Public transport

Feb 13, 2017

What’s government done to make public transport better?

A look at what successive governments have done over the last twenty or so years to improve the attractiveness of train travel in Melbourne

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Number of standard weekly train services by timeband, 2004 vs 2015, Melbourne (source data: budget papers)

I noted recently that private modes of transport account for 90% of all motorised travel in Australia’s capital cities (see Can we have a mature discussion about the future of urban transport?). The reality that policy-makers must confront is public transport’s mode share’s been stuck at just 10% for the last ten years; that’s only a little better than thirty years ago when it was 9%.

A common explanation for this flat performance is governments haven’t done enough to make public transport an attractive option. For example, I often hear the claim there’s been no substantial new rail infrastructure built in Melbourne since the City Loop was commissioned in the early 1980s. The usual call is for new rail lines to be constructed to Doncaster, Rowville and Melbourne Airport.

But if they haven’t built many new rail lines in recent decades, what have governments done to make public transport an attractive option for travellers?

This is a big question so I’ve limited my focus to Melbourne and to rail (i.e. trains). Melbourne’s an interesting choice because it had the biggest increase in public transport use of all capitals in recent years. It’s mode share increased from 8% of motorised travel in 1999 to 11% now (i.e. private transport’s share dropped from 92% to 89%), but it’s been stuck there since 2008/09. Rail is the largest public transport mode by far in Melbourne and accounts for the lion’s share of the recent increase in public transport’s mode share.


So, what’s been done over the last twenty years with the intention of making trains more attractive?

  • The number of standard weekly train services provided in the morning peak across the metropolitan network increased by 36% (see exhibit). Frequencies increased in other periods too e.g. 10-minute frequencies on the Dandenong and Frankston lines in the inter-peak period.
  • Kilometres of timetabled train services increased by 32% between 1999/00 and 2014/15.
  • Fleet size increased from 151 trains in 1999 to 211 in 2015.
  • Protective Services Officers provided at all stations on evenings.
  • 23 level crossings removed from 1999 to 2016.
  • Regional Rail Link constructed (2015).
  • Extensions of the metropolitan (electrified) rail network: Dandenong to Cranbourne (1995), St Albans to Watergardens (2002), Broadmeadows to Craigieburn (2007), Epping to South Morang (2011), Watergardens to Sunbury (2012).
  • Track duplications: Clifton Hill to Westgarth (2009), Keon Park to Epping (2011).
  • Spencer Street station redeveloped (2006). New stations opened at Coolaroo (2010), Lynbrook (2012), Cardinia Road (2012), Williams Landing (2013). New stations at Wydhamvale and Tarneit provided as part of Regional Rail Link (2015)
  • myki smartcard system replaced the Metcard ticketing system (2008).
  • Journey planning improved by apps, websites, open data sources and Passenger Information Display Systems (PIDS). Real-time information available for all modes on PTV app (2016).
  • Zone 3 abolished (2007) and Zone 1+2 tickets cost no more than a Zone 1 ticket (2015).
  • Night Network trial (2016).
  • 3G mobile coverage in City Loop (2015); Flagstaff Station opened on weekends (2016); Bicycle Parkiteer cages provided at 69 metropolitan stations.
  • Operations outsourced to private manager in 1999 (see Should public transport be returned to the people?).

My focus is on actions, but it’s useful to be aware in assessing the attractiveness of rail services that the state Auditor-General reports that train punctuality improved over 2011 – 2016 and train reliability remained above the mandated threshold level. Customer satisfaction improved over 2010 – 2016 and met the agreed performance targets.


