Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Brisbane Metro - Why Bus is Best

Brisbane Metro - is it a bus or train?
BrizCommuter was delighted when Brisbane City Council (BCC) recently announced plans to replace the original (ill thought out) rubber tyred train based Brisbane Metro, with the much more sensible high frequency bi-artic buses. The only major infrastructure change is the $1b under-grounding of the congested Cultural Centre busway station - this location being the achilles heel of the busway network. Unfortunately, this bus Metro plan has been ridiculed by some uninformed politicians (council opposition) and journalists.

In this blog post, BrizCommuter explains why bus is the best option for increasing the capacity of Brisbane's busway system. But first, what is a Metro? Metro is short for Metropolitan (or Metropolitan Railway), of which the first "Metro" ran in London in 1863. Metros are defined as being train lines where trains run frequently enough for the service to be truly turn up and go (at least every 10 minutes), and are completely grade separated from other traffic (cars, pedestrians, other train lines). However, in more recent years, the Metro term has been used to describe any high frequency public transport system (train, light rail, or bus), entire low frequency public transport systems (hello Hobart Metro), and of course mid-sized urban supermarkets (hello Woolworths Metro). Thus BCC are far from the first people to be charged with abuse of the term Metro, and knocking BCC for use of the term is somewhat petty.

So what are the advantages of using bi-artic buses (three section bendy buses) instead of the originally planned rubber-tyred metro trains?

  • Infrastructure changes. Buses can handle the steep slopes and sharp turns of the busway system. Significant and very expensive modifications (additional $2b) would have been required to allow metro trains (whether rubber-tyred, steel wheel, or light rail) to run on the existing busway corridor.  
  • Coverage. Bi-artic buses can use the whole of the existing busway (Eight Mile Plains and UQ to RBWH). The scope of the train based metro was just Wooloongabba to Herston, which would have not served RBWH, UQ, PA Hospital, or Garden City, and would have forced far more passengers to have to change between bus and metro. To extend the original train based metro plan between Eight Mile Plains and UQ to RBWH would have added significant extra cost to the project (>$1b). 
  • One seat rides from suburbs to CBD. Both existing bus services (most likely frequent BUZ, Rocket, and Maroon City Glider services) and the high-frequency Brisbane Metro services can all use the busway. This increases the number of one-seat services from the suburbs to the CBD compared to the train based metro would would have forced almost all passengers to have to change to/from the metro. 
  • Congestion. Most high frequency bus routes will either connect with the bus metro, or still use the busway infrastructure. The train based metro would have forced bus routes that only use part of the busway network (such as the 444, 390, and Maroon City Glider) onto CBD roads, increasing traffic congestion and slowing journey times. 
  • Capacity. Based on existing station lengths (notably the 45m long Mater Hill) the bus metro actually has higher theoretical capacity than a train based metro. This is due to the shorter platform re-occupation time and headways of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). If platform lengths were longer (>75m), than train based metro would have a clear advantage. 
  • Disruption. Aside from the inevitable changes at Cultural Centre, modifications to the busway to run bi-artic buses is minimal. Building a train based metro would have caused significant disruption for around 5 years, with buses being diverted onto congested roads. 
  • Depot. As buses can run on roads, the depot does not need to be immediately adjacent to the metro infrastructure. With a train based metro, the depot has to be immediately adjacent to the metro infrastructure. Unfortunately, there were no suitable depot locations along the original train based Brisbane Metro alignment. 
  • Infrastructure operating costs. Busways generally have lower ongoing operating costs for infrastructure compared to railways, where the track, power supply, and signalling needs to be frequently maintained. 
  • Fuel. Fast electric charging technology, and hybrid diesel engines have increased the attractiveness of buses in recent years as a green form of transportation. Long gone are the days of buses chugging out dirty black diesel fumes.  
Are there any reasons why train based Metro would have been better?
  • Capacity. If the entire busway system was to be converted to rail, and platforms extended to at least 75m, then train based metro would have significant capacity increases over bus metro. Medium to large sized trains are the ultimate method of moving large numbers of passengers. However, this would have realistically resulted in a cost in excess of $4b. Given the much more urgently required Cross River Rail cannot get funding, then finding such sums of money would be unrealistic. 
  • Staff operating costs. Staffing costs are typically 50% of the operating costs for public transport. Operating frequent buses has high staffing costs. Train based metro can operate with no drivers, with staffing only in maintenance, administrative, and customer service roles. However, you have to spend huge sums on upfront costs to achieve the long term operating cost savings. 
  • Reputation. There is no question that a "proper" train based metro adds to the perceived attractiveness of a city (e.g. London's Tube, NYC Subway, Paris Metro) . BRT has a somewhat "third world" reputation, and there are no world famous busway systems. However, reputation and attractiveness of a systems does not necessarily mean that it is the best system for that city. 
For many large cities rail/train based Metro is the best solution to transport issues, and this is one of the reasons why Cross River Rail (which will run metro like frequencies) is Queensland's most urgent infrastructure project. However, in the case of upgrading Brisbane's busway network, there are many compelling reasons why bus based metro (Bus Rapid Transit) is by far the best solution to serve Brisbane for the next few decades. Lord Mayor Graham Quirk, and Deputy Mayor Adrian Schrinner have made the sensible decision to switch from trains to buses for the Brisbane Metro.


  1. I mentioned previously that they aren't calling it a Bus.

    I've haven't been able to confirm what the vehicles will be. The Mayor made it very clear that are NOT multi-articulated busses; they are "a fleet of trackless, rubber-tyred Metro vehicles". That makes me worry... why aren't they calling it what it is... unless it ISN'T a bus.

    What Mayor Quirk described was basically a multi-articulated bus... rubber wheels, three sections, will drive along existing bus infrastructure.

    Article on failure to confirm bus:

    But surely given their description, they are busses right? No.

    "These will be purpose-designed Metro vehicles." - Cr Schrinner from the above article.

    They haven't described busses, and refused to call them busses, and just like the above article "if it walk like a bus and it looks like a bus" we jumped to the logical conclusion that it is a bus. But I searched through everything said and the more I read the more it is pointing towards exactly what they are calling it, a three carriage "rubber-tyred metro vehicle". That is a vehicle that can use a mix of road and rail infrastructure. So the same vehicle they originally planned, but without the rail infrastructure.

    If you look at the Wikipedia article (link below) "rubber-tyred Metro" - nicely describes it as "trams on tyres". Think I'm kidding or "off the track" - look at their fact sheet released this month and look at the image of their new metro vehicle. It looks like a train/tram to me, and matches the supplied image. This is their metro vehicle! It doesn't look like a bus to me. It may be used like a bus initially, but it is most definitely a tram with no tracks.

    Metro fact sheet:
    Wikipedia article:

    Why is this a problem? Most locations in the world had rail tracks laid at roughly the same width as was standard for horse and buggy cartridges (just under 1.5m). This means that the rail width is appropriate for road vehicle width. But QLD is known for having one of the thinnest gauges of rail in the world (roughly 1 metre wide). I would question whether that width is appropriate for a road vehicle, or compatible with current busway. Therefore, assuming they will use the standard train gauge, it means a "tram" like vehicle that can run on tracks but with no tracks to run on... meaning phase 2 (and on) would be adding tram style tracks. In other words: implement their original plan once funding comes along.

    Also, they made it clear that it is a bespoke vehicle for QLD NGR .

    Note - G Link trams/light rail uses the world's pseudo-standard of 1.4m (4 ft  8 1⁄2 in). That means there is to ability for "light rail" to ever use/integrate with standard rail infrastructure.

    1. Pretty sure the Brisbane Metro not-a-bus will be buses, which is a sensible thing. BCC are just having to ride out the political circus.

    2. The actual plan, with actual vehicle specifications should be presented to the public for review. If that type of approach is taken design flaws are likely to be reduced, avoiding incidents like the famous train that wouldn't fit through the tunnel, or the fleet of trains where driver's can't see where to stop and wheelchairs can't get to the wheelchair enabled toilet.

      Personally I think it is unreasonable for democratically elected officials at any level not to (or refuse to) answer a question as basic as "is it a bus?"

      That's about as basic a yes/no question as they could be asked. To start a reply with "some people might call it..." the journalist isn't asking some people. Even phrases such as "used in other major cities" encompasses everything from tuk-tuks to mag-lev high speed trains.

      I agree with you - buses just make sense on many levels and is a sensible solution. Fingers crossed but if I could take out a bet, I'd put my money on a wheeled tram.


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