More bustitution thoughts

In the mainstream media, they have word limits. Even online, they have to keep it succinct. Blogs have no such limits, so I apologise not only for revisiting this topic again, but also for rambling on so long.

Bustitution looms again over the summer, with large scale rail closures on the Mernda line underway now, and the Cranbourne/Pakenham, Gippsland and Frankston lines to be replaced by buses for almost all of January, and more around the network right through 2020.

(There are so many closures coming up on the Frankston line that one senior transport bod jokingly suggested: “Have you considered moving?”)

So here’s a braindump of a few points about planned bus replacements.

Divide and conquer

A big factor when designing bus replacement routes is the sheer number of people who catch trains – even on weekends and in the evenings.

One of the ways they manage this is to split the buses up into separate routes, to speed up journeys, and so that not everybody crowds onto one route.

For instance with the current Mernda line closure, the bus routes are:

  • Stopping all stations Thornbury to South Morang (“S”)
  • Express Thornbury to Keon Park, then all stations to Epping (Limited Express “L1”)
  • Express Thornbury to Epping, then all stations to Mernda (Limited Express “L2”)

It’s the same when other lines close: there are often multiple bus routes replacing the trains. It can be confusing, but it’s much more efficient.

But they do need to communicate this well. More on this later.

Express bus signage at the Limited Express bus stop

Shorter = better?

This ties into something else. I used to think the length of the bus replacements needed to be minimised, above all else.

I’m not so sure now that it’s that black and white.

During Frankston line closures a couple of weeks ago, we had buses:

  • All stations to Caulfield
  • Express City to Moorabbin – (Express “E”)
  • Express City to Caulfield, then all stops to Moorabbin (Limited Express “L”)

This meant that only people travelling beyond Moorabbin needed to change services, which can mean an extra wait, especially if connecting from frequent bus to sometimes not-so-frequent train. The rest of the passengers got a one-seat trip on the bus.

For inbound passengers, not having so many people change from trains to buses minimises the risk of long waits like we saw last Easter at Caulfield, with thousands of people shuffling in the queue for an hour or more just to get on a bus. Instead, the bus boarding is shared between multiple locations.

Of course, ferrying at least some passengers people from the closed line over to another line that’s running can also be an option, preferably with extra train services deployed to help cope. But this is difficult in some parts of Melbourne, where it’s a long way to the neighbouring rail line.

Obviously it’s a balancing act, and each decision has consequences that authorities may or may not be able to quickly adapt to – but should at least inform the next round of planning.

Unfortunately some lessons have been lost over time.

Sunbury line bustitution: bus lanes

Buses must have priority

It should go without saying that no matter what the combination of routes, whether they run smoothly or not depends very much on the use of bus priority measures.

During recent works on the Sunbury/Ballarat/Bendigo/Geelong lines, buses were taking ludicrous amounts of time between Sunshine and the City.

Back when Regional Rail Link was being built, buses got priority along Ballarat Road, and fed into trains at Flemington Racecourse. It’s unclear why this time instead of repeating that winning formula, they ignored it and put people on slow buses all the way to the City.

The result this time? A lot of passengers gave up and either drove – making the traffic problems even worse – or switched to other rail lines – I’m told Werribee loads jumped by as much as 30%, adding to crowding and delays on that line.

Rail replacement buses at Caulfield during level crossing works

Information: Where are the stops?

Despite the problems, in many ways they’re getting better at these operations, but there are still slip-ups.

A couple of weeks ago I knew I’d be travelling home from the City on a Friday night, which coincided with a weekend of bus replacements on my line – from the City to Moorabbin (and also out to Westall).

Okay – forewarned is forearmed. So where in the CBD would I need to catch my bus? The bus variants were:

  • All stations to Caulfield
  • Express City to Moorabbin – aka “Express”
  • Express City to Caulfield, then all stops to Moorabbin – aka “Limited Express” – this is what I wanted.

The stop information was far too difficult to find. It was actually contradictory.

The bus frequency poster PDF reckoned catch the bus from Flinders Street – with no detail as to precisely where. (Fed Square/Russell Street? Arts Centre? They’re hundreds of metres apart.)

There was a separate detailed list of bus stops, which said I should catch it in Spring Street near Parliament. And there was mention of a third location, in between: in Flinders Street near Exhibition Street.

I wanted to minimise my travel time. (Who doesn’t?) But what to believe?

Asking Metro on Twitter, they replied that they’d depart from Parliament. Or possibly Flinders/Exhibition. Right… This was not helpful.

Eventually after some prodding, someone at Metro and/or PTV realised the mistake, and started correcting the information on the web site. The Limited Express buses would depart from the Arts Centre.