Does all that make for a good, reasonable or dismal effort? Opinions will vary, but there are some issues to note:

  • The Andrews government clearly thinks it’s not enough and much more needs to be done. Projects it got underway after it took office in 2014 include Melbourne Metro, Dandenong rail line upgrade, Mernda rail extension, Hurstbridge line upgrade, removal of 50 level crossings, and various further rolling stock upgrades and expansions.
  • Building new rail lines to expand the network isn’t as pressing a priority in Melbourne as it is in cities like Perth and Brisbane with a sparser legacy network. Melbourne inherited an expansive system from the nineteenth century which was electrified by the 1930s. There are some gaps, but the case to fill them with costly proposals like Doncaster rail and Rowville rail isn’t very compelling because they’d service areas that are already built-out and have limited redevelopment potential.
  • The priority for Melbourne is to make the legacy system of rails (and roads) work harder. The focus should be on higher train frequencies and better coordination with other modes like buses and trams in order to provide a metropolitan-wide ‘grid’ of fast, frequent services that enable ‘anywhere to anywhere’ travel (see How can public transport work better in cities?).The $10 Billion Melbourne Metro tunnel fits this objective because its purpose is to increase capacity in the city centre and improve system-wide reliability. Similarly, level crossing removals permit higher train frequencies in peak periods.
  • The big increase in train patronage in Melbourne over 2005/06 to 2008/09 happened despite no major new rail lines being built. It wasn’t due to the various improvements listed above either (they were reactive). It was mostly due to Victoria’s exceptional economic performance at the time and consequent strong jobs growth in the city centre after decades of decline. A really big increase in public transport mode share at the metropolitan level will only eventuate if the relative competitiveness of private vehicles is reduced in some way.
  • Money not spent on public transport over the last 20 years wasn’t wasted; it was spent on other government activities like health, education and, yes, roads. The Andrews government’s big transport program necessarily means there’ll be less money for other government activities over the next ten years.

I hope to look at tram and bus services another time. For now, note that kilometres of timetabled bus services increased 62% in Melbourne between 1999/00 and 2014/15 while tram services increased by only 6%.

I’ve relied on advice from the Department of Economic Development and other sources to make up my list, but I expect there will still be gaps and perhaps the odd error. Hopefully others will help improve the list.


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7 thoughts on “What’s government done to make public transport better?

  1. Jacob HSR

    If the population growth is faster than service growth, is it really an improvement?

    Also, can we charge foreigners $35/day for a train ticket while leaving it at $10 for Aussies?

