4 April 2024

Liberals' bus plan: good ideas but not a long-term strategy, says public transport lobby

| Ian Bushnell
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Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee and Transport spokesperson Mark Parton: buses are a cheaper and more flexible solution. Photos: Ian Bushnell.

The Canberra Liberals’ bus-based public transport policy was a welcome plan to improve routes and services but failed to provide a long-term strategy for a mass transit system for a rapidly growing city, according to the ACT’s public transport lobby.

Public Transport Association of Canberra chair Ryan Hemsley said many of the measures could be found in the group’s 2023 ACT Budget submission.

But he said the policy was short on the details of how a Liberal Government would actually deliver faster bus procurement, move more people in peak time without adding to traffic woes, improve weekend services, and find the number of drivers needed for an increased number of services and more frequency.

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“Many of those measures will deliver real improvements to Canberra’s bus network and are worthy of commendation,” Mr Hemsley said.

“It’s great to see more commitment to bus priority measures, specifically in Molonglo and Weston Creek, to bypass the bottleneck around Cotter Road.”

He also welcomed the commitment to legislate performance guarantees.

But Mr Hemsley said it was clear the Canberra Liberals weren’t interested in providing an answer to the question of how government planned for a Canberra growing by 100,000 people every decade.

“What they have proposed instead is a range of policies which will improve the quality of the bus network, but on the question of how we deliver a mass transit system for our growing city, it’s remarkably silent,” he said.

Mr Hemsley said that, at best, it was a medium-term response designed to provide an alternative to light rail to Woden.

But he warned the government not to be complacent because the Canberra Liberals had produced a comprehensive public transport alternative that would have a genuinely positive impact on the public transport user experience.

“The government can’t go into this election just to build light rail to Woden and nothing else,” Mr Hemsley said.

“They are going to be faced with an Opposition that has a comprehensive package that does provide a range of benefits no matter where you are in Canberra.”

man outside Legislative Assembly

Public Transport Association chair Ryan Hemsley: The Liberal policy has many good elements, but it’s not a long-term plan.

He agreed that many voters would be attracted to a policy with shorter time frames and less expense, although the Liberal policy remains to be fully costed.

However, questions remained about how the Liberals would avoid the same procurement and construction barriers facing the government as it set about expanding the fleet to 500 electric buses and building the Belconnen and Woden busways.

Mr Hemsley was also puzzled about how the proposed busway on State Circle East would interact with the proposed Barton station near the expanding public service presence in that area and how adding potential stops along Yarra Glen and Adelaide Avenue would still mean faster travel times.

However, Canberra Liberals transport spokesperson Mark Parton said Canberra could not afford light rail and that an expanded electric bus network would meet the city’s needs.

He said the combination of more services, greater frequency, priority lanes and fare caps would attract more people onto the buses and out of their cars, freeing up the roads.

Mr Parton said the Woden to City route was the most successful in Canberra and would be even more so under the Liberals’ plan.

“You can already ride a bus between Woden and Civic in 16 or 17 minutes. We’ll get it down under 15 minutes,” he said, saying buses provide the flexibility that light rail could not.

“The priority bus measures that are outlined in our plan will facilitate that, and I would point out that the number of people that are currently moved on this bus route by buses, if you were to do it by a tram, would require a tram every three minutes, and they don’t have the rolling stock.”

Mr Parton said there would be a busway to Woden by 2027 and to Mawson by 2028, when construction was supposed to start on light rail 2B, with a 2033 finish date.

Opposition leader Elizabeth Lee said only a Liberal Government would have the will and commitment to clear procurement hurdles, deliver an all-electric fleet and recruit the drivers needed to run the network.

“It’s one of the reasons that we’ve announced the plan to go to market and actually get a bus manufacturer to set up operation here in the ACT to assemble buses in Canberra,” she said.

“Our view is … that the more things that you bring under your control, the more ability you have to actually deliver outcomes,” she said.

She said her government would still be looking to the Commonwealth to partly fund its plans.

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Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the Liberal policy would not deliver the public transport network Canberra needed as it grew beyond half a million people in the next few years,” he said.

“This proposal is essentially doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

“We already have buses running on transit lanes from Woden to Civic.”

Mr Barr said Canberrans would see no housing benefits, job opportunities or economic gains that light rail had delivered for the city.

“The world’s greatest cities are not built on bus networks. They all have mass transit,” he said.

Transport Minister Chris Steel is still on leave.

