The Problem With Sunday Timetables

Public Transport timetables on a Sunday are characterised by reduced levels of service compared to weekdays or in many cases no service at all. This means that Sunday timetables often don’t provide a useful service that meets customer expectations. These timetables meet neither of the frequency or coverage goals that often form the basis of network planning. In essence, Sunday timetables reduce mobility. This is of particular concern as those who lose mobility under Sunday timetables are typically those who can least afford it – those in disadvantaged areas far from the CBD and other services. This issue is more pronounced in areas only serviced by buses, as bus timetables are more likely to see reductions on Sundays than other modes.

This issue has been brought to the forefront in Sydney as a result of the short lived move to introduce Sunday timetables on a daily basis. This was done last minute due to a rapidly deteriorating COVID-19 outbreak and the associated restrictions. The intention of this move was to reduce mobility across Sydney, perhaps the most tacit admission from Transport for NSW that their Sunday timetables do indeed reduce mobility when compared to regular weekday service levels. These changes left some operators scrambling to fill gaps in their Sunday timetables, whilst people in other areas were left without service at all. Within a week Transport for NSW had backtracked and restored weekday timetables for some bus routes, with the majority of services returning to weekday timetables within two weeks.  

Services operate less frequently on Sundays compared to the rest of the week – Transport NSW Blog Collection

In theory, there should be a level of base service that operates on all services throughout the day 7 days a week. This level of base service needs to provide useful coverage, which Transport for NSW states is 90% of residents living within 800m of a bus stop with at least hourly service between 9am and 6pm on a Sunday. For residents on many routes, this base level of service isn’t achieved. Many routes only run every 2 hours on a Sunday or in many cases routes don’t operate at all on Sunday. In other areas, this base level of service is woefully inadequate. A service which runs hourly or less is not an attractive service for people to use and forces people into using their cars. The base of service between a Saturday and Sunday should not really change, however on many routes the level of base service is significantly high on a Saturday. On many routes in Sydney that retain frequency across the weekend, patronage on Sundays is equal if not higher than on Saturdays. Perhaps an easy way to improve Sunday service is to provide the same or similar levels of service on Saturdays and Sundays.

People cannot rely on Sunday timetables. Most people do not base their lives around timetables for public transport services. If public transport offers a reliable option when people want it, they will use it. However, when it boxes them into choosing an infrequent and inflexible option people will instead chose to drive. In order for a service to be reliable, it needs to provide people with flexibility. The flexibility for people to come and go as they need, provide a service both to a destination and back again and for people to change their plans. The infrequent nature of Sunday service means it does none of those things.  If a service is not flexible, people cannot rely on it to get where they need to go. The unreliable nature of Sunday timetables discourages public transport use on a Sunday, but it also can have an effect on week round patronage. People want to be able to travel by the same means for the same trip regardless of what day it is, particularly in outer suburbs where most trips are local ones to the shops or station. If people can’t rely on public transport outside of weekday peaks, people are unlikely to use it at all.

One of the big issues in Sydney in regards to the reduction in service levels on a Sunday is that this reduction is not evenly spread. Higher socioeconomic areas in Inner Sydney often see levels of service on Sundays close to that of their weekday timetables. It is typically poorer and disadvantaged communities in South Western and Western Sydney that see significant cuts to public transport on a Sunday. Many routes across the Busabout, Busways and Interline networks servicing these areas only run 2 or 3 times a day on a Sunday despite running more frequently on a weekday. Conversely, many routes in the State Transit and Transit Systems networks in Inner Sydney usually operate at a consistent frequency week round, often half hourly.  It is often those who are more disadvantaged that rely on public transport services, so this disparity has the potential to continue to entrench disadvantage in our community.

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons from Sydney’s experiment with Sunday timetables is that they do not reflect the travelling patterns of weekdays. On a weekday, most trips on public transport are those who are travelling from home to work and back again. The weekday network is designed to help achieve this, with extra trips and express services in the AM and PM peaks and a relatively higher base level of service throughout the day. The Sunday network does not have these peak trips and has a lower level of base service. This made the Sunday timetable poorly suited to service those who still needed to travel on the network who overwhelmingly wanted to travel at peak times. This led to severe overcrowding on many routes, including trips in hotspot areas. Transport for NSW confirmed that over 3000 trips each day were overcapacity across multiple routes such as the T80 from Liverpool to Parramatta via T-Way and the M91 from Hurstville to Parramatta via Bankstown. The ill-suitedness of Sunday timetables for weekday operation is what forced Transport for NSW to quickly backtrack and return to weekday timetables

It is clear that Sunday timetables for public transport need to be improved. A more reliable Sunday service will help improve mobility for those in Western Sydney and those who are disadvantaged. It will also help to improve patronage on public transport across the week. A focus on ensuring that coverage of the public transport network on Sundays is improved, with higher frequencies across the board would go a long way to improving public transport on Sundays.

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