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Many know about Melbourne's Night Network. It was a high profile project that replaced the bus-only NightRider service five years ago. It includes all Metro train lines (running every hour) and six tram lines (running every half-hour) to provide 66 hours of continuous service from Friday morning to Sunday night. Plus there are some regional city coaches and 21 special overnight bus routes. About half leave from the CBD with another half as feeders from suburban stations. All are different to daytime routes and their network profile and usage is generally low. Sometimes there are four hour gaps between when regular buses finish (typically 9pm) and Night Network buses kick in (typically 1am). And after they finish there's another large gap until regular routes resume, particularly on Sunday mornings. Night Network buses appear as dotted lines on local area network maps but these are mostly online only affairs that are rarely displayed at stations and other interchange points.Hence, even on weekends, Melbourne has no consistent, truly 24 hour bus routes unlike what trains and some trams get. Except for Skybus to the airport which ran 24 hours pre-COVID. What about other Australian capitals? This is one purpose of today's post. Read it to get an idea of what other cities have. We'll start at those with the least and end at those with the most. Later I'll discuss whether we can draw ideas from them for Melbourne. PerthDespite being bigger and with an younger population than little old Adelaide, one senses that Perth doesn't have much in the nightlife department. Most of what it has is either in Fremantle or Northbridge. The latter was for many years on the wrong side of the tracks relative to the Central Business District (with the emphasis on 'Business' for the latter). Northbridge was not a precinct most walked past on the way to the station and has been infamous for bashings. Also, Perth's car ownership is sky-high, everyone has a parking spot and its 'inner city' cultural scene is small. Living near the coast or river is valued and on hot days people prize their early morning swim, sail or surf more than a late night out. Or even an early night out, given shorter shop trading hours than 'over east'. Maybe that's a trifle unfair. Or maybe not given Perth's slim after midnight service offerings. Yes, there are late Friday and Saturday night trains but that's all. Trains depart at approximately 1 and 2 am to the five main termini (Butler, Midland, Armadale, Mandurah, Fremantle). Inbound trains also operate. Late buses ran maybe 10 or 15 years ago on a few routes but ceased, presumably due to low patronage. Because the rail network has only five main lines the lack of buses leaves many areas without late night coverage, particularly in the north-east suburbs and across much of the south. Having said that, you can still have half a night out in Perth; far more of its regular bus routes are still running after 11pm Monday to Saturday than in Melbourne. AdelaideAdelaide does the opposite to Perth. No late night trains but lots of buses. Although only on Saturday night. Buses go to the edge and even beyond the metropolitan area and rail network, with termini in places like Gawler, Seaford, Semaphore and Mt Barker. They have route numbers starting with N. Adelaide has a complex local bus network, largely due to the defeat of plans to simplify it last year. However one good feature is most after midnight routes are similar to daytime routes with related route numbers (often the same with a N prefix). And when you look up timetables for the daytime route you will see times for the night route listed as well. An example is N178 to Newton which follows the longer daytime Route 178 to Paradise. Their night buses are typically hourly from about midnight to 4am on Sunday mornings. There is then typically a break until Sunday morning services commence with regular daytime route numbers (an alphabet soup in themselves). And, like Perth, many regular suburban bus routes run until about 11pm. Does anything run 24 hours over at least one 42 hour period? It looks like that at least the O-Bahn does. Its N1 night service runs every 30 minutes between Tea Tree Plaza and the CBD. Then, on the Sunday morning service resumes, unbroken on the J1A route (a short-working of the J1 route that runs to Glenelg via the airport). Oddly, though the N1 route also has short-workings (the full route stats at Golden Grove, with shorter trips starting at Tea Tree Plaza) the numbering convention is different with no letter suffix identifier for short trips on overnight routes. BrisbaneBrisbane runs a mix of 1am - 5am train and bus services. Details in the handy folding 'pocket pal' leaflet. The trains run a skeleton three-line service, with just one trip before 4am (both Friday and Saturday nights) to the north (Caboolture), south (Beenleigh) and west (Ipswich). Of note though is that Brisbane starts its regular trains around 5am on Saturday and especially Sunday mornings. This is much earlier than Adelaide or Perth. Its 15 or 20 premium regular bus routes also have long operating hours but most of the rest finish early, with far shorter hours than Perth, Adelaide and even Melbourne. 