The ACT Government has “refreshed” its public transport recovery plan, acknowledging that transport habits have changed. However, there’s still one thing missing – a date for when a regular timetable will return.
That’s something the Opposition – and the Greens – have consistently been calling for in recent months.
Passenger levels on the ACT’s bus and light rail network have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Patronage is currently around 70 per cent of what it was in February 2020.
Fare revenue was down by $18.3 million on the previous year in the financial year 2020-21.
Transport Canberra has stated it wants to get back to ‘normal’ “as quickly as possible”, but it acknowledged public transport usage would never quite be the same again as commuters have changed their working – and life – habits already.
Tuesday to Thursday are now the most popular days for commuting as people stay at home on Monday and Friday. But off-peak patronage, including evenings and weekends, has returned at a quicker rate.
Despite the refreshed plan, the government hasn’t yet committed to returning to a normal timetable; instead, it said it would focus on reliability.
“The interim timetable has remained in place to minimise the workforce impacts on service levels,” the plan read.
“We will closely monitor public transport patterns, reliability, and staffing availability as the COVID-19 situation progresses, and will increase service levels when possible.”
In Budget estimates hearings last month, Canberra Liberals spokesperson for transport Mark Parton questioned how many years an interim timetable could be in place “before it is just ‘the timetable'”.
Transport Canberra deputy director-general Ben McHugh said it was not possible to provide a firm date for a return to a full timetable because the situation was being “constantly monitored”.
“On a weekly basis, we are analysing patronage numbers, vehicle capacities, the health situation and our driver workforce, and we are constantly thinking and planning about when is the right time to bring people back to public transport,” he told the hearing.
“I would not suggest that we sit back and go, ‘six months or 12 months’ time might be right’. We are constantly looking at when is the next best available time to make improvements to the public transport network.”
Mr McHugh said there had been multiple times over the last 12 months where “plans [were] in place to do that”, but they were scuppered due to COVID-19 impacts.
In May, ACT Greens spokesperson for transport Jo Clay called for the government to hire more bus drivers so the normal timetable could resume. In April, Mr Parton had also called for a resumption of the normal timetable, but Transport Minister Chris Steel rejected this.
Mr Steel said at the time it would be impractical to return to a full bus timetable due to pandemic-related workforce uncertainty.
Pre-pandemic, it was estimated less than 5 per cent of all journeys in Canberra were undertaken by bus.
The government hopes public transport will play a key role as light rail-related construction for Stage 2 and other infrastructure projects get underway and disrupt traffic and parking.