Why PTCBR is campaigning to bring back the regular timetable

It is early March 2022 and the PTCBR is calling on the ACT Government to reinstate the full bus timetable from Network 19, and return to pre-COVID operating frequencies. This issue means a lot to our members, and this article is going to take a closer look at what’s going on with our bus network, and why we’ve still got subpar services.

Passenger numbers are on the rise

Transport Canberra updates passenger figures on a daily basis. It’s one of the best data sources out there on data.act.gov.au, and it’s well worth checking out. They capture the data by boardings (each time you board a new service) and by journeys (so transfers between services within 90 minutes are counted as a single journey). Both have their own uses, but we’re using boardings in this article, and have averaged Mon-Fri boardings for each week to get an idea of how crowded the buses were in any given week.

The chart above tells a remarkable tale. You can see that patronage steadily increased over 2019 as passengers adapted to the new network. In the final week of February, before COVID really made an impact, there were 93,239 average weekday boardings, a remarkable figure. Of course, passenger numbers plummeted to just 10,779 in April 2020, and slowly began to rise once lockdown ended. This pattern repeated for the August 2021 (Delta) and December 2021 (Omicron) outbreaks. There are also significant seasonal dips for the summer break, and smaller ones for the school holidays.

But most relevantly, people are really starting to get back on buses and light rail, as the Omicron outbreak appears to have settled down. Already, the week ending 4 March had us at 55,406, and that’s even with a good many Canberrans still working from home. Back in 2021, numbers had stabilised at around 65,000 or so. This is consistent with the general experience at public transport agencies around the world, with patronage around 70% of pre-COVID figures. How high will this go? With widespread vaccination and easing restrictions, we could well surpass 70,000 in the next month or so.

The interim timetable is not built for this

Since 2019 there have been two reductions in our seven day bus network, one due to Covid, the other due to Transport Canberra staffing issues. As Covid swept our community, Transport Canberra introduced an interim timetable as a stop-gap measure, with average weekday boardings of less than 8,000 passengers.

As emergency timetables go, it wasn’t bad. Half hourly all day service on local routes was still pretty decent, and there was no real need for additional peak hour services when no-one was catching them. But it’s 2022 and the impact of COVID has been significantly lessened by vaccinations and mask wearing. Unless we get those extra peak services back, things are going to get crowded at peak hour, quickly. Which is neither great for minimising COVID risks or encouraging more public transport use.

This is particularly so for the local routes. While overall patronage may be at 60% of pre-pandemic numbers, last week’s Friday’s local routes carried over 27,000 boardings, or 90% of their pre-pandemic peak of around 30,000 daily boardings. In other words, the local routes are carrying almost as many passengers on far fewer services.

(EDIT: Transport Canberra incorrectly recorded some of the rapid passengers as being on local routes. In the week ending 4 March, the local routes had approximately 20,000 daily boardings, around the same as August 2021. In a statement, Minister Steel’s office said “Transport Canberra is able to provide sufficient capacity and frequency to service local route patronage as part of the current interim network”).

But it’s not just about crowded buses. Ahead of the commencement of light rail in April 2019 Transport Canberra gave us a brand new integrated Network 19 which optimised bus routes and removed some stops, but gave us frequent services in return. And, as they say, frequency is freedom.

Unfortunately this ambitious seven day network met with significant challenges and service cancellations on weekends as Transport Canberra were unable to find drivers that would agree to work the expanded weekend services. As a result, a month after the new network was introduced, weekend bus services were slashed to two hour frequency on local routes, with a focus on maintaining weekend rapid bus services (although buses no longer ran late on Sunday)(EDIT: Thanks to Martin for the clarification). This poor service—inferior to the weekend services it was meant to improve on—has been operating for nearly three years in reduced form.

Light rail weekend patronage, which was unaffected by staffing issues impacting upon service, has continued to grow, although weekend local bus services in Gungahlin fail to create the ‘integrated’ part of the integrated transport network.

Transport Canberra’s staffing issues are the real problem here

The ACT Government blames COVID isolation periods for reducing the number of available drivers. And to a certain extent, that was true during the Delta lockdowns, when 10,000 Canberrans were in quarantine. But there aren’t many excuses now: Omicron cases have stabilised, and in other states bus drivers have been declared critical workers with exemptions from isolation. Canberra Metro, which separately operates the light rail, has been able to maintain full services throughout the pandemic.

