The bus to F/Staff Stat via Royal Bot Gdns

There are undoubted challenges to writing information that has to fit into a limited space.

Here’s one I noticed recently where perhaps they haven’t got the balance quite right.

Bus route 605 was recently changed at its City end, to run via the Botanic Gardens, Southbank and Queen Street to Flagstaff Station, instead of the old route via Flinders, Queen, Lonsdale and Exhibition Streets.

Bus 605 route map from 2017

What’s with the southern end of the map, going off in two directions at once? From the timetable it appears that outbound it goes along Gardenvale Road, and terminates near Nepean Highway. But inbound it starts on North Road, some distance away – presumably the bus runs empty from the outbound terminus to the starting point. Perhaps they kick all the passengers off on Gardenvale Road? It would seem more logical to run this, and show it on the map, as a loop, as at the City end.

Anyway, this modified route resulted in some interesting abbreviations on the destination display.

Citybound it’s going to “F/STAFF STAT”.

Is this very meaningful to people? I’d have thought simply “Flagstaff” means more to Melburnians. True that can mean the station or the gardens, but they are adjacent to each other.

You could also abbreviate Station to Stn, though this can be problematic if rendered in low resolution capitals – STN can be misread as STH (South).

(The terminating stop is actually half a block from Flagstaff Station, but that’s probably quibbling — more people would know where the station is than the County Court, which is actually where the stop is.)

Bus 605 at Queensbridge

In both directions, the bus is going via “ROYAL BOT GDNS”.

Edit: Some buses have smaller displays, meaning it’s further abbreviated to “ROY BOT GDNS”.

Reminding people that it runs via the Botanic Gardens would have been important when transitioning to the new route. But I’m not sure this is very clear.

Perhaps it should have said via “Botanic Gardens”? Or choose another nearby landmark and simply say “Shrine”?

Not that this bus route specifically should be singled-out.

For decades, southbound 78 trams proclaimed they were going to “Prahran”, which they pass through about 2km before terminating down in Balaclava. They now say “Balaclava via Prahran”.

Squeezing information that is meaningful yet brief is an ongoing challenge for public transport destination boards, so I’m sure there are other destinations and abbreviations around the place that are a little vague.

What potentially confusing ones have you seen?

Public transport compo: what is the threshold?

If you’re confused about tram and train compensation thresholds, you’re not the only one.

PTV announced earlier this month that:

PTV CEO Jeroen Weimar said both Metro and Yarra Trams narrowly missed their new targets for punctuality in February, but met their targets for reliability.

PTV’s web site has figures for February 2018 that clearly show that of the three major operators — Metro, Yarra Trams and V/Line — all failed to meet their punctuality targets:

PTV: February 2018 performance

As shown in this Transport For Victoria info graphic, the performance targets changed in the new contract.

The target we’re interested in right now, punctuality, went up to 92% for Metro, and 82% for Yarra Trams:

Transport For Victoria: new performance targets from December 2017

Trams in Flinders Street

What about the compo?

Okay, so if Metro and Yarra Trams missed their targets, can you claim compensation?

It turns out no, you can’t. If you go looking on the Metro or Yarra Trams web sites, nowhere does it mention that compensation is payable for February.

Why is this? I sought clarification from PTV.

It turns out the target is different to the compensation threshold.


Punctuality target Compensation threshold February 2018
Metro 92.0% 90.0% 91.8%
Yarra Trams 82.0% 79.0% 81.7%
V/Line 92.0% 92.0% 82.7%

(Previous punctuality thresholds: Metro 88%, Yarra Trams 77%)


Reliability target Compensation threshold February 2018
Metro 98.5% 98.0% 98.8%
Yarra Trams 98.5% 98.0% 98.7%
V/Line 96.0% 96.0% 96.3%

(Previous reliability thresholds: Metro 98%, Yarra Trams 98%, eg unchanged)

So as you can see, Metro and Yarra Trams beat the reliability and punctuality thresholds, even if they didn’t quite meet the punctuality targets. (Only V/Line is paying compensation for February.)

It’s also apparently the thresholds, not the targets, that trigger financial penalties.

So in this case, even though Metro and Yarra Trams missed their punctuality targets… the only consequence appears to have been a light public berating by PTV.

Smartbus vs train: What’s faster for orbital travel?

One of the promises of the orbital Smartbus routes was to cater for crosstown travel.

The Bracks Government’s 2006 Meeting Our Transport Challenges document said this:

The Government will invest $1.4 billion to create a crosstown transport network for Melbourne. Major new SmartBus routes, supported by improved local bus services, will connect with the rail network to create a grid of radial, arterial and orbital routes within and between suburbs and across the city. For the first time, people living in Melbourneโ€™s middle and outer suburbs will be able to travel across town by public transport without going through the CBD.