Should the planned light rail route from the City to Woden be replaced with buses?

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The public transport association do not represent the needs or wishes of residents reliant on public transport. They’re misnamed or deceptively named as if they do represent us. Not true!

Yes our Canberra public transport association are like those organisations who call themselves using names like ‘climate environment’ but they’re actually connected to fossil fuel industries.

They need to change their name to the Canberra Light Rail Association to better reflect their members and their real interests.

Having an electric fleet only at this stage can also be good in laying the foundation for a future intelligent on-demand bus network if planning takes enough consideration of later development. For example, develop distributed depots across Canberra for quick on-demand despatching.

An electric bus is still just a bus that happens to have a different motor. Just ride one of the present 12 to find that out. Hyping electrification as the answer is addressing the wrong issue. The big advantages of electric propulsion lie in not using fossil fuel which is harmful to climate, and avoiding risky reliance on overseas supply thereof.

Utilisation data of the busiest routes shows how reluctant the people are to use buses compared with the present light rail. Why are the Liberals proposing a plan for primary routes and expenditure on a mode that is provenly unpopular and will cost disproportionately vastly more for future mode conversion?

Now, if the Liberal ‘plan’ had included considerable speeding up of the light rail network provision AND their proposed improvements to the intra-suburban bus network, then they could have well been on an odds-on winner.

There is no evidence from the public transport utilisation data that show that people are reluctant to use buses compared with the light rail. That’s just made up.

There is also zero evidence to suggest that it would cost vastly more for future mode conversion if appropriate planning is undertaken now. In fact, it is almost certainly far cheaper from a net present value perspective due to the enormous upfront capital cost for light rail that would be required to build out the network now.

No other major bus routes have been given similar levels of priority or route funnelling that the light rail route has. In fact, you could just as easily say that the diminished bus services in other suburban areas of Canberra limits the overall utilisation of the bus network through poor service levels and network design.

The type of proposals put forward by the Liberals has the potential to improve that utilisation in other areas of Canberra, particularly if they can use savings from not building light rail to improve the suburban services.

However, what you can say definitively from the light rail utilisation data is that the patronage numbers are significantly below those outlined in the business case justification for Light Rail Stage 1. The claims that it is “popular” doesn’t match up with the figures used by the government to justify the transport benefit for the project in the first place.

Electrification is absolutely the basis of an automated and intelligent transport network and various foreseeable enhancements, and as such, in and by itself, will not achieve very much except in the reduction of Co2 emission.

And as pointed out in the posts in other related threads, the inadequacy of the current bus network is precisely thanks to the LR, at the launch which the government started to cut down on the bus network.

Jones McDaniels9:19 pm 05 Apr 24

Roger S said: “fossil fuel which is harmful to climate”. Can you provide any evidence of this claim? It seems we should have pretty strong evidence of this claim if we’re supposed to change the entire basis of our economy based on the claim. All I can see is that fossil fuels like coal and gas emit Co2 which is of course beneficial to plant life. If the politicians shutting down coal and gas for Aussies really believe that Co2 emissions will exterminate life on this planet, why are they selling our coal and gas to nations that burn it into our atmosphere anyway? Ipso facto, why do you apparently believe that buring coal and gas is bad for the planet? Thanks.

Whatever Canberra needs, it needs it NOW. That should include all of Canberra. The Libs plan does at least provide an alternative to trams with an improved bus network. Delivered over a few years.

It’s correct that it’s not a long term strategy. That’s because it will actually be delivered relatively quickly and fits the current issues of public transport in our city.

The current government’s LR plans are absolutely long term. So long in fact that most of us won’t be around long enough to see it finished. And who’s to say it’ll still be the preferred tech when it finally gets completed. If you plan to do it – DO IT! Make it snappy.

HiddenDragon8:30 pm 04 Apr 24

“But Mr Hemsley said it was clear the Canberra Liberals weren’t interested in providing an answer to the question of how government planned for a Canberra growing by 100,000 people every decade.”

Similar complaints could be made about other public services such as education, health and public housing – the ACT, like just about every other part of Australia, is in constant catch-up mode trying to provide for the people already here, without the capacity to provide now for people who might be around in future decades.

The main reason for this is that Australia’s rapid, immigration-driven population growth is essentially a Ponzi scheme for public budgets.

It looked clever at first when governments could reap the taxation revenue from a growing, tax-paying population without having to spend too much extra (particularly on costly infastructure), but those days are gone and the budgetary costs are now exceeding the revenue growth – which might explain why most state and territory budgets (with the current exception of WA) are bad and getting worse.

