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.
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.
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.
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.
Lol, we didn’t traipse around last night trying to find the right bus, they tried to divert buses to Parliament but didn’t quite get it right… Probably would have been quicker to walk to Flinders st in the end!— Jo (@twelveeyes) November 22, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.