19 overnight bus routes operate on Friday and Saturday nights between midnight and 5am. Most depart from Fortitude Valley, Brisbane's night spot just outside the CBD. Like Adelaide most have a N + 3 digits route number format. The exception are the two CityGlider routes (60 and 61) which keep their regular route number. This creates a problem because the two Glider routes are missing from the Translink website when NightLink is selected. Take off the N and the routes are similar to the regular high frequency 'BUZ' radial routes that form the premium part of the network on busways and key corridors in between. This makes for a legible network. Services operate hourly except for the two CityGliders (every 15 or 30 minutes). Far more of the network operates 24/7 over the weekends compared to Adelaide due to the early am starts of the premium BUZ routes. The trade-off is outer area coverage; whereas Adelaide's night buses run to the outer areas, Brisbane's night buses are overall more numerous but are largely confined to the Brisbane City Council area. This leaves much of outer Brisbane without coverage, one of the many examples where artificial boundaries and organisational demarcations hold its network back, more so than anywhere else in Australia. Gold CoastNot a capital city but I'll mention it anyway. On weekends it has two overnight services running; the G-link tram every 30 minutes from Gold Coast University Hospital to Broadbeach South and the Route 700 bus every 15 minutes from Broadbeach South to Tweed Heads. During the small hours on weekdays the tram doesn't run but the 700 bus starts at Gold Coast University Hospital, thus replacing the tram. Service then is every 30 minutes. Thus the Gold Coast has some form of 24/7 transport along its coastal strip never operating less frequently than every 30 minutes. It also has a 'pocket pal' timetable describing these services. SydneySydney has a mixture of N-numbered buses that replace rail services and regular numbered buses that run 24 hours. What it lacks in trains and trams operating is made up for in operating hours for the replacement buses that run with most corridors enjoying a 7 night service. Consequently Sydney's 24/7 network is by far the most extensive in Australia. The Guide to Late Night Travel tells you what's running what (below - click for better view).
Typical frequencies are 60 minutes for the train replacement services with Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights sometimes getting a 30 minute service. Regular routes that run 24/7 are mostly in a part of the eastern suburbs away from trains. The main exception is the B-Line to the Northern Beaches that also operates 24/7 between Mona Vale and Wynyard. This operates as BN1 and is unfortunately on a different pdf timetable to the standard B1 (although the maps show both routes). Melbourne nowNow we come to Melbourne. Night Network information is on the PTV website here. Maps are over here. Night Network Metro trains and some trams provide continuous 24 hour transport on weekends, with extended service on both Friday and Saturday nights. In terms of all modes operating on weekends, Melbourne leads the country. However buses often have multi-hour gaps because of the short operating hours on both regular and Night Network buses as mentioned before. And, unlike what we saw for Sydney and the Gold Coast no regular ticketed public transport corridor has services 24/7/365 (even if it's a bus at some times). Our unfortunate tradition of single mode thinking in passenger information is alive and well on the Night Network. For example the Night Tram map doesn't show Night Network buses, even those that serve tram corridors. Not only that but a note on the tram network map saying that 'routes and stops that do not have Night Network services are shown in grey'. Actually some do - with buses. The tram map should have advised this, even if just with a Night Bus label and route number. The Night Network tram map could also label streets, just like the more complex regular tram network map now does.
As an example, Lygon St is one of Melbourne's key tram corridors quite near Melbourne University. It has 24 hour weekend service in conjunction with the 955 Night Network bus. But you wouldn't know it if you just looked at the Night Network tram map above or the limited detail Night Network bus map shown later. The only way you'd know is if you went out of your way to look it up or plan a journey. Another example of patronage being stymied by DoT officials' limited ability to effectively see, communicate and market the network is presented here.
