Night Bus sign

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 seat 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 Buses 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.

PTV Night Network promotion

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 Melbourne’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 Melbourne’s rail corridors, a service that has run in Sydney since the 1980s.

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