PTV’s web site timetables are broken

A few weeks ago I looked at problems with Metro’s paper timetables.

Now, can we talk about how hopeless the PTV web site timetables are?

Most of the rest of the web site works quite well, but the timetables, a key part, really are horribly unusable.

If you’ve got the patience, see how many steps it takes to view the Hurstbridge line timetable for Sunday. Or you may prefer to read on.

(No audio, not even the sound of me banging my head on the desk in frustration)

Step by step

So we want to look at the Hurstbridge line timetable, to the city.

Go to the PTV web site, click Timetables, and on the dropdown, choose the Hurstbridge line, To City.

This displays the timetable for today.

There’s bus replacements this week due to level crossing works this week, between Macleod and Clifton Hill. Here’s how it looks at about midday today:

Hurstbridge line timetable during bus replacements

The times are all jumbled up. It shows a few train times, then a few bus times, in semi-random order. How are you meant to read this?

If you were actually wanting to travel at midday from Hurstbridge to the City, your trip might look like this:

Hurstbridge line timetable during bus replacements

Note: don’t hop on the first bus at Macleod, because it takes longer than the express bus 8 minutes later. Hopefully on-the-ground there are staff to tell you this.

H means replacement bus, by the way. Not that you’d necessarily realise what H means, because for most lines, the timetable will fill your display, so you won’t spot the annotations unless you scroll down. I actually had to mash two screen dumps together to get the above image.

Why H? Because it’s so slow in the traffic you’d rather be in a Helicopter.

I dunno. It’s probably steeped in railway folklore, similar to codes like WOLO (which means a heat-related speed restriction, and comes from — believe it or not — an old telegraph code).

(When I first looked at this, on Monday, according to the timetable, trains inbound ran to Macleod, but the buses only commenced at Heidelberg, 3 kilometres away! They’ve since fixed this problem.)

Now let’s say we want to see the times for Sunday. You have to choose a date, but it doesn’t tell you which date is which day, so you’ll have to guess, or look it up on a separate calendar.

PTV timetable - choosing day

Okay, Sunday is the 15th, so I’ll ask for 14 October to 15 October. The Day dropdown only has Mon-Fri for now, so I’ll just click Go. Wait for the entire page to refresh and load all the times, and…

PTV timetable - choosing day

Okay, I’m not even sure which day it’s showing. So I’ll choose Sunday off the Day dropdown and click and wait again…

Finally it shows the Sunday timetable. But why on earth does it have separate Date and Day dropdowns?

Now let’s look at next Monday. That’s the 16th October, so I’ll choose that. Click and wait.

Despite there being individual days you have to choose for this week, next week is a range of days: “16 to 19 Oct”. But peppered throughout the timetable are variations for specific days, with annotations.

PTV timetable - choosing day

And the footnotes are worded in some kind of broken English:

  • Mo = Operates on Monday only
  • T10 = Operates not on Monday

“T10”? “Operates not on Monday”? Seriously?

It could be worse. Here’s the annotations for the Frankston line this week.

Frankston line timetable during bus replacements

  • _n300 = Service operates from 12.10.2017 until 12.10.2017
  • up300 = Service operates from 09.10.2017 until 11.10.2017
  • H = Rail Replacement Bus. Expect increased journey times.

“_n300” and “up300H”. Yes, not only have they munged codes together, they’re using codes with underscores in them.

Other issues with the online train timetables:

  • Some lines are so long that you can’t view them properly on smaller (eg laptop) screens — one workaround is to change your web browser setting to a microscopic font size
  • The indicator for Wheelchair accessible services is missing for most trams and some buses
  • Even if you have a big screen, it’s restricted to showing 14 columns at a time — though too many would hinder readability

Other cities do so much better at this, especially in terms of date selection and navigation around the timetable.

The silver lining? Tram and bus timetables are a lot simpler, thanks in part to simpler stopping patterns (though Mon-Thu vs Fri variations still abound) and also thanks to the wise design decision to hide minor stops by default, making the display more manageable.

And in many cases, you can use a journey planning tool — PTV’s has some quirks, though Google Maps is very good. (Some others such as Offi have been forced offline because of the withdrawal of PTV’s “EFA” API, which provided 3rd party software with access to PTV’s journey planning algorithms. Software which can calculate their own journeys with the timetable data still works fine.)

But if you need to use the PTV web timetables, overall there are basic usability issues that should have been resolved years ago.

Perhaps, given the data is open, someone should conjure up a more usable timetable display web site?

There was a Metlink/PTV beta web site being tested at one stage – perhaps parts of it made it into production, but the timetables have been like this for about 10 years, and are well overdue for improvement.

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.

14 replies on “PTV’s web site timetables are broken”

Isn’t the data in these timetables also feeding into the GTFS (Google Transit) feeds as well? So if the replacement bus information isn’t accurate (as is usually the case), won’t this also effect anything coming up in Google Maps?

Developing a good timetable viewer is surprisingly difficult. While PTV’s publicly available GTFS data does offer a launch pad for people to have a go, the data quality is generally quite poor. From what I can tell, rail replacement bus services aren’t even included in the GTFS dataset, which creates an immediate problem.

@Thede3jay, yes, normally the same data feed powers the PTV timetables, the PTV Journey Planner, and third-party planners such as Google Maps.

When I looked on Monday, because the data thought there was no service between Macleod and Heidelberg, Google Maps would give me every other combination imaginable for travelling along the Hurstbridge line, including regular buses around that area, and buses to the South Morang line.

@Alan, the rail replacement data is patchy, but when it’s provided, it is in the GTFS feed. Right now I can ask Google Maps to get me from Heidelberg to Rosanna, and one of the options is “Hurstbridge Line” taking 8 minutes (which is the replacement bus estimated time; far slower than the train would be if it were running).

By patchy, I’m referring to errors as I saw on Monday, and also missing elements of the replacement bus service not provided in any of the feeds – for instance during the recent Westall to Cranbourne/Pakenham shutdown, express buses were provided along the Dingley/Dandenong Bypass, but these were not shown in the timetables or Journey Planner.

Aside from anything else, in my experience quite often the rail replacement buses will depart when full, as long as at least one in the chain actually departs at the scheduled time. So it’s entirely possible, in the above Hurstbridge example, that the passenger might catch the 1:25 train from Clifton Hill.

I tend to download the PDFs if I want to look at a timetable. Otherwise my preferred app is Moovit (recently improved by combining lines that have the same start and stop in the journey).

Rail replacement buses should be able to operate relatively timetable free because they can operate more frequently – does three buses together make a train? As long as their role as a connector between two bits of the rail network is done properly. Reminds me of a V/Line example – was on the coach from Tatura to Murchison East to connect with the train from Shepparton – for some reason the train was starting at Seymour, so we continued our journey there. I was one of the first of the coach – no luggage – and even then had V/Line staff as I was approaching the platform telling me to hurry up to get on the train!

Not quite the same but related. The PTV android app still has no Route 58 for trams and Route 6 only goes from Toorak to Melb Uni. I emailed them about three weeks ago but have yet to receive a reply.

I think the problem is that the PTV website is developed by IT people. And they probably don’t use public transport. And they think anyone who uses public transport must be too poor to own a car so they probably can’t read anyway. Basically, they don’t care!

I experience this problem with date ranges that include weekdays and weekends, and there is no way to choose the weekend. It seems ridiculous.

Daniel, the new PTV website timetables function (May 2019) is totally useless! What’s wrong with these people?
Peter Hill, PTUA member

Comments are closed.