London Superloop and Melbourne SRL

Suburban Rail Loop is five years old today, but is a decade away from opening. London has taken a different path for its new orbital route.

It’s five years today since the Suburban Rail Loop was announced, via a Facebook post.

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).

City, nameMelbourne
Suburban Rail Loop
NameSmartbusSuburban Rail LoopSuperLoop
Introduction2002-2010approx 2035 (first section, SRL East)2023-2024
Route structure and numbersThree 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 West7 bus routes, together making one big orbital loop (SL1 to SL10), mostly adapted from existing routes

Plus 3 radial routes
Stop distancingMostly all stops – every few hundred metresVery wide spacing, about every 2-8 kilometresLimited stops about every 1-3 kilometres (overlapping stopping routes)
FrequencyEvery 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/hSRL East: 26km in 22 minutes = 71 km/hSL7: 38km in 101 minutes = 22.6 km/h
FleetMostly standard single deck buses4-car automated trainsDouble deck buses
Approx capacity per service (educated guesswork)About 70 peopleAbout 600 peopleAbout 150 105 people

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.

Brisbane bus on the busway
Brisbane busway bus

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.

Suburban Rail Loop - "We're still open" signage at Glen Waverley

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.

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.

16 replies on “London Superloop and Melbourne SRL”

There’s a long gap on the SRL between Cheltenham and Clayton, how about a station inbetween, perhaps around Karkarook Park, Clarinda, or the Heatherton depot?

Another point of comparison is the 998/999 loop bus in Perth.

Those four-car metro trains will have a capacity approaching 800 and the capacity of those London double deck buses is little more than a single deck, about 80 or so.

Agree with Mike. A station at Heatherton or Clarinda would seem to be logical, providing good rail access to thousands of residents and workers. The section between Cheltenham and Clayton is also currently the longest section of the loop.
While I’m a big supporter of SRL and the benefit of connecting current rail lines, it is disappointing that SRL East only adds two new locations to the rail network. Both of these locations are already served by good bus services and, in Burwood’s case, a tram service. Adding Heatherton/Clarinda and maybe Pinewood would increase journey times by around 90 seconds, but considerably increase the benefit of the loop.

While I support the Suburban Rail Loop, buses could be used in the interim as the eastern section is going to take ten years but the start of the northern section is the best part of a quarter of a century away and the western section even further away. And if we wait too long to build the SRL, then it will be more expensive down the track, so I feel that it is better to do it now rather than later.

I remember that a couple of years ago, Transdev was planning to split up the orbitals into separate routes, and sadly the western suburbs got the stick end with cuts to services (I think the proposed 933 from Essendon to Altona was to have a 40 minute frequency in peak, while the 903 in the eastern suburbs would’ve got a 7.5 minute frequency)

Honestly, we need more buses on routes 901, 902 and 903 (and seriously start talking about a potential 904 “Blue Orbital”, which was once proposed for the inner suburbs) to help with getting people around while the project, and encourage bus use by making it more frequent as many bus routes, especially in the western suburbs, are 40 minutes and provide little competition to the car (car ownership in the western suburbs is not often a choice but a necessity due to the poor frequency of buses, and many workers often have to drive because there are no buses at suitable times, such as early morning for those on construction sites in the city (buses often start at 0600, and many workers needs to be at work before 0700), or late at night for postgraduate students who often have classes at night (buses often finish at 2100) who wouldn’t be able to get a bus home (when I did a postgraduate course, classes often finished at 2100, meaning that I had to drive to and from the station due to buses finishing before I could get home, or at least to Watergardens station).

I think have as many buses at possible in the outer suburbs run from first train to last train, as this could be a better option while the SRL is being built.

@Mike, absolutely. I think a stop near Warrigal Road would be a great opportunity for urban development, and ensure more people benefit from the line.

@Tony P, you’re right – I’ve overestimated. London in particular has two stairs per bus, which reduces capacity but improves passenger flow. Wikipedia reckons a Boris Bus has a capacity of 87.

