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 total 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.

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 “Some Night Buses barely used”

I have to agree that perhaps Night Network buses are better redeployed elsewhere, perhaps in the form of the most popular routes from suburban station, but requiring to meet with the Night trains where the stations are among the busiest (otherwise they’ll end up running empty).

Though I wonder if there are some contractual obligations that those routes must be run by the same daytime operators and if these same providers are willing to run them at night.

Well the only “night bus service” that I have direct personal experience of, is the 970 Carrum to Rosebud service.

I have caught this bus twice “outbound” and twice “inbound”, and every one of those trips was around 7 AM (roughly) in the morning on a Sunday, because the “normal” bus routes in the area south of Frankston start until after 9 AM on a Sunday, which is crazy.

I wasn’t “coming home late”, I was trying to make an early start on a Sunday day trip.

On the most recent trip, I was the only passenger. When I got off the bus at Frankston station, there was nobody else on the bus, the driver drove off to Carrum alone. About 40 people got on the 6:44 AM train at Frankston, is this new ?

On the three previous trips, there was at most one person other than myself.

Looking at your list there, it seems like some of the least popular services, duplicate train lines.

Broadmeadows->Craigieburn ? Dandenong->Narre Warren Ringwood->Lilydale ?

What’s the point of those, exactly ? Did they exist before the hourly trains ? Do they offer a “drop you off at the corner of your street” ?

It wouldn’t suprise me if fare evasion was much higher on the night network. If a majority of people are not touching on and drivers are not enforcing it, the numbers are going to be an inaccurate reflection of the services’ actual usage – legitimate or not.

A couple of points worth mentioning.

1. If boardings per service kilometre is difficult, why not divide boardings per number of buses used on each route? That’s still crude but fairer than passengers per service. For example 969 looks like the stand-out performer. But when you look how long the route is (about 90 min each way) and the number of buses used (6) it’s much less exciting. 961 and others then look better as they use fewer buses. 953 is a low performer (it parallels a rail line) but is a much shorter route requiring only a single bus.

2. Some of the outer eastern areas actually have a better Night Network service than at any time during the day. Their regular routes might shut down early in the evening and not run Sundays. So people might be able to get home but not necessarily get there. An extreme example is parts of Scoresby Rd Knoxfield which has 1 bus per day on weekdays but a 60 minute Night Network service in the small hours on weekends. Even if areas do have minimum standards (ie 9pm finish), there’s a large gap between when regular routes finish and Night Network starts (unlike in 961 territory where regular DART routes towards Doncaster provide a fairly seamless interface).

3. If anything your 701 comparison is favourable for Night Buses. 701 is probably below average for Melbourne bus patronage on a boardings/km basis. Without going into detail the ratio is probably nearer 10 rather than 7 times in favour of regular routes.

Re the 970, I’ve noticed up to 3 or 4 others on the 7am Sunday trip out of Carrum. But I’ve normally been the only one to board at Carrum. Sometimes someone gets on at Frankston North. A few sometimes board at Frankston. It’s the only way to get to Rosebud at a reasonably early time (8:30am). For that it’s very good.

788 always did start too late on Sundays. But since a train timetable change a year or two back (arriving trains made later) multiple connections that used to be possible (down train meeting various first buses that depart Frankston at 9am) have been broken so passengers must wait about 50 min (exacerbated by the not fully resolved Frankston bus interchange debacle that made buses remote from trains for extended periods).

The old Night Rider bus offered continuity from the city, fast journey times and an immunity from being affected by occupations. This has been lost at precisely the time that occupations have increased due to works.

So, despite good intentions and noble words and even spending on stuff, overall service on the peninsula (particularly on Sunday mornings) has deteriorated greatly in the last few years due to poor planning and oversight. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is reflected in patronage.

The real tragedy of this is that ptv don’t appear to have their own “monitoring and evaluation” staff to ensure that each part of the system continues to offer value to the taxpayer. The data appear to go into a black hole, reserved in case there is an FOI request or if the Minister wants to put a positive spin on an announcement. Other departments have monitoring and evaluation staff who have the authority to direct future State investment. But here the night bus contracts appear to be so inflexible that any such evaluation activity is pointless. In the case of the night buses, perhaps the rise of Uber has provided more attractive alternatives to buses, particularly with the risks of alighting a lonely street in the dark followed by a long lonely walk. Whereas the rail system has well-lit stations with PSO’s to assist with safety to one’s own car or an Uber for the “last mile” to home.

