Frequent services and realtime information. Time to throw away the timetable?

Transport minister Terry Mulder:

“We’d like to think we’ll get to a stage down the line whereby you can throw the timetable away, and we run ten minute frequencies. I think that’s what the community are wanting.”

Spot on Terry. I’ve already thrown my timetable away.

(Nah, I haven’t really.)

Frequent services, 7 days-a-week

The start of 10-minute services on weekends on three lines (which are now at least every 10-15 minutes at most times) is a big step towards being able to travel around Melbourne without a timetable. This is a vital part of making public transport competitive with car travel.

As Jarrett Walker says, “frequency is freedom”. Freedom from waiting, freedom from living your life by a PT timetable, freedom to hop on, hop off and travel spontaneously without a huge time penalty, and freedom to make trips requiring connections, without a long wait if you miss one. This last point in particular is important because it means different lines can work better together as an anywhere-to-anywhere network.

Realtime info

Ultimately if I’m catching a public transport service, I shouldn’t have to care what time it’s scheduled — I just care about how soon it is. So what becomes important is frequency and realtime information — particularly on people’s mobile phones.

We’ve already seen this happen with tram travel in Melbourne. Trams already run every 10-15 minutes every day (well almost), and combined with realtime information (Tram Tracker, and other related technologies), many people have stopped using timetables.

As one PTUA committee member remarked to me: “It’s changed the way I catch trams.”

For trains and buses, realtime information is available at stations (green buttons and Passenger Information Displays) and at some bus stops, but it’s not yet on people’s mobile devices (apart from high-level train disruption information). However recently it was confirmed that real-time information is coming soon for buses and trains on mobile phones.

More high-frequency routes needed

Unfortunately few buses run frequently enough, but there are some, in particular the two university shuttles, Smartbuses (at least on weekdays) and some of the former tramways bus routes.

Expanding frequent services to all train lines, as is evidently planned (almost; some lines may miss out), and introducing more Smartbus routes, along with realtime information for all modes, will help mobility around Melbourne immeasurably.

For decades Melbourne’s 7-day frequent network has been rudimentary. Terry Mulder’s quote above indicates that finally, it seems, there’s some recognition that this needs to change, and the new timetables expand the frequent network markedly.

The more of Melbourne that has access to this frequent network, the more people can and will make use of it to cut their car use.

And that way, everybody wins.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

15 replies on “Frequent services and realtime information. Time to throw away the timetable?”

Yes, credit where it is due. And I agree with your comment about buses. One an hour ain’t good enuff!

Great post – particularly for trains, 10 minute frequency should be the norm. At least on the Western lines, most off-peak trains are still running with a significant number of passengers so demand is clearly there.

It’s also time to do away with Saturday/Sunday timetables and simply have a ‘weekend’ timetable that can also apply to public holidays.

Frequent services + timetable simplicity = PT success!

Agree on the TramTracker comment – it has also changed the way I use trams. Now leaving home revolves around ‘2 mins till the tram is here, GO!’, rather than walking out and hoping.

@Aaron, agree – a unified weekend timetable would be great.

We have come a long way though, even now. I can remember when I used to catch a Sunday bus (once an hour) along Bell St, Coburg that took me to the train at Bell Station about 10 mins after the hourly train to Epping passed through, so only a 50min wait!!.

The only problem with Tram Tracker is that there is nothing for Android phones so I use Tram Hunter which does much the same job. Like Dave, my leaving home now revolves around when the tram is coming.

So, why can’t we have a 10 minute service in the weekday evening peak on the Frankston line from 6pm to 7pm? It’s crazy that this busy timeslot has worse service frequency than weekends, and I pay considerably more than if I’d travelled at weekends. I think the $3.30 cap should be extended throughout the week, until this issue is fixed.

@Aaron – unified weekend timetables – we’re getting there. One of less heralded changes last Sunday was that Sunday evening frequencies and spans were standardised across the rail network. Instead of some being less frequent (40 min) and finishing earlier. That follows some tram improvements that cut out the 30 min frequency earlier in the day.

So with few exceptions there is a common weekend train and tram timetable from 10am to midnight. 6 – 10am Sundays is now the only problem area, both with regard to starting times and to a lesser extent service frequencies (40 min frequencies remain on some lines).