I thought I’d test this claim.

The four proposed orbital routes were:

  • Yellow Orbital – now the 901 – Frankston, Dandenong, Ringwood, Eltham, Epping to Melbourne Airport
  • Green Orbital – now the 902 – Chelsea, Springvale, Nunawading, Eltham, Broadmeadows, Airport West, Sydenham to Werribee
  • Red Orbital – now the 903 – Mordialloc, Chadstone, Box Hill, Coburg, Essendon, Sunshine to Altona
  • Blue Orbital – proposed as the 904 – Sandringham, Brighton, Richmond, Clifton Hill, Brunswick, Highpoint, Footscray to Williamstown

The Blue Orbital/904 never happened. Arguably the Sandringham end was a bit pointless as it paralleled the railway line, but the rest would have been very handy for orbital trips, saving people time, and relieving demand on the busy inner-city portions of Melbourne’s busiest tram and train routes. The idea is still the subject of campaigning.

The absence of this route is why there’s a gap in the Smartbus numbering – 901 to 903, and the Doncaster routes 905-908 (also flagged in the MOTC document). There’s also the 900 non-orbital Caulfield to Rowville Smartbus route.

And there’s also the 703, which was one of the first Smartbus routes trialled, but was never upgraded to the full Smartbus service level.

The western end of the Green Orbital also never materialised. It stops at Airport West. Parts of the rest are now served by the Regional Rail Link (V/Line service via Wyndham Vale and Tarneit), but the long distances between stations means that is mostly used for longer distance travel. A revamp of local buses at the Werribee end has provided other upgrades.

Smartbus at Dandenong

The Smartbuses have become the busiest bus routes in Melbourne. This is partly due to their length, but also because they offer some of the most frequent services in the metropolitan area – mostly streets ahead of other bus routes.

Did Smartbus deliver on crosstown travel?

So, do Smartbus routes really provide a crosstown trip alternative to going through the inner suburbs/CBD by train?

Here’s how I compared them:

  • Compare times from station to station, clockwise, departing at or just after midday on a weekday
  • Bus: use Smartbus timetable
  • Train: use PTV Journey Planner set to defaults (eg interchange time), except Train only
  • Include results for the never-built Blue Orbital, specifically the crosstown sections

So is Smartbus faster than train?

In summary, Smartbus is faster only for short distances.

Here are the results. Bus travel times on the left — highlighted in green where faster, red where slower. Train times on the right. (Click to enlarge)

The 901 runs from Melbourne Airport to Frankston:

The 902 runs from Airport West to Chelsea:

The 903 runs from Altona to Mordialloc:

The proposed 904 (blue orbital) would run from Williamstown to Sandringham, but I’ve focused on the section from Footscray, and assumed if ever implemented it would (like the 246 it would presumably replace) terminate at Elsternwick:

Because this route doesn’t exist, I’ve used the times for the 472 to Moonee Ponds (even though the proposal goes via Highpoint, making it more useful, but taking longer and duplicating the 82 tram and partly duplicating or replacing the 223 bus), the 504 from there to Clifton Hill, then the 246 the rest of the way.

And finally, the 703, the only Smartbus that does not meet the service standard, runs from Blackburn to Brighton:

(*Westbound buses come into North Brighton. They then do a loop, with eastbound buses heading out of Middle Brighton)

What do we learn from these timings?

In general when the trip was one sector, between two neighbouring lines, the bus was faster.

For trips covering one or two segments it varied. Sometimes bus (particularly for trips a long way from the CBD), sometimes train.

For longer trips, it’s usually faster by train, even if the journey is a much longer distance, and even if the train interchange at or near the CBD has you arriving and then departing at a near 90 degree angle. For instance, Sunshine (almost due-west of the CBD) to Coburg (almost due-north) is 61 minutes by bus, but 42 by train.

For the longest crosstown trips, such as Broadmeadows to Frankston, train is the clear winner thanks to its more direct route and inherent speed, with a travel time under half of the bus, which goes the long way around, and may be deliberately (and sensibly) designed to serve traffic generators such as major shopping centres.

Something I haven’t compared is car travel. Even though buses and trains can suffer delays, driving is far more variable. It’s likely to be faster than bus in all cases, and often faster than train outside peak hours — but this is slowly changing. With traffic congestion now increasingly an all-day, all-week affair, train is increasingly competitive for crosstown trips.