The bus map is below. Unlike the recently improved tram map that labels the streets trams run on, the Night Bus map does not. This is even though tram streets are more visible and known than Night Bus streets. Combined with the special routes and route numbers, the effect of this is to keep Night Bus a relative mystery and contribute to its poor patronage performance. (click for better view).
The Night Bus network had its origin in the previous bus-only NightRider network. It sought to retain coverage of that network while avoiding duplicating the trains and trams that were added in 2016. That required some design compromises, most notably to retain and expand coverage at the expense of directness and simplicity. It was a 'smell of an oily rag' network with some suburban routes trying to do the coverage work of two or three daytime routes. Having special routes is confusing. And it's led to poor usage of the bus component of Night Network . For example trips on some routes only occasionally see passengers, even pre-COVID. And it gives rise to areas and corridors that have better service at 2am Sunday than 2pm Sunday (though to be fair that's mostly due to a dysfunctional regular route network). Melbourne future What are some possibilities for a future better used Night Network? Potential improvements could be along the lines of: 1. Legibility (making Night Network routes like popular daytime bus routes, including using the same route number and publishing them in regular timetables so it's not seen as a 'special service'). 2. Span (including full 24 hour operation over weekends for buses that currently lack it, and, more radically, providing a service on other nights of the week like parts of Sydney have)3. Frequency (providing better than hourly frequency on more lines/routes, especially trains) 4. Coverage (current Night Network has inferior coverage to daytime service)5. More of it running as trains and/or trams for more of the time.If an expensive mix of the above is chosen one should pause to think about opportunity costs before acting. Melbourne's daytime bus network is notoriously confusing and infrequent in many areas, particularly the City of Knox, Greater Dandenong and the Mornington Peninsula. And key routes have no or limited services 7 days of the week. If you wanted maximum 'bang for the buck' you would be fixing regular bus networks before adding Night Network trips that will likely have below average occupancy. The same goes with trains; you'll get more patronage returns per train added if you were to boost infrequent Sunday morning and 7pm - midnight service (all days) to every 20 minutes than extend train operating hours. The relative costs versus benefits of extended train operating hours are magnified when station, PSO and other staffing costs are counted. Whereas boosting frequency within existing operating hours is far cheaper per service added. Another disbenefit of full 24/7 train service is added difficulty of scheduling maintenance and the increase in line shutdowns for it. More shutdowns may happen when more people are travelling which inconveniences more people. If there was a will to improve the Night Network then the most cost-effective ways forward are likely to involve a combination of 1, 2 and later 3. Probably in that order. You might start with adding Night Network trips to your strongest performing regular bus routes to see what coverage you can get versus the existing 'custom' Night Bus routes. Popular established routes that are (a) direct, busy and long operating hours CBD-based radial services or (b) serve large and high bus using populations remote from stations might be the best candidates for upgrades. This is especially where you can delete existing indirect Night Network routes in an area without losing too much coverage. Looking at the bus map a few examples almost draw themselves. For example: * The 970 is a lot like the well-known 788 on the Mornington Peninsula. Could added 788 trips replace the 970 in that area to provide a simpler service with one route number?* Caulfield to Rowville on the 969 looks a bit like the busy 900 SmartBus while the also popular 907 could replace trips on the 961. * In the west, the 942 looks roughly like the busy 220 plus part of the 420 beyond Sunshine. Could one or both operate all night to replace the special route? Converting some of the above could be quite cheap. This is because routes like the 900, 907 and 220 are already long hours routes. That makes full 24 hour service on weekends highly affordable. It's only four or five routes but they are high profile ones that introduce a 'big city' service concept to Melbourne. There might be some coverage gaps created. But they would be less likely to provoke an angry reaction from Aunty Mavis than if the same coverage was removed during the day. On patronage the only way is up as existing usage is so low and you are boosting some of the busiest and most well known routes on the network to make them 24 hours. Just like Adelaide, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sydney already do. There would be a certain demographic who would base their housing decision on whether there is 24 hour public transport nearby. That would further increasing use of the upgraded services, not only in the wee hours but daytime as well. Such gains could exceed what you