Category Archives: Newsletters

Big Build burnout?

While we all want a better transport system, disruption fatigue is becoming a real factor for passengers, particularly on the train network.

On some lines, there have now been major disruptions every year since 2016.

Not all of these are in the name of better rail services. This winter a two week shutdown of lines to western Melbourne will be primarily for construction of a WestGate Tunnel off-ramp.

The Cranbourne/Pakenham line continues to be hit with rail replacement buses, despite years of work to remove level crossings, upgrade power supplies, rationalise track around Caulfield, and build the Metro tunnel.

Recent shutdowns have included weekday peak hours to enable testing of new high capacity signalling systems.

There are numerous shorter disruptions, some affecting weekdays as well as evenings and weekends. In fact there are so many that there is now information overload on the official web sites, making it increasingly difficult to find what is relevant to your journey.

This is not helped by incomplete, incorrect and sometimes contradictory information. It’s almost as if officials themselves are confused about the disruptions.

If you are brave enough to travel, replacement buses are very hit and miss. Sometimes they are frequent and fast; sometimes they are delayed, slow and packed.

Anecdotally, all these disruptions are contributing to more people driving, or choosing not to travel at all.

For passengers on the Cranbourne/Pakenham lines, every week this year except one has seen planned bus replacements at one time or another.

But the real danger is that passengers will give up on the rail network, and switch to driving permanently.

Buses replacing trains

For the most part, the closures are in the name of a better, more reliable public transport network.

But can multiple projects be coordinated? Can the closures and replacement buses be better planned and resourced, so they cause less disruption?

In the first weekend in June, shutdowns of the Frankston and Dandenong lines started on a Friday night just as a big game at the MCG finished up. If works could have started an hour later, a lot of buses and bother would have been saved for footy crowds.

It’s also worth considering the Level Crossing Removal Program. It’s been highly successful at providing newer DDA-compliant stations, improving safety, and cutting delays to buses, trams, cyclists, pedestrians and cars alike.

But is also incredibly disruptive and expensive, and for most projects, train service increases and local bus route reform have not resulted.

Can the LXRP be better planned by removing crossings on a line-by-line basis rather than revisiting and disrupting lines repeatedly over years?

And now that many of the worst crossings have been removed (or are underway), is it time the government pivoted away from constant construction and started prioritising service upgrades?

We all want upgrades, but if budgetary pressures force Victoria’s Big Build to slow down and prioritise, will long suffering passengers be complaining?

From the PTUA’s June member newsletter.

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Why ignoring the timetable might be good for passengers

The release of the Victorian government’s bus plan has highlighted many planned initiatives, but one that got some attention is ‘rapid running’. This article from the PTUA’s June member newsletter explains what it means.

If you’ve ever been on a bus that sat waiting at a time point for its scheduled departure time, a new Department of Transport trial might be of interest.

Since March, route 246 has been testing ‘rapid running’. This means that during frequent times (when buses are every 10 minutes) buses will depart from the terminus on time, but then not stop and wait for the schedule along the length of the route.

Instead of using printed timetables, passengers are encouraged to use real-time information on their mobile phone via the PTV or other apps, and of course the high frequency means waiting times don’t normally exceed 10 minutes.

The immediate benefit to passengers is a faster ride once on the bus.

Longer term benefits include that authorities may be able to run additional services without needing extra funding.

We’re also told it can ease the case for on-road priority, as any measures taken to speed up buses are certain to be useful, rather than simply resulting in even longer waits at time points.

So far the feedback on route 246 from local passengers has been mostly positive, in part because the route punctuality is normally so poor due to traffic that the timetables were rarely accurate!

DOT are looking at expanding the trial to other routes, including testing the concept with slightly less frequent routes running at a 15 minute frequency.

PTUA has been consulted on the trial. While we agree that a 10 minute service can work well with this arrangement, we’re not sure if 15 minutes is frequent enough. There are also concerns about passengers without smartphones. That said, we are keen to see what the trial finds.

Since Tram Tracker was introduced more than a decade ago, many tram users have switched to using real-time information instead of timetables.