I also didn’t look at crosstown tram routes such as the 82 (Footscray-Moonee Ponds) and the 16 (Glenferrie-Malvern-Balaclava). Maybe something for another day. There are also, of course, many crosstown non-Smartbus routes.

Smartbus 703 internal display

Other travel time factors

Train times can be inconsistent where frequencies on the two lines are not aligned. For instance Coburg (every 20 minutes) to Holmesglen (every 15 minutes) came out at either 58, 63 or 68 minutes depending on the precise time of departure. For this exercise I always chose the one at or just after midday – for this case it was 58 minutes, but for others it could be the lowest or highest figure, not the middle.

When I chose midday as the start time, I didn’t realise that for train trips via the CBD, this narrowly avoids traversing the Loop outbound. With a slightly later start time, you might even go around the Loop twice; for instance if you wanted Sunshine to Box Hill, leaving on the 12:24 train from Sunshine, you’d go around the Loop into Flinders Street, just miss a direct Box Hill train, and go around the Loop again on the next departure, arriving at Box Hill at 1:31… which at 77 minutes is still far faster than the bus.

Some of the Smartbuses stop at multiple stations on the same line, for instance the 901 at Blackburn and Ringwood, and also at Kananook and Frankston. These segments are probably most useful for local trips, but some might use them as an alternative route when trains are disrupted.

In peak hour, the results would be even more skewed towards trains. Buses take longer in heavier traffic. Trains on most lines are more frequent in peak, and (particularly on the Hurstbridge, Belgrave/Lilydale and Frankston lines) there are more likely to be expresses.

On weekends and in the evenings, the results are also likely to be more skewed towards trains, because bus frequencies drop off markedly, making the chances of a departure time that’s convenient rather less likely. (Just ask anybody who’s tried to catch a 703 at the Bentleigh/Brighton end of the route after 9pm on a weekday. There aren’t any.)

Anti-clockwise results might be a bit different to clockwise.

Most importantly, individual passengers may or may not prioritise fast travel time over other factors, such as their tolerance for interchange.

No shortage of passengers for the Smartbus. Note brilliantly placed auto sign

Some lessons here

There are various things the authorities can do to make the buses faster.

  • On-road priority – bus lanes and jump start lanes and clever traffic light programming which adjusts the sequences to give buses a green rather than a red.
  • Limited stops services should also be considered; as an example, the limited stops 900 is about 35% quicker than other routes along Wellington Road. Express services would be even quicker, though there’s a trade-off here; frequency needs to be maintained at the skipped stops.
  • Other measures such as all-door boarding (becoming more common around the world), or even off-vehicle ticket validation would also speed up buses.

There’s a limit to what buses can do. It should be recognised that train is inevitably often quicker for longer trips, even when quite indirect, and generally is the mode of Melbourne’s PT network that is most likely to be competitive with car travel. Trains are the backbone of the network, and frequencies need to be boosted to cut connection times, though this is an issue across all modes.

Given buses generally aren’t great for long suburban trips, we shouldn’t feel bad about splitting Smartbus routes to make them more efficient and reliable. Transdev are getting flak for poor performance, but I think (broadly speaking) they had the right idea around splitting the orbital Smartbus routes into separate segments.

Brussels light rail/tram

Future orbital routes

Looking into the future, improving options to a point where the speed and frequency is competitive on orbital trips could definitely help relieve parts of the radial rail network — for instance, in the past proposals have been made for express buses connecting from Caulfield to the Ringwood lines.

What about orbital rail lines? My sense is that the travel patterns probably don’t warrant heavy rail, particularly beyond the inner suburbs.

But fast efficient off-road light rail or busways might be a good option. If built properly, segregated from traffic, with priority where they cross roads (Brussels has some good examples), they can be very fast, and could be a good middle ground in terms of capacity, while still maintaining good frequency.

703 bus arrives at Bentleigh station

Smartbus arguably isn’t a long-distance orbital service anyway

The timings clearly show that Smartbus doesn’t really handle long crosstown trips very well.

But by providing frequent services, they are very valuable for short distance trips, short to medium-length journeys into activity centres, and as rail feeders.

Looking at the big picture, public transport needs a lot of improvement – there are so many journeys where the service offering is simply not competitive.

Catering for orbital journeys is part of this, but there are many other needs, including beefing up capacity and frequency for the far more numerous radial and local trips. Improved connections to/from the rail backbone are also critical.

And in most respects, Smartbus has been proven to be successful. We just need more of them.

Three bus stops outside Huntingdale, Victoria

Monday was Labour Day, and I went for a long morning walk. Well okay, I caught a 703 bus from Bentleigh to Centre Road/Huntingdale Road — despite the PTV app incorrectly claiming it wasn’t running most of the day.

