Illogical obsession

Saturday’s Federal Election result might have been unexpected by many, but it underscores the Coalition’s illogical obsession with East West Link.

Well, illogical from a transport planning perspective that is. Remember, it’s got a business case that says it will lose money – unless you include Wider Economic Benefits with which the Victorian Auditor General had, and I quote: significant issues (of) plausibility.

(This was also a reminder that you can’t always believe everything in business cases.)

It’s not really free money of course. It’s money from taxpayers. It should be spent wisely.

'Lies' #EWLink

Being a money-losing project didn’t stop the Federal Coalition making a pledge of $4 billion for East West Link during the election campaign. Despite their claims, that doesn’t appear to be enough money to pay for it.

The $4b is only the government contribution – as per the 2014 business case. But the amount required is questionable given five years have passed, and there’s been some scope creep thanks to overlap with the WestGate Tunnel, and (perhaps) a proposal last year from the State Coalition to build the eastern tunnel portal further east.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

There’s also the question of whether there’s construction industry capacity to build a third major motorway project (at the same time as WestGate Tunnel and North East Link), alongside numerous level crossing removal projects and the Metro tunnel. Heavy demand tends to drive up prices.

Obviously the Federal Coalition backed EWL yet again because of politics, but it’s not really clear why they remain so obsessed with it, since it didn’t translate into swings to them around Melbourne – apart from in Aston.

Everywhere else in Melbourne, there were swings away from the Coalition – maybe not enough to lose seats, but enough to move a good many electorates into marginal territory.

To be fair on the Feds, they also made a pledge for the Kooyong railway crossing removal – which amazingly isn’t on the State’s list. (The Coalition pledge also included studies for two others: Tooronga Road and Madden Grove). This is good – except that they insist it has to be rail under, because they’ve taken the State Lib line on skyrail… as if an elevated rail line will somehow spoil the view of the nearby elevated tollway.

If the Feds can get over their obsession with EWL – which of course they won’t – there are plenty of other projects they could be contributing to, including other level crossing removals and rail network duplication, which would provide huge benefits.

If they were feeling particularly mischievous, they could take on public transport projects that the State isn’t interested in, such as suburban tram extensions. Some, such as the 75 to Knox and Ferntree Gully, would even reach into the eastern suburbs electorates the Coalition is courting.

Equally there’s an argument that a spirit of genuine cooperation would see the Feds funding projects on Infrastructure Victoria’s short term priority list.

Punt Road traffic during evening peak

It’s not as if Melbourne doesn’t have already enough major road projects underway. Two new tollways is two too many.

Yes, these motorways all have short term travel time benefits, but history shows those won’t last. And there are ways of boosting access and economic activity that aren’t restricted to people who drive and can afford tolls, and don’t so easily get clogged if they are “successful” and people actually use them.

It’s worth noting that every time the EWL has been taken to an election, it’s lost: Kennett in 1999, Brumby in 2010, Napthine in 2014 (despite the side letter, which is what triggered the huge bill for cancelling it), and Guy in 2018.

And now 2019. It seems the Coalition hasn’t yet learnt their lesson.

Weekend traffic

A short rant.

It’s Saturday, and I’m driving in heavy traffic.

I’m making a trip that’s impractical using any other mode, alongside thousands of others, many also making trips impractical using any other mode.

It’s not about options along that particular stretch of road. It’s about the whole transport network, supporting people’s trips end to end.

On an overpass I see a train go by. It’s so crowded people are standing. Weekend frequency on that line: 20 to 30 minutes.

If a road suffered 20 minute delays, it would be shown on real-time maps as a major delay. On Melbourne’s rail network, that’s the standard wait between trains on Saturday on most lines, and has been for decades. And they’re crowded.

And 20 minutes is a good frequency on the weekend PT network. Most suburban bus routes are hourly. An hour in the car is a long trip, but it’s the wait just between buses for so many areas.

Weekend traffic

Decades of road building made suburbs car dependent. Decades of neglect and cutbacks in public transport left no other options. Weekend traffic congestion in our city is a totally expected outcome.

As I drive, I look at all the cars, my own included, stuck in the traffic, all burning energy. It just makes me angry.