The provision of real-time information for buses and trains has followed, but some passengers still unaware of it.

Whether ‘rapid running’ ends up on more routes or not, better promotion of real-time information would make a lot of sense.

And certainly on routes with 10 minute services, ‘rapid running’ seems to have a lot of merit.

And of course, Victoria’s public transport network could do with a lot more routes running every 10 minutes.

This article is from the PTUA’s June member newsletter. To get regular news from the PTUA, and support our campaign for better public transport, join as a member.

In defence of buses

From time to time politicians and others push the misleading line that passengers don’t like buses, and that they’re only a last resort form of public transport. It’s true that​ patronage on many bus routes is poor, but this is because the service is poor, and because bus​ routes are poorly understood by potential passengers.​ ​

The solution to this is to roll out more SmartBus style bus routes, and upgrade existing routes​ to SmartBus standards, which provide direct, high frequency “tram like”​ services. SmartBuses run at least every 15 minutes through the day on weekdays, and more frequently​ during the peaks. They also provide quite direct routes with no meandering through the back​ streets. That’s why they’re popular.​ ​

The parts of the SmartBus network which serve major activity centres, and Doncaster Area Rapid Transit ​ (DART) SmartBuses, prove that good bus services can attract high patronage. In recent times DART routes ​ have suffered severe peak period overcrowding. Some orbital SmartBus services in the Box Hill and ​ Chadstone areas also have overcrowding problems. If good services are provided, people will use them.​ ​

Many other bus services run every hour or less, and take roundabout routes. That’s why people ​ don’t use them. It’s not about rubber wheels or diesel engines – it’s about frequency and directness.​ ​

Comparing SmartBus experience on weekends versus weekdays is also instructive. On​ weekdays, when SmartBuses run every 15 minutes, patronage is far better than on weekends when they only​ run every 30 minutes. In the DART case, this frequency issue is exacerbated by the fact that Ringwood ​ line trains run every 10 minutes on weekends. It appears that quite a few people who would catch a ​ SmartBus on weekdays, drive to a train station on weekends. Weekend SmartBuses must be upgraded to at least every 15 minutes. Again, it’s not about rubber wheels or ​diesel engines. It’s about frequency.​

Another important problem is most people’s lack of understanding of bus routes and frequencies. Most​ people have some level of familiarity with Melbourne’s train and tram routes, and once you find​ a train station or tram stop, you can generally expect a train or tram to show up within 20 minutes (during​ the day at least). By comparison, most bus stops are a lottery. Even with a bus tracker app in hand, just​ showing up at a bus stop is brave. Research in advance is mandatory!​ ​

SmartBus routes are again an example of how this can be much better done. SmartBus stops​ typically have maps of the SmartBus routes, and people know these routes have reasonably​ frequent services. Similar maps of direct, higher frequency bus routes across Melbourne more generally​ are needed. Bus routes should be colour coded for frequency, so people can see what combination​ of routes is likely to be “interchange friendly”. These maps should be provided at bus stops as​ well as online.​

SmartBus electronic signage should be enhanced to indicate when there are alternative bus routes between major hubs on SmartBus routes. This will help in some situations where passengers are being left behind because buses are full, but other buses have empty seats which could have been used, e.g. between Chadstone and Oakleigh Station. ​

Interchange is another area where Melbourne’s bus system desperately needs improvement. Even​ where high frequency routes cross, e.g. where DART routes cross orbital SmartBuses, often no​ effort has been made to put bus stops on intersecting routes close together, no signage to​ other bus stops is provided, and no services are provided at interchange points. Even​ a convenience store which sells coffee, newspapers and Myki topups, and has a big map of the ​ SmartBus network on display, would be a big improvement.​

Other road infrastructure enhancements which can significantly speed up buses, are dedicated bus lanes, jump start lanes at traffic lights, and traffic light priority for such lanes. ​

New train and tram lines are great when the political will and funding can be found, but realistically such​ new lines will be built only rarely. For the two thirds of Melbourne which doesn’t have train or tram​ services, high quality bus services are the only option. We can’t afford to let politicians dodge this​ necessity by claiming that people don’t want buses.