  2. Geoffrey Heard

    Interesting to not “Guest”, anonymous, as a contributor. Put you name up front, my friend, and show us what you’ve got — and who you represent. Okay, rightat this moment I am far from Melbourne, but I have lived there most of my life, including about 20 years adjoining the Melbourne/Frankston line between Cheltenham and Mentone. In addition, when visiting Melbourne, which I do for periods of weeks or a month or two, I travel almost exclusively by public transport.
    So first the trains. The interpeak train service numbers are a pretty picture and pretty much useless. I used to see them trundling past 10-15 minutes apart, pretty much empty. Traveling interpeak confirmed that impression.
    Peak services up 36%? No wonder they are making little impression on car use — they are chockers. Commuters can’t rely on getting on the train, let alone getting a seat! They need to be 50% or 100% higher NOW, not tomorrow, not in 225, but NOW, TODAY. In fact, they probably should have been 10 years ago.
    Network extensions? How about servicing the massive development areas up through Fitzroy, Brunswick, and Bundoora, right up to Whittlesea — a burgeoning area where wrecker Kennett pulled up the railway lines and when the Epping line was again extended to South Morang (where it used to take a left hand turn to Whittlesea), further extension was capped by bulding a stupid semi-underground station in a shopping mall car park. I wonder who paid how much for that decision — or was it just the old boys’ network?
    In any case, a new line should have come up Plenty Road or thereabouts through Bundoora and Mill Park, providing service to vast residential areas, still expanding, which have lousy access to the Hurstbridge Line and not much better to the Epping line. Instead, Plenty Road got a tram service which is slow, stops too often, and carries about 1/20th of a train load in each tram.
    Mr Davies, as before, you are talking of eliminating level crossings as improvements to the rail system. In reality, they are improvements to the ROAD system. For every delay taken out of traveling by road, and level crossings are exactly that, you get an increase in road traffic. Are you unaware of the simple basics of this stuff? It has been recorded and reported ad nauseum. Get with the facts — eliminating level crossings is expensive and time consuming, but it is a ROAD problem, not a rail problem so long as trains have priority and every time you elminaste a level crossing you I increase road traffic..
    Close the gates for two hours and let the trains run through end to end in peak times, then see what happens to public transport vs. road transport.
    You talk about the cost of railway network extensions. I have no doubt that your breathless $100-million/km includes road works for overpasses, etc., instead of level crossings. But even so, rail construction pales in comparison with the cost of roads. Have you no idea what arterial roads or freeways cost (and we need to think of arterial roads or freeways when we are talking about vs. rail)? Good god, rail costs are piffling!
    And no need to punch rail into unserviced areas in the Eastern suburbs because they are fully developed already? How long have you been alive? What is “fully developed”? Suburbs have up to a 10% population turnover annually and “fully developed” now means nothing in 10 years’ time. I remember when Melbourne’s inner suburbs were “fully developed”. Then the middle suburbs, like Caulfield and Heidelberg. Now the once rare dual occupancy site has a block of 20 flats on it! I remember when Mentone and Cheltenham were undeveloped, then fully developed, and now are being redeveloped! Houses built in the middle of my lifetime have been and are being torn down and replaced by multiple units — my old house of just three years ago has gone and there are four units now on the block, each as big in residential terms, as my old house. There are multi-storey blocks of flats in the center of Mentone and Cheltenham. Fully developed? Your myopia is showing!
    And there is an urgent need to exp[and the railway network east of that area, which is not yet fully developed but is burgeoning, not to say totally out of control.
    When would be a good time to expand the railway network? When the whole area is built over, do you think, and there is no land available for railway line easements?
    As for the buses — have you ever used them? Giant buses squeezing along suburban streets that are far too narrow for them — empty for 90% of the day and even in peak hours, with a poor passengers numbers to bus ratio — privately owned but subsidized at vast cost to the taxpayer. Some of the routes are plain ridiculous. How about from Mordialloc, through Mentone, up through Oakleigh, to Heidelberg, over to Preston, and finally to Altona. You want to go Mordialloc to anywhere much north of Clayton? Go by train! Speaking of which, what happened to the desperately need Clayton railway line extension? Ever seen the fleet of (private but publicly subsidized) buses servicing Monash University exclusively from Huntingdale railway station?
    Oh boy — those bus owners are in clover!
    I happen to live right now in Kokopo/Rabaul, in the New Guinea Islands. Our public transport is 15 passenger minibuses. The only government input into the service is to license buses to run on certain routes, and to cap fares.
    We can travel 20-30 kms over execrable roads for K4-K5 ($1.70-$2.10). About half price for youngsters. The buses run when they are full or the driver feels like it, they are not very comfortable, the road is bumpy and slow. But we get there — and further, the passengers cooperate to assist each other with fitting in big bags and parcels, and make no demure when the bus diverts from the direct route to deliver aged, or underage, or heavily burdened passengers to their door (more or less).
    The system is not perfect, the driver and “boat’s crew” (conductor) chew betelnut and spit out the windows, and occasionally smoke, but we get there 99% of the time and look at the cost!

    1. Alan Davies

      You insist level crossing removals are all about benefitting road users, but they’re also a key reason why the increase in the number of services provided in the AM peak hasn’t been large enough to prevent overcrowding. You say just close Melbourne’s 160 level crossings to traffic for two hours in peak periods, but I don’t think that’s feasible.

      And one reason building a new rail line to Doncaster is a questionable idea is that it’s not a Growth Area and has very limited potential for growth due to resident opposition to redevelopment. I noted once before when discussing this issue:

      In any event this is not a region whose residents welcome development. The City of Manningham’s population grew by a mere 0.3% per annum over 2006-11. In comparison, the inner municipalities of Yarra and Port Phillip grew 1.4% p.a. and 1.5% p.a. respectively over the same period; Melton and Wyndham grew by 8% p.a. and 9% p.a. respectively.

      Manningham’s projected to grow by just 0.85% per annum over the period 2011 – 2031. That compares with projected growth for Greater Melbourne of 2.1% p.a. over the same period; the cities of Melbourne, Wyndham and Melton are projected to grow by over 4% p.a.

      Hopefully attitudes to redevelopment in Doncaster will change in the future; meantime there are higher priorities for scarce public funds than building a $4 -11 Billion rail line to Doncaster.

