4 April 2024

Liberals throw down the gauntlet with public transport policy

| Ian Bushnell
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Is Canberra’s future on the buses? Voters have been given a real choice this election. Photo: James Coleman.

The ACT Government ignores the Canberra Liberals’ public transport policy at its peril. It could be a game-changer.

While light rail remains popular, the Liberals have tapped the growing anxiety about the lengthy timeframe for the Woden project and its cost, which they now say could be north of $4 billion.

No matter that their numbers may be fudged for full effect, what they are offering is a much-improved bus service with a couple of dedicated busways with priority features and a much lower price tag, although the overall package is yet to be fully costed.

The idea for an electric bus assembly operation in Canberra adds an extra strand to the policy. It will appeal to those who like the idea of diversifying the ACT economy with a manufacturing component.

The Liberals also say this will give the government more control over the procurement of the 500 electric buses needed for an expanded service.

Whether it is feasible or achievable is debatable, but it is an interesting idea.

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The main game is whether voters will buy the proposition that a light rail network is just too expensive for a small city-state like Canberra and will take too long to roll out.

Why wait until 2033 for light rail 2B to Woden to be complete when the city can have a busway serviced more frequently with travel times of 15 minutes by 2027? It is unclear, though, how the Liberals will deal with the growing Barton cluster of public service departments and agencies.

The policy will tempt those overwhelmed when they see a ‘b’ after a number and weary of timelines heading into the next decade.

The Liberals say it’s time to work with what we have, including the existing light rail line from Gungahlin and the extension that will be built to Commonwealth Park, making it a better and more affordable service for which people will want to ditch their cars.

There is no escaping from the fact that people find the bus network hard to negotiate, without smooth connections and travel times that cannot compete with the car.

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

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The Liberals’ proposals for tackling these basic problems with the network should be something any government should embrace, and the Public Transport Association is right to say Labor will need to offer more than just light rail and more of the same when it comes to buses.

The problem for the Liberals is that much of their policy relies on faith – that a Liberal Government will have the drive and commitment allegedly lacking in the current one when it comes to procurement, infrastructure and the recruitment of drivers.

A Liberal Government will face the same hurdles that the Barr Government has and is negotiating an uncertain environment of supply chain issues, construction cost blowouts and intense competition in the infrastructure sector.

Then there are the drivers for an expanded fleet and service, especially on weekends. Where will they come from?

Of course, the big picture question is: can buses do the job not just now but in the decades to come when Canberra’s population passes half a million and heads to 700,000?

Clearly, the government believes they won’t and that light rail, combined with buses and active travel, will.

It says that buses simply can’t deliver the mass transit system required to move lots of people efficiently in a city of that size and reduce the burden on our roads.

The government will also remind voters that the proposed Woden busway is merely an enhanced transit lane on the existing roadway.

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Light rail will take time to build and cost more, but without it, the government will say, the ACT will be shortchanging future generations, committing them to clogged roads and a loss of its famed accessibility.

Public transport is not the only issue at stake in this election, but it is a big one, and it affects others, such as Territory finances and suburban development.

The Canberra Liberals have put a lot of time and effort into its policy, and the government and voters should pay it the respect it deserves.

The election could boil down to which vision voters find more attractive.

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As a local I watch plenty of 3/4 empty buses (even in prime time) drive past. I’m think the issue with public transport may run deeper than the technology/method of delivery. I was at the Canberra Marathon on Sunday along with 10,000 other people and didn’t see any sort of public transport. Parking was pretty bad and lots of people had to park at Russell and walk over to Old Parliament House. Why not even shuttles from the city? You go to any event in any other city and public transport is always the preferred method of moving large crowds.

Greg, I think you’ll find that the R2 and R6, which run along that route every 1/2 hour weekends (so, in total, a bus going past every 15 minutes), were diverted due to the running of the Canberra Marathon.

It started at 530am. They have enough trouble getting the drivers to do a normal weekend, that would be a 330 or 4am start for them.

