McGill's & Alexander Dennis
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Featured Bus Route – October 2018
DATE FOR THE DIARY - 25th November - Finchley Bus Running Day
Alexander Dennis & Lothian
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Alexander Dennis at Euro Bus Expo 2018
Some of Melbourne's most useful bus routes are those that just missed out on being upgraded to SmartBus or being incorporated into one of the orbitals. Their timetables have stagnated with the same number (or occasionally fewer) trips than they did 40 years ago. However they are more relevant than ever today with boardings per hour numbers that beat the SmartBus orbitals. If buses are ever going to move the Department of Transport's target of 200 million passengers per year then attention to these routes is important.
What are these routes? Most of them run in the east, taking advantage of the road grid and the large number of intersecting train lines. Examples include the 733, 737 and 767. More on how they could be made more useful, and help deliver Suburban Rail Loop benefits sooner here.
But the north also has its share. It has even more radial train and especially tram lines than the east, a good road grid and some favourable demographics including lower than average car ownership. The SmartBuses don't start until Bell St or Murray Rd, leaving a large part of areas further south, like Moonee Ponds, Brunswick, Coburg, Thornbury and Coburg with only regular bus routes.
Of these perhaps the most important is the 508. It starts at the major centre of Moonee Ponds (junction, not station) then runs through the heart of Brunswick and then the heart of Northcote after intersecting various train and tram lines every kilometre or so. Then it heads east then does a loop to finish at sleepy Alphington.
The 508 is the east-west red line on the network map below. It's a direct route with few deviations.
Most notable is it doesn't quite meet the Craigieburn line to the west. And its eastern terminus is somewhat weak. But otherwise its position is excellent, being roughly half way between the CBD and the innermost SmartBus orbital (903).
Route 508 operates in the state electoral districts of Essendon (Danny Pearson MP), Brunswick (Tim Read MP) and Northcote (Kat Theophanous MP). Essendon is safe Labor while the other two are marginals, held by the Greens and Labor respectively.
The 508 has better than average frequency and operating hours for a Melbourne bus route. Weekday service is every 15 minutes peak, 20 minutes interpeak and 20 minutes post pm peak. Weeknight service drops to about 30 or 40 minutes. The last trip leaves Moonee Ponds just after 10pm, giving it a later finish than most other routes.
Saturday service starts at 6am. This is better than minimum standards. However it reflects the history of bus routes in old working class northern and western suburbs starting early due to Saturday morning shopping and, perhaps, going back further, the 44 hour work week. Saturday service frequency starts off at 40 minutes, ramps up to 30 minutes for most of the day then drops to hourly at night. Service drops abruptly to hourly after about 8pm but there is a later finish than weekdays, with the last trip from Moonee Ponds being after 11pm.
Sunday service starts at 8:20am. Services are normally every 40 minutes during the day, dropping to every 60 minutes at night with a finish time similar to weekdays.
Because of the huge number of train and tram routes the 508 intersects it is not possible to find an obvious one to coordinate its timetable to. Therefore connections are pretty much the 'luck of the draw'. The only solution is to run a frequent service. Is this justified and what are the long-term trends in the 508's timetable? More on that later.
508 records consistently above average patronage productivity on all days of the week. Its weekday, Saturday and Sunday passenger boardings per bus hour are 43, 42 and 36 respectively (2018 figures obtained from Dept of Transport). These numbers are all about double the average for buses in Melbourne.
These numbers exceed the performance of 903, our busiest orbital SmartBus, on weekdays and Saturdays and come close to it on Sundays. They are the sort of statistics that make the 508 a good prospect for getting further gains by increasing frequency. Even if a straight doubling of frequency (100% increase) led to only a 40% rise in patronage the 508's productivity would still be above average for buses in Melbourne. And there are potential route extensions that could make it do even better (more on those later).
Parts of the 508 can be traced back to 1925 with shorter routes gradually being merged and extended. The last 508's extension was to Alphington Station in 1972 (see these network maps).
Page 28 of John Maddox's 'The People Movers' book specifies the number of each way trips done by the 508. This was 80 on weekdays (5:30am - 11:30pm), 55 on Saturdays (6am - midnight) and 24 on Sunday (8am - 10pm). This book was written in 1992.
Krustylink has a history of 508 timetable changes here. Basically it was a story of decline in the early 1990s; at one time interpeak frequency was 16 minutes, Saturday frequency for 20 min (for some of the day) and Sunday frequency was 30 min. There might have been an even earlier time when weekday service interpeak was more like 12 minutes. Minimum standards after about 2006 restored evening services and boosted Sunday frequency.
508 spent some years at the 16 min interpeak frequency. This was not easy to remember (unlike every 15 minutes) as buses did not come at the same times past every hour. Then it was every 18 minutes for a little while. Interpeak frequency slid further to every 20 minutes maybe 8 years ago. Basically a death of a thousand cuts. Given 508's healthy patronage this was more likely a case of increasing traffic congestion delaying buses meaning that if extra funding was not forthcoming timetables would have to be cut to retain reliability.
Route 508's fate has been different to that of many other Melbourne bus routes in the last 30 years. Most other routes gained trips, mostly thanks to the minimum service standards from 2006. However the 508 has sustained big cuts despite its high usage. For example in 2020 the 508 was down to 51-52 trips each way on weekdays, 30 trips on Saturday and 20-21 trips on Sunday (view timetable on older PTV site here). These are Monday to Saturday reductions of around 40% from the early 1990s when John Maddox's book was written.
Although Route 508 serves the heart of three centres (Moonee Ponds, Brunswick and Northcote) it has some weaknesses. These include it missing the Craigieburn train line in the west and its weak terminus at Alphington in the east.
Melbourne's north, unlike its east, still has a large number of bus companies. Almost any route extension or amalgamation beyond the north will require routes to be shared between operators (not without precedent) or some other arrangement. However from a customer service and network connectivity point of view such arrangements need to be made, especially where a route stops only a few hundred metres short of a major train line or shopping centre.
A potential improvement for Route 508 could be an extension to Ascot Vale Station and then Footscray to create a quasi-orbital route through the inner-north-west and a fast Moonee Ponds to Footscray connection. There is already such a route (the 404) but its operating hours are limited and it doesn't run Sundays. A 404/508 merger could deliver 7 day service to the entire route and a more convenient connection benefitting numerous areas including the dense Kensington Banks development. One extra bus might be needed to retain the current peak frequency over the entire route but otherwise most of the costs involve more driver hours and some sort of arrangement between the bus operators concerned.
Reliability would be the hidden risk here - longer routes can be less reliable and roads like Moore St Footscray can get congested. Moore Street is a short but already strategically important bus corridor with key routes to VU and Highpoint. Hence it easily justifies substantial priority measures if not a 'bus wormhole' long term.
508's eastern terminus is weak, but unlike its western end there is no obvious loose end from another route that would make its extension as cheap as the 404 combination mentioned above. Potential ideas include operating it north to Ivanhoe station (which is further away but a stronger terminus) or running it south via Station St to terminate at Fairfield Station. From there it could extend south to the Hawthorn/Kew area to replace the infrequent 609. However there are other potentially better options instead, such as an extended Route 567 to provide a simpler north-south corridor including connections to Northland and potentially La Trobe University.
This has been a quick run through the Route 508. Already a useful route it may have potential to be more, both in terms of service level and the places it serves. What do you think? Should it be a SmartBus? Is there scope for extensions, and if so, to where? Please leave your ideas in the comments below (note that these are now moderated to filter spam so it may take a while for them to appear).
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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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