      1. Geoffrey Heard

        Closing all the level crossings for two hours would be extreme, of course, but the reality is that it is the kind of step which must be taken. Grade separation is not the real answer because it facilitates and thus encourages road traffic in addition to facilitating railway traffic, and the reality is that road traffic must be discouraged.

        But public transport and roads cannot be tackled in isolation. For example, common building codes encourage road use by demanding that multi-car parking be included in construction. Confine them to single car and demand that garages open straight onto the street, so a second car can’t be parked in the drive. Make roads narrow and torturous while providing quick walking and cycling paths, etc. Walking paths not practical at night because of security considerations? Doesn’t matter — they are practical in the daylight hours when most people are on the move. That’s what counts.

        Build bus routes into new developments; don’t add buses lumbering around and over roundabouts and snorting down too narrow streets later.

        And as for railway stations, make them accessible. Sink them down a bit so people can access them off the street, quickly and easily, instead of having high platforms with enormously high pedestrian overpasses. Have a look at the monstrosity at Williams Landing — a recent construction on the Werribee line. Try using it. Try arriving there and changing to a bus for Pt Cook on a cold, wet, winter evening. Actually do it.

        The thing is a disgrace; the system is a disgrace. Why is the railway set so high above the adjacent road level? Why is the pedestrian overpass, the only access to the station, so high (maybe 5 or 6 metres)? Compare that height with bridges and overpasses at older stations. Why is the station set up with real access from only one side? Why is the amount of car parking available so restricted? Why is there an unroofed gap between the pedestrian overpass and the lift to street level? Why isn’t the station/bus stop passenger interchange area roofed (it would cost little). And then we get to the buses going in circles around tight corners for access and egress. Wonderful! All of it purpose built.

        I can’t understand why they didn’t add a bit of industrial architecture welcoming users — a giant finger raised in derision, carrying the simple message: “Hate it, suckers!”

        The point about parking is important. All around Melbourne, railway station parking lots are chockers by about 7am, 7.30am at the latest. People park in the streets and get booked. They CANNOT switch from their cars to public transport with any ease — they must travel to the station by car because the suburbs are widely spread, but there is not enough parking.

        Why can’t local authorities build multi-level car parks and lease out spaces to commuters? Or ask people to join in a venture with an investment that will give them a parking space with some sort of real title that they can sell on if they move? A handy small bit of real estate as a nest egg for the future.

        That would help to get more cars off the roads.

        Another problem with public transport, and its increasing frequency, is noise pollution. When I first moved into my house adjacent to the railway between Mentone and Cheltenham, the trains ran past about every 20 minutes. A backyard BBQ was possible. By the time I left, they were running past every 10 minutes — most of the time, pretty empty. it was just too often for a conversation to run.

        Now, the noise. I put in a proposal to redevelop the block with a couple of units on it with a two storey high blank wall backing onto the railway line. Knocked back, of course. But the fact is we should be encouraging — forcing — such development right along the suburban railway lines, and not just two storeys high, but three or four, with appropriate wall structure with sound proofing so the residents don’t suffer. Modern terraces, packing more people into the space available.

        This would be part of a band of such development right along the lines to about 100 metres out (or more if preferred). Such construction would put the railway lines in a canyon which would force the noise upwards and stop it propagating out over a wide area. And guess what — that would actually add real value to the residences a little bit away from the railway lines. Think of the rates to be collected!

        Meanwhile, people buying or renting in the more intensive housing along the railway lines would be expecting to pay less, but there would br a lot more of them. More rates!

        Add in the redevelopment of areas along railway lines in existing suburbs with limitations on car garaging, road narrowing, and a ban on street parking and hey, you have a bunch of people living along the railway lines and therefore within walking distance of stations, who are the railways’ natural customers.

        And did I mention dropping the lines a bit so they and the train wheels are below the surrounding ground level to start off the sound canyon?

        Regarding new lines into well established suburbs which have never had a railway line and should have had 50 years ago, you are concerned about their lack of growth. My take is the opposite — there is a huge, untapped market! The people of those areas cannot access public transport readily (except for a bit of bus stuff which is moderately good at best) so they have no alternative but to use cars.

        Give them a choice, I say, a railway with plenty of parking at the station, and good access, and watch the use of public transport burgeon!

        And watch the pressure come on to redevelop. Putting in a railway line would trigger a whole wave of redevelopment along the line, particularity if there was encouragement for development such as I have discussed above. Developers have a remarkable record of being able to influence quite recalcitrant councils (recalcitrant in the developers’ view, not necessarily in the community interest view).

        Developers have their little ways — and even they can be quite useful if channeled correctly.

        Cheers, Geoff

  3. Guest

    Melbourne has a good transport system – despite all of the complaints levelled at it.
    Melbournians complain about their train and tram networks – other State capitals
    would kill for the most extensive tram network in the world, a railway system with over 200 stations, and a well developed regional railway network (V/Line). You don’t hear Sydneysiders complain as much.

    The focus really needs to be on improving the current network and assets, and not network expansion. Network expansion is very expensive – a tram extension is in the range 20-50 million per kilometre, and rail extensions are easily $100 – $200 million per kilometre range. In a sense, the network is at a position Toronto was in the early 1990’s – wanting to focus on aggressive expansion while the existing infrastructure is neglected and falls apart.

    That aggressive expansion all came to a halt when a TTC subway train crashed into a stationary train at Russell Hill in 1995. The resulting fallout saw the TTC stop network expansion and focus on “a state of good repair:. It is only now, 20 years later, that rail network expansion has started again.

    It would probably do a lot of good to put a moratorium on rail expansion across Melbourne until basic maintenance issues like ageing signals, electrical transmission, wooden rail sleepers, and so forth are sorted out. (Metro rail tunnel exempted).

    Despite this, there is an excellent opportunity to fix up Melbourne’s public transport network. That opportunity is the bus network, which is the worst performing mode and terrible. The entire bus network needs a major overhaul and renumbering. Bring in a consulting agency like Jarrett Walker and associates to untangle and fix up the bus network. Not everybody can or does live near a train station and the SmartBus approach really has been proven to work in Melbourne.

    1. Geoffrey Heard

      “…and a well developed regional railway network (V/Line).”

      Was this an attempt at humor? Have you ever traveled on a V/Line train? I have, both the new so-called fast trains and the older trains.

      The new fast lines from regional centres were crippled by naysayers (the road transport and car industries) by being built as single lines, it doesn’t cost much more to build dual tracks, making the bed a little wider and laying an extra set of rails is surprisingly cheap, but the road lobby won the day by restricting the speed and utility of new new lines even if they did fail to stop them being built.

      But the good old V/Line train between Melbourne and Wangaratta, and points north. Unbelievable, just unbelievable in the 21st century. Where did they find that thing? In a museum dunny?

      And then there are all the trains that have been replaced by buses which are much more dangerous, and not nearly as comfortable as a smooth riding, wider, train (should) be (the V/Line train I experienced from Wang>Melb is an exception that proves the rule).

      Check out the NSW Countrylink network and services: excellent! And their interstate services (not forgetting that they handle Melbourne>Sydney and points north with no help at all from V/Line which once shared the service). Have a look at the Queensland regional services too. Great.

      V/Line, as a railway service, is practically a dead letter on terms of statewide services and interstate services compared with these two.

      The Smartbus services? They work a bit, but suffer from the buses being too big for the roads and struggling to get around (even in new sub-divisions — does no-one give a thought for a bus service?) with bus services running relatively limited hours. The changeover points from train to bus are catastrophic — uncovered, hot/cold, wet, windy in both old and new suburbs.

      Guest, you obviously haven’t looked at the system close-up or used it.

      Cheers, Geoff

      1. Geoffrey Heard

        By the way, I don’t buy this $100-200 million/km build cost for rail extensions. Show me. And demonstrate how much cheaper it is to build freeways.

        Another interesting point — you say, Guest, that the TTC expansion was stopped for 20 years by one train accident, albeit a horrific one at the time. Was all road expansion stopped because of an annual road toll far in excess of the numbers killed in that train accident?

        Oddly, no. But one train accident and the road lobby is out there pumping bitumen to bury rail.

        Cheers, Geoff

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