Giving people viable options is not about billion-dollar infrastructure. Better infrastructure helps (especially in the areas of walking, cycling and tram accessibility), but the biggest change needed (whether money is spent on infrastructure or not) to just get PT running more frequently right through the day, every day.

All possible with the current assets.

As it stands, if they ran the road system like they do public transport, two-thirds of freeway and arterial traffic lanes would be shut outside peak hours.

Waits of 20, 30, 60 minutes are simply not good enough for a city of our size.

Fixing it in every suburb, not just some, will provide options, and more people off the roads.

But when will the decision makers do it?

Update Monday 11am: the Victorian Parliamentary Budget Office has published a cost estimate of a Greens policy: trains and trams boosted to every 10 minutes until 9pm, 7 days-a-week. For trains this came out at around $200m per year (less $50m additional fare revenue). For trams about $50m per year (less $10m additional fare revenue).

Nobody wants to doubt the PBO, but the train figure in particular is higher than some other estimates – for instance Infrastructure Victoria came up with $150-185m “on the basis of service kilometres alone”, but transport insiders believe it would be far lower.

Did the PBO simply try to extrapolate out existing per kilometre costs as IV did, ignoring that existing assets would be used, and some staff (for instance on stations) don’t need to be boosted to run more trains? Unfortunately it’s not really clear from the document.

Update Tuesday 7:30am: The Age: Trains, trams every 10-minutes on every line to cost just $200m a year

More information = good

Wednesday morning’s commute for me was one of those made easier via good quality real-time information.

My usual train was cancelled. I knew this before I left the house thanks to checking the PTV app.

The app also told me that other trains were delayed. It was going to be a messy commute. Bleugh.

Sometimes in morning peak when there is a cancellation, you can backtrack from Bentleigh to Moorabbin and pick up an express train that gets you into the City sooner than if you just waited at Bentleigh. (It’s a trick that probably applies at a few other places on the network, and incurs no fare penalty now that Zone 1+2 costs the same as Zone 1.)

The app lets you check departures at any station. Checking Moorabbin told me that no, this trickery wasn’t going to help today.

At Bentleigh station the screens and announcements confirmed the delays.

Bentleigh station train delays

The next train arrived – heavily delayed, and crowded as expected. Completely packed? No. But with another six stops before the City (not served by other trains) it’s not hard to predict that there were sardine times ahead.

Crucially – the screens on the platform confirmed what the announcements were saying: another train was 4 minutes behind it.

Some of us on the platform used this information to decide to wait and catch the following train, which was near-empty as it had just started its trip. Scored a seat! Much better than being in a crush-loaded train a few minutes earlier.

This kind of real-time information can make a big difference to your trip. So why isn’t it provided more widely?

New Passenger Information Displays at Moorabbin

The good news is: there’s progress. The design seen last year at some stations is now appearing at more locations – recently at Parkdale, Moorabbin, Balaclava, Malvern, some of the platforms at Caulfield, and no doubt others.

The app is helpful too of course – for trams and buses as well. And apart from the official PTV app, a few others have real-time departure information fed from the same API.

But even if you’re not inclined to check an app, hopefully the improved screens are coming to your station soon!

Good information can’t fix delays or undo cancellations, but it can help passengers make the most of a bad situation.

Old photos from April 2009

Another in my series of old ten year old photos.

This turned out to be a bit of a bumper crop – a few months before I’d got the Nokia N95 phone, my first with a decent camera, so perhaps no surprise the number of photos was increasing.

Melbourne’s first wind-powered tram had launched in 2008. Note the “Gone With The Wind” reference, and the pre-platform “safety zone” Elizabeth Street (at Bourke Street) tram stop.

Elizabeth Street tram, April 2009

Bentleigh – directional signage for bus drivers. This one for rail replacement buses inbound into the City.

Connex bus sign, April 2009

A trip down to Geelong one Saturday…

Geelong station, April 2009

…to visit the special Myki Shop in Ryrie Street, so I could try it for the first time.

Myki shop in Geelong, April 2009

I got to try out a Myki card, which you can read about here. I also came home with these amusing Myki wristbands, I guess to get The Kids on-side with the concept. Note the “scan on, scan off” messaging which later became “touch on, touch off” when they realised just how slow the first generation readers are.