The ACT government seems to acknowledge this reality when it suits – such as today, when ACT Labor was so quick to rubbish the Greens’ ambitious public housing plans – but is in denial on this point when it comes to light rail.

The Liberals’ transport proposals are obviously disappointing to people who buy into Andrew Barr’s “greatest cities” rhetoric against buses, but they are far more realistic for a small city which serves as the administrative capital of a small and increasingly fiscally-challenged federation.

“The world’s greatest cities are not built on bus networks. They all have mass transit,” Barr said.

Probably true but buses still play an important role. A city of Canberra’s size/population is fine to operate with buses if we improve the network. We’ll also have it much sooner and cheaper with more money to spend on other critical infrastructure and investments

Let’s be realistic – when are we getting the tram throughout ALL of Canberra? It’ll be DECADES!!! At best. Come on Andrew. When is Tuggeranong and the rest of our town centres getting it? Seriously? Pick up the pace!!!

When I think of the world’s greatest cities I think big cities… NY, London, Paris, Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Chicago, Tokyo, etc. They all have more than transport going for them to make them popular destinations.

Canberra is not even near the top of greatest cities in Australia. A great city should have a GREAT city CBD! It should be exciting and a tram doesn’t do anything to achieve that. We need a bunch of big beautiful buildings and structures, to give us an iconic skyline. I’m right and anyone who reads this knows it’s true. Let’s go 100 stories please! Why not? A shadow? How pathetic. NY is amazing for a many reasons – but having lots of tall buildings makes it a real destination city.

High density buildings up to 50 stories and higher, particularly on the main travel corridors will help with our housing challenges and immigration. We’ll also get a great city when we start building some great architecture!

Great cities grow BIG first. The people will come. Tourism will grow. Buses are totally adequate. Stop wasting all our money on the tram please.

I mean the alternative, and likely cheaper solution in the long-term, would be to decentralise the public service as was discussed decades ago. Moving more govt departments to the satellite hubs like Gungahlin, West Belconnen, Tuggeranong, Weston Creek etc would alleviate huge amounts of traffic attempting to head to a single location. This would allow greater traffic flows along the “main” routes in both directions, rather than every other Canberran heading into the City or Woden.

Labors light rail plan is a redevelopment vehicle. Its nothing to do with public transport. Its only outcome is putting money in developer pockets and raising the cost of housing.

Labor can’t control the unions, they are only subservient to them. The union runs the drivers and the unions don’t want the drivers to work weekends.

We need to scrap the ticket system. It only works on 3g and we’ve already spent millions on systems that don’t work. The reason for ticket systems in other cities is to support competition. Canberra has none.

We would get more drivers if they didnt have to worry about tickets.
We then wouldn’t need to cover the cost of selling them, maintainng the machines or have ticket inspectors.

The average bus trip costs something like $30, during off peak no one is catching them so they just run empty. Yet they are still paid for. If you could run buses faster without tickets, you’d save that money on drivers, transport more people and still end up with the same cost. However the tax payer wouldn’t have to pay it.

GrumpyGrandpa1:48 pm 06 Apr 24

Just for clarity, bus drivers haven’t sold sold tickets since Covid, I can’t remember the last time I saw a ticket Inspector and half of the passengers scam free rides anyway.

There is an argument about savings that could be achieved by abolishing ticketing systems altogether, however, the government would still need to maintain some system to collect data about passenger numbers for network and route design purposes.

I’m sure the new ticketing system, when it comes, will be an improvement on the existing, however, you can bet it won’t stop the scammers, and it won’t enable multi-State usage. It’s crazy that Canberra, a little island in the “middle” of NSW has a ticketing system that doesn’t recognise Opal and that people with friends and interstate family can have MyWay, Opal & Myki cards on their wallets.

GrumpyGrandpa5:13 pm 04 Apr 24

Whether its Buses or LR, people simply want to get from A to B in as little time as possible.
LR achieved that from Gunners to the City; traffic lights sequencing and up to 70kph vs 60kph on the road, made it possible.
Woden to the City 70kph doesn’t cut it when the bus can go 80 kph and there are minimal traffic light advantages.
ACT Libs are on a winner with Buses Vs LR to Woden.
The Busway that used to be run through to the old Interchange in Belconnen was wonderful; it saved so much time. Of course, it was removed.
I’m not sure whether the Canberra Libs would run a Woden to City Busway. The trip is pretty straight as it is. I’d like to see the plan.