But the advice was still confusing for some Cranbourne/Pakenham people, who ended up going to Parliament, as per the notices, only to be told they were in the wrong place.

And I heard of another Frankston line person who also went to Parliament, was then somehow told to go to Richmond (by train), ended up on an all-stations bus from there to Caulfield, then onto another bus to Patterson. Total travel time: about 90 minutes for a trip that should take about 30.

This type of stuff is ridiculous – and it’s not even an operational issue – it’s poor information provided to passengers.

It’s hard enough trying to convince people that they should take the bus when the trains are out, without mucking them about like this.

Being clearer

Even if the information is absolutely correct, some of it is presented in the most incomprehensible manner.

Some of the prominent information is the bus frequency guides, which are just a mess. This is one of the simpler ones.

Mernda line - bus replacement frequency poster

This is just too hard to read, yet is the most common type of detailed poster out on the system during closures.

They’d do far better, I think, to remove the frequency information, which is in the online timetables – and is misleading anyway, as apart from a base frequency, despatchers send additional buses into service when queues emerge.

Instead, focus the most important information: the different bus route stopping pattern variants, which really should be shown more prominently – rather than the diagram which implies every bus stops at every station.

Spot the difference

It turns out there are different staffing arrangements when it’s project upgrade works (such as level crossing removals or the Metro tunnel) versus routine maintenance works.

For the former, they put temp staff at the bus stops to provide travel information and assistance. For the latter… they mostly don’t.

Because apparently passengers need help when the line is closed for project works, but don’t if the line is closed for maintenance.


Finally: they still haven’t resolved the confusion around fares and ticketing on bus replacement services.

On Metro at least, the bus portion of the trip is normally free: it would be far too slow if people touched on and off, and the Myki system can’t handle the special routes.

But the Myki readers are usually left on, which continually leads to confusion. On one recent ride I heard the bus driver call out “No, don’t touch on!”

This is fighting against years of teaching passengers to touch-on, touch-off.

So why not do it properly?

  • Turn off the Myki readers on the rail replacement buses
  • Even better, if possible, switch them to a special mode that says “Free ride, don’t touch-on” or something similar – also handy for fare free days like Christmas Day
  • Fix the Fares & Ticketing Manual. It still claims you should touch on and off at the station – completely unrealistic and unreasonable given it may be hundreds of metres away, closed, or even in the middle of demolition.
Works notices at Melbourne Central

The need to do better

I apologise again for the length of this article. It got away from me.

But to conclude, there are a lot more of these shutdowns over the coming years.

There are people who avoid using the buses, thanks to experiences of long waits, slow rides, confusing information. If those people drive to their destination instead, it just adds pressure to the overall transport network.

Overall I think rail replacement bus operations are steadily improving, but they still need to do better.

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.

13 replies on “More bustitution thoughts”

Probably a stupid question, but why cant they run a single shuttle train from Caulfield to say Hawkesburn on 2 of the tracks, then have a portion of the busses go to each of the mid stations? – Similarly, run a shuttle train to South Yarra from Richmond?

If there is only 1 train running on each line it can completely ignore signals, and there are no level crossings (car or ped) that would be impacted…

I suspect some people would happily walk from SY to Hawkesburn for that, which reduces bus loads further.

Very comprehensive article, thanks. Yes, the contradictory information provided to hapless passengers can be laughable.
By the way, the amount of fuss by Transport Vic about the “Summer blitz” on the Sandringham line is way over the top. In the whole of January, we will only have ONE MORNING of buses replacing trains during usual week-day commuting times. And that’s on 2 January when bugger-all people will be back at work anyway. Yet, we have rows of posters, stickers on the ground, people handing out pamphlets at local stations and announcements at Richmond. For most people, this will be all for one train (or no train). Too much!

Great read and something that is an issue.

But I don’t agree with the suggestion to remove frequency information from the posters.

If I’m somebody who is an infrequent traveller – or even a frequent traveller that forgot about the project works, or got caught off guard by coming in later then I thought to the city I want to know the frequencies.

It’s too hard to go on the online information because it’s spread between PTV…Metrotrains…LXRA websites and it’s not always easy to find. Scrolling through a timetable is too difficult, I just want to know my estimated wait time, not the exact time a bus departs (which is subject to change).

The frequency information helps me know when the long waits begin…therefore I can plan accordingly.

I think there’s no harm in having 2 posters side by side. One showing the frequency like your photo and one showing whatever else you suggest/stopping patterns etc.

I think there are enough staff around yelling out which queue is for the express and which queue is for the stopping all stations as well as those coloured flag things (green being express and red being stopping all stations). To remove frequency information is not helpful.

I personally don’t think the poster is that complicated, you just have to see what time it is and refer to that section of the sign.