@indigohex3, yes, the current orbital Smartbus routes definitely need more work. And yes, the inner-city Blue orbital (at least the sections from Elsternwick to Williamstown… I’m not sure the Brighton section has huge benefits) would be a great help for inner-suburban travel.

Route 901 in Melbourne, saves me a tonne of money, going to and from the airport, for $5 instead of $60.
Thank you.

About time this was bought up, because I’ve been shouting at clouds about this for so long. Even on normal traffic roads buses can be fast, faster in fact than most people care to think about. Fixing slow spots is not that hard whilst keeping traffic flowing. The trip length gets longer the more you stop for passengers. So the idea is NOT to stop for passengers along the way from point A to point B. Example is getting from Southland Station to Clayton Station. By existing bus it takes 35 mins, direct takes 15 mins. From Southland to Noble Park by existing bus takes 1:078mins, but direct takes 18 mins. From Southland to Dandenong Station takes 47 mins, direct takes 19 mins. There is no reason we cant offer stopping all stops buses AND express destination buses just like the London Superloop and if we did we would have a huge uptake in patronage and lots of cars off the road. Dandenong to Ferntree Gully at the moment requires either a train to Richmond and change which takes 90 mins or a bus that takes approx 57 mins stopping all stops. A direct bus would only take approx 23 mins. THIS is what it is all about. And continuing along from outer major suburb to outer major suburb the same way by electric buses on existing roads that can be upgraded where and if required to make them even faster would cost so much less money that what is currently being proposed. all we need is express shuttle buses back and forth. Not everyone will want to travel express and will want to stop along the way, but a bus carrying 70 passengers 6 times per hour is still over 400 patrons per hour and over 12 hours that works out at over 5000 per day. I think the system can easily accommodate those numbers and if not we simply add more buses. The cost of an additional electric bus plus drivers over a 50 year period is still much cheaper than the SRL could ever be. Bravo to London and Bravo to the London Mayor who supports this all the way. Come over here and help us out, please.

Daniel…can you please include the costs of the SRL verses a superloop scheme for Melbourne. I’ve seen figures of $35 billion for stage 1 SRL from Cheltenham to Box Hill, $70 billion for stage 2 from Box Hill to the airport, and costs for stage 3 are still pending (airport to Werribee).
We are talking billions, in a state with debt levels higher than NSW, QLD and TAS combined.
And how many people will travel on the SRL? Will there be enough to cover the ongoing costs of running the loop, estimated at more billions each year. There is no Infrastructure Australia assessment, there is no Infrastructure Victoria assessment, it was not put together by the Dept of Transport, and even the Grattan Institute is opposed to the SRL.
I agree that the SRL is as much about urban development. I suspect they want a series of ‘Box Hill’ developments at each station. However the design is not comparable to the London Underground, which does a brilliant job servicing Central London. As an example, Forest Gate is 13.8 kms from the centre of London, and rests on the outer edge of their Metro system. None of the new stations on the SRL are within 13 km of our CBD. The SRL won’t get the numbers that travel on the Metro, because it only services the few passengers who travel in its specific arc.
Victoria is building a ghost train.

I too would like to see the comparative cost of the SRL vs a Smartbus route along the rail route (if there already is one I apologise for my ignorance). SRL will bankrupt the state if we’re not careful, Smartbus would surely be much cheaper and, if successful could help build the case for SRL. No business case has been released for the SRL which suggests it’s not worth it, except to buy votes. Smartbus could test to see if the demand is there.
For an orbital rail route, why not reinstate the Outer Circle, to serve Chadstone shopping centre along the way? Just a thought.

I agree in part with Jim in regards to usage, but if promoted correctly, people will use the SRL and keep on using it. There is a saying that if you build it, they’ll come, and this can be true with any public transport, but promotion of new projects when it opens is key. For example, when the 903 was launched in the western suburbs, there were heavy promotions in the media, and services were free for two weeks to promote the new SmartBus (I remember catching it on Day 1), and it is still heavily used today becuase it was heavily promoted. So with the SRL, sure it is costly, but if promoted correctly, people will come to it, and it could offset the costs of building the project.

