Bus stop stripes

Sometimes I notice tiny things, and wonder what they’re about.

Have you noticed that some bus stops have a small colourful stripy bit of tape?


Intriguingly, many of them seem to match the colours of the logo of the bus operator for that route – even if the buses themselves are now all in the standard PTV orange livery.

Here’s one on a Ventura route (blue and yellow):


I should have guessed it, but a well-informed Twitterer had the answer:

They’re timing points. Spots along the route where the bus driver needs to check their timetable and may need to wait if they’re early.

Many of them seem to be at major stops such as railway stations, though some are not.

This raises another topic: with many level crossings being removed, which cuts delays along bus routes (particularly highly variable, unpredictable delays), are bus timetables being re-written?

It appears not. A few weeks ago I caught a southbound route 626 bus at Carnegie station that arrived at the stop almost five minutes early. And that was in the PM peak.

The 626 timetable still allows 8 minutes for the 850 metres between Chestnut Street/Dandenong Road (the stop before the station) and Koornang/Neerim Roads (the stop after the station).

Its sister route 623 is the same. You could (briskly) walk it in eight minutes.

Back when the level crossing was there, it probably made sense to allow that much time. Not so much now.

Bus underneath the skyrail at Carnegie

As level crossing removals proceed across Melbourne, authorities should be reviewing bus timetables and taking the reduced delays into account.

After all, speeding up street-based public transport is one of the key non-motorist benefits of grade separation.

Timetable tweaks may not be enough to run extra services with the same buses, but they can at least help cut unnecessary delays – particularly for bus passengers not boarding or alighting at those timing points.

Bus punctuality stats finally public… well, some of them

The Age’s Timna Jacks got hold of some bus punctuality figures via FOI, and published this story last week, which is worth a read:

Late every second trip: Life on the delayed 232 bus

The data provides a glimpse of something not normally in the public eye. Regular bus users know that some routes suffer greatly from lateness, but the statistics aren’t usually published.

With Timna’s permission I’ve dug around in the data a bit more to see what other insights can be found.

What’s in the data: Punctuality to within 5 minutes for Transdev routes from 2013 to 2018. What it doesn’t show is service delivery, ie cancellations and short run services, which also influence how reliable and usable bus services can be.

There are also operator-wide average figures for Ventura and Dynson from 2015 to 2018.

Towing a bus

Transdev’s best and worst performers

The data had a route-by-route breakdown of Transdev’s punctuality since September 2013, from shortly after they started operations after winning their contract and taking over routes formerly run by Ventura and Melbourne Bus Link.

The five worst Transdev routes (out of 47), based on average punctuality from 2013 to 2018:

  1. 220 Gardenvale – Sunshine (via City) 60.18% punctuality, but “winner” of the worst single punctuality figure, with just 38.7% of buses on time in August 2015
  2. 216 Brighton Beach – Sunshine Station (via City) 64.89%
  3. 219 Gardenvale – Sunshine South (via City) 65.58%
  4. 232 City (Queen Victoria Market) – Altona North 65.75%
  5. 350 La Trobe University – City (Queen St) 68.77%

The worst three are the long cross-suburban routes, running via the CBD, with almost no bus priority measures along the route. Just in the past few months (after the data ends), these have been split into two, theoretically temporarily, to avoid even worse problems while the metro tunnel is being built… so punctuality is likely to be improving now.

Rounding out the worst five are the 232, which improved in 2014 when the Port Melbourne diversion was removed – and route 350. Both these routes also serve the CBD. In fact 8 out of the 10 worst routes serve the CBD – no surprise perhaps, since that’s where traffic is likely to be at its worst.

(Can’t see the graph? Click here)

Some of Transdev’s routes benefited from timetable changes in 2014, and there was a more thorough change in 2016.

These changes mean there has been improvement, but looking at just the worst average punctuality for 2018 (January to June), the same five routes feature, with route 232 is now the worst, with 64.23% of buses on time.

What Transdev wasn’t able to do was introduce its “greenfields” timetable, which would have made wide-ranging changes, including splitting the long orbital Smartbuses (and some of the cross-city routes) up into more manageable, logical routes.