Many cities have monthly public reporting of ridership, such as Los Angeles, San Fransisco (BART), and Auckland. Regular publication of such statistics enables community groups to mount evidence-based campaigns to politicians, which is something the public service is not in a position to do unless asked by the government of the day. This way it is the community that is asking for particular service changes rather than just politicians. It can also take out the “surprise” element out of any service changes, should underperforming routes be trimmed and the funds redirected to areas where there is better return to the community .

I do agree that, it would be far better to run some of the existing routes, on a 24/7 basis, than, have night only routes.

How are the trains like?

Also publicity is important. How much advertising do we see for the night service network?

Is there any form of campaigning to get people to use it?

Advertising is a serious make or break for any product or service.

@Malcolm M
The problem seems to be endemic across the department and various transport entities. It’s more than just long term operational data, patronage stats and so on.

It is worth reading through some of the Victorian Auditor-Generals’ reports ( which detail failures and problems in the management and delivery of major projects. There is no high-level strategic view of what is trying to be achieved. The listed goals and objectives aren’t really goals or objectives – you cannot ensure a project best fits requirements if you don’t know what your requirements are in the first place – and the paltry objectives they have have no ‘validation tests’ or criteria or tracking available anyway, so there’s no way of knowing what is actually happening with the projects at all.

Extrapolating this beyond the deliver of major projects, without clear strategic goals and understanding regarding what the network is trying to achieve (e.g. Night Buses), and without the tests, data and transparency to collect against those requirements, then of course the outcomes will be hugely suboptimal.

I think this goes a long way to explain some of the poor outcomes we have been seeing in public transport – falling transport patronage per capita and so on. Road projects have very simple metrics to measure against (which do not necessarily represent the desired outcomes) such as X cars per hour, or X increase in speed on certain trips, so those are the metrics and requirements that get optimised.

Building a holistic, integrated transportation network that improves mobility and access (which is what we are actually trying to achieve) across the city is much more complex, and it does not seem like we actually have clear requirements and goals to achieve to work towards that.

It’s troubling because this stuff is the very basics project management/engineering/etc…

I think it was a bad move from the outset to create new services. I used to catch Night Rider buses to work when I was younger and my anecdotal experience is that they were pretty quiet in the suburbs and only busy where they replaced trains. These Night Bus services have had the train replicating parts mostly removed, so we’re left with the quieter parts of the Night Rider.

I’ve caught plenty of Night Tram and Train services and they’re always well patronised. I wonder if the bus issue has more to do with there being fewer “out all night” types in the outer suburbs than there is in Collingwood or Prahran? It would be interesting to compare taxi and uber numbers for these outer suburbs to see if this is the case.

I feel like this situation may be less of a public transport necessity in lower patronage outer suburbs and more of a political necessity. No politician wants to be the one who removes all night services from a particular area. People don’t like that talk even if they never use the service. They like just having the option.

I think it is actually a great idea to try convert some of the current day time buses to 24/7 services. Smartbus Orbital, Rowville and DART services might be a good start.

@Campbell, in my day job in a less well-funded part of the public sector, we have had drilled into us the difference between an output and an outcome, and the importance of collecting the right data for project evaluation. Then to read the Auditor General’s report saying that the Transport bureaucracy can’t get the basics right.

My opinion of how this should be approached is to start with focus groups of those in the 20-40 year age group, of what value they place of various outcomes, such as how they value mobility by car, bike, walking and public transport in various parts of the city. The weighting might be 10:20:50:20 for the inner city and 40:10:10:40 for outer suburbs. The focus should be on the younger generation because the infrastructure is being designed for their use over the next 20 years, rather than for the generation who will be retiring over that period, who will need different services from the infrastructure rather than providing for the journey to work. For each outcome from the focus group, there then needs to be a value ascribed. There are well-developed techniques to describe this for car travel, but not for others. For some of the grade separations (eg Carnegie), the greatest benefits are for pedestrians, and improvement in place (eg shown by land values). None of this was captured as benefits by the Transport bureaucracy.

One thing not yet considered is security. A train drops you at a well-lit, PSO-staffed station, which usually has at least a few people around, and from where you might jump into a waiting cab to finish your journey. A bus (mostly) drops you at an isolated bus stop with no-one else around, and no waiting cab – just a lonely and vulnerable walk home in the dark.

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