No Night Buses running for NYE

Night Buses are not running on New Year’s Eve tonight.

Most trams and trains are running all night — and it’s more trains than last year; half-hourly after about 2am, rather than hourly as last year. There are also some regional trains and coaches after midnight.

Night Bus routes are designed to fill the gaps between the trams and trains — especially the latter in the outer suburbs.

Not running them means many suburbs will have no public transport at all between about 10pm tonight and 7am tomorrow morning — including Mornington (and the rest of the Peninsula, population 155,000 people), Point Cook, Rowville, Mernda and others. Doncaster will have Smartbus routes extended until 2am, but nothing after that.

The Age ran a story on Friday: No way home for hundreds of revellers after Night Buses cut for New Year’s Eve

The story included this truly ludicrous response from the State Government:

A spokeswoman for Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan has argued that the Night Bus services would not run this year because New Year’s Eve falls on Sunday, and the late night services run on Friday and Saturday nights. … “As New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday, Night Network services do not operate”

Um, what? Trains and trams don’t run all night on Sundays either, but they do for New Year’s Eve.

Why would you run the Night Buses every weekend, but not on the biggest night of the year?

After they’d had some time to think about their response, PTV changed their tune to something a little more plausible: they claimed to journalists that only 50 people used Night Buses last NYE… but they also claimed that normal weekend Night Buses are “very popular”.

Let’s assume the 50 people quoted excluded the Doncaster Night Buses. If that service was used by hardly any people, then this year they wouldn’t be running four Smartbus routes to Doncaster every 15 minutes until 2am.

Doncaster aside, if Night Bus passenger numbers are low on NYE, logic would imply they’re even lower on most weekends.

PTV Night Bus Network 2016

Does Night Bus need a re-design?

Most of the time, official patronage figures for Night Bus are very hard to come by.

But this claimed low patronage on NYE casts into doubt the entire Night Bus network design.

If Night Bus patronage is not reaching expectations, then authorities should review the network, which currently is completely different to daytime bus routes, and partly duplicates rail services.

There are some broader Night Network considerations, including:

  • more frequent trains — which would only incrementally increase costs, given so much investment in station staff and PSOs and other support staff to just keep the network running all night, and the current hourly timetable has some excessively long layovers
  • using buses instead of trains on the outer-ends and/or quieter sections of the rail network

On Night Buses specifically, one option would be running major routes (eg Smartbuses, or at least the busiest sections, and a few other bus routes targeted at gaps in the rest of the network) as 24 hour services on weekends and New Year’s Eve. Time them where possible to meet trains from the City.

Like the 24 hour trains and trams, 24 hour buses would be more understandable for users, and more likely to get good patronage. The current Night Bus network of different routes to daytime means someone heading out before midnight but coming back after midnight has double the work to figure out how to use the system.

(The way they are programmed into Journey Planners also seems to cause issues. Night Buses are limited pick-up, but will drop you off at any stop. This seems to be beyond the understanding of the JP algorithms.)

Indeed, if Night Bus patronage is generally poor, and Night Train/Tram usage is more healthy, then we’ve got the ironic situation that the train/tram routes designed by the ALP in opposition are performing better than the bus routes designed by the professional transport planners at PTV.

Keeping it simple is the key. After-midnight services should be (some of) the same routes that run in daytime, rather than a completely different network.

Night Network: opportunities to make it better

Night Network has been running as a trial since the start of 2016, and solved some key problems:

  • The old NightRider buses were insufficient: often crowded, and had a route structure completely different from daytime, so (despite the crowding) most people didn’t know how it worked
  • Nightrider also provided no service in many areas that have excellent daytime services, so some of the people most likely to use public transport didn’t have late services.
  • Sunday trains started too late.

Night Network kind of solved these issues, and with 35,000 extra trips every weekend, is getting people on board. But it isn’t perfect, and the cost has been huge, at around $80 million per year.

The PTUA put out this material highlighting some problems and things that could be done to improve it:

PTUA calls for Night Network to stay – but must be made more efficient

This got some coverage in the Herald Sun: Trains lying idle during Melbourneโ€™s 24-hour public transport scheme (Pay wall)

The study into the timetables came about when it was pointed out to me that on some lines, the trains spend a lot of time sitting at the terminus. I wanted to find out how long.

The Working Timetable, if you can get hold of it (it’s not currently online), shows which service the train goes to after reaching the end of the line.

This made it fairly easy — except that the Belgrave and Lilydale lines do a complicated dance, with trains running from the city alternately to each, with shuttles filling in the gaps. It results in uneven frequencies (non-clockface times) in the evenings and on the Night Services. It could be fixed by running one of the branches from Ringwood as a shuttle, as happens on the Cranbourne, Alamein and Williamstown lines.

Train at night

Anyway, the results showed that yes, on some lines the trains spend an enormous amount of time sitting idle. Perhaps inevitable for the shuttles, but Sandringham trains spend as much time stopped as they do running; some Belgrave trains wait for an amazing 62 minutes before heading off again, and you’ll find trains sitting waiting at Craigieburn, Upfield and Hurstbridge for more than 40 minutes each hour.

A big part of the problem is that the policy during the trial is for hourly trains. The idle time is far higher during hourly operation than before midnight with half-hourly services.

Perhaps secondary is that the timetable may have been written in a hurry to get it implemented by the start of 2016.

The Night Bus services still have the problem of a route structure that is completely different from day time — unlike the trains and trams (the half-dozen routes that run all night) which provide 24-hour service on weekends, which is much easier to understand.

So as the PTUA material indicates, it makes a lot of sense to refine the whole Night Network when the trial ends in mid-2017, to make it more efficient and economically sustainable, make it more useful for passengers, and make it permanent:

The aim should be a Night Network which provides:

  • train services on the busiest lines on Friday and Saturday nights, running at least every half-hour;
  • coordinated connecting rail buses or parallel trams on sections where patronage does not warrant all-night train services; and
  • 24-hour tram and bus routes filling in network gaps where no trains run.

  • The PTUA is also calling for rail bus services to run along train routes on weekday mornings, meaning 24/7 service along Melbourneโ€™s rail corridors, a service that has run in Sydney since the 1980s.

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