Canberra Liberals 2024 transport policy – the good, the bad, and the weird

HomeNewsBlogCanberra Liberals 2024 transport policy – the good, the bad, and the weird

The wait is over! 15 months after committing to scrapping the proposed extension of light rail to Woden, the Opposition have finally unveiled their bus-only public transport policy. You can read it for yourself here.

Below, PTCBR examines the key elements of what the Canberra Liberals are promising after more than two decades in opposition – the good, the bad, and the weird. 

The good

There are several excellent ideas for improving Canberra’s bus network in this policy, many of which appear to be lifted directly from PTCBR’s submission to the 2023-24 ACT Budget consultation process.

Improved bus services

To us, the standout commitment is the promise to deliver minimum 30-minute frequencies on all bus routes, seven days a week. This is a significant step up from the two-hourly local bus services currently seen on Sundays and Saturday evenings, which were instituted in 2019 due to a shortage of available drivers.

The Opposition’s proposed minimum service standards for public transport (Source: People focused public transport, p. 17)

Just how these improved services will be delivered is not articulated in the policy, aside from some positive-sounding words about workforce growth and retention. Even so – improvements to weekend bus frequencies are long overdue, and a commitment to see this delivered should be commended.

More bus priority measures

Another key plank of the Opposition’s policy is a commitment to deliver new and expanded bus priority measures along Canberra’s key public transport corridors, including:

  • John Gorton Drive and Cotter Road (R7, R10 and Route 66)
  • Gundaroo Drive (R8 and Routes 23, 24 and 43)
  • Southern Cross Drive (R2 and Routes 40, 42 and 46)
  • Constitution Avenue (R3 and Routes 55, 56, 59 and 182)
  • Tharwa Drive (R5 and Routes 79, 80, 180 and 182)
  • Isabella Drive (Routes 74, 75, 77, 79 and 182)

A range of other infrastructure improvements are proposed for both the Woden to City and Belconnen to City corridors. The former is a clear attempt at filling the gap left by the Opposition’s commitment to cancel the extension of Light Rail to Woden (discussed in more detail below). The latter is consistent with a motion passed with tripartisan support in the Legislative Assembly in December last year; this motion committed the government to deliver these upgrades by October 2028, and you can read more about our advocacy on this issue here.

Improving the speed and reliability of our buses with priority measures is one of the key elements of PTCBR’s 5 Point Plan for Improving Public Transport in Canberra. We’re incredibly pleased to see it feature prominently in the Opposition’s transport policy, and hope to see the other parties match this commitment.

A new City Centre interchange

The Opposition have also committed to deliver a new interchange in Canberra’s City Centre, with a dedicated customer walk-in centre for bus information, ticketing and other general enquiries. The current split arrangement of platforms across Northbourne Avenue is less than ideal, and the existing Transport Canberra customer service office can be hard to find. A significant upgrade for our city’s busiest interchange is long overdue.

PTCBR’s 2023-24 budget submission called on the ACT Government to fund the detailed planning work required to determine the future of bus operations in the City Centre, consistent with Action 11 of the ACT Government’s City Plan. Once again, it’s great to see our recommendations become official Opposition policy, and we strongly encourage other parties to follow suit.

The bad

Now, the bad. Front and centre is the Opposition’s flagship policy to scrap Stage 2B of the ACT Government’s planned light rail extension from Commonwealth Park to Woden.

It’s the question people have been asking since December 2022 – what do the Canberra Liberals propose to do instead?

A half-baked alternative to light rail

With this policy now in hand, it is clear that the Opposition’s decision to scrap Light Rail to Woden is not a quibble over technology. It is a fundamental rejection of the idea that Canberra needs a mass transit system capable of moving large volumes of people, now or ever. The lack of ambition revealed in this document is remarkable.

The closest this policy comes to providing an alternative to Light Rail Stage 2B is a trial of double-deck electric buses, which provide less capacity than a standard articulated bus (96 passengers for a typical electric double-deck bus such as the Alexander Dennis Enviro400EV, compared with 109 passengers for a Scania K360UA 6×2/2 CB80) and fall well short of the carrying capacity of Canberra’s Light Rail Vehicles (207 passengers). More on this in a moment.

A trial of double-deck electric buses is proposed as an alternative to light rail (Source: People focused public transport, p. 26)
Vehicle typeModelCapacity
BusScania K320UB 4×2 (Optimus)71
Steertag busScania K320UB 6×2*4101
Articulated busScania K360UA 6×2/2 (CB80)107
Electric double-deck busAlexander Dennis Enviro400EV96
5-module light rail vehicleCAF Urbos 3207

When it comes to providing new infrastructure to support their bus-only alternative, the policy detaches from reality. Bus-only lanes are proposed along Commonwealth Avenue despite the National Capital Authority’s hardline stance against any reduction in lanes for general traffic along this corridor. A surface car park on a block that has already been released for development is somehow “returned” to become a park and ride. New ramps, bridges, and busways are proposed on State Circle, the Yarra Glen/Melrose Drive/Yamba Drive roundabout, through the Woden Town Centre, and along Athllon Drive, yet amazingly, the project is costed at only $70 million, with a completion date of 2027.

To put this figure into perspective: in January this year, the ACT Government signed a $70 million contract to deliver a single flyover on the Monaro Highway. Design work on that project has been underway since 2018, with completion expected in 2027. If the Canberra Liberals win in October and need to fulfil their promise, they would have to: undertake all necessary design work; secure planning, environment and heritage approvals from the National Capital Authority, the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water and both houses of Federal Parliament; procure a construction partner; and deliver this project in a third of that time, within the same funding envelope.

On the question of how this herculean task is to be accomplished in a constrained construction environment, the policy is silent.

The Canberra Liberals’ bus-only alternative (left) to the ACT Government’s planned Light Rail Stage 2B extension from Commonwealth park to Woden (right)

Further complicating matters is the proposal for new bus stops servicing Curtin, Deakin, Yarralumla and Barton via State Circle. The policy provides no detail on these stops, declaring them “for investigation”. However, the Opposition proudly declares that their proposed bus infrastructure improvements will reduce the journey time from Woden to City to under 15 minutes. How this could possibly be achieved with five additional stops and a deviation via State Circle is left as an exercise for the reader.

If the Canberra Liberals are dead-set on cancelling Light Rail to Woden, they need to either present a true alternative mass transit system or demonstrate why one isn’t needed. In this policy they have done neither. It doesn’t contain anything approaching a realistic “Bus Rapid Transit” proposal, nor does it repudiate projections that show Canberra growing by approximately 100,000 people every decade. Nothing in this document suggests that the Opposition truly grasp the transport challenges of a Canberra of 500,000 people and beyond, and their policy is all the poorer for it.

Free City Travel Zone

The Opposition have also proposed a free travel zone in Canberra’s CBD. This one has a muddled rationale and quite a few questionable assumptions baked in.

Extent of the proposed “Free Travel Zone” in Canberra’s City Centre (Source: People focused public transport, p. 21)

The first question to be asked here is – what is this policy trying to achieve? The document makes passing mention of car parking and relieving strain, but we’re then told that people will still drive their cars into the City Centre and will use the free public transport to get around within this area.

This raises further questions – where’s the data on the types of trips taken within this zone, including mode share, purpose, and start and end points? Is fare cost a proven factor in transport-related choices in this area, or is it the lack of services? When we look at the main attractions in the City Centre and the routes servicing those areas, it’s hard to imagine what problem will be solved by making travel here free.

It is also worth examining the consequences of the most famous domestic example of a fare-free zone for CBD travel – the Melbourne Free Tram Zone (FTZ). As detailed by campaigner and spokesperson for the Victorian Public Transport Users Association Daniel Bowen, the FTZ has had the perverse consequence of encouraging more driving to Melbourne’s CBD, while reducing cycling and walking. This is the exact opposite of a sustainable transport outcome, and should serve as a warning against efforts such as this one to introduce a similar policy here in Canberra.