That proposal would have overcome a lot of the punctuality and crowding issues, but it also would have cut services in some areas, because it was basically a reshuffle of existing resources, where ultimately, more are needed. Labor rejected the plan when they came into office in late-2014.

Tram/bus stop, Queensbridge Street, Casino East

And the most punctual Transdev routes? Unsurprisingly they’re all in the middle and outer suburbs, and mostly relatively short routes of under 10 km.

  1. 284 Box Hill – Doncaster Park & Ride 89.55%
  2. 370 Mitcham – Ringwood 88.21%
  3. 295 Doncaster SC – The Pines SC 87.69%
  4. 279 Box Hill – Doncaster SC/Templestowe 86.42%
  5. 380 Ringwood Loop 85.62% – this is the only route of the top 5 to be over 10km long

Perhaps surprisingly, the “DART” City to Doncaster Smartbuses 905, 906, 907 and 908 all rank in the top third of routes for punctuality. They do have bus priority measures along much of their routes in peak hour, though there are problems with motorists invading the bus lanes on Lonsdale and Hoddle Streets, and little or no enforcement. (And remember, the stats don’t measure cancellations.)

Somewhere in the middle of the pack are the long orbital Smartbus routes 901, 902 and 903 – they do better than one might expect because they have plenty of fat in their timetables at various points along the route.

All of the Smartbuses benefit from long operating hours and relatively frequent off-peak services, which can help bring up the average punctuality compared to routes that run most or all of their services in peak hour.


Comparing bus operators

The data also provided operator-wide figures for Ventura and Dyson. Here’s a comparison for those two plus Transdev*, with Yarra Trams thrown in as well:

(Can’t see the graph? Click here)

As you can see, punctuality generally improves for a month in January, as traffic (and patronage) is lighter than usual, despite frequent construction blitzes.

Ventura consistently has fewer buses running late than Transdev or Dysons, but it’s worth noting that Ventura run routes predominantly in the middle and outer suburbs, with none of the inner-city or CBD services which tend to suffer worst from traffic congestion.

Transdev was the worst of the three during 2015, but lifted its game in mid-2016 with timetable changes across most routes. Since then they have on average seen fewer delays than Dysons most months.

So on this measure at least, Transdev has been improving.

Remember: this is punctuality only. The figures don’t measure cancellations, short running, cleanliness, buses catching fire or taken off the road by the safety regulator, or any of those other things for which Transdev Melbourne is notorious.

What more can be done?

On Saturday the State Government announced that 100 of Transdev’s fleet (which is owned by the government) would be replaced by new buses. This should help reliability (provided the operator actually maintains them properly), but may not help with punctuality and other issues such as crowding.

It was also announced that Transdev’s contract would end in 2021 — only one year of the 3 year option is being exercised.

Upgrading buses is a good idea. Hopefully it’ll bring better reliability. Better passenger information would be welcome. Perhaps they should use the opportunity to start a transition to electric buses, particularly for inner-city routes.

But beyond that, it’s important to take other measures to improve bus services. This could include:

Proper bus priority, with more bus lanes and traffic priority, and enforcement of those measures

More frequent services to cut waiting times and relieve crowding, which is chronic on some routes, and adds to delays

Bus route reform to make more efficient use of fleets and drivers, and make the network easier to understand and cut overall travel times by making routes more direct

Contracts that are structured so appropriate funding is available to properly maintain the fleet, and run the service to a decent standard – this appears to be where the Transdev Melbourne contract has gone wrong

Public performance data, so there’s more transparency. I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence that trams and trains have (some) public performance data, and get the bulk of the attention and investment

And yes, timetable adjustments where warranted – but this should be the last resort, not (as now) the default action when buses are regularly running late. Adjusting the timetable just means making those delays permanent, not actually fixing them.

Buses serve many parts of Melbourne that don’t have trams and trains, and may never get them.

It’s high time the government treated them seriously.

  • Note: The overall figures for Transdev have been calculated by using the average of the route punctuality figures. This is not the same as the average across all Transdev services, as some routes have a lot more services than others.
  • See all the data here. Got further observations? Leave a comment!
  • Marcus Wong also has a post on Transdev today, focusing on recent problems with bus reliability and maintenance

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.