Trevor Willis7:28 pm 06 Apr 24

From the comments and discussions i have had with people who I thought were intelligent, I am surprised that so many Canberrans think the “tragic tram” system is better than electric buses.
Mr Barr, his government and the tram system should all be discarded into the rubbish bin for “dumbos”. Trams cannot be utilised to change directions if a problem happens on the line – buses can. The tram system will cost billions of dollars to make it easier for a large minority of people while a large majority will have to foot the bill for this ridiculous venture- purchasing extra buses is a cost we can bear and will benefit everyone.

Article should be marked political advertisement. Nonsense.

Margaret Freemantle6:23 pm 05 Apr 24

Don’t you think it is time for different opinions to Ian

It’s a bit divisive all this tram v bus stuff!

Fact is we deserve both. Probably need both. And yet can’t afford both.

A very Canberra problem, such is the size of our city/limited budget.

We are already replacing the old buses with electric ones. The light rail will be very successful for Canberra – ideally suited with multiple city hubs and relatively flat terrain. The further light rail progresses the more popular it will become. The Libs know that – they are just looking for an angle. I guess we should be happy they are not advocating nuclear!!

Paddy Costanzo1:13 pm 05 Apr 24

Anyone who thinks buses are the mass transit answer has never been to Manila. It isn’t pretty.

If the current government could disprove the Liberals’ projected $4 billion cost of building light rail to Woden, it would do so. Clearly, it can’t. That’s (at least) another $4 billion ripped from public health, public housing, public schools, community safety, community services, and everything else Labor and the Greens have been slashing over the past 12 years.

devils_advocate9:52 am 05 Apr 24

The only “fudging” of numbers going on is by the Baaa “government”, by including benefits such as land value uplift along rail routes (which Infrastructure confirmed is not valid) and disregarding costs that are clearly necessary only to facilitate the tram.

The wording of the poll with “yes, busses are more versatile” makes no sense to me. There are many reasons why a busway could be better than a tramway, but “versatility” is not one of them. If I choose to live near a transport line, I want certainty that that line will be there next year, if it is so “versatile” that it could move to a new route next week or every election season, that is not a good thing!

The debate on this issue is so backwards and linked to the government’s ideological position that meaningful discussion is being lost.

The debate shouldn’t be about whether we “like” one mode of public transport better, it should be about what the evidence says is the most effective, efficient and adaptable solution to meet current and future needs.
How can we maintain equity in the provision and funding of those services over time?

The government continually trots out meaningless talking points about why they “think” Light rail will be better but if they were actually doing their jobs, their would be robust and detailed options analyses and business cases outlining the total costs and benefits over time.

“Just trust us” doesn’t cut it.

Where are the current cost estimates for Stage 2B and beyond?

The lack of transparency is appalling.

These views would be very relevant to, say, a parcel delivery system, but human beings are not parcels. The customers and potential customers have preferences and feelings to be taken into account. The significance of this aspect has resoundingly been demonstrated by the reported usage data of buses and light rail. Why waste money on a system the customer has demonstrated they don’t prefer? Just encourages continued car use and damages the goal of mitigating climate change.

Roger S,
I’ve already commented around your claims on the patronage data elsewhere.

There is no evidence to back up the statements around preferences and their impact on public transport usage between buses and light rail in Canberra at present.

And the patronage data for the first stage of light rail is well behind the projections used in the business case, so the claims of its popularity are also in question.

The point is, no bus routes in Canberra have ever been given the same level of resourcing and priority given to the first stage of light rail. You’re attempting to compare apples amd oranges.

Data from quarter ending March 23 for top 10 routes gives total boardings for R! (light rail) of 1,012,654. That is for 1 core section (Gungahlin – Civic).