Obviously the devil is always in the detail, but an LR-style bus “track” down the centre of Adelaide Avenue would do the trick.

As others have suggested, it would need to be appropriately constructed to allow for conversion to light rail, in the future, should the need and circumstances dictate it was appropriate.

“The world’s greatest cities are not built on bus networks. They all have mass transit” .

Every city is different, especially ours. Let’s not always look sideways at what other people do, but strive to make our city great in our own way!

We are in an age of great technological advancement, and there are so many opportunities and ways and means to solve our present-day problems with.

Engage local talents and research institutions for a plan of an intelligent city!

ChrisinTurner1:46 pm 04 Apr 24

Our Light Rail has unfortunately shown it cannot handle mass events, probably because trams cannot wait for the event to finish like buses. Traffic signal priority for buses should be introduced ASAP, as has already been done for our trams. Many overseas cities rely entirely on buses in bus lanes. Their next step is express buses then underground metros, not light rail. See Brisbane Metro https://www.brisbane.qld.gov.au/traffic-and-transport/public-transport/brisbane-metro

Stephen Saunders10:32 am 04 Apr 24

Lee is being truthful about her light-rail intentions, but not about the buses.

Barr is right, great cities do have light rail, their citizens like it, but the Strayan infrastructure lead-times are shocking, and this leaves Labor wide open.

As Mark Parton says, the Woden to City bus service is not broken. If their plan is to continue running express services while adding new services that also stop at Curtin and Deakin and go around State Circle, then that’s something that could, and arguably should, be happening already. The Libs are also right to highlight the appalling state of the rest of the bus network across southern Canberra, particularly on weekends. Andrew Barr needs to explain why he thinks two-hourly services are an acceptable level of service on Saturday evenings and Sundays, and why he appears to be incapable of negotiating an enterprise agreement that provides the number of bus drivers that Canberra needs.

Adults are back in charge on Capital Hill10:48 am 04 Apr 24

You need the people to undertake the role of drivers, they are not falling from the trees. No different to our health sector, where Dr’s and other specialists are in short supply, or our Police force as well. Blaming the Government is a cop-out.

It takes weeks to train bus drivers. It takes years to train doctors and other specialists so that’s a pretty meaningless comparison. There is a specific issue here relating to the enterprise agreement and the TWU’s intransigence. It is absolutely the government’s fault.

There are plenty of people who could be bus drivers, if only they were offered the right work conditions. They don’t need high level academic qualifications, so this is really not difficult where there is the commitment and expertise to make this work, rather than a plan to make excuses for not really seeking good results to justify the light rail expense and the poor performance of Steel’s bus failures.

When a bus system goes backwards at speed as this one has, just blame the bus drivers, instead of those who stuffed the planning & implementation of what was lauded as a better system. Not sure who it was better for, but not for public transport commuters.

Too right Psycho. Plenty of bus drivers complain they weren’t properly consulted about the ridiculous Network 2019 mass changes to the bus network and the removal of 750 bus stops. Many remain unhappy with the changes.

When the ACT government is so hyper focused on Light Rail and shows such little interest in the bus network and bus drivers, then it’s not surprising they are struggling to attract staff.

The Public Transport Association of Canberra are the most staunch group of Light Rail advocates you could ever meet. They sound more like bus haters than bus supporters whenever on radio or in the media.

The journalist may as well ask the head of the Collingwood fan club if AFL is a good sport to watch.

They aren’t ‘public transport advocates’, they are literally ‘light rail advocates’. From their website: “PTCBR’s origins lie in the ACT Light Rail Coalition, which had been promoting light rail in Canberra since the early 1990s. Following the 2016 ACT election, it was clear that light rail would play an important part in Canberra’s public transport system, and PTCBR formed to work for better public transport and a better Canberra.”

Yes BJ, when the organisation just rebadged itself from the old ACT for Light Rail lobby group, it’s not like the people involved suddenly shifted their views.

But even then, they can see the benefits in what the Liberals have proposed for the majority of Canberra’s public transport connectivity rather than just the tiny minority of people along a light rail network that will take decades to complete.

They are right that the Liberals should include provision for future upgrades to rail or other transport modes when they become viable but the most effective way to do that would be through protecting alignments and leaving space. Something that can easily be achieved with dedicated busways, which could be converted in the future.

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