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.

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.

Smartbus signs – wouldn’t it be good if you could see them from the bus stop?

Having spent all that money on GPS in the buses, transmitters and receivers to get the bus locations onto electronic signs, wouldn’t you think they’d think carefully about where those signs were located?

Exhibit 1: Lonsdale Street, near Hardware Lane
Smartbus sign, Lonsdale Street

Exhibit 2: Dandenong Station (I’ve circled it in case it’s not obvious)
Smartbus sign, Dandenong Station

To be fair, most of those I’ve spotted are quite well located, so they are visible from the bus stops they serve.

But are there others like these ones?

Passengers do like having realtime information, and along with the increased frequencies and (limited, some would argue) traffic priority measures, it’s led to strong patronage growth on Smartbuses… but they can do better.

By the way, this is not a problem confined to buses

When you’re headed down the Elizabeth Street subway at Flinders Street Station, do you ever look up above the platform entrances? If you did, you’d spot automated signs that virtually nobody ever sees. Fortunately they never seem to say anything actually informative — only ever “Welcome to Flinders Street Station.”
Automated sign, Flinders Street Station, Elizabeth Street subway

Meanwhile on the new X’Trapolis trains, the signs inside the carriage are neatly obscured by the cross-bars in the doorways, which are designed to be at a good height to hold onto, without people banging their heads on them.
Automated sign, X'Trapolis train

Why aren’t there more Smartbuses?

Why aren’t there more Smartbuses? Smartbuses work.

Smartbus is a fancy marketing name for buses that run more frequently than most other routes, have some bus priority and realtime electronic signs at major stops. The figures in this government press release show the upgrades of routes to Smartbus result in strong patronage growth.

Smartbus patronage growth

I’ve excluded the older 703 and 888/889 services from the graph. They were part of the initial Smartbus trial, upgraded in 2002, and growth was initially strong, but has flattened out. These routes don’t actually conform to the Smartbus standards, so run less frequently than the newer routes listed above. 888/889 is getting a boost on Monday when it becomes the 902, with a new timetable, and an extension to Airport West. There’s no word on whether the 703 will be fixed.

The figures above show that if you make bus services more frequent, and run them for longer hours, then more people will use them. The jury’s probably out on all the electronic gizmos; many of the signs are periodically unreliable, though admittedly they do work much of the time.

The aims of clever electronics to give buses traffic light priority has never seemed to work as well as promised, and has given way to lower-tech old-fashioned priority bus lanes and jump-start lanes at intersections (where the bus gets a B signal before the rest of the cars, so it can jump to the start of the traffic queue.)

Weekend (and evening) services are a bit poor, with typical waiting times of 30 minutes being totally uncompetitive with car travel, and a long way from parity with inner-suburban tram services running every 12-15 minutes.

And there’s some uncertainty over whether stringing together shorter routes into mega-long services has been a good idea. The expanded 902 from Chelsea to Airport West will be 76 kilometres long, which must play havoc with timekeeping. And few people would catch it from end-to-end, given there are faster, more direct services.

I tend to think of it as not one big long mega-route, but a whole bunch of smaller feeder routes strung together. A lot of people use them just to reach the local station or shopping centre.

Queueing for the 703 at Bentleigh Station

But faults aside, it’s undeniable that they are a success story. So why aren’t there more of them?

They’re not particularly expensive to implement. The next extension, the “Yellow” route 901 from Ringwood to Melbourne Airport (about 70 kilometres), will cost $37.9 million in capital funding, and about $19 million per year in running costs. [Source: Budget papers] This is tiny compared to the amounts being spent freeway expansion — Peninsula Link is costing $759 million for 27 kilometres.

Apart from that and the “DART” Smartbus-style services proposed for Doncaster (luckily not planned for Frankston), there aren’t any more on the drawing board. In fact one proposed route, the “blue” orbital, was cancelled, and part of the 902, from Werribee via Deer Park to Airport West, has been indefinitely deferred.

Surely if the government were serious about offering decent PT to the whole city, they’d have more Smartbuses planned. Give every suburb either a train, tram or Smartbus service, boost the services to run frequently seven-days-a-week, and give every suburb a public transport that is actually in some way competitive to car travel.