Tuesday, 9 June 2015

RRL Roundup Part 2: Buses

In Part 1, I talked about how great the changes to the rail network were. Things are less positive when it comes to the bus network. As I said, there are a lot of changes throughout the network, both in Melbourne and in the cities that RRL trains serve - so I can't comment on all of them. Some of the changes in Geelong or Melton may be great for all I know - although one commenter on Part 1 was unimpressed with the Deer Park bus tweaks. Even some of the other routes within Ballarat may have been changed for the better - not riding them every day, I can't be sure. But the route 10 Buninyong bus in Ballarat has been messed with, seemingly for no good reason, and it has made things unequivocally worse.

Wendouree West bus in Ballarat (via jayessaitch on Flickr)
The first thing to note is that timetables were officially launched on Sunday 31 May, just three weeks before the changes go live. That morning I downloaded the ones I use regularly, and started looking through them. When I noticed these problems I wrote to PTV about them, and began writing something more in-depth for the blog. At the time of publishing on Tuesday 09 June, I have not had a response from PTV, but they have uploaded new versions of the timetable PDF at least twice. So it is your typical PTV omnishambles - incorrect information provided later than it should've been - and while I have included two different iterations of the timetable in the post below, another one could be live on their website by the time you read this.

Previously, the Route 10 Buninyong bus had probably the best service of any line in town. It serves Sovereign Hill, various primary and high schools along Main Road in Mt Clear, and Federation University and its Technology Park in Mt Helen - obviously some big drawcards. For this reason, it is very heavily patronised, both by people who live in Ballarat, and people who catch the train here.

For as long as I can remember (and I've been catching it on and off since 2006) it has had a consistent timetable, quite frequent and very easy to remember. It is a half-hourly service, which leaves the train station at xx53 and xx23; the Bakery Hill Interchange at xx00 and xx30; and arrives at the Uni at xx18 and xx48. This means that if you have a class that starts at xx00 or xx30, it is child's play to catch the right bus and arrive on time, with minimal waiting about.

In the other direction, it leaves the Uni at xx08 and xx38, which is perfectly timed for people leaving classes at xx00 or xx30, and arrives at the station at xx00 or xx30, 22 minutes later. The same, obviously, applies to people who work at the Uni, or who work at IBM or one of the other business at the Technology Park, or who go to school at one of the schools along Main Road. It's consistent, it's perfectly timed, it works.

As of June 21, however, that all goes out the window. With the first version I saw, they mostly left the station at xx08 and xx31, to arrive at the Uni at xx33 or xx45. With the current version it's even less consistent - some leave at xx01, some at xx08, some at xx31, xx38. Arrival times vary just as much - xx03, xx26, xx33, xx56.

Taken from here, if that link's dead the current version will be here.
The xx03 and xx33 times mean you'll either always be late, or always having to arrive half an hour early for everything. The xx26 and xx56 times look okay on paper, but in practice the bus is often a few minutes later than timetabled - so you're probably going to be late with those ones as well.

Taken from here, if that link's dead the current version will be here.

Going in the other direction, the timings are again inconsistent and hard to summarise, leaving the Uni anywhere from xx16 to xx23, and xx46 to xx53. So in addition to being inconsistent, it's a longer wait after your class or shift finishes, compared with the consistent xx08 and xx38 we have now.

The morning peak already has extra services but is nonetheless pretty stretched. The current timetable has four buses arriving at the Uni between 8am and 9am - the 0753, the 0808, the 0823, and the 0840 (the 0840 only running during University semesters). I can tell you that these buses are packed when Uni and school terms are on, and will only keep getting busier - but they are appropriately spaced out, and represent a significant improvement on the inter-peak frequency.

The first version of the timetable cut the number of buses down to three, because it tweaked the times and removed the Uni-semester-only bus. On the current version, the Uni-semester-only bus is back, and is still at 0840, but its timing makes no sense. It leaves the station at 0840 and arrives at the Uni at 0900, same as the old version. But since the timetable was tweaked, the bus before it leaves at 0838, just two minutes beforehand...and yet it arrives at the Uni at 0903, three minutes afterwards. It's just absurd.
With trains this often you barely even need a timetable (via Metro)
It is a general principle of transit planning that unless you have a turn-up-and-go service (ie they are so frequent you can just turn up whenever and know a train/bus will be along in the next few minutes, a la New York or London) then the timetable should be easy to memorise. This basically means consistent, clockface times - so, like I demonstrated above, I don't need to know what the timetable looks like at 1400 specifically, because I know what it looks like all day. I know buses ALWAYS leave at xx08 and xx38, therefore I know a bus will be along at 1408 - simple, right? Throwing away that easy legibility is asinine unless you have very good reasons for doing so.

If they were doing it to make the timetables more convenient for the people who use them, I'd say "fair enough". If the new timetable were timed better to coincide with what people are doing, to connect better with other services, or to improve frequency, those definitely qualify as "very good reasons for doing so". But the exact opposite has happened here. It is going to be massively less convenient for the people who want to arrive in Mt Clear or Mt Helen at a given time - the people who actually use it.

As far as I can see, the new bus timetable doesn't really even improve connectivity, which is the catch-all reason on PTV's website for the bus changes. It does mean people arriving from Ararat at 0809 can catch the 0816 bus to get to the Uni before 9am, but the benefit comes from changing the train timetable - if they'd just left the bus timetable as-is, those same passengers could've caught the 0823.

Another example is the main evening train, which people take back to Melbourne after working/studying in Ballarat (and which doubles as the Footy Train of a Friday night), the 1757 to Melbourne. Currently you can't really work or study out at Mt Helen till 1730 and catch this train - the 1738 bus arrives at 1800, just a few minutes too late for the train, so you have to knock off at 1700 and catch the 1708 bus, and sit around waiting for 27 minutes at the station.

The train has been bumped to 1802 in the new timetable, so this might JUST connect with the 1748 bus under the current timetable - but not under the new timetable. Under the new timetable, your options are the 1746 bus, which arrives at 1808, way too late for the train; or the 1716 bus, which arrives at 1738, still requiring about a 24 minute wait. So you still have to finish work at the same time, and still have to sit around waiting for roughly the same amount of time. Or, to put it another way, if your class or shift finishes at 1730 and there's nothing you can do to change this, the connectivity is no better - you will unquestionably be waiting around for the 1912 train, regardless if which timetable you look at.

As I said, the other bus routes within Ballarat have been changed - the Route 5 Black Hill bus is through-run with the Buninyong bus, so they share the same problems. For the other routes, though, it's really hard to say without riding them every day. The Route 2 Wendouree, for example, has been tweaked slightly - the buses now leave Stockland at xx23 and xx53, instead of xx15 and xx45. Unlike the Buninyong bus these times are at least very consistent throughout the day - but is it any better for the people who use it? Based on the way I used it back in 2008-2011 when I lived in Wendouree, it wouldn't have made my life any easier - it connects marginally better with other buses but no differently with trains - but at least it isn't a backwards step.

There has been broad community consultation around Regional Rail Link, but as far as I'm aware there hasn't been anything for these bus changes. Given the way they've turned out, I can't imagine anyone who's ever ridden this bus was involved in any stage of the process, and with only 3 weeks between announcing the changes and when they go live, it's going to be hard to fix. Stay tuned.

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