Then I walked to Huntingdale Station, then west along North Road, and gradually back home. Here are some things I saw along the way.

Huntingdale has got a new bus interchange. There’s some confusion about the cost — in 2015 the State Government said it was $7.6 million ($5 million for the bus interchange, a 2014 election promise, and $2.6 million the rest for parking). PTV now says $11.6 million. Hmmm.

Anyway, the upgrade is a good accompaniment to the 601 shuttle bus to Monash University, which was first introduced in 2011, running on semester weekdays every 4 minutes 7am-7pm, then every 8 minutes until 9:30.

Although not finished yet, at first glance the interchange looks rather good – apart from the 601, it’s also used by, the 900 Smartbus (Caulfield, Chadstone, Monash, Rowville) and route 630 (Elwood to Monash, eastbound). They enter and do a short loop around to exit.

It provides a much quicker and closer connection to the railway station, and means passengers don’t have to cross Huntingdale Road to change to a bus to the university.

Huntingdale Bus interchange

Sensibly, the 601 to Monash University has the prime spot, next to the station entrance. The 630 to Monash also stops nearby.

The 900 is over the other side. I’m betting this is to try and prevent people who just want Monash Uni swamping this service, so people going further can get onto it.

Universities Some universities don’t observe public holidays that aren’t national public holidays. Labour Day is one of these, so there were quite a few people headed to campus.

Thankfully the 601, normally a weekday-only route, also runs on such days. Other bus routes were running a Saturday timetable.

On this day, buses were replacing Cranbourne/Pakenham line trains, so passengers were actually changing off other buses. Given the large numbers of people involved, perhaps when there are rail works on university days, should they run some rail replacement buses via campus?

601 at Huntingdale Bus interchange

The 601 buses are prepaid-only (no Myki purchases or top-ups on-board), and board by all doors, to help speed things up. Ironically most people queuing used the back door, so it was almost as slow as boarding by just the front door.

Just as the near-full 601 completed loading and headed off, another one arrived. One of the challenges for this route is keeping buses coming through at an even frequency.

Crowds on some mornings in the past few weeks have resulted in long queues, and apparently this happens every year at the start of semester. This was the scene on 7th March (via Darren):

Queue at Huntingdale bus interchange (via Darren)

The long wait for a bus to campus was cited last week in The Age, with queues contributing to one campus commuter giving up on public transport. (The article reckoned she’d drive the following day. That was the day that a truck breakdown in the Burnley tunnel caused widespread disruption, so it may not have been any less painful!)

While some would like to see a rail link, the obvious short-term upgrade is more buses, even just for a few weeks when demand is highest… or bigger buses — it looks like the new interchange can handle long articulated buses, and hopefully the same can be said for the stop at Monash, and the route between them.

(Double-deck buses would also cater for more people, but have longer dwell/loading times, negating the benefit somewhat.)

Also at Huntingdale, they have installed a new style of bus stop sign. The “B” is a bay indicator, rather than a Sydney-style B for Bus.

Huntingdale Bus interchange

I’m surprised to see it says “Hail bus”. I wouldn’t have thought that was needed at the terminus of a point-to-point shuttle.

Note the absence of any operator or PTV or even Transport For Victoria branding.

It also looks like further (automated?) signage is coming. (Around the interchange there are also some Smartbus signs, not yet activated.)

Anyway, I kept walking and found this on North Road – a rather splendid looking brick bus shelter.

Looks like it’s a few decades old. Being north-facing it may not provide much shade, but at least unlike its newer cousins, it’s not plastered with ads, and it doesn’t block the footpath as it’s set back (onto council land).

Bus stop on North Road

Further along, I found this stop on Warrigal Road near North Road. Someone’s forgotten to take down this old sign from the former operator, Ventura.

Old Ventura Bus sign in Warrigal Road

Also here: the intersection was recently resurfaced. It seems to me they missed an opportunity to provide a jump-start lane for buses. With or without a “B” priority light, it would help the busy route 630 buses get ahead of the other traffic.

Warrigal Road/North Road intersection

Similarly, the bus jump start lane at Wellington Road/Princes Highway westbound should be made 24/7 instead of peak only. Cars clog it up outside peak times, which just seems silly.

Buses play a vital role in filling gaps between the trains and trams. The alignment along North/Wellington Road to Monash University and Rowville is a big gap.

In public transport, “software” — routes and operating hours and frequencies that meet passenger needs, is essential.

But “hardware” (infrastructure) is also important.

It’s good to see the upgrade at Huntingdale, and it’d be even better to see upgrades to the 601 service to keep up with demand.

