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Most of Melbourne's bus network reflects a patchwork of initiatives at various times. For example some got service increases while others didn't. Governments may have cut funding to some but not others. Or a new route may have been layered over an existing unchanged network. With few exceptions (eg 2010 when multiple SmartBus routes commenced) new initiatives represent only a small proportion of what's already there and, in recent times much less than population growth.
The result, in many areas, is a complex network where routes do not reflect current needs and timetables are remnants of planning practice years and sometimes decades ago.
Night Network has been the biggest metropolitan-wide public transport service initiative since the SmartBus orbitals went in about ten years ago. It was high profile, forming the main PT service policy of the victorious Labor Party in 2014. It comprises service over the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings on all regular Metro train lines, six tram routes and approximately twenty special overnight only bus routes.
I haven't talked much about Night Network here. That's been an oversight.
What became Night Network was known as 'Homesafe' before the election. There were concerns about alcohol fuelled violence with people staying in the city longer than they should have. Taxis were expensive and the only public transport was Night Rider buses. These were quite well used but considered marginal to a city that traditionally shuns buses in favour of trains and trams. There was also an aim to grow the city's night time economy and improve the ability of the food and entertainment workers who drive it to get to and from jobs.
Night Network then got sold by civic leaders as one of those symbolic things that defines how we see and sell ourselves as a city, especially when compared to what some might regard as 'rivals' eg Sydney. The Night Network gives substance to the narrative that only Melbourne is a 24 hour city, open for business, as opposed to Sydney's airport curfew and (recently repealed) late night lockout rules. And every politician's communication adviser loves a story to tell.
Big narratives can sometimes be a crutch for measures that on their own are counterproductive ('Free' Tram Zone) silly (expensive station roofs), expensive (high speed rail), or, at best, carry high opportunity costs. This is because once a measure becomes entwined with a favoured narrative, it tends to get exemption from serious analysis. Where this happens cheaper less glamorous but more beneficial initiatives like bus service upgrades in high-needs seats like Mulgrave, (held by state premier Daniel Andrews) can get crowded out.
Night Network trains, trams and buses carry more people than the previous bus-only system. It largely fixed the ridiculously late starting time of Sunday trains in Melbourne that hindered so many peoples travel. And it made our transport a bit more job-ready, an important but often overlooked network planning aim. These gains are not to be sneezed at.
Not widely discussed in polite company though is Night Network's cost-effectiveness. It can't be very high, at least for its rail component. Imagine all those bored station staff and PSOs just to support hourly trains. And running Night Network trains means that maintenance is shifted to busier times when more people are forced onto substitute buses.
In an echo of elite-dominated 'Free' Tram Zone and airport rail debates, 'Hang the opportunity costs, we're building a world city' seems the prevailing view among our civic leaders. Of course, especially where associated with councils or the federal government, such leaders can virtue signal all they like but don't have to fund transport services themselves as that's a state government job.
One could also argue that Night Network trains constitute symbolic more than useful transport due to the hourly frequency. And our provincial-style thirty minute waits between trains in the five hours of evening leading up to Night Network are two or three times longer than those in any city we'd want to compare ourselves (including Sydney). That's important. Especially for people who need to get to work on time, such as required to drive the night time economy. If you define 20 minutes as an acceptable minimum service frequency, all but one of Melbourne's train lines comply for just 9 of the day's 24 hours on a Sunday.
Upgrading evening train frequencies seven nights per week and running after 1am service as quarter to half-hourly buses, as more common elsewhere, might have been a better service mix with wider benefits. I'd certainly have favoured this in the pre-Night Network era if given a choice. Unfortunately, for our international city-spruiking coterie such an improvement, though very beneficial, may seem mundane, lacking the 'wow factor' of all night trains. To summarise, Night Network's rail component wins points as a city-strengthening initiative. However, apart from the Sunday morning upgrade, it's weaker as a transport policy.
What about Night Network buses? These rank among the quietest routes on the network. Possibly because they run on special routes that people don't know (daytime buses are hard enough to fathom in many areas). You might cut almost empty Night Buses some slack because a developed bus network should be more than just peak hour commuters and school students. However such arguments weaken when even daytime service is poor or non-existent. Consider that when reading what follows.
I've cited Night Network because it was implemented as a metropolitan wide network in one go. When Night Network came to an area nothing else about its public transport changed. That's not unreasonable because regular services are not usually operating during Night Network hours.
