The image of Melbourne is commonly linked to its distinctive tramway system, a system that maintained its status and prestige enough not to drop the term" tram" for the more elusive feel-good phrase "light rail".
Trams in Melbourne carry about 182 million passengers per year, mainly in the central area and inner suburbs. With sixteen commuter rail lines heading into central Melbourne (carrying an even greater number passengers than trams per year) carless people need inner city mobility and trams are well suited to heavier passenger loadings (literally heavier) and in many situations short trip standing passengers.
Said to be the largest urban tramway network in the world the statistics suggest Melbourne tramway covers roughly the same distance and has a roughly similar number of vehicles as the entire urban area bus route system of Christchurch, albeit Melbourne's system carries ten times more passengers and is based at the heart of a metropolitan area with ten times greater population. Surprisingly, apart from one or two short route extensions there has been almost no effort to extend the tramway system out into the middle and outer suburbs or add new routes for many decades.
For anyone interest in public transport the limited range of tram networks, and their close reliance on rail systems feeding into them, and the failure to extend them (not just in Melbourne but in many other systems shorter in length but in areas with equally as large or larger metropolitan populations) should send out warning bells. If areas with two or three tmes the suburban density of Christchurch can't support trams/light rail how cost effective would they be in our small city?
Tramways are systems that work well in terms of cost benefit ratios only with high capital input (big tax payer base) and high demand usage. This ridership can only be created proportionate to population size. Only 10% of all journeys in Melbourne are taken on public transport - very low for instance compared to similar cities of similar density in Canada, such as Montreal and Toronto. But if you have 4 million people with a portion using trams that still fills a lot of tram, not so in a city one tenth the size. And despite not having trams, the 2006 Australian census shows that fewer people in Melbourne's innermost suburbs take public transport to work than in Sydney: 26.8% in inner Melbourne versus 32.8% in inner Sydney.
With 14% of all commute to work trips in greater Melbourne taken using public transport the capital of Victoria tails well behind Wellington (17%) and Sydney (20%) and most other cities of comparable size.
It is sometimes argued that light rail success is achieved at diverting money from bus routes and, often cherry picking the busiest bus route or routes to convert to rail, and switching bus services from independent through routes to truncated feeder services to the light rail terminii - logical enough perhaps, but tilting the playing field somewhat! It is hard to say whether this has been the case in Melbourne where the tramway network pre-dates motorised bus services but Melbourne has long had a bus service seen as below international standards.
The majority of bus services ran only every 30 or 60 minutes - some absurdly only every two hours - and most finished before 9pm - some even earlier, and many did not run on Sundays, despite 11% of the adult population not having access to a car. For anyone requiring transfers a 9 pm curfew, of course, becomes an 8pm curfew - they have to go home from meetings and social events when others have barely arrived! Few adult social events, performances or meetings finish before 9pm anyway. With bus administrators imposing what almost amounts to a "no night life of any kind regime" on bus users this effectively undermines full time bus using amongst students and working age populations (worth 400-700 trips a year per passenger to any public transport system). Other inhibitions to bus use in Melbourne have been cited as overly complex and circuitous routes, and high transit fares in Melbourne by comparison with other Australian cities.
For these and other reasons Melbourne buses have been the Cinderella in the local transit network. In 2006 the state budget of that year announced that a $2.6 billion was to be spent to bring Melbourne bus services standards up higher standards, including having buses run to 9pm on 25 outer metropolitan area routes, the establishment of two completely new routes and two new Smartbus Orbital routes and various improvements to roading structure to improve bus priority. (Sun Herald May 31 2006).
Nonetheless two years later, in 2008 a Bus Association representative, Chris Loader, was still able to point out
"Buses are the only public transport option for around 80 per cent of Melburnians, yet buses have received only around 3 per cent of the overall funding package," Mr Loader said. "Most Melburnians will see little improvement in local public transport services. (Herald Sun December 9 2008)
And a Government funded study by Booz Allen Hamilton (international transport consultants) in the same year found;
Melbourne’s bus weekday minimum service standards for finish times are considerably below the standard of all other Australian cities. Melbourne non-Smartbus routes have a minimum finish time of 9p.m. whilst almost all other cities have finishes between 11p.m. and midnight.
---Booz and Co. Melbourne Public Transport Standards Review, August 2008.
The project was not without hiccups, one the original orbital routes was canned in budget shifts in 2008 but those developed have proved that buses can attract high patronage if services are well planned and frequent.
A new Red Orbital SmartBus route, 903, through Box Hill and Burwood was launched in early 2009 and within a couple of months patronage had increased 37% above the previous two conventional routes it replaced. Route 903 travels from Altona in the west, through Sunshine, Essendon, Coburg, Preston, Heidelberg, Doncaster, Box Hill, Burwood, Oakleigh and Mentone, ending at Mordialloc railway station. The 903 route is whopping 86 km long, and takes four hours to travel end to end, services running every 15 minutes business days and every 30 minutes at other times. NOTE - less frequently than little old Christchurch's branded cross town services on Saturday and Sunday daytime services!
The red orbital route was followed in 2010 by a Yellow orbital service (this route was reviewed on its first trip by Melbourne on Transit blogster Peter Parker) and a Green orbital service which have also achieved significant success.
The addition of Sunday services on many routes previously Mon-Sat, and major investment in three semi Orbital routes, and in other frequent direct services cutting around the outer suburbs, and the more recent addition of direct bus services directly from North Melbourne Stations to the Melbourne and Monash universities, is changing the image of buses in Melbourne.
Earlier this month Melbourne newspaper The Age reported people are swapping trains for buses. Said The Age report (NZinT bolding)
In total there were 536.8 million boardings on Melbourne's public transport system last financial year, a 3.4 per cent increase on 2011-12. But the boost in patronage is almost entirely attributable to more people taking to the city's buses, which carried a remarkable 17 million more people in 2011-12 than they did in 2010-11.
There were 123.2 million bus trips in 2011-12 - a 15.8 per cent jump on the previous year. At the same time, the number of journeys on trains dropped 3.3 per cent, from 228.9 million to 222 million. It is the first financial year in which train patronage has declined since 1993-94. Overall, patronage has grown by 53 per cent in the past eight years.