More bus priority, especially an easy win such as at Warrigal/North Road would also be very welcome.

Is the Smartbus branding dead? Why not make every bus a Smartbus?

Smartbus was devised in the dying days of the Kennett government originally as a mostly hardware-based upgrade: traffic priority, real-time information at stops, distinctive bus stop signs and buses.

Originally it didn’t include service upgrades (which sparked derision from the PTUA at the time), but this was changed early on during the Bracks government, with a trial on routes 703 and 888/889 (now 902).

It was a success, with patronage growing strongly. In 2006 the Bracks government announced more Smartbus routes, including four orbital routes (of which two and three-quarters were eventually built) and four Doncaster area “rapid transit” routes under the sub-brand “DART”.

Most of these replaced existing routes, but they’re now some of the busiest bus services in Melbourne.

This old data (which was the most recent published by PTV, and has now disappeared off their web site) shows that Smartbus (90x and 703) make up 5 of the top 7 routes — in part due to their length, no doubt.

Melbourne annual bus patronage 2011-12

(Monash Uni shuttle route 601 is probably ranked at about 7th, but the figures are so old, it’s not included, as it only started in late 2011.)

Silver and orange

Part of the appeal, apart from a better quality of service, was a distinctive silver livery, to set Smartbus routes apart from others.

Transdev, which operates most of the Smartbus routes, seems to be doing their best to kill it off.

Regular orange buses are turning up regularly on Smartbus routes.

Smartbus-liveried buses are turning up regularly on non-Smartbus routes.

Smartbus livery on non-Smartbus route

Transdev of course have well-publicised problems with their fleet, which has led to a shortage of buses. But you also see these issues on weekends, when there should be plenty of spare vehicles. (The above photo is from a Saturday. That day, at least two Smartbus liveried-buses were observed running on route 223.)

Ventura has also been spotted occasionally running regular orange buses on Smartbus route 900, and they also run route 703, one of the original trial Smartbuses, which has never been upgraded to reach the supposed Smartbus service standard, and always runs orange buses (albeit with internal passenger information displays, which are only seen on Smartbus routes).

Is it time to ditch the special livery?

There might be some benefit to having a distinctive Smartbus livery in terms of attracting new users, but I don’t think it’s ever been quantified.

There is, self-evidently, a cost to bus operators of having a specific fleet of buses that can only be run on certain routes. This is the same reason they are reluctant to run mini-buses at quiet times – as this video from Florida notes, it would involve having an entire separate fleet for particular runs.

Should all buses be Smartbuses?

Smartbus routes are not actually the most frequent on the network, so the current distinction is somewhat arbitrary.

What if we gave all bus routes the benefit of Smartbus technology?

One benefit of Smartbus is real-time information at stops, but data feeds for this are now available for almost every Melbourne bus route (via the PTV app and others).

Maybe where regular and Smartbus routes share stops, they should be displaying all routes on the Smartbus kerbside signs?

Perhaps they’re already trialling this. A couple of weeks ago I spotted this displayed on a Smartbus sign at Caulfield Station – it was alternating between non-Smartbus route 624, and Smartbus route 900. (Yes, refer to printed timetable isn’t very useful. In fact, that default message should probably now be “refer to printed timetable or PTV app”.)

Route 624 on a Smartbus display

Smartbus 703 internal display

Another Smartbus amenity not currently seen on other routes is passenger information displays inside the buses, alongside automated announcements for each stop.

During my UK trip last year I found similar displays in every single London bus that I rode. I found it helped a lot when navigating an unfamiliar route.

London bus internal passenger information

This is also increasingly standard on Melbourne trams.

The obvious question is: why not here on every bus? This would also assist ensuring those with hearing or vision difficulties are informed about their location.

As for the liveries themselves… arguably it is useful to distinguish between bus routes by more than just the number. But equally there’s value in a uniform fleet, to emphasise there’s a network.

Perhaps the answer is to make more route number displays standard on all new buses — not just the front, but also the side and rear too. Make them super prominent.

And perhaps some innovative new way of providing individual route markings/colours (within the standard orange design) could be found, such as a coloured stripe or other design along the side that can be displayed clearly, yet easily changed when the bus gets switched to another route.

All options worth exploring.

Non-liveried Smartbus arrives

Of course, putting more automated information at stops and on buses won’t solve issues of poor scheduling, infrequent services, spaghetti-like route structure, on-road delays (and a lack of traffic priority), cleanliness, and reliability…

But starting a rollout of Smartbus features onto every bus route — including regional town buses — would be a step forward to providing an easier to use bus network.