2 May 2022

Greens push for return to pre-pandemic bus services, more female drivers

| Lottie Twyford
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Zango Transport Canberra buses at Woden interchange Bonner House in background. Photo: David Murtagh.

Canberra’s bus system is still operating on a reduced COVID-19 timetable. Photo: Region Media.

It’s time to get Canberra’s buses up to scratch, according to one ACT Greens MLA who will call on the government to grow its driver workforce so the system can return to a pre-pandemic timetable and run improved weekend services.

Jo Clay, who also highlighted a need for increasing female participation in the bus driver workforce as a priority, will move a motion in the ACT Legislative Assembly tomorrow (4 May) for a “better bus service and a stronger, more inclusive workforce”.

She wants to see adequate numbers of drivers employed so the system can provide hourly Saturday and Sunday services to make weekend bus travel a more attractive option.

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“I want Canberrans to have a bus service that gets them where they need to go when they need to get there. This means Canberrans need confidence in our public transport. We need to trust that our buses will run often, turn up on time and take us to our destination, whether it’s a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday or any other day,” Ms Clay said.

“Canberrans have already told us what the problems are – reliability and frequency.”

It’s estimated less than five per cent of all journeys in Canberra are undertaken by bus – and that’s a pre-pandemic statistic. In comparison, approximately 15 per cent of Melbourne residents use public transport three to seven days a week.

Given an interim timetable remains in operation, it’s likely that number is even lower. On weekends, most services only run every two hours.

Transport Minister Chris Steel, with the Transport NSW Custom Denning Element electric bus

Minister for Transport Chris Steel (pictured with a new electric bus) rejected calls for free buses. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

Last month, the Canberra Liberals called on the ACT Government to immediately return to a pre-pandemic bus timetable and for them to make bus travel temporarily free to encourage people back onto buses.

That proposal was not supported by the government. Minister for Transport and City Services Chris Steel said at the time a pre-COVID timetable would resume as soon as possible.

At the time, Mr Steel told the Assembly around 35 drivers per day were unavailable for work, “placing pressure on [the] remaining workforce”.

“We will not make any headway in driving a long-term shift to public transport if people do not believe that the services will reliably turn up,” he said.

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Ms Clay told the Assembly that studies had found that most Canberrans wanted better buses, not free buses, and the barrier to using public transport was reliability, not affordability.

She said she believed a free bus trial could be useful at “a really strategic time”, but it would be costly.

Jo Clay

ACT Greens MLA Jo Clay is calling for a better bus timetable and a more diverse and robust driver workforce. Photo: ACT Greens.

Her motion this week asks for the usual timetable to be reinstated “as soon as possible”, once enough drivers have been recruited.

Ms Clay is also calling for a new enterprise bargaining agreement to support the government’s previous commitment for hourly route bus services all weekend from 2023.

She’s also calling for work to get underway between the government and the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) directly.

Moving bus drivers, and their union, away from a five-day timetable has long proved difficult for successive Territory governments.

The TWU supports voluntary weekend work, but in 2019, a shortage of drivers volunteering for shifts meant four per cent of weekend services had to be cut.

A fresh round of bargaining is due next year when the long-running issue of weekend work will again be discussed, TCCS officials have previously confirmed.

Options for more flexible work will also be up for negotiation.

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Ms Clay’s motion asks the government to develop a Women in Transport Program and set a target to increase the percentage of women working in bus driver roles.

“This will help us expand our workforce to provide the services we need. At the same time, it will provide good jobs to women in a predominantly male industry,” she said.

Only 11 per cent (101 drivers) of the bus driver workforce are women. Last month, Mr Steel said a targeted recruitment campaign was underway.

Ms Clay is also looking at this issue through an environmental lens. She says cutting transport emissions is a necessity, given they account for more than 60 per cent of tracked emissions in the ACT.

“Providing a really good public transport system is a great way to take real climate action,” she says.

