More school services, extra direct routes and faster connections have been promised as part of sweeping changes to the new bus network, only 10 months after it was rolled out last April.
Transport Minister Chris Steel also announced $1.48 million to recruit 43 more drivers, on top of the 87 new ones already on board, to ensure the reliability of services, particularly on weekends.
Mr Steel brushed aside questions about whether the changes, due to start on 28 April, were an acknowledgement the new network had been a failure, saying he had always said the government would monitor its operation and makes changes where necessary.
“We’ve already made 136 tweaks, these changes are more substantial and address some of the key issues we’ve been hearing from the community,” Mr Steel said.
The vindicated Canberra Liberals said the changes were a concession from the minister that the new network had been a monumental failure.
“Despite over 13,000 pieces of feedback prior to the network commencing, over 7000 petition signatories, and constant calls from the Canberra Liberals to restore services, the Barr Labor-Greens Government has refused to acknowledge these issues,” shadow transport spokesperson Candice Burch said.
“While we welcome the changes announced today, these changes are simply fixing problems that the government created. The government could have foreseen every single one of the problems with the current bus network and never should have let these problems eventuate.”
Mr Steel said the government now had sufficient data from the network’s first six months of operation, together with 3000 pieces of feedback to address the key issues of communities across Canberra.
Some of the biggest complaints came from Tuggeranong and in an election year the government must hope the changes will assuage voters in the south.
Mr Steel promised faster journeys to the city from central Tuggeranong, with the removal of the Barton leg saving up to 15 minutes each way on the Rapid 5. To compensate, a new Route 59 will connect Barton and Russell from Woden and the City.
There will also be direct local services for Tuggeranong to Woden via the Canberra Hospital, and services will be restored to Longmore Crescent in Wanniassa after feedback that elderly residents could not reach a bus stop within a reasonable distance.
In the north, there will be direct local services from Palmerston, Crace, Nicholls and Casey to Belconnen, and more routes and direct services to Gungahlin from Giralang, Kaleen and McKellar, as well as faster connections from suburbs like Charnwood, Melba and Flynn to Belconnen Town Centre.
There will also be more connections to “places of interest” such as Calvary Hospital and the Alexander Maconochie Centre, and a direct stop at Canberra Railway Station.
There will also be better access to Mitchell with Route 18 extended to Dickson, reducing the need for passengers to make multiple transfers.
Mr Steel has promised better connections and time savings across the network from changes to the timetable to be released in mid-March, and a stepping up of weekend services with more local route frequency on Saturdays.
He believes the driver recruitment program together with last year’s action plan, which included standby drivers, will ensure weekend services stay reliable.
The axing of dedicated school routes sparked a backlash from schools and parents, and Mr Steel said that in Term 2 there will be changes around “timings to improve capacity, and in some cases we’ll see special service connections made with certain schools”.
These will be announced along with the new network timetable in mid-March and full details will be provided to school communities.
“The whole idea of these changes is to provide better connections and improve the timing of services so that people aren’t spending as much time commuting in the morning,” Mr Steel said.
Public Transport Association of Canberra chair Ryan Hemsley said the changes announced addressed a number of concerns raised by both its members and the wider public.
“The proposed improvements to bus routes in Tuggeranong, Gungahlin and North Belconnen are especially welcome, and will hopefully lead to more people using public transport in these areas,” Mr Hemsley said.
He acknowledged the improvement in Saturday local bus services but called on the government to ensure full weekend service frequencies were restored as soon as possible, preferably on a rolling basis.