On the road to nowhere, come on inside


People jostle to board a bus, which more people have come to rely on during the Andrews government’s level crossing removals. Photo: Micheal Jeong

Buses replacing trains. Those three short words can strike fear into a commuter’s heart and ruin the week.

They are sadly familiar to hundreds of thousands of Melbourne commuters who rely on public transport, but have found a vital train trip disrupted by the Andrews government’s Big Build program, replacing level crossings across the city.

Passengers grumpily mill around bus stops, furious with delays and unclear departure timetables. They vent frustration on social media about meandering routes that make arrival times guesswork.

“[MetroTrains] true to form once again,” one traveller posted earlier this year. “Waiting more than 15 mins for a replacement bus at North Melbourne. There’s enough people here to fill [three] buses!!!”

If the ballot box is any indication, many people think the short-term inconvenience is a small price to pay for infrastructure the third-term government says will deliver a “world-class” public transport system.

But experts say policy makers should pay attention to the chaos that results from buses replacing trains.  They argue that if the inefficiencies  – caused by road congestion, a lack of dedicated bus lanes and a chronic driver shortage –  are not tackled, they will continue to plague public transport even after all planned level crossings removals are complete.

Passengers wait at the bus station as Camberwell and Box Hill rail works cause train line suspensions. Photo: Michael Jeong

Between February and May this year, buses replaced trains between Camberwell and Box Hill stations due to Victoria Big Build’s level crossing removal project at Mont Albert and Surrey Hills.

During the 14 weeks of disruptions, many passengers complained about bus delays, lengthy travel times and confusion caused by miscommunication.  While Public Transport Victoria schedules replacement buses to arrive every 10-minutes during peak hours, passengers complained to The Citizen of wait times of up to 25 minutes for replacement buses.

The circuitous routes that operate in lieu of trains also caused dissatisfaction. From the level crossing site at Union Road, a free bus shuttle service took passengers to Camberwell through roads closed to ordinary traffic by the construction work. From Camberwell, another replacement bus took passengers to Burnley station in Richmond, where passengers could catch a train to Melbourne Central station.

Residents described the journey into the city as a small odyssey.  A previously 30-minute train ride became a stop-and-start 90-minute journey across multiple vehicles. Buses also cause accessibility problems for commuters with prams or wheelchairs.

“Trains are very punctual. Buses won’t be,” says Norman Ting from Hong Kong, where the mass transit system is consistently ranked highly by residents, tourists and experts. As a visitor to Australia, he is reliant on Melbourne public transport.

“I feel like there should be more buses on the highways and not the small roads.”

Ting says he feels there is less public transport on-road priority compared to Hong Kong.

Dr Chris Lowe, of Bus Association Victoria (BusVic), says the lack of dedicated bus lanes is the main cause of unpredictability, and a weakness in Melbourne’s purported “world-class” public transport.

“Congestion is one of the reasons why bus drivers or bus operators don’t or can’t run to schedule.”

Signs indicate there are no trains running due to construction works. Photo: Michael Jeong

Lowe, executive director of the professional association for Victoria bus owners, says BusVic has advocated for more bus lanes since 2018.

The advocacy body for public transport passengers agrees that bus service reliability would benefit from dedicated lanes.

“Ensuring replacement buses can skip the traffic and get passengers to their destinations efficiently is important,” says Daniel Bowen of the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA).

“Otherwise, people will give up and drive instead … , making traffic worse for everyone.”

The unpredictable dispatch of replacement buses from transport hubs adds to service delays. Aman Sekhon, supervisor at the Box Hill replacement bus site in early 2023, says he would sometimes hold replacement buses at the stop if there were not many passengers on board.

Crowds can form ad-hoc queues when buses are late. Photo: Shutterstock

“I’m not sending a half-empty bus because what’s the point? They’ll just be on the road causing more traffic,” says Sekhon. Site supervisors receive live updates on traffic conditions from both central dispatch and drivers, he says, so they can make on-the-fly decisions on bus departures to maximise efficiency.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport and Planning (DTP) says that a team monitors traffic in an area to adjust traffic lights in real time to minimise delays.

A bus driver shortage further contributed to delays and disruptions, according to BusVic’s Lowe.

“We could easily do with a couple hundred more drivers in Melbourne.”

A DTP spokesperson said the department has “sufficient drivers to meet current service demands.”

Car use has returned to nearly pre-pandemic levels, but public transport use is still lagging.

Advisory body Infrastructure Victoria said in a 2022 report that while road use was at 92 per cent of pre-COVID levels, public transport use was only at 53 per cent.

Lowe says transport and infrastructure authorities should prioritize on-road efficiencies as well as railways. Until they do, bus passengers will endure unreliable schedules and all road users will endure worse congestion.

“People are investing in second or third cars and choosing to drive instead of taking public transport,” says Lowe.