The motion will be debated in the ACT Legislative Assembly tomorrow.

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Why will nobody in ACT Labor or Greens admit the actual underlying issue for the bus service since 2019 (excluding Covid) was the switch from a well serviced and reasonably well used Peak bus focus (Xpresso’s and Rapid) to dropping the Xpresso services and focusing on regular Rapid buses spread right across the day and evening.

Commuters want a bus that quickly takes them from near their home to work and back again during the peak morning and afternoons. Dumping the Xpresso’s removed this option for anyone who doesn’t live next to a Rapid stop.

The 2019 network change made peak hour commutes slower for about half of Canberra. And these areas showed a big decline in their bus use since the network redesign and before Covid struck.

Minister Fitzharris ignored the unprecedented level of negative feedback from both the public and transport experts and instead listened to the clueless people at Canberra Transport who were more interested in advancing their careers than advancing the bus service.

People just want to get to work the quickest way possible. Canberra is a cold town (weather wise and people wise) and the majority of people DO NOT want to be waiting around for public transport. The most important factor is the journey TIME – not climate, not emissions and definitely not who the bus driver is.

Greens missing the mark completely, once again.

Express busses (every day) should be a priority over simply running more busses. From the South if you stop and/or have to change buses in Woden you can add 15 mins to your Tuggeranong-Civic journey, for what should only be a 20 minute drive in total.

Most weekend busses that I have got on to Civic have less than 10 people on board.

Why is diversity with bus drivers is of vital importance?! The Greens seem ok with our 80% ratios of female: nurses, teachers, psychologists, social workers, social services etc and focus on bus drivers.

I don’t know any woman who’d want to drive stinky diesel buses all day. There is a reason we have less female bus drivers/truck drivers, it’s called – choice.

I want to second this. Under the new, more efficient timetable, my commute by bus from Belconnen to Tuggeranong went from 40 minutes door to door on an xpresso to 1 hour, 20 minutes, door to door on the R4. It’s like transport ACT doesn’t care.

Hopefully they can get more drivers for their new diesel buses.
Gender quotas will surely not piss off the other 89% of the workforce.

Has Steele ever even driven a bus? Maybe he can show he can do it and understand the drivers a bit more.

Also why don’t greens join up with the Libs for free buses… unless they are just labor with a green umbrella?

Really good question.
If the Greens can argue for a free bus service, there is absolutely nothing preventing them from voting with the Libs on this issue.
My gut is telling me that they want it both ways. They’ll step outside the agreement for the sake of popularism but then do nothing.

And yes, the Minister should get a bus licence and sign up as a weekend driver, to get some real-life perspective.

I reckon we are not looking hard enough at the fundamentals here. Like, why do we have a bus service at all? If we want one, are we paying too much for a labour force that refuses to work across the businesses opening hours? What do other jurisdictions do? Is the management up to the task? Is the size and composition of the workforce up to the task? And, does the union have too much power/influence?

Yes, the weekend services are poor, but I’ve heard they are having trouble even covering the runs on its existing reduced network, due to Covid also impacting their drivers.

As for more the Greens demand for more female drivers, jt is a physical job, some of the passengers are the dregs of society and there is shift work.
Maybe not every female aspires to that line of work?

With respect to moving bus drivers, away from a five-day timetable, my understanding is that in previous EBAs, their union has suggested the Government offer a penalty rate in exchange for a compulsory weekend roster, but the Government preferred to let the existing arrangement continue.

The silly thing about all of this is that apart from peak hour and trunk route services, most of the buses are running around empty. After all, Covid has made them higher risk than driving.

Do the Greens really want more empty buses driving on our roads? I thought they were more into push bikes.

It’s an open market, if women want to be bus drivers they can, no one is stopping them.

Agreed, Oscar Mike. Unless she can show factually, that the 11% ratio is due to discrimination and not just the fact that the majority of women don’t want to drive a bus.

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