In its first week, light rail carried over 100,000 passengers and proved to be the success that its supporters anticipated. It was a long time coming, and although it received overwhelming support at the 2016 election, much political blood was shed in the preceding decades including Trevor Kaine, Chief Minister Rosemary Follet and David Lamont.
Chief Minister Barr and Transport Minister Fitzharris deserve much credit for their resolve in seeing this city-changing project through. Essential support from the Greens ensured that light rail survived the Legislative Assembly. Former Transport Minister Simon Corbell may one day be able to catch light rail from Civic to Kingston for a coffee, as he once famously predicted.
On Monday, the ACT received its second major public transport shakeup with Network 19, a fundamental system re-set. Integrating light rail, a record nine rapid bus routes, and more frequent local buses, the aim is to increase local connections – and frequency – to rapid routes.
Weekend passengers also benefit from light rail until 1am and rapid buses operating until at least 10pm on Sunday. Passengers living adjacent to light rail will be able to travel until 1am on Saturdays and 11:30pm on Sundays. This is the weekend public transport service that Canberra has needed for many years.
Although the radical changes will prove beneficial, there will be many short-term issues as passengers start using the new bus stops. Many local bus stops are disappearing, and some people will have to transfer between services.
With 140 suburbs and 530 buses, not every suburb in Canberra can have a direct service to Civic. Expresso services received savage cuts, others changed to become part of the new rapid routes, and a few, mainly in Tuggeranong, retained in a different form.
Fairbairn, Hume, ANU and other locations lose a bus service. ANU has its own coaster bus, it may not have enough capacity for the students that relied on the former service. Transport Canberra says on-demand and flexible buses will replace some services, but there’s no extra funding to expand this fleet and software for the small fleet of on-demand buses is not yet available. In some instances, the services are more likely to be used by the ‘fridge magnet generation’ than the ‘app generation’.
The loudest voices are the parents of children who use school buses. These north-south services have slightly decreased and there are now reportable metrics in place. Some services carry a handful of students a day. Clearly, a bus carrying a hundred people is better used on a local bus or rapid service. While there is no separate school bus fleet, this resourcing issue will continue to be played out.
Passenger wayfinding between rapid and local bus services also needs some work. People won’t mind transferring if the frequency of services leads to shorter waiting times and better signage at local bus stops. Software notifications could also help in this regard.
Overall, the benefits of frequent local services connecting to a mass transit spine will improve public transport. In large transport networks, people often transfer to complete their trip. It is a new paradigm we need to adopt as we go from a country town to a growing city.
Gungahlin residents called for better public transport in the early 1990s when it was apparent that buses alone would not carry the number of passengers the popup suburbs were attracting. The Gungahlin Community Council, the Light Rail Coalition, and then ACT Light Rail were energised by the better public transport and planning outcomes that light rail could deliver.
With our population approaching the half-million mark, Canberra must keep building transport infrastructure that matches our growth. More articulated buses with greater passenger capacity are in the fleet and zero-emission, including light rail, is core to transport infrastructure.
Public transport is a visible sign of the health and livability of a city and its people. This government understands this, will future governments? The 2020 Assembly elections will be telling, as the Canberra Liberals are yet to share any thoughts on future public transport infrastructure.
The results of Network 19 may take some time to be realised but they must work if we want to enjoy the bush capital and not live in our cars.
Damien Haas is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the region’s peak public transport user lobby group.