PTUA February newsletter

PTUA members! The February newsletter is now out, and covers Infrastructure Australia, the true cost of roads, the mobile Myki trial, reports from our Geelong and Ballarat branches, and more.

If you’re a current member you should have received it via mail or email. Didn’t get yours? Email the office: office at

Not a member? Join here!

Lacklustre debut for route 58, while other tram routes suffer

On 1 May Yarra Trams commenced running a new tram route 58, a reorganisation of existing routes to West Coburg and Toorak.

This change had been a long time in planning, and was aimed at providing a higher daytime frequency on the increasingly popular William Street route, and providing a direct east-west connection complementing the well-established north-south corridor on St Kilda Road.

On paper, the route reorganisation helps strengthen the overall tram network and the PTUA has supported it. It was understood many travellers (particularly off-peak on the 55) would see an improvement in frequency. Others would see route changes but no reduction in service (specifically from Toorak Rd to the city, where the service now runs direct to William St, and the previous route to Swanston St requires a change).

It’s unfortunate then that the introduction of the new route has been far from seamless. The first week of operation was marred by frequent reports of long delays, overcrowding, and an overall deterioration from the usual standard of service on the former route 55. While the 58 has been advertised as bringing low-floor accessible trams to the West Coburg route for the first time, the actual service has been provided with an apparently random mixture of D-class, B-class and Z-class trams. Anecdotally, of these only the B-class (with step access) has provided adequate capacity to meet passenger demand consistently.

The problems are partly attributed to the service being run from two separate depots: Essendon (the home of the old route 55) and Malvern (home to the old route 8). Up to now only Malvern depot has had access to the low floor D-class trams. The two-depot operation appears to have inherent problems, which were also seen some years ago when an earlier version of route 8 was run jointly from Brunswick and Malvern depots.

Meanwhile, the (partial) low-floor operation has highlighted the absence of accessible platform stops in William Street. The most immediate need is for a platform stop at Flagstaff station, which would then provide an accessible connection via train and tram to the Royal Melbourne, Royal Women’s and Royal Children’s Hospitals.

At the same time, the reorganisation appears to have provided the impetus for a wholesale tram timetable change covering all routes. Aspects of this new timetable are of concern. In particular (as reported in The Age on 4 April) Yarra Trams and PTV have actually reduced frequency on some lines at particular times, defying the obvious growth in patronage over the past two years (and not only inside the troubled Free Tram Zone).

For some time it has been evident that the sudden drop in frequency from better than every 10 minutes to once every 20 between 7pm and 8pm on most routes has placed strain on mid-evening service. This appears to have been exacerbated with (for example) the loss of the 10 minute frequency that had operated on Friday evenings until 9pm – it now reduces to every 20 minutes after 8pm, as it does on other weeknights.

As analysis in an earlier PTUA News has reported, Yarra Trams operates very nearly a ‘break even’ service. Leaving aside the ongoing renewal of the tram fleet, and the contract bonuses paid to Yarra Trams, the share of revenue attributed to tram use very nearly matches the raw recurrent cost of operation. This is a superior level of cost recovery, to say the least, relative not just to other Victorian public transport but to the majority of public transport systems around the world. With this performance should come a willingness to invest in additional service across the board, to cater for burgeoning demand.

This article is from our May 2017 newsletter. Want more? Join us!

V/Line: Jack of all trades…?

V/Line has been very much a victim of its own success over the last decade, with each new investment, from Regional Fast Rail to the Regional Rail Link, resulting in a boom in passenger numbers.

This shows that when governments invest in a decent public transport option, people will flock to it – but unfortunately the number of passengers has grown faster than the number of services, and passengers are suffering from widespread overcrowding, not just in peak times. While infrastructure bottlenecks are a contributing factor on some lines, the reality is that V/Line’s fleet is simply not big enough to cope with demand – in some cases, the problem is not a lack of frequency, but 3-carriage trains running when a 6-carriage train is needed.

The recent state budget includes an order for 39 additional VLocity carriages, which will allow Bombardier to keep producing trains after the current order is completed. Ultimately this will have a positive impact, but unfortunately it doesn’t change the rate the carriages come off the production line at all – so there appears to be little relief coming in the immediate future.

An underlying issue, especially on the Ballarat and Geelong lines, is that V/Line is expected to do two things at once, which means that it can’t do either of them well. It is effectively running a suburban service to places like Tarneit, Wyndham Vale and Melton, which have booming populations and passenger numbers, while at the same time running regional commuter services to places like Ballarat and Geelong.

One effect of that is that passenger loads vary dramatically along the line – there might be crush loads close to the city but more comfortable conditions further away. Another effect is that rolling stock needs to be diverted to short-run services to Melton, Bacchus Marsh or Wyndham Vale, which means longer-distance trains have to run with fewer carriages.

In its 30-year plan released in 2016, Infrastructure Victoria recommended that the line to Melton be electrified within 10-15 years. The government says that it won’t be possible until the Melbourne Metro tunnel opens in 2026, due to a lack of capacity in the CBD – so it’s clearly seen as something that would happen towards the end of that time period. The planned electrification to Wyndham Vale does not appear to even be on Infrastructure Victoria’s radar, but presumably the same rationale would apply as with the Melton line – not until the tunnel is finished (and who knows how long after?)

If that is the case, it’s clear that planning for the electrification projects should begin as soon as possible, so they can be built at the same time as the tunnel, meaning that both open at the same time. If the government is to fix the underlying issues with V/Line overcrowding, moving the quasi-suburban services to the Metro network must be a priority.

This article is from our May 2017 newsletter. Want more? Join us!

PTUA tours Regional Rail Link

PTUA's Paul Westcott and Tony Morton with RRL's Corey HannettOn July 15 the Regional Rail Link (RRL) took a significant step towards completion when the new pair of tracks from Sunshine to Southern Cross was used for the first time by Ballarat and Bendigo trains.

Just before the new section opened, the PTUA’s Tony Morton, Daniel Bowen and Paul Westcott were given an escorted tour of the whole project by RRL Authority CEO, Corey Hannett. The huge scale of the undertaking was impressive and is difficult to sum up in a brief report. In most ways it is larger than the Melbourne Underground Loop project of the 1970s.

With a couple of exceptions, the RRL Authority has done an outstanding job of delivering the unfortunately flawed scheme that was handed to it. The work is certain to be finished about a year ahead of schedule, and the consequent savings have offset the cost of some notable improvements over what was originally proposed.
Continue reading PTUA tours Regional Rail Link

Better signalling = more trains. How moving block signalling could boost capacity across Melbourne’s rail network

New thinking is signalled for Melbourne’s transport woes

Signals near Footscray, RRLMelbourne faces big decisions about what kind of city it wants to be in the 21st century.

Our State Government is now driven by a vision drawn from Los Angeles. The East West Link promises not merely to increase levels of car and truck traffic and pollution. Worse, it will guarantee there are no funds available to improve transport for decades.

Meanwhile, such official backing as has existed for public transport has focussed almost exclusively on the 9km ‘Melbourne Metro’ rail tunnel. While undeniably a more worthwhile project than the East West Link (and with a higher benefit-cost ratio) the Metro tunnel has monopolised public transport planners’ attention to the point where it has all but blinded them to the existence of less costly but more beneficial improvements.

The Metro tunnel is promoted as the ‘magic pill’ solving every problem with the rail network — a claim it cannot possibly live up to in reality. To rationalise the single-minded devotion to tunnels, planners within PTV have got into the habit of claiming it is a prerequisite for virtually any other improvement — even when it bears no logical connection at all!

The rail network would benefit substantially more from measures that bring it up to date with the state of the art in European urban rail systems. A good benchmark is the Paris ‘RER’ suburban network, which shares many features with ours: it operates on double track, with lines that combine in the city but branch into three or four parts in the suburbs. One difference is that the RER operates double-deck trains, which makes it vulnerable to dwell-time issues at key stations at least as severe as ours.
Continue reading Better signalling = more trains. How moving block signalling could boost capacity across Melbourne’s rail network