The real culprit here is Transport Canberra failing to reliably deploy drivers when and where they’re needed. This has been an ongoing issue for many years, but really came to light when they couldn’t deliver the weekend timetable in Network 19, and we’ve been stuck with substandard weekend services ever since. The stop-gap measure of two hour weekend services dangerously looks like becoming the norm. Three years after the stop gap measure, we have over 200 more bus drivers than in 2016 and Transport Canberra still can’t deliver.

ACTION/ Transport Canberra
bus operators
2016692
2017716
2018740
2019801
2020809
2021897
(Source: Annual Reports for Territory and Municipal Services (2015-16), Transport Canberra and City Services Directorate (2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21))

PTCBR is aware of the debate around industrial relations and rostering practices at Transport Canberra and its predecessors. To what extent union or management practices are responsible for the current situation is neither here nor there. If there are practices or rules which stand in the way of a seven day network, they need to go. We can’t have a network which leaves passengers waiting two hours at a bus stop in an outer Canberra suburb.

Network 19 was a bold statement of an integrated transport network to support a growing city, that the PTCBR supported strongly. Light rail has been a stunning success, the rapid bus route expansion has been a success. Covid has been an enormous disruptive event in our community, but now that our city is returning slowly to a new normal, and with public transport patronage growing, It’s ultimately the ACT Government’s responsibility to deliver on its transport promises. It’s three years since the weekend timetable debacle and the time for excuses is over. Whether it be changing rostering practices, industrial relations reform or considering other options, the Transport Minister must make fixing the situation his highest public transport priority for 2022.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra calls on National Capital Authority to fund infrastructure for new diplomatic estate

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As part of its submission on the National Capital Authority’s draft amendment to rezone the Curtin Horse Paddocks, the Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) has called on the Federal Government agency to work with the ACT Government to deliver the infrastructure needed to service the new diplomatic estate.

“While the process leading up to this rezoning has been far from ideal, the NCA now needs to accept responsibility for limiting the impact of this new 45-hectare estate on the amenity of Canberra residents, said PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley

“This is not something that can be fixed with a bucket of white paint and a new set of traffic lights. The development of the Curtin Horse Paddocks will require a complete rethink of public transport and private vehicle movements around and throughout the estate.”

Mr Hemsley said that residents of Curtin and Deakin are at risk of bearing the brunt of new southbound traffic flows from the estate.

“Residents of Weston Creek and Molonglo also face substantial new delays along the Cotter Road if the infrastructure status quo remains.” Mr Hemsley said.

Mr Hemsley noted that the ACT Government was already set to invest heavily along the adjacent corridor as part of the extension of Canberra’s light rail network to Woden.

“While light rail stage two is a critical piece of the puzzle, we don’t believe it’s acceptable for the ACT ratepayer to foot the entire infrastructure bill for this rezoning, especially when 60 per cent of the site will deliver minimal financial returns to the Territory.” Mr Hemsley said.

Mr Hemsley identified the King’s Avenue overpass as a good example of new, city-shaping infrastructure that was delivered by the NCA with funding from the Federal Government.

“We urge the NCA to work with the ACT Government to deliver equally good infrastructure to support the development of this sizable diplomatic estate.”

A copy of PTCBR’s submission can be viewed here.

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra celebrates one year of light rail

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) today celebrated the first anniversary of Canberra’s light rail network and called on the ACT Government and National Capital Authority to accelerate the planned construction of the network’s expansion to Woden, in order to provide the economy with a much-needed boost during this difficult economic period.

Mr Ryan Hemsley, PTCBR Chair said “Patronage estimates from early March showed Canberrans flocking to the first stage of Canberra’s light rail network, with an average of ~16,000 daily boardings. This is ahead of the ~15,000 daily boardings that the business case projected would not be reached until 2021.”

“This project has proven that there is an untapped demand for high-quality public transport services in the ACT. We believe that similar patronage increases can be expected as future stages of the network are rolled out in the years ahead, providing benefits to both current and future generations of Canberrans.”

Looking ahead to Stage 2 and beyond, Mr Hemsley said “With the projected economic slowdown, the task of starting on light rail to Woden has become all the more urgent. This project will have the double benefit of stimulating the economy in the short term, while providing improved public transport options in the medium to long term. It will also help the ACT meet its planned reductions in carbon emissions, by being powered solely by electricity from renewable sources.”

“Social distancing measures also present an opportunity for both the ACT Government and National Capital Authority to conduct important works during a rare period of reduced traffic, such as upgrades to London Circuit as part of Stage 2A and the modifications to Commonwealth Avenue Bridge that will future-proof it for Stage 2B.”

“We call on both the ACT Government and National Capital Authority to work collaboratively, so that that these projects can be fast-tracked in a manner that provides the greatest long-term benefit, while minimising disruption to road users in the short term.”