But it does leaves oddities in the service. For example (with exceptions) your average suburb's buses finish around 9pm on a Friday or Saturday. But if it has a Night Network bus an hourly service returns around 1 or 2am after four hours of no service.
In other cases an area might have a better service at 2am on a Sunday than 2pm on a Sunday or even weekday. The roads are busier at 2pm than 2am but Night Network's coming gave certain places more service where demand was least.
Where are these places? Where can you find better public transport at 2am on a Sunday than at 2pm Sunday? That's today's topic. Six examples below:
* 952 vs 468 Essendon - Highpoint
Bus route 468 provides a short but potentially important connection between the busy Highpoint Shopping Centre and Essendon Station. The 952 Night Bus almost entirely overlaps it except for a short segment near Buckley St. While Highpoint generates far more traffic at 2pm Sunday than 2am Sunday, the bus connection to Essendon only runs in the wee hours due to 468's limited operating hours. Meanwhile the area's extended hours 903 SmartBus duplicates much of the existing 465 to Buckley St instead of running to Highpoint. More on this here.
The 468 is in the seats of Footscray (Katie Hall MP) and Essendon (Danny Pearson MP).
967 vs 745 Scoresby Rd
Here's a case where the service at 2am Sunday is not only better than that at 2pm Sunday but also any other time of the week. I'm talking about Scoresby Rd south of Bayswater. All it has is the once-daily 745A and some occasional 753 extensions during the day. But it gets a full Night Bus service. This is because the City of Knox never got a full daytime bus network despite it being largely settled thirty years ago. An economical solution for better daytime services on Scoresby Rd is discussed here.
The 745 and 753 are in the seats of Bayswater (Jackson Taylor MP) and Ferntree Gully (Nick Wakeling MP).
978 vs 814 Jacksons Rd
Route 800 runs along most of Princes Hwy between Chadstone, Oakleigh and Dandenong. During the week it's a major route with above-average patronage. However there's no Sunday service and Saturday afternoon service drops to every two hours before finishing around 4pm. In contrast various segments of Night Bus routes operate hourly around 2am Sunday. Another example where better service is provided during quieter times and no service runs during busier times. More on the 800 here. The 814 on Jacksons Rd is another example in the area where there's no Sunday daytime service but buses run in the small hours. A discussion on an improved network for Greater Dandenong is here.
The 800 and 814 are in the seats of Mulgrave (Daniel Andrews MP) and Dandenong (Gabrielle Williams MP).
965 vs 685 and 686 to the Sanctuary
There may be some nocturnal animals there but 2am Sunday is not exactly the busiest time for Healesville Sanctuary. And the charming shops of Healesville's main street won't be open either. Yet it is in the wee hours that it gets its most intensive bus service from Lilydale thanks to the 965 loop. That gives hourly departures with alternating clockwise and anticlockwise directions. Meanwhile, at 2pm on a Sunday the 686 doesn't run while the 685 to Lilydale has two or three hour gaps. More on the 685 here.
The 685 and 686 are in the seats of Eildon (Cindy McLeish MP) and Evelyn (Bridget Vallence MP).
961 vs 281 High Street Templestowe
This is less significant than the others as the distances are shorter. But I thought it worth mentioning anyway. A section of High St only has the 281 and the 309. Neither run Sundays. Even though 281 is a potentially useful route to Shoppingtown. In contrast the 961 runs a half-hourly service in the small hours. A cheap upgrade to the 281 to economically get 7 day more frequent service is discussed here.
The 281 is in the seats of Bulleen (Matthew Guy MP) and Box Hill (Paul Hamer MP).
982 vs 845 in Endeavour Hills
The 982 Night Network bus goes a very similar way to the 845 through Endeavour Hills. The big difference though is the timetables. In the small hours of Sunday it's running hourly. In contrast the 845, like most other Endeavour Hills routes is only every two hours during the day. More on Endeavour Hills buses here.
I've discussed six areas that get better buses at 2am Sunday than during the day (when demand is likely to be higher). Observations are that some Night Network buses are very poorly used. Should we continue with them or would it be better to put some of the resources they use into boosting Sunday daytime services which in some cases is non-existent? While Night Network delivered benefits should we be aware of its opportunity costs where alternatives could have been more widely beneficial? If you have ideas please leave them in the comments below.
PS: An index to all Timetable Tuesday items is here.
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Breaking Point: The Future of Australian Cities
The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees
Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees
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This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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