For the remainder of the top 10 routes (Rapid routes R2 to R6, R8, R9, and non-Rapid routes 32, and 59) boardings were 1,929,651. That encompasses 7 individual route core sections (Belconnen – City – Woden – Tuggeranong, and Belconnen – Gungahlin) suburban and lesser significant sections. Thus only an average of 275,664 per service per core section. A rather stark contrast with light rail of 1,012,654 for only one core section.
Counting up the total number of services across each route and core section I haven’t done but it would be hard to argue it is less than the light rail equivalent number… With such a disparity in boarding numbers, the suggestion that service quality entirely explains the difference hardly holds water. (Note that the bus average is inflated by the inclusion of boardings unrelated to the core sections, but if it could be excluded would simply make the light rail figure even more impressive).
To condemn light rail as not achieving what were probably optimistic results is just spin, and does not invalidate the inference of the data. There is also a conflict with published statements a while back that light rail usage was more than anticipated.
I do not have the time to analyse data more closely and the moment is already almost past.

Just to clarify there are 4 core sections for buses quoted but some routes share a section thus core sections are directly traversed by 7 of the top ten routes. For immediacy I didn’t have time to separate out the suburban and non-core but, as said, would simply disbenefit the buses in favour of the tram.

What on earth is that meant to mean?

You are comparing one light rail route versus completely different routes.

A light rail route that has deliberately had bus routes funnelled into it to increase patronage.

It’s absolutely meaningless to attempt to claim this can be used to assert light rail popularity compared with bus routes.

And then claiming that it’s unfair to use the light rail business case numbers as overly optimistic just highlights that light rail hasn’t achieved the results claimed.

The transport benefits were only 20% of the assessed benefits, the majority falling on development benefits.

Those numbers mean that the assessed transport benefits are not remotely being achieved.

I agree you haven’t had time to assess the data properly, because it doesn’t remotely match what you’re claiming.

I guess for a fair comparison of the situations before and after the Stage 1 LR, the data should include how many are taking LR, how many are taking the LR and are fuming, how many are still driving, and how many have quit their jobs or have left the areas along the LR route altogether. 😉

Nonetheless, the stated business case for Stage 1 LR does not apply to other routes, not the one to Woden, not now.

Yes, a fairly rushed ham fisted attempt to set out the numbers as I see them. It is however, inescapable that with light rail carrying over 20% of the entire Transport Canberra patronage as expressed by boarding numbers, no matter how the numbers are viewed in greater detail (and my attempt was, in fact, generous to buses, as suburban usage can’t be separated out from core route usage) and discounted, the popularity of light rail and its potential is obvious.

I still get the feeling that opposition to the idea of light rail smacks of the NBN downgrade, and arguments of the time that Sydney Harbour bridge was far to big. Short termism thinking, I fear, partly driven by the Government’s failure to get on with it in a timely manner.

As this discussion item is now a day old and behind “view more conversations”, I see little point in continuing to expend time engaging.

No, you have attempted to compare apples with oranges.

The data simply does not support your proposition.

The first light rail route has had massive amounts of supporting infrastructure, route prioritisation and network design created to maximise patronage. Even then the numbers are not reaching those used to assess its feasibility in the business case.

Whilst it is perfectly reasonable to maximise the value of the investment in the first stage of light rail, you cannot remotely use those figures to compare to other bus route patronage in the rest of the city.

Each route is completely different, the travel characteristics, lengths, area, demographics, growth profiles etc. are all individual.

No bus route has currently been given the same level of resourcing and in fact, the previous bus network changes made suburban network usability far worse, through reduced services and longer trips.

And if the government was actually thinking long term, they would build the most efficient public transport solution with the provision for future upgrades.

The enormous cost of light rail being constructed now is actually causing a lower quality overall public transport network because it consumes so much resources and funding from a constrained budget. It is a perfect example of short termism whilst ignoring the best overall, long term solution.

GrumpyGrandpa6:29 pm 07 Apr 24

Roger S,
I’m not sure I understand the point of your travel data?

The only data I care about is the travel time between Tuggeranong and the City.

If I can catch a bus from Tuggeranong, then change onto LR and arrive in the City quicker than a bus from Tuggeranong to the City, I’ll support LR.

If LR will increase my travel time, you’ve lost me.

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