The weird

It wouldn’t be a flagship election policy without a few headline-grabbing proposals, and the Canberra Liberals have certainly thrown in some showstoppers.

Double-deck electric buses

Perhaps the most interesting element of the Opposition’s policy is the proposal for double-deck electric buses. This may seem like a neat solution to address capacity and environmental concerns with the existing bus fleet, but double-deck buses present a range of problems for passengers and operators, including:

  • Capacity: As stated above, double-deck buses tend to have similar or slightly less passenger capacity than single-deck articulated buses. Transport Canberra’s Scania K360UA 6 X 2/2 CB80 articulated buses carry 107 passengers – more than typical electric double-deck buses such as the Alexander Dennis Enviro400EV, which carries 96 passengers.
  • Accessibility: Double-deck buses offer less space that can be used by those with certain disabilities and mobility issues than an articulated bus does; a small staircase to the upper level is not accessible or comfortable to use for many.
  • Efficiency: Dwell times at bus stops for double-deck buses tend to be lengthier than for single-deck buses, affecting speed and punctuality of services. The wider doors and quicker passenger access to doors means that the single-deck buses can empty and fill faster.
  • Height: The vertical size of a double-deck bus presents a range of restrictions on routes (think tunnels and underpasses), but may also create issues with existing bus infrastructure such as stations, interchanges, and depots which may not be able to accommodate vehicles above a certain height.

Given Canberra’s proud history as a domestic pioneer of single-deck articulated buses, the decision to pursue less accessible, lower capacity and logistically challenging double-deck buses would be an odd one, to say the least.

Local bus manufacturing

Having spent years whipping up fear about the economic viability of light rail, the Canberra Liberals have now put forward a policy that is almost certainly assured to be the opposite of value-for-money: establishing a bus manufacturing capability in Canberra. This is not really a public transport policy at all, but rather an industry policy – and one of questionable merit.

The cost of creating and nurturing an industry that our city has no comparative advantage in would be intolerable to anyone interested in economic prudence and good stewardship of public funds. It would be years before such a capability could become established and operational, and thus it would be years before the city would see any of the purported benefits of local manufacturing – and let’s be clear, those benefits are not related to public transport operations. Moreover, we see high potential for this endeavour to divert precious time, energy and resources away from Transport Canberra’s ability to provide public transport services.

This type of policy plays well with some groups of voters, but reality is that it’s simply not a realistic proposition for Canberra. It is hard to see this proposal as anything other than a headline-grabber.

Diluting light rail patronage

The Opposition have also proposed new express bus routes. One of these routes would duplicate the Gungahlin to City light rail line. At best, this is an irresponsible use of scarce peak-hour bus resources that could be used to provide better connectivity to poorly-serviced parts of Canberra. At worst, this is an attempt by the Canberra Liberals to dilute the patronage of a successful light rail system they tried and failed to stop.

It’s a fact that light rail is extremely popular to the point of crowding during peak periods. The solution to this problem is providing more frequent light rail services and examining the option of acquiring seven-car sets, not degrading the performance of our bus network in a bizarre attempt to interfere with the performance of a system which has proven itself to be a highly popular means of transport among Canberrans, despite the efforts of the Opposition over the past decade to suggest otherwise.

The verdict

So there we have it – a transport policy from the Canberra Liberals that we’d describe as a very mixed bag. The good parts are things that PTCBR has advocated for and would expect to see in any decent transport policy document. The bad parts reveal the paucity of serious, future-focused thinking within the Opposition. As for the weird – well, the less said the better.

With this policy now in play, we have an Opposition with a bus policy that ignores our city’s mass transit needs, and a government with a mass transit policy that ignores our city’s bus needs. Neither provides an integrated, long-term solution to Canberra’s transport challenges.

Over the next six months, ACT Labor and the ACT Greens have the opportunity to propose equally ambitious policies for our bus network to match what is being offered by the Canberra Liberals. Will they rise to the occasion? Stay tuned!