One of the arguments in favour of the SRL is that we’ll soon be as big as London. So what’s London doing?
London has had major non-radial public transport rail lines for a while, including the Overground (mostly built out of underused legacy rail infrastructure), but now it’s getting a true orbital route, known as the Superloop.
Superloop is a set of limited stops bus routes forming a loop – with a couple of additional radial routes also using the branding.
It has similarities to Melbourne’s mostly orbital Smartbus routes.
Smartbus is a long way from perfect, but has been a success. Instead of doing more of them, Melbourne is instead investing in the hugely expensive SRL, expected to take over a decade for the first stage.
In contrast, the London Superloop rollout is likely to be completed within a couple of years.
Here’s a quick comparison of Smartbus, SRL and Superloop (at least using the portion of the Superloop that has some detail around it, the Harrow to North Finchley section).
Suburban Rail Loop
|Name||Smartbus||Suburban Rail Loop||SuperLoop|
|Introduction||2002-2010||approx 2035 (first section, SRL East)||2023-2024|
|Route structure and numbers||Three lengthy 3/4 loop orbital bus routes (901, 902, 903), mostly adapted from existing routes|
Some non-orbital routes also used the Smartbus name: 900, part of 703, and the four Eastern Freeway to CBD routes 905-908.
|1 orbital rail route, to be built in 3 stages – SRL East, SRL North, SRL West||7 bus routes, together making one big orbital loop (SL1 to SL10), mostly adapted from existing routes|
Plus 3 radial routes
|Stop distancing||Mostly all stops – every few hundred metres||Very wide spacing, about every 2-8 kilometres||Limited stops about every 1-3 kilometres (overlapping stopping routes)|
|Frequency||Every 10-15 mins peak|
Every 15 mins weekday off-peak
Every 30 mins evenings and weekends
(Some sections/routes have 24-hour service on weekends)
|Every 6 mins peak|
Every 10 mins at other times
|Every 12-15 mins Monday to Saturday|
Every 15 mins Sunday and evenings
|Timetabled speed including stops (off-peak)||Route 903: 86km in 250 minutes = 20.6 km/h||SRL East: 26km in 22 minutes = 71 km/h||SL7: 38km in 101 minutes = 22.6 km/h|
|Fleet||Mostly standard single deck buses||4-car automated trains||Double deck buses|
|Approx capacity per service (educated guesswork)||About 70 people||About 600 people||About |
Buses or trains?
So, should SRL should be replaced by buses? A fuller faster orbital bus network would certainly be quicker to implement, and at much reduced cost.
But it wouldn’t bring all the same benefits.
Capacity of buses can’t match trains. (You can run lots of buses, but then you have the costs of lots of drivers.)
Speed also doesn’t match trains, particularly given government’s incredible reluctance to invest in genuine bus priority – particularly where it might impact motorists.
(London’s SL7 isn’t much faster than Melbourne’s 903, but given London is much more proactive on bus priority, I won’t be surprised if it improves over time.)
If you build enough infrastructure, buses can be fast. Brisbane’s busways have an operating speed of around 55 km/h including stops – getting close to the speed of trains, but at huge cost.
Ride comfort of buses doesn’t match trains.
And the potential for urban development probably isn’t there with buses. This is important, as SRL is at least as much of an urban development project as a transport project.
These issues aside, do improved buses get more passengers?
Absolutely yes. Melbourne’s Smartbus routes, for all their faults, are some of the busiest on the network – noting that some routes have very busy and quieter sections. This is a consequence of the government’s insistence that the orbital routes run as very long routes – even when few people will be using those routes for a one seat ride because they’re so slow.
I still think there’s an argument for splitting up the longest routes so higher frequencies can be focussed on the busy sections, and layover times can be kept under control.
Buses and trains
As London is showing with Superloop, you can do a lot with buses in a short time to help with orbital trips.
Given the plan for Melbourne’s SRL to have long spacing between stations, there’s strong justification to invest in buses along the SRL route as well, to feed stations and better serve local intermediate neighbourhoods.
(It’s ridiculous that they’re not including more stations on the longest sections of SRL to spread the benefits more widely.)
It’s also worth noting that orbital routes are part of a broader network. SRL is designed to connect to the existing rail network, but it won’t reach its full potential without frequent connecting services on all modes, to ensure people can easily get to and from the stations from all directions.
London’s Superloop is partly borne out of politics, and mayor Sadiq Kahn wanting to ensure suburban travellers have better public transport in the face of the expanded Ultra Low Emissions Zone.
Whether SRL is built or not is also more about politics rather than planning. You’d have to assume that a key factor is whether Labor stays in power until the first stage has has passed the point of no return.
But if they’re going to make it a success for the money invested, they have to make sure that the services on the line and on connecting routes are up to scratch.
- Lead image: London Superloop bus by Citytransportinfo, public domain
- More reading from the Melbourne On Transit blog: Five years since ‘Operation Halo’ (aka SRL) became public