On the issue of social distancing, Mr Hemsley said “We support Transport Canberra’s approach of retaining current public transport service levels during the crisis. This approach minimises the risk of overcrowding and enables people to successfully practice social distancing while in transit.”

“As restrictions are lifted in the months ahead, we urge the ACT Government to consider increases to select services to ensure that social distancing can continue for as long as is required.”

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra welcomes Federal Government support for Light Rail

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes progress on the approvals processes for the second stage of Canberra’s light rail network, as well as Federal Government support for the development of advanced battery technologies for light rail vehicles.

PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley said, “The Federal Department of the Environment and Energy has mapped a clear path forward for Light Rail Stage 2 by identifying the assessment processes for this city-shaping project.”

“We welcome the Federal and Territory Governments working together to ensure that Canberra’s fast, frequent, reliable and attractive light rail network is able to starts its journey to Woden. This will bring the benefits of light rail across the lake and improve public transport connectivity between north and south Canberra.”

“Following the success of Stage 1, we call on the ACT Opposition to outline their plans for bringing light rail to Woden ahead of the Territory Election later this year.”

Mr Hemsley added that “We are also pleased about a recent Commonwealth grant to a consortium developing fast charging batteries for light rail vehicles.” The Federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science recently announced a grant of $1.6 million to a consortium proposing to develop an ‘Advanced Nano-engineered Battery for Fast Charging Catenary-free Trams’. Total project expenditure is expected to be $5 million and consortium members include the CSIRO.

Mr Hemsley further observed “This project has the potential to benefit light rail systems across Australia as well as in the ACT by reducing charging times at stops and lowering the lifetime costs of wire-free running.”

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra welcomes changes to the bus network

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes the planned changes to Canberra’s bus network announced today by Transport Minister Chris Steel.

Mr Ryan Hemsley, PTCBR Chair said “The changes announced today address a number of concerns that have been raised by both our members and the wider public. The proposed improvements to bus routes in Tuggeranong, Gungahlin and North Belconnen are especially welcome, and will hopefully lead to more people using public transport in these areas”.

On the issue of weekend buses, Mr Hemsley added “While the improvement in Saturday local bus services is appreciated, we call on the government to ensure full weekend service frequencies are restored as soon as possible, preferably on a rolling basis.”

Looking ahead, Mr Hemsley said “As part of its climate change strategy, the ACT Government has long-term ambitions to bring about a 40-45 per cent mode shift away from private car use by 2045. To meet this target, the government needs to seriously ramp up public transport services.”

“We look forward learning more about how the government intends to meet this ambitious target.”

You can read a copy of PTCBR’s feedback on Network 19 here.

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra calls on ACT Government to provide public transport assistance in wake of hailstorm

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) is calling on the ACT Government to provide practical public transport assistance for people who have had their cars rendered unusable by the major hailstorm on Monday.

Mr Ryan Hemsley, PTCBR Chair said “From media reports, we understand that around 10,000 people may be impacted through unexpectedly losing access to their car due to hail damage. Some will be adequately insured, including having access to a replacement rental car. Many others may need to make greater use of public transport, including buses and light rail”.

To better support Canberrans through this difficult time, Mr Ryan Hemsley, PTCBR Chair, is calling on the ACT Government to:

  • Significantly Increase weekend services on routes to underserved areas, such as the Molonglo Valley, to enable affected Canberrans to reliably access employment, shopping, medical and social activities. For example, on weekends, the people of Molonglo only have access to limited services operating every two hours and with a circuitous route to their closest major supermarkets;
  • Require additional Transport Canberra employees to work on weekends and public holidays if necessary, even if this requires changes to the long-standing composite pay and weekend staffing arrangements; and
  • Provide targeted information to new and infrequent public transport users about how to best get to the major commercial and community centres and events.

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra criticises Canberra Liberals for promoting novelty vapourware at the expense of real transport solutions

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) today expressed its profound disappointment in the Canberra Liberals, who have once again refused to support the roll out of Canberra’s light rail network.

Speaking at the Legislative Assembly today, Canberra Liberals transport spokesperson Candice Burch instead expressed enthusiasm for a type of electric bus, that has come to be known in some circles as a ‘trackless tram’.

PTCBR Interim Chair Ryan Hemsley said that “It is profoundly disappointing to see the Canberra Liberals once again fail to support light rail. With the overwhelming success of stage one, we had hoped that there would be bipartisan support for the continued roll out of the network. Instead, we are seeing the same old “bus verