011, along with tram vending machines.

Admittedly there’s some benefit from not having single use tickets – it reduces litter and waste, and encourages repeat use – but only if you can convince people to get a card in the first place. If not, the system remains a barrier to new public transport users.

Remember, concession cards can’t be obtained through the vending machines, which are the only option at unstaffed stations.

Are the cards sufficiently available for tourists? Can the refund system be improved?

And what to do about the lack of touch-on opportunities for tram users?

All this becomes less important if both major mobile phone operating systems can use Mobile Myki.

Myki billboard advertising, February 2014

Fix the web site. Most of it (including the overall look and feel) hasn’t been changed since it was originally released. Still the same tiny fonts and non-mobile-friendly layout.

And there’s idiotic stuff still on the web site: When you purchase a Myki Pass online, the default selection is Zone 1 to Zone 1, which would also be the most popular option. Leaving that default returns an error: This myki pass is not available at this time. Please select another and try again.

What does that error mean? It’s because since 2015 you’ve had to buy Zone 1+2 (for the same price). Why not either tell you that, or automatically change the selection?

The same page has a “Which zones do I need to travel in?” link. This goes to a PDF with another link in it, to a page which doesn’t actually tell you anything about which zones you need to travel in.

Myki receipts, Flinders Street station

Oh well, at least they got rid of the compulsory (and often unwanted) Myki machine receipts.

What else would you fix?

  • Remember, fares go up on 1st January. If you use Myki Pass and want to beat the price rise, buy a Pass before then. Your card can hold your current Pass and your next Pass.

The mess that is Chadstone buses on Boxing Day – 2019 edition

It’s time for my annual blog post about the mess that is Boxing Day public transport at Chadstone.

It happens every year at Chadstone and the other big shopping centres: hordes of shoppers descend. Demand fills the car parks, which spills onto the access roads, delaying buses.

Demand also fills the buses to bursting. And because of traffic congestion, some buses actually get diverted away from the shopping centres, making the whole thing worse.

Here’s Channel 9’s story. (Yes there’s some of my footage in here.)

So was anything different this time?

Good points

A key difference this year was the addition of extra Oakleigh to Chadstone express shuttle buses. Funded by Chadstone themselves for the summer, these seemed to be plentiful. And although Oakleigh station is undergoing refurbishment which means it’s difficult to get between the bus interchange and the Citybound platform, the shuttles were frequent and well used, taking some of the load off the other routes.

Queue for 900 bus, and Oakleigh extra bus, Chadstone on Boxing Day

Last year’s bus priority from Warrigal Road to the bus interchange appeared to be the same, and again worked well. Buses avoided trying to enter via Dandenong Road, and came in from the east – longer for some, but they got a good run once inside Chadstone’s property.

There has been minor infrastructure changes that allow all bus bays to be used, meaning the confusing temporary arrangements from years gone by don’t have to be enacted.

Bad points

Buses from Warrigal Road still queue at traffic lights to enter the bus interchange. Given all routes were diverting via Warrigal Road, this meant more far delays than necessary. It should be obvious that the lights need to prioritise buses over other traffic.

Worse, the problem of buses having to enter, loop around, exit and re-enter the bus interchange (with long waits twice at the traffic lights) just to get to their bay still affects some routes, for example the 900 towards Caulfield, one of the busiest. See below.

Chadstone: how the 900 bus reaches its bus bay (during Boxing Day diversions)

While the Oakleigh shuttles helped, other routes were still overwhelmed by demand. The 625 I caught to Chadstone was 10-15 minutes late, and standing room only from Oakleigh.

There was heavy traffic on the Dandenong Road approach to the centre, from the east, and a bus driver told me it was the same on Warrigal Road from the north.

When I got to the centre, I watched for a while as a queue for the 900 to Caulfield grew longer and longer, and the bus got later and later. It eventually arrived 28 minutes late, and was so crowded that people were left behind and had to wait for the next one.

See it in this short video below. (For some buses, passengers decided to board at both doors. When the 900 arrived, they all patiently queued, meaning it took some minutes for the bus to load.)

What needs to happen

I’ve covered all this in the previous posts, but really, what’s needed includes:

  • Extra buses on route services, not just the Oakleigh to Chadstone specials
  • Spare buses to cover for delayed services (similar to the “Block car” occasionally used by the trams)
  • Better on-road priority for buses approaching the centre
  • Ensure buses get priority at the traffic lights in and out of the bus interchange – and longer term make changes so buses don’t need to loop around it so much to reach their bays
  • Better on-the-ground advice for passengers – it might be quicker for some to connect to trains on the Dandenong line via the Oakleigh shuttles or walk to Hughesdale station
  • Improved pedestrian access to Poath Road. Hughesdale station is only a ten minute walk away, but is via a pedestrian-hostile not-very-direct route that’s hard to find

Ultimately, the State Government and Chadstone management needs to take public transport seriously, starting with more frequent services on all routes. It’s a planned major event every year. So plan it.

More people on buses and other public transport means fewer in cars clogging up the roads and the car parks.

It’s not just Boxing Day – weekend bus frequencies are appalling – mostly hourly – on most Melbourne bus routes all the year round.

And it’s not just Chadstone – many big shopping centres suffer these same problems.

Southland now has its station. Eastland and some of the others also have rail access. Southland station is busy, and for passengers travelling parallel to the rail line, means reaching the centre is now easy, expanding Southland’s catchment beyond the constraints of its car parks.

How – especially in the short term – can the same be achieved for Chadstone and other centres?


Geelong via Fishermans Bend?

This plan got splashed onto the Age front page on Friday:

Tunnel link mulled for Geelong fast trains

Of course if you were paying very, very careful attention, this wasn’t a complete surprise. The eventual shift of Geelong trains back to Newport and the Metro 2 tunnel was included in a document leaked in 2018, and has been floating around as a way of helping capacity constraints for the proposed Airport line.

Victorian Rail Plan - leaked version October 2018 - Stage 6

So what do we know? Nobody official is willing to speak on-the-record, but as far as I can make out, the proposal is:

  • New express tracks from Werribee to Newport for Geelong trains (it appears the recent Aviation Road bridge includes provision for this)
  • Geelong trains would then join Werribee trains to run through the proposed Metro 2 tunnel underneath the Yarra, to Fishermans Bend (one or two stations, probably two) then to Southern Cross
  • Werribee trains continue through the City via Flagstaff, Parkville, Carlton and Fitzroy then through to the Mernda line
  • Geelong trains also continue through the City with stabling around the vicinity of Thornbury
  • There’d be a rejig of Newport station and surrounds to separate the Werribee and Geelong trains (heading into the tunnel) from the Laverton/Altona Loop and Williamstown trains (heading to the City via Yarraville and Footscray)
  • Geelong trains using the tunnel obviously need to be electric, not diesel. This means either the tracks need to be electrified all the way to Geelong, or a bi-modal (diesel and electric) train fleet used for Geelong services.

What about other lines?

This proposed change would mean Wyndham Vale and Tarneit would be served by local services – hopefully electrified along with the Melton line (and separate Ballarat express tracks) to provide higher frequency, higher capacity trains than at present.

The Werribee line could be extended slightly to provide interchange with the Wyndham Vale line, assisting connectivity.

(It’s unclear how the Suburban Rail Loop would interact with the Wyndham Vale line given SRL is meant to be a standalone railway. My view is the SRL, when eventually built, should go by a completely different route, helping to spark transit-oriented development in the outer west.)

Long distance Warrnambool trains would either need to terminate in Geelong, requiring passengers to change services, or run to Melbourne on the aboveground line via Wyndham Vale and Sunshine.

V/Line train at Werribee (August 2012)

How fast would it be from Geelong to Melbourne?

The fastest current inbound service is scheduled to take 58 minutes – the 7:50am from Geelong, stops at North Geelong, North Shore, Corio, Lara, then express to Wyndham Vale, express to Sunshine, Footscray, Southern Cross. But most inbound trains take around 70 minutes, with more stations served.

Let’s assume trains with similar patterns instead will stop at Werribee (for connections) then two stops in Fishermans Bend and then Southern Cross, and assume they could maintain a maximum speed of 160 km/h as far as Newport, then 80 in the tunnel.

  • Geelong to Werribee would take about 25 mins, same as the above train to Wyndham Vale
  • Werribee to Newport (21km) would take about 8 mins, plus 1 min for the stop at Werribee = 9 mins
  • Newport to Southern Cross with two stops along the way, say about 9 mins
  • That’s 43 minutes in all, with 7 intermediate stops in all. Quite a bit faster than today (a 26% time saving), and that’s without pushing the maximum speed over 160.
  • That’s also assuming the new trains would have similar acceleration and braking to the current V/Locity fleet. But electric trains could be quite a bit better.
Waiting to board a Geelong train at Southern Cross, PM peak

Pros and cons

Advantages of this plan (particularly over the Sunshine to City tunnel idea)

  • Speeds up Geelong to Melbourne services quite a lot – without the enormous expense and disruption of completely re-engineering the line for actual High Speed Rail
  • Relieves capacity on the RRL line – which serves Wyndham Vale, Ballarat/Melton, and Bendigo – and may provide enough relief to run Airport trains as well, especially if Melton and Wyndham Vale become Metro services using the suburban tracks
  • Avoids disruptive track amplification between Deer Park and Wydham Vale – apparently some bridges and cuttings need work to handle 4 tracks
  • Speeds up Werribee and Mernda suburban services and provides access to Fishermans Bend, Carlton, Fitzroy as well as capacity on the Werribee, Altona, Williamstown, Mernda and Hurstbridge lines – see this article last year on other benefits of Metro 2
  • Potential for a bus/train interchange in Fitzroy so that DART/Eastern Freeway bus passengers can complete their CBD commute by train rather than slow buses stuck in traffic (leaving aside potential for a Doncaster train)
  • Fast cross-town connections from the west could include one-seat journeys for trips such as Geelong to Flagstaff or Parkville – and indeed from the Geelong/Werribee corridor to Fishermans Bend, currently a big weakness of public transport compared to driving
  • New underground platforms and pathways at Southern Cross could help relieve passenger congestion there

The are a few disadvantages of course.

  • Despite what The Age’s article says, I think there’s no way you’d send Geelong trains back via Newport without a tunnel for them to reach the City
  • It’d be expensive. Tunnels never come cheap
  • Does not inherently speed up the Ballarat and Bendigo lines, though the capacity boost would have a positive effect on punctuality
  • Mixing Geelong and Werribee trains on the same tunnel tracks may have issues. Probably made a lot easier if there are 4 platforms at Southern Cross to help deal with CBD dwell times
  • Ditto Geelong and longer distance trains if they end up sharing some of the same tracks
  • Equally, capacity on the Sunshine to City corridor needs to be carefully managed, especially if Airport trains join the mix
  • If sticking to maximum speeds of 160 km/h, it postpones the development of actual high speed rail

What have I missed?

Melbourne-bound train approaches Geelong station

Tunnel vs tunnel

I’m sure the debate will continue between the merits of a Sunshine to City tunnel against other proposals, including Geelong via Metro 2.

Some of the arguments coming from the Committee for Ballarat are a little odd – including repeated claims that their trains get caught behind slow Metro services – something that hasn’t happened since 2015 when RRL opened.

In a discussion on Twitter with a Ballarat Courier journo, it was clarified that the paper at least is referring to outer-suburban V/Line stations between Sunshine and Melton. This is an important issue, but not one resolved by a Sunshine to City tunnel – it’s better fixed by track quadruplication between Sunshine and Melton – something also needed for the Bendigo line between Sunshine and Sunbury. And further cutting travel times can be achieved by duplicating the rest of the line to remove single track bottlenecks.

Compared with the Sunshine tunnel proposal, a key advantage of Metro 2 is that it doesn’t just parallel existing tracks – it expands the footprint of the heavy rail network, which is why I think it’s a better plan.

For these expensive projects, the more boxes they tick, the better.


Disruption calendars – Vic can do better

For the big summer works blitz, the Department of Transport has an online calendar showing which lines are affected on which days.

This is good, because it’s much more legible than their usual confusing lists of lines and days.

DOT disruption calendar

It includes up to mid-February 2020. The January closures were announced on 21st November, so the disruptions were flagged 6 weeks in advance.

This is an improvement – and allows some people a fighting chance to arrange leave to avoid the works period.

Works notices at Melbourne Central

How do other jurisdictions compare?

Transperth has a calendar currently showing closures up to the end of January 2020.

Transport For New South Wales publishes a 3 month calendar – it’s currently showing closures up to February 2020.

Queensland Rail publishes a 12 month calendar – it’s currently showing closures up to July 2020.

Further afield, UK’s Network Rail has a searchable calendar showing disruptions up to March 2020.

Transport for London (including London Underground) has a calendar that shows disruptions for months in advance – it’s unclear if all planned works have been entered, but TfL Rail (aka Crossrail, which is partially open) shows disruptions listed as far ahead as April 2020.

Washington Metro has a list of works up to February 2020.

New York City’s subway lists disruptions up to March 2020.

Back in Melbourne, the fact that passengers can see disruptions as far as mid-February is a big step forward.

But that level of advance warning is unfortunately not routine, and it should be – for more than just the “special case” Gippsland line.

Some major Melbourne rail closures are already planned well into 2020.

For instance, the Upfield line, is expecting a three month partial closure for level crossing removals. I understand this will commence in August.

If they published this information well in advance, there could be a caveat: maybe works would move by a week or two, or the scope of the closure might change a bit closer the date. And smaller weekend-only closures might have to be moved or added with less advance notice.

But often rail closures are locked in months in advance. So why not warn people so they can plan ahead?


More bustitution thoughts

In the mainstream media, they have word limits. Even online, they have to keep it succinct. Blogs have no such limits, so I apologise not only for revisiting this topic again, but also for rambling on so long.

Bustitution looms again over the summer, with large scale rail closures on the Mernda line underway now, and the Cranbourne/Pakenham, Gippsland and Frankston lines to be replaced by buses for almost all of January, and more around the network right through 2020.

(There are so many closures coming up on the Frankston line that one senior transport bod jokingly suggested: “Have you considered moving?”)

So here’s a braindump of a few points about planned bus replacements.

Divide and conquer

A big factor when designing bus replacement routes is the sheer number of people who catch trains – even on weekends and in the evenings.

One of the ways they manage this is to split the buses up into separate routes, to speed up journeys, and so that not everybody crowds onto one route.

For instance with the current Mernda line closure, the bus routes are:

  • Stopping all stations Thornbury to South Morang (“S”)
  • Express Thornbury to Keon Park, then all stations to Epping (Limited Express “L1”)
  • Express Thornbury to Epping, then all stations to Mernda (Limited Express “L2”)

It’s the same when other lines close: there are often multiple bus routes replacing the trains. It can be confusing, but it’s much more efficient.

But they do need to communicate this well. More on this later.

Express bus signage at the Limited Express bus stop

Shorter = better?

This ties into something else. I used to think the length of the bus replacements needed to be minimised, above all else.

I’m not so sure now that it’s that black and white.

During Frankston line closures a couple of weeks ago, we had buses:

  • All stations to Caulfield
  • Express City to Moorabbin – (Express “E”)
  • Express City to Caulfield, then all stops to Moorabbin (Limited Express “L”)

This meant that only people travelling beyond Moorabbin needed to change services, which can mean an extra wait, especially if connecting from frequent bus to sometimes not-so-frequent train. The rest of the passengers got a one-seat trip on the bus.

For inbound passengers, not having so many people change from trains to buses minimises the risk of long waits like we saw last Easter at Caulfield, with thousands of people shuffling in the queue for an hour or more just to get on a bus. Instead, the bus boarding is shared between multiple locations.

Of course, ferrying at least some passengers people from the closed line over to another line that’s running can also be an option, preferably with extra train services deployed to help cope. But this is difficult in some parts of Melbourne, where it’s a long way to the neighbouring rail line.

Obviously it’s a balancing act, and each decision has consequences that authorities may or may not be able to quickly adapt to – but should at least inform the next round of planning.

Unfortunately some lessons have been lost over time.

Sunbury line bustitution: bus lanes

Buses must have priority

It should go without saying that no matter what the combination of routes, whether they run smoothly or not depends very much on the use of bus priority measures.

During recent works on the Sunbury/Ballarat/Bendigo/Geelong lines, buses were taking ludicrous amounts of time between Sunshine and the City.

Back when Regional Rail Link was being built, buses got priority along Ballarat Road, and fed into trains at Flemington Racecourse. It’s unclear why this time instead of repeating that winning formula, they ignored it and put people on slow buses all the way to the City.

The result this time? A lot of passengers gave up and either drove – making the traffic problems even worse – or switched to other rail lines – I’m told Werribee loads jumped by as much as 30%, adding to crowding and delays on that line.

Rail replacement buses at Caulfield during level crossing works

Information: Where are the stops?

Despite the problems, in many ways they’re getting better at these operations, but there are still slip-ups.

A couple of weeks ago I knew I’d be travelling home from the City on a Friday night, which coincided with a weekend of bus replacements on my line – from the City to Moorabbin (and also out to Westall).

Okay – forewarned is forearmed. So where in the CBD would I need to catch my bus? The bus variants were:

  • All stations to Caulfield
  • Express City to Moorabbin – aka “Express”
  • Express City to Caulfield, then all stops to Moorabbin – aka “Limited Express” – this is what I wanted.

The stop information was far too difficult to find. It was actually contradictory.

The bus frequency poster PDF reckoned catch the bus from Flinders Street – with no detail as to precisely where. (Fed Square/Russell Street? Arts Centre? They’re hundreds of metres apart.)

There was a separate detailed list of bus stops, which said I should catch it in Spring Street near Parliament. And there was mention of a third location, in between: in Flinders Street near Exhibition Street.

I wanted to minimise my travel time. (Who doesn’t?) But what to believe?

Asking Metro on Twitter, they replied that they’d depart from Parliament. Or possibly Flinders/Exhibition. Right… This was not helpful.

Eventually after some prodding, someone at Metro and/or PTV realised the mistake, and started correcting the information on the web site. The Limited Express buses would depart from the Arts Centre.

But the advice was still confusing for some Cranbourne/Pakenham people, who ended up going to Parliament, as per the notices, only to be told they were in the wrong place.

And I heard of another Frankston line person who also went to Parliament, was then somehow told to go to Richmond (by train), ended up on an all-stations bus from there to Caulfield, then onto another bus to Patterson. Total travel time: about 90 minutes for a trip that should take about 30.

This type of stuff is ridiculous – and it’s not even an operational issue – it’s poor information provided to passengers.

It’s hard enough trying to convince people that they should take the bus when the trains are out, without mucking them about like this.

Being clearer

Even if the information is absolutely correct, some of it is presented in the most incomprehensible manner.

Some of the prominent information is the bus frequency guides, which are just a mess. This is one of the simpler ones.

Mernda line - bus replacement frequency poster

This is just too hard to read, yet is the most common type of detailed poster out on the system during closures.

They’d do far better, I think, to remove the frequency information, which is in the online timetables – and is misleading anyway, as apart from a base frequency, despatchers send additional buses into service when queues emerge.

Instead, focus the most important information: the different bus route stopping pattern variants, which really should be shown more prominently – rather than the diagram which implies every bus stops at every station.

Spot the difference

It turns out there are different staffing arrangements when it’s project upgrade works (such as level crossing removals or the Metro tunnel) versus routine maintenance works.

For the former, they put temp staff at the bus stops to provide travel information and assistance. For the latter… they mostly don’t.

Because apparently passengers need help when the line is closed for project works, but don’t if the line is closed for maintenance.


Finally: they still haven’t resolved the confusion around fares and ticketing on bus replacement services.

On Metro at least, the bus portion of the trip is normally free: it would be far too slow if people touched on and off, and the Myki system can’t handle the special routes.

But the Myki readers are usually left on, which continually leads to confusion. On one recent ride I heard the bus driver call out “No, don’t touch on!”

This is fighting against years of teaching passengers to touch-on, touch-off.

So why not do it properly?

  • Turn off the Myki readers on the rail replacement buses
  • Even better, if possible, switch them to a special mode that says “Free ride, don’t touch-on” or something similar – also handy for fare free days like Christmas Day
  • Fix the Fares & Ticketing Manual. It still claims you should touch on and off at the station – completely unrealistic and unreasonable given it may be hundreds of metres away, closed, or even in the middle of demolition.
Works notices at Melbourne Central

The need to do better

I apologise again for the length of this article. It got away from me.

But to conclude, there are a lot more of these shutdowns over the coming years.

There are people who avoid using the buses, thanks to experiences of long waits, slow rides, confusing information. If those people drive to their destination instead, it just adds pressure to the overall transport network.

Overall I think rail replacement bus operations are steadily improving, but they still need to do better.

driving transport

King in your car

Tony Abbott, in a way, was right:

“The humblest person is king in his own car.”

Tony Abbott, Battlelines

I can see his point here. I don’t know about them being humble, but (especially as a pedestrian or a cyclist) you see plenty of people in their cars who think they are royalty.

The problem is Abbott believes this should be accommodated and encouraged, by building new roads (no matter how economically flawed) and by not building public transport.

Anyway, I’ve found a strong counter argument to Abbott’s point:

“If you live in your suburban castle, and you only ever go out in your suburban land yacht, and the only humans you ever interact with are clerks, it’s the Target checker or your barista at Starbucks, you lose that sense of sociality – you start thinking of yourself as a driver, as a consumer.

“So what’s good for drivers and consumers? That starts to be how you interact with civic life, through that lens: I’ve got to defend my parking, and my access to my local Starbucks.

“I honestly think that suburban living on a subtle, sort of subterranean level, pulls you in the direction of sociopathy. It pulls you in the direction of antisocial thinking and attitudes.

“And conversely, just being out around among people gives you more of a sense of social solidarity, and more of a sense of being in it, together, and having to accommodate other peoples perspectives.”

David Roberts (Vox) – The War On Cars podcast, episode 24

Is this extreme? Perhaps.

Is it stereotyping people? Yes.

But I think it’s making a really interesting point – and it only takes a few people behaving like this to make life difficult for everybody else.

Vehicles blocking intersection as police officer watches

The podcast contains other moments of gold, including this:

“We think of cities as so crowded, but that’s because almost all of the space in them we’ve given over to cars.”

And this:

“Public space is what makes a city. If you don’t have public space, you just have an urban area.”

Give it a listen.


SRL will be an independent line

One of the things people have been wondering is whether the Suburban Rail Loop will be an integral part of the existing suburban Metro network, or a standalone line.

Suburban Rail Loop

Melbourne’s existing rail network has its origins in the 1854 line from Port Melbourne to Flinders Street (since converted to trams), but also particularly in the electrification of the 1910s and 1920s, to the standards of the time, including 1500 volt DC power.

While the SRL will have many interchanges with the existing network, there’s no particular reason it has to use the same technology.

The State Government announced on Sunday that SRL will indeed be different.

Similar to the NSW decision to make their new Metro line independent of the double-deck suburban lines, the SRL will be completely separate from the suburban network.

From the press release:

It will be built as a separate rail line, meaning it can use state-of-the-art systems from around the world without having to retrofit technology into the existing network – saving time and money.

Passengers will be able to easily transfer across both networks, with the same ticketing system servicing both and up to 12 new stations connecting the existing rail system with the new standalone line.

SRL as a completely separate rail line brings a number of advantages.

Smaller, shorter trains running to higher frequencies can be used – better meeting the non-tidal capacity requirements of a line that doesn’t serve the CBD, while providing real Turn Up And Go services that make interchange from other lines and modes quick and easy.

The key would be to provide infrastructure that makes it possible to easily scale-up capacity as demand grows.

Nobody wants a repeat of the tram 96 situation, where the conversion from high capacity heavy rail to medium capacity light rail, combined with population growth, has seen heavy crowding, with demand swamping the trams.

A segregated fleet means platform screen doors can be used at every station, improving safety.

(Platform screen doors are flagged for the metro tunnel as well, though theoretically could also be retro-fitted at most stations between Sunbury and Cranbourne/Pakenham – with the possible exception of platforms shared with V/Line. And full platform shelter might be required to make it work.)

Singapore MRT: Little India station

Smaller trains may mean a smaller loading gauge, helping to reduce tunnelling costs… or indeed the potential to use standard gauge tracks.

Modern AC power can reduce costs as well – as I understand it, fewer substations are needed compared to the 1500 volt DC power used by suburban trains.

If the line is completely grade separated and independent, it also means driverless trains are possible. Again, the new Sydney Metro line uses these, as do an increasing number of urban train services around the world, including parts of the Singapore MTR, Vancouver’s Skytrain, and London’s DLR.

At this stage the Government seems reluctant to commit to full automation.

Of course there are some disadvantages from using different technology.

Fleets could not be exchanged with other existing Melbourne lines, limiting flexibility. The deployment of new vehicles, and the cascading of others around the network is common on some networks, including Melbourne’s trams.

These types of factors become less important as the network gets bigger. Overall it seems to make sense the way they’re going. The pros outweigh the cons.

I’m more concerned about them adding some intermediate stations (or at least future provision for them) to the longer stretches of the route, to help ensure plenty of people have access to the line.

Given the apparent wish to seek private investment, it would make sense to have stations at some locations which are not already developed to a high density.

There is also a strong argument for including Doncaster in the first section (currently flagged as Cheltenham to Box Hill) given Doncaster is one of Melbourne’s biggest centres with no rail connection.

Provision for a future connection from Cheltenham to the Sandringham line would also make sense.

And there are still questions about the Airport section of the line, connecting through to Sunshine. I suspect Sunday’s announcement means SRL trains will share the alignment with City to Airport trains, but use separate tracks – but given that’s SRL stage 2 or 3, that decision is a long way off.

Docklands Light Rail, London

It’s good to see the Suburban Rail Loop progressing. It looks like we can expect to see construction begin by 2022 – just in time for the next state election.

As it comes into service, it will revolutionise cross-suburban travel by providing fast frequent connections around the middle-distance suburbs – opening up opportunities in jobs and education.

It does mean it becomes even more important to reform and upgrade bus routes and service frequencies to help more people easily reach the rail network.

And building the SRL is not an excuse for not providing 7-day all-day frequent services on the suburban trains – as well as progressing other major rail infrastructure such as Metro 2.

Our growing city needs it all to help more people get around without adding to the traffic.