Monday, 28 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: BRISBANE

Knowing that Brisbane and the Queensland government are obsessed by buses and the construction of busways it is actually surprising that it also boasts quite a decent suburban rail network. But a first stroll through the city centre reveals its “real face” - this is bus capital! You can't see them at first, only very few streets in the CBD actually have bus stops, until you come across a large square at the end of Queen Street, with a big hole which acts as a 3-lane ramp on which hundreds of buses enter or leave the underground bus labyrinth built beneath a huge shopping mall (the bus boarding platforms are integrated into a large food court). To provide more capacity, another underground bus station opened nearby beneath King George Square, in front of the Town Hall. This appears more to be a huge modern metro station. These two centrally located underground stations are just the centrepiece of a growing network of busways, but busways of the super-highway type, i.e. long sections of complete grade-separation, including tunnels and viaducts and full-scale stations. While busways may certainly have several advantages, I personally believe that the policy is going in the wrong direction.

The biggest advantage is without doubt the one-seat ride from the CBD to your home, at a speed which is probably higher than any other possible transport, at least as soon as the bus is on the dedicated busway. But to achieve this exclusive, almost taxi-like service, you need to provide an extremely large amount of different bus routes to reach every corner of the urban and suburban sprawl, which results in a network layout which is impossible to illustrate (at the Transit Information Centre they admitted that they cannot print a bus map because there are so many lines – anyway, they don't even print a map for the central area or for individual suburbs either....). As the enormous flux from the suburbs into the CBD and back home again occurs only during peak hours, I observed MANY buses leaving the central area almost empty during daytime hours. Of course, you cannot have 500 bus routes running every 10 minutes during the day, but if the frequency is not good enough, no occasional rider bothers to wait for that bus. So while regular CBD commuters will know which bus they take and from where, the “system” is useless for occasional riders (not to talk about visitors not familiar with many place names). Even on the busways it is actually not really clear where all these buses go to, as there are so many different lines passing through that even the experienced traveller loses control, inbound it is always easier as most go to the CBD. I don't know about costs, but I cannot really believe that paying the salary of all the necessary bus drivers is not a strong argument against this sort of transportation. In general, the bus fleet appeared more modern than for example in Auckland, and some buses were even powered by natural gas. Still exhaust fumes extraction from the tunnels must also be an important cost factor.

So while I admit that riding a bus on one of those bus-highways is a rapid form of transport, I think it does not help to create a proper system, as a “system” needs to be simple and understandable for everyone.

But as I said in the introduction, Brisbane also has quite a nice suburban rail system which works pretty well, with most routes being served every 30 minutes (also on weekends!), with some sections carrying two lines. Many sections in the central area have three or four tracks, so for the time being there is no real bottleneck, especially as regional rail traffic that shares some sections is not too important. The Airport to Gold Coast Line is somewhat different from the other typical suburban rail lines: the partly single-track airport access was built with private capital and therefore has a special fare, from Eagle Junction south the trains can be used with normal tickets (see below). South of Park Road station, the Gold Coast trains run express to Beenleigh (some stop at a few intermediate stations, too), from where the line has a more regional than suburban character anyway. The Queensland Rail suburban system used to be branded CityTrain (and this is still shown on some trains), but for some unknown reason this name is no longer used.

The fleet includes three different generations, the oldest still being the most strongly represented, but having been refurbished, they offer almost the same comfort as the newest series, all with air-conditioning and acoustic station announcements, the new ones also with visual announcements. Operation and dispatching appears a bit more old-fashioned than in Melbourne, there is a second man (I think I have only seen male drivers and conductors...) always in the cabin of the second trainset (most trains are operated as two 3-car sets), and there is an “invitation” saying “Doors closing, stand clear!” They also announce the next station and which side the platform is on. The floor height only matches the platform height in a few stations, sometimes when there is a slight curve, it can get quite high! The conductor has a manual ramp for wheelchair access.

The stations are generally in a good shape, some have a 1930s appearance, while others have been rebuilt completely, and now feature lifts and footbridges. As in Melbourne, all stations have generally usable toilets. Many stations still have older Queensland Rail signs, strongly faded and sometimes impossible to read the name. Others have been replaced with a new design, not too appealing in my opinion, but the newest ones have a strong orange stamp, for TransLink, the Transportation Authority of Southeast Queensland. So, large orange signs now at least hint car drivers at existing stations, but unlike in Melbourne, the colour does not reveal the mode, thus a busway station looks the same as a rail station. A feature worth copying in other places is the automatic acoustic pre-annoucement of the next train 2 minutes before its arrival, like “The next train on platform 2 is a City and Ferny Grove service and will arrive in approx. 2 minutes” or similar.

One thing I hated in the beginning, and finally accepted it although I'm still not convinced of is the new fare system. Paper tickets are still sold for single rides, only. Anybody else needs to acquire a “go card”, a smartcard that can be used in the entire Translink area which is rather large, probably some 150-200 km in the north-south direction. This area is divided into 23 zones in each direction from Brisbane CBD and the corresponding fare is deducted from the go card, and therefore one has to touch on and touch off at all times. The first problem is that one never really knows how much it costs, I tried to understand, but couldn't. At least, it was generally less than I expected. I couldn't find out either how long the system accepts a touch-on as a continuation of the previous trip, and in many cases the system doesn't seem to understand where you are going... One reason for this is that the rail stations outside the central area are open-access stations, so you need to touch on and off as you walk onto the platform through one of several possible entrances (luckily, unlike Melbourne, there are several entrances!), there are even touch-on machines in the middle of the platform. So, in my case (I admit it is not the most typical), I touched off at the final stop, and a few moments later I touched on again to go back into the city and the system would accept my return journey as a continuation of the previous journey, so often, when I touched out in the city centre I wasn't charged for the return trip! Anyway, you get other discounts, like off-peak, and if you use it a lot in one week, it gets half price, etc. That's what I mean, that you never really know how much you will pay.