Myki wrist bands, April 2009

Spotted in Footscray: a special bus stop for Regional Fast Rail project rail replacement coaches. RFR had finished about five years earlier.

V/Line bus stop sign at Footscray, April 2009

An excursion to the in-laws farm. Like many farm practices, burning off a field was a bit of an eye-opener for this city boy.

Burning off at the farm, April 2009

Federation Square. Note the pre-renovation mustard colour of Flinders Street Station.

Federation Square, April 2009

Flinders Street from another angle, showing the red Tourist Shuttle (not a shuttle) bus that was funded by the inner-city parking levy. When the bus was free, it could be quite crowded, but was virtually unused once they introduced a $5 fare.

Tourist shuttle bus, Flinders Street, April 2009

The Parkiteer cage at Brighton Beach Station was getting plenty of use, as was the fence outside. Prior to 2015, a lot of people from further out would use zone boundary stations like Brighton Beach to avoid paying a Zone 1+2 fare which was about 55% higher than just Zone 1.

Parkiteer bike cage, Brighton Beach, April 2009

The old Bentleigh station in the autumn fog.

Bentleigh station, April 2009

Also at Bentleigh station, where walkway crowding was becoming an issue, authorities made an effort to discourage bike parking.

Bentleigh station - don't park your bike here

Connex introduced its trial layout Comeng train, with a mini-launch for stakeholders one lunchtime. It had fewer seats; similar to later changes made across the fleet by Metro in 2015-16.

2009 Connex demonstration train layout
2009 Connex demonstration train layout

I got Connex’s Lanie Harris to introduce the new layout.

The students are revolting! I don’t recall how big this protest was.

2009 fare protest poster

One of the contenders for the prize of most confusing bus route was the 627. It has since been split into two separate routes, and is much easier to understand. This was one of few recommendations of the 2010 bus reviews that actually got implemented.

The old route 627 - confusing

Finally, this moron in Bourke Street.

Moron in Bourke Street

Some Night Buses barely used

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.

PTV Night Bus Network 2016

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.

RouteDescription2016-17 tota boardingsOutbound frequencyPassengers per weekendPassengers per service
941City, Footscray, Sunshine North, Taylors Lakes, Watergardens1,39860202
942City, Footscray, Sunshine, Deer Park, St Albans3,20560542.7
943Watergardens, Caroline Springs, Melton7076080.57
944City, Newport, Altona, Altona Meadows, Point Cook2,38730381.31
945City, Geelong Road, Tarneit, Hoppers Crossing, Werribee, Wyndham Vale3,23630512.13
951City, Moonee Ponds, Brunswick West, Pascoe Vale, Glenroy2,43230461.77
952City, Footscray, Maribyrnong, Airport West, Gladstone Park, Broadmeadows3,64830602.14
953Broadmeadows, Meadow Heights, Roxburgh Park, Craigieburn1166020.13
955City, Brunswick, Ivanhoe, Bundoora, Mill Park, South Morang, Mernda3,00330481.6
961City, Collingwood, Eastern Freeway, Templestowe, Doncaster5,50730821.95
963Ringwood, Mooroolbark, Lilydale906020.1
964Croydon, Kilsyth, Mt Evelyn, Lilydale676020.1
965Lilydale, Woori Yallock, Healesville loop43512060.75
966City, Kew, Doncaster Road, Box Hill2,12330451.67
967Glen Waverley, Burwood Highway, Bayswater (returns via Bayswater North, Ferntree Gully)4486080.36
969City, Caulfield, Ferntree Gully Road, Rowville, Wantirna, Ringwood3,66330742.64
970Carrum, Frankston, Mornington, Rosebud1,39460140.52
978Elsternwick, Ormond, Huntingdale, Mulgrave, Dandenong (returns via Princes Highway)1,09060140.7
979Elsternwick, Bentleigh, Clarinda, Keysborough, Dandenong5416060.3
981Dandenong, Berwick, Narre Warren South, Cranbourne2136030.17
982Dandenong, Endeavour Hills, Hampton Park, Cranbourne3436050.28
ALL NIGHT BUSES36,0465881.26
701Oakleigh – 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 trip 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 Bus 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.

#Melbourne, you're looking lovely tonight


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.