I agree about the diagram misleading about the stopping patterns. Which is why I think the solution is have 2 signs next to each other.

I assume the reason why there are heaps of staff during a level crossing project shut down compared to a maintenance shut down is due to the project paying the the bill for the staff which is a requirement by LXRP while there being no requirement for MTM to provide staff for their shut downs.

I disagree with the proposition that frequency information is critically important.

For the suburban routes, I’d assume that they plan for the buses to be at least as frequent as the trains, and by the end of the day the plan is usually a bit of a shambles anyway. If the proposed frequency is three or fewer buses an hour, I’d be scheduling specific times for the buses.

One feature of bustitutions which I find annoying, is that despite the clipboards and walkie-talkies, the chief bus marshalls at the stations which are the beginning and end of the bustitution don’t know what going on. Sometimes there is a choice of an all-stops and limited stops bus. So, you wait a reasonably long time ( say 10 minutes ), and the all stops bus shows up. Should you catch it ? If the limited stops bus shows up within another 10 minutes, the answer is no, because it would be quicker to wait for it and see it overtake the all stops bus halfway down the line.

Its annoying that the bus marshall can never answer this question.

That’s another reason why frequency information isn’t particularly useful – which specific route does it relate to ?

The thing about the Frequency information is that apart from late at night when it might specify times, the departure times aren’t shown. Even when it does show times, that’s from the originating station only.

So taking the top example, if it says the bus is “every 15 to 25 minutes” what does that tell you? There’s no indication of when to be at the stop to minimise waiting time.

@enno, the frequency info is actually shown for the different bus routes. But this just adds to the confusing design.

All that said, fine you could keep it – even if almost nobody looks at it – as long as the bus route variants can be shown on the right hand side.

The impression is that there’s no systematic approach to make every bustitution better than the last. There’s no incentive to do so, Metro don’t care, or both. They think of themselves as a monopoly in running trains (so why should they bother doing better than their non-existent competitors), rather than a small but significant part of Melbourne’s overall transport system.

By the way, no need to apologise for a ‘rambling’ post Daniel. How do we expect things to change if we can’t even focus on one topic for a few minutes at a time.

I can say that, as annoying Sydney Train’s bustitution is, at least theirs trackwork buses are generally easy to comprehend (with big signs showing stopping patterns) and almost always staffed. And in most cases, there were tents at the waiting spots during the trackworks – and in at least one case, was left nigh-permanently standing there even outside of trackwork days!

Another thing they’ve done right is to use other train routes running parallel as the substitutes. For example, the Illawara Line usually skips Erskinville and St Peters (between Sydenham and Redfern) as the parallel running Bankstown Line services them instead. But when B’town Line shuts down, then the Illawarra Line trains picks up passengers from those stations in most cases I heard of.

@Hisashi, the Melbourne equivalent to your Illawara example would be when the Frankston line is not running between Caulfield and the City, the Cranbourne/Pakenham line (which normally runs express most of that section) stops to serve the intermediate stations.

Obviously that’s only possible when it’s some (but not all) tracks out of action.

Speaking of Sydney, at least one thing with Sydney bustitution is that you’re not left wondering how often and when the buses run because they put the entire timetable and routes up online and into GTFS (so all trip-planning apps can get it). And the timetables are shown as buses rather than trains (compared to Metro).

There are also flyers in other languages.

Heck, you can even see the roads the bus takes so it doesn’t look like it’s pretending to be a train either (And it doesn’t look like it’s a train on trip planners as well unlike Metro again where replacement services pretend it’s a train and bus route number is not shown).

I would think the reason Ballarat Rd and Flemington Racecourse weren’t used was because the disruption was while the Show was on. I remember one of the RRL disruptions was afterwards, not during the school holidays like this one.

Given the rail corridor was only shut between Sunshine and Footscray, why take people all the way into the City? (I’m not sure whether the Sunbury line tracks between Footscray and North Melbourne were usable during the shutdown?) Could people have been put back on trains at Footscray? I wonder if some people did that anyway – stopping all stations between Sunshine and Footscray is pretty direct via Sunshine Rd and Buckley St (unless Buckley St is choked with traffic) – and they could change to a City-bound Werribee/Williamstown train.

I did think it was a bit of overkill having staff at the West Footscray outbound replacement stop – it can’t be that difficult to travel the two stops to Sunshine! And the staff member getting on the bus at each stop to announce (again) where the bus was going – surely there’s a bus driver who could do that?

Do they look at actual travel patterns in determining what routes are needed? And the difficulty or otherwise in travelling via road between two stations?

One other anecdote from a couple of years ago, I think. Caught the last City-bound replacement bus, which only went to South Yarra – and of course got there after the last train had gone through!

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