Buses vary and history remains influential. The ex-Tramways having the highest average frequency (but differences between Saturday and Sunday). SmartBuses and outer suburban local buses often have significant weekend uniformity with regard to frequency and even exact times. Smartbuses diverge after 9pm (no service on Sundays) and the older area local buses often still have an intensive Saturday morning service, a bit less on Saturday afternoons and less still (or sometimes nothing) on Sundays.

The intense Saturday morning service is particularly noticeable in ageing traditional working class solid Labor northern suburbs (eg Reservoir) that have neither the beach lifestyle of the bay, the cafe lifestyle of the trendy inner areas or the double incomes / working families of the outer or more affluent areas.

Awesome news if it’s true, but I’ll believe the real-time info when I see it, particularly for Metro trains. As soon as someone’s able to reverse-engineer the web service used for things like smartphones, it’ll be possible for outsiders to independently audit the lateness and cancellations of trains without having to rely on figures provided by Metro.

The other thing I’d really like to see is a serious attempt at a complete public transport map, like a scrollable google map showing train, tram and bus routes, stops, and letting routes and lines be highlighted. For at least a year, had a statement on the metro maps page which said a full public transport map was in the works. As soon as PTV took over that note disappeared off the website. Has the idea evaporated?

The journey planner’s only of limited usefulness, and not at all useful when you’re just trying to scope out the options of where you can reach from a certain place. I’d love something like this one, but it doesn’t include anything about buses. (And no, the local-area-indexed maps on the PTV site don’t count. They’re far too hard to follow and join together and it’s necessary to have a clue which area each region name maps to.)

I used to catch the 903 to work in the morning and believe me, it was far from frequent, or on time*. I aimed to catch the 7:58 from my local stop because if I missed it, I could get the 8:20 without having to wait for too long. And yes I honestly thought a 22 minute wait wasn’t long, because the next bus was at 8:53.

This frequency on a SmartBus route is APPAULING for morning peak. For some reason, from Heidelberg down to Altona, morning peak services are not added like they are for the section between Mentone to Heidelberg (

*The only time the bus was on time was in early January when barely anyone was at work and no one was at school. Once mid-January hit, the buses were at least 5 minutes late. Once school went back the buses were at least 10 minutes late. Clearly a major overhaul of the 903 timetable is in order.

The Sunday morning 40 minute services on the Northern group seem to have survived because they survived the replacement of 40 minute services with 30 minute services on Sunday evenings on the Northern Group and Sunday morning and evening services on the Caulfield Group by Bayside Trains/M-Train and also because the main focus of complaint about 40 minute services seems to have been the evening peak.

A real cynic might also notice the political safety of the seats in State Parliament that each of the groups are in.

As Alasdair says in comment #5, there are still issues on the Frankston line. If you’re travelling from a loop station in the late afternoon, you definitely need a timetable to attempt to de-code the mish-mash of services. The displays at these stations don’t help either, such as by indicating when it would be better to travel to Richmond and change.
There are similar issues, at least so far as the MATH stations are concerned, for the evening services. Unless you look at the timetable, you won’t know that there’s no loop train that stops at these stations between 7 pm and about 8.30 pm so you must go to Richmond, but after this, there’s probably no point in going to Richmond to transfer because of the uneven spacing of services.
So, don’t throw away your timetables yet!

I was shocked to see that the off peak services on the Elham to city line in late morning and most of the afternoon are much worse than formerly
On the old Time Table most trains to the city from Eltham in offpeak ran express from Clifton Hill to Jolimont,,one had to change to a citybound Epping train at Clifton Hill to access those station between C.Hill and Jolimont
Now it seems all our trains will effectively stop all stations in off peak times ..adding about 15 minutes to the time taken to reach the city
A very bad move indeed and in my 40 years of travel on this line it’s the worst change we have had
Shame on your Mr Mulder

@Brian, 15 minutes? Are you sure about that?

Expresses from Jolimont to Clifton Hill take 5-6 minutes. Stopping trains take 8 minutes.

(It might seem like 15 minutes.)

@MikeM – The statement you were referring to was actually up there for over 4 years! I’d say the PTV took it down to stop people like me continuously emailing them asking when ‘coming soon’ meant.

I’m cleaning up, in order to move house. And I found it! A full transport map!! Buses, trams, and trains, all there.

It’s paper. From 1999.

Oh well.

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