might lose from any coverage lost by moving Night Bus from dedicated to regular routes. In other cases you may be able to serve tram corridors with buses. This is promising for patronage because tram corridors also have people open to using public transport day and night living along them. The key thing to make the Night Bus work is for its service as similar as possible to the tram it replaces. For example the 59 tram alignment (serving transport minister Ben Carroll's Niddrie electorate) could be served by a Night Bus that merges parts of the existing 951 and 952 routes but more closely replicates the tram's route, like the Gold Coast example mentioned before. To reinforce this relationship you might give it a route number that reminds people of the tram, eg N59 (a style other cities follow). It might be too much to expect given technical and organisational boundaries, but such a service would receive a further boost if data for it was included on Tram Tracker. This won't fix everything everywhere. There will still need to be some special Night Bus routes that are different to regular routes to fully cover some areas. But even if half of the Night Network buses was replaced with upgraded regular routes it would be a step forward for 24 hour public transport in Melbourne. Then, if it's successful you might consider running selected busier routes on other nights to provide 24/7/365 service like Sydney does. Some people have said that the SmartBus orbitals should run 24 hours. Personally I'd shy away from this due to the expense of even an hourly service. Parts of some orbitals hardly justify themselves during the day, let alone in the small hours. And the hourly frequencies of Night Network trains make train/orbital connections chancy if not impossible. So you would leave out all the orbitals until you had a stronger radial network including trains every 30 minutes or better. But I wouldn't exclude the potential of running parts of some busier circumferential routes 24 hours. For example the 903 across the inner north (especially if it becomes the 904 discussed here) could be a prospect. In other cases non-SmartBus routes might align with high demand potential catchments better. For instance the 733 between Box Hill - Mt Waverley, Monash University and Clayton (such as I recommend as being a Suburban Rail Loop SmartBus) could be a front-runner given its strong destinations. As might be the 246, 508 or even 402 between various inner suburbs and even routes in low car ownership outer suburbs like Tarneit or Craigieburn.
Grounds for optimism?
The last five years have been slim pickings for followers of bus network reform in Melbourne. Will it be the same for our Night Network buses, or will reform here be faster?
On this there are grounds for cautious optimism.
Subscribers to the Tenders Victoria notifications for transport might recall that about a year ago expressions of interest were sought for the running of Night Network 'bespoke bus services'. The observant will have seen that the routes listed in the service specification vary from current (Page 2). And page 4 tantalisingly refers to 'regular bus routes with 24 hour weekend service' along with the bespoke (ie special) routes put out to tender.
Operation was intended to start in November 2020 but slipped, due to COVID-19, to March 2021 according to the front of the specification. Nothing happened then either. Maybe we'll get it later this year, or, if not, then next? We don't yet know for sure.
Announcements of start dates of revised services are sometimes given several weeks or even more beforehand, so pay more than usual attention to releases. Sometimes local MPs publish more detail on their Facebook pages or Twitter than is initially put out by DoT/PTV.
Also worth monitoring are the timetables on the PTV website. If you ever get wind that something might be changing it is sometimes useful to check the end dates of timetables. If it isn't 31 December of the current year then something might be afoot. Later a new timetable might appear, showing added or revised times. Also search that route by number as, especially where a route change is involved, it may be listed separately with a start date set into the future.
ConclusionCompared to other cities Melbourne's trains and trams are more advanced with regards to late night services but its buses are less advanced and more complicated. And we have no true 24 hour 365 days per week public transport on any mode. Is it worth even discussing boosting our Night Network when the regular daytime network still has so many problems? Or is something approaching 24/7 public transport seen as an essential for any big city? Politically, at least, the latter seems true. 24/7 transport has a touch of glamour about it. In this it's more like airport rail and less like plain old local bus network reform (which despite the latter's wider benefits keeps getting overlooked). So we might get some improvements at least to Night Network's bus component sooner than a lot of other bus reform. What are your thoughts on this? Are there particular bus routes that should become 24 hours on weekends? Or maybe 24 hours all week? Comments are invited and can be left below. More Timetable Tuesday items hereThis item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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