Implementing such a system costs millions of dollars, so why not implement it properly? Why maintain single paper tickets, which require all accesses in the central areas which have proper ticket barriers to be manned at all times to open the gates for paper ticket holders, also the Airport Train issues paper tickets! Due to the lack of proper ticket gates in outer stations, ticket inspections are still necessary on the trains, and I had them on the first train I took! So the problem of fare evasion persists.

When I went to Gold Coast, I got off at Nerang and was picked up by a local fan, the typical situation when you forget to touch out! And I forgot. I wasn't sure how I could solve this situation, but when the guy dropped me at Varsity Lakes (the southernmost station of the system), the ticket office lady told me, I should simply touch out first at the machine inside the station (this one has proper gates, though open....), and then touch on again to return to Brisbane. This means that I “finished” my journey three hours after getting off the train and it still accepted it as valid. Anyway, as I wrote for Melbourne, I prefer simple tickets which for a set price say where you can go, and with the option of unlimited rides. The Brisbane system doesn't help to get more people out of their cars – the whole philosophy behind “day/weekly/monthly passes” is that you are more likely to use public transport if you already have a ticket (at a fair price!), and the feeling that you made the most of it. Having to pay a new fare for each trip makes you always think twice whether you should actually do it.

QR (Queensland Rail)


Queensland Rail at Wikipedia

Brisbane at UrbanRail.Net


  1. Just FYI, while most Melbourne stations have signage for toilets, most of the toilet doors are actually permanently locked, and only those at larger staffed stations are in fact open to the public.

  2. Excellent article. The last paragraph is spot on!

  3. >>while most Melbourne stations have signage for toilets, most of the toilet doors are actually permanently locked<<

    Well, for me, Australia is toilet paradise! Even if some are closed (I have used loads), in Berlin we generally have none at all. Bigger stations in Germany have "McClean" which is quite good but they charge you up to 1 EUR for a pee. And here they are free and decently clean. The whole country is extremely clean, more than any European country, even Switzerland!

  4. "While I admit that riding a bus on one of those bus-highways is a rapid form of transport, I think it does not help to create a proper system, as a 'system' needs to be simple and understandable for everyone."

    It is way too complex. I've tried devising a schematic map concentrating on a handful of routes which provide good frequencies most of the time:
    The recent introduction of route 88 (purple line on the map) has further undermined system legibility, as well as wasting resources (which could be used to increase the orbital Great Circle Line to full-time quarter-hourly service, for instance).

    Another problem with having so many bus routes going into the CBD is that inner stretches of the busway system become quite congested, and not just during peak hour.

  5. Google-Earth shows a lot of busways. The stations look like real metro-stations concerning standard and length (no level-crossings, probably lifts and escalators). There is something similar in a chinese city which name I forgot unfortunately. There it is said, that the system could be upgraded to light-rail or even metro one day. Do they have the same in mind when building the Brisbane-busways? If so, you have a lot of ramps or acces roads to the BRT which might be leftovers if it will be converted into LRT?

  6. The busways were constructed in mind to convert to tramway operation, the base of the road has pretty much everything in place ready to go from what I know.

  7. Must strongly disagree with your comments about the fare structure.

    It's pretty easy to find out what the fare will cost so long as you know how many zones you are using. The journey planner does show it also. If you aren't using the journey planner, you do need to cross reference the zone map with the fare table. Not sure what you are saying should be done though. Unless you are worrying about not knowing which discounts apply. With a bit of digging you can find this explained on the Translink website: I do agree that the website isn't particularly good, and could be easier to find these rule. Basically, touch on after touch off is a continuation within 1 hour with up to 3 continuations per journey, peak fares apply Mon-Fri for touch ons before 9am and 3:30pm-7pm, and frequent user (50% discount) is after 10 journeys/week starting Monday.

    I will allow that the system might not work out too well for tourists.

    Re:Maintaining single paper tickets:
    Your idea is that everyone should be forced on to Go Card, even tourists, or very infrequent users? It's pretty similar to what is done in London, although they punish you much more severely for not using the Oyster. I expect pretty much every other jurisdiction which uses a smart card technology also has non-smart card alternative method for infrequent users or tourists.

  8. >>>Must strongly disagree with your comments about the fare structure.<<<
    Simon, I did study the fare zone system beforehand, and fortunately was surprised that in the end it cost me less than expected (still by far the most expensive system in Australia for my, admittedly atypical, travel habits

    >>>Re:Maintaining single paper tickets:
    Your idea is that everyone should be forced on to Go Card, even tourists, or very infrequent users?<<<

    No, my criticism is rather the "paper" part of the ticket, which requires old-fashioned ticket inspections for an otherwise modern ticketing system. I would assume that even single tickets (and also unlimited-ride day tickets) can be issued with smartcard technology, like in the Netherlands, so that all gates can be closed and everyone needs to check their tickets automatically.

  9. I really hope you understand that buses do not run the same way as the trains.buses are community services,people from the communities do not really care about how complicated it is to read route maps or timeables they are happy as long as their buses show up and take them home.public transport systems are dedicated to serve local communities rather than entertaining foreign vistors.

    busways are growing rapidly thoughout the world so the policy to adopt busways is in the right direction you just need to get over it.

  10. No doubt that in Brisbane railway department is very good and also comfortable journey provide to the tourist but prefer bus tour instead of the rail because this tour is amazing you can take much entertainment new york to knoxville you can also vsit this site which is best for the tourist with in the one city to lther city buy online tickets...


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