A recent history of Sydney’s frequent public transport

Posted: February 11, 2022 in Transport
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Sydney’s public transport network was traditionally a point to point network focussed on the Sydney CBD and a few other major activity centres. The past decade and a half has seen that network begin to evolve into one based on frequency and transfers where a user can potentially get from anywhere to anywhere. This has been driven by an improvement in service frequencies, initially to 15 minutes but more recently every 10 minutes, and by reforming the fare system to remove or at least reduce the financial penalty for making a transfer.

Towards the end of the 00s, an umbrella group known as the Sydney Alliance showed how much of Sydney had public transport service every 15 minutes. It showed that while public transport services reach all parts of Sydney, only a small portion of the city benefited from 15 minute frequencies and these were concentrated around the inner suburbs.

The first widescale use of an all-day high frequency public transport network came in 2008 with the rollout of Metrobus, red-branded buses along trunk corridors like Anzac Parade or Parramatta Rd. They would operate every 10 minutes during peak hour and every 15 minutes in the off peak, then every 20 minutes in the late evening and on weekends. A total of 13 routes were created, but no new routes were added following the 2011 change of government and all routes have since been withdrawn, replaced, or renumbered.

The rail network began seeing all-day high frequency in the 2013 timetable change. Prior to the 2013 changes, 82 of the 176 stations on the network had a train service every 15 minutes all day. After the 2013 changes, this rose to 113 of the 176 stations.

Stations with a train every 15 minutes: 82 blue stations pre-2013, 31 green stations added post 2013.

The 2017 timetable changes saw this increase further, to 126 of the 176 stations, while also extending these service levels to the weekend; before this, weekend frequencies often remained half hourly at many of these stations. Today, outside of the Richmond Line and T4 South of Wolli Creek, it’s hard to find a station without 15 minute frequencies. Those that do lack 15 minute frequencies often tend to have some of the lowest patronage on the network.

Lines with a train every 15 minutes or less all day in 2017. (Source: Adapted by author from Sydney Trains.)

Separately, in 2016, Opal fares were reformed to provide a $2 transfer discount. In many cases, this eliminated most or all of the penalty for changing from one mode to another. The Opal card had already eliminated the fare penalty from changing from one bus to another. These were important changes, as they enabled the public transport network to evolve from a point to point system, to one involving transfers at key nodes. But this would require a level of frequency greater than a service every 15 minutes.

And so in recent years the term “all day high frequency” service emerged to mean a service every 10 minutes, generally all day 7 days a week.

A few train stations had this level of service: the City Circle saw many branching lines converge and funnel large numbers of trains into it, while the T4 Eastern Suburbs Line and its evenly spaced 6 trains an hour also had a train every 10 minutes. The 2013 timetable brought the T8 Airport Line up to 8 trains an hour, with 6 and 9 minute gaps between each one ensuring no one had to wait more than 10 minutes for their next train. Finally in 2019 the opening of Sydney Metro, which has all day frequencies of 10 minutes, necessitated increasing frequencies on the T1 North Shore Line so that it also had connecting trains every 10 minutes or better.

Stations in Sydney with a train every 10 minutes all day. Some stations have 11 or 12 minute gaps or do not have 10 minute services on weekends.

Today, a few other parts of the rail network also have 10 minute frequencies or similar. Stations like Newtown, Ashfield, and Strathfield as well as a few stations on the Western Line between Parramatta and Blacktown enjoy enough frequency of trains to have roughly 10 minute frequencies. Although in some cases there can be 11 or 12 minute gaps due to different stopping patterns. All three light rail lines normally run trams at 10 minute or better frequencies.

Eastern Suburbs all day high frequency bus network shown in dark blue.

But it is the bus network that has seen the most progress when it comes to an all day high frequency network. Though these routes can be found all across Sydney, such as the T80 between Parramatta and Liverpool in South West Sydney or the 610 between QVB and Castle Hill in North West Sydney, they are most commonly found in the Eastern Suburbs region and the North Shore/Northern Beaches region following a network redesign of each of these two areas.

North Shore and Northern Beaches all day high frequency buses shown in dark blue, plus B-Line in orange.

A network redesign like this is not a new idea. Former Sydney based transport planner Jarrett Walker suggested a potential redesign for Sydney’s inner suburbs back in 2010, during the Metrobus era. What has changed since then is the Opal fare structure now allows such a network to exist without financially penalising users for making a transfer.

With the expansion of Sydney Metro in the West and South West of the city, and the potential for additional bus network redesigns, there remains a lot of untapped potential in increasing mobility for public transport users across Sydney beyond the simple point to point network previously offered.

  1. Chris O'Rourke says:

    The two authors of letters to today’s Sydney Morning Herald might challenge the idea that bus services have improved. (FYI, as I’m not in a position to comment otherwise, but am still of the firm view that metro is for metro not for suburban, eg. Tallawong to the City).

  2. craig says:

    why did the metrobus network have to disappear?
    This is a big flaw with buses compared ot trains; at the stroke of a pen, bus routes disappear almost overnight.

  3. Tom says:

    M90 M91 M92 still exist I think? So most, but not all Metrobus routes have been renumbered.

  4. JC says:

    The politicians proclaim that they have invested in signalling to allow 2 minute frequencies on Sydney Trains – but they are struggling to deliver 10 minute headways. Maybe shorter more frequent trains are the answer.

  5. JC says:

    Of course, as the excellent Jarret Walker article sets out, it is not just about frequency but about where buses go. To make interconnection work we need more radial bus links between the T3 and T2/M1 corridors in the inner west (and better L1 interchange at Lewisham and Dulwich Hill), and better links between the inner west and the south eastern suburbs.

  6. Totoro says:

    I’m curious to see how stopping patterns/frequencies will change post opening of the Metro CBD/Southwest line. I live in one of the T9 suburbs, it would be great to see higher off-peak frequencies on that line as it would increase the ease of Metro transfers for us essential workers doing late hours.

    In the meantime, it seems like the biggest hindrance to service frequencies is the RTBU..

  7. JC says:

    @Totoro. With two metro connections at Epping and North Strathfield and fast T1 connection at Strathfield, maybe T9 will lose its city access and become a frequent cross-town service Hornsby-Strathfeld.

  8. Totoro says:

    That’s possible. Hornsby-Central
    as the start/end stations would also make sense for T9. The crucial part is high frequency to facilitate easy interchange with Metro. That should be the ultimate aim anyway.

    I would accept a loss of direct T9 services to Town Hall if it meant suburban stations get 8-10 tph in both directions throughout the day.

  9. JC says:

    …or continue along the freight corridor from Strathfield to Belmore interchange wIth M1?

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