And we have to remember, it is going to be cheaper to build it now instead of waiting decades down the track when it could be more expensive to build it.

@Jim Anderson
SRL is to help switch metro lines in addition to serving a new corridor. “Central Melbourne” has been served well enough and we need more orbital /cross-suburban rail (like the London Underground) to faciltate trips that dont involve the CBD.

If SRL is ‘more expensive down the track’ so will other infrastructure options, it’s a question of priorities and I think prioritising SRL will fail a large portion of the city.
Government has limited resources it can direct to infrastructure investment and the market limited capacity to deliver at reasonable prices. I foresee SRL crowding out other higher benefit investment. SRL already appears to be prioritised over other investments e.g. western rail and airport rail.
Also an issue of equity, even with greater priority on urban density, the outer west is developing fast and there is plenty more development to go. But it lacks any metro rail, and activity seems to have stalled.
Greater urban densot is sorely needed, if SRL kick starts significant change maybe it’s worth it. But it appears the west is being left out. Also with SRL contracts close to being signed I can’t see any major design changes e.g. no extra stations.
Interested in you views @Daniel on SRL in the context of government’s limited resources and priorities you see for transport. What would you ditch to fund SRL and what would you spend on if the money had to go somewhere else?
I’d like to see investment to improve existing system to be far more frequent, electrification to the rapidly growing outer western suburbs, city loop modification and metro tunnel two. Plenty of room for improvement to buses and bike infrastructure too.
Also, any idea how the line would run from Sunshine to Werribee? It looks an afterthought to give the illusion of balance some time past 2050. It’s as long or longer than SRL east and shown without any stops

A big factor in choosing bus or rail is the future.

Buses have to share roads, and even with dedicated lanes where practical still have to negotiate junctions. The whole point of these developments is to provide for a future of growth. That means the routes for busses will get more congested with other traffic, and so journey times will lengthen.

A train route can be upgraded over time to allow driverless trains at ever closer intervals to provide more and more capacity

Trains are costly in the short term but has already been proven throughout the world, they are a most valuable asset for the future.

Busses are great feeders for trains but slow for long journeys and do not offer good long term solutions for city traffic. Sometime in the future these loops will no longer be on the town periphery but within the dense urban area and if you decide later to upgrade to rail say for capacity or speed reasons it will cost much much more and be more disruptive to install.

So see the bus as a stopgap.

I am in the west and I understand, we are pretty much used to getting shafted with road projects getting priority out here instead of public transport, which is largely centred on the leafy eastern suburbs. If the government has enough money for the West Gate “Tunnel” (which the western suburbs didn’t ask for, but Transurban did in exchange for an extension to the CityLink concession) then there is easily more than enough money to upgrade the Melton and Wyndham Vale lines to allow eletric trains. But unfortunately, politics does play a role, as has been highlighted in the post about East West Link in which I made a comment on how Daniel Andrews was against East West Link but imposed a tollway on the western suburbs.

@indigohex3, the sad reality is that’s not how the states finances or market capacity work. The Vic gov has chosen how it will spend it’s limited capacity, likely for a least the next decade. A potential inference from the recent pausing of a spate of projects is the State has reached, likely breached, its spending capacity for the foreseeable future and the west doesn’t hold any weight in the governments political calculations. The size and duration of SRL investment locks in that choice.

The government revenue is higher than its ever been yet the big build is largely funded with additional debt, reducing future spending capacity. The pipeline has grown faster than capacity to deliver so we’re getting less bang for our buck due to inflated labour and material costs. If (when) there is a bump in the economic road the capacity to take on any new significant projects could disappear for decades. We’ll be left committed to SRL and the west will be left having to make do with longer and longer VLocity trains

I think there should be a stop somewhere else rather than Sunshine because it connects more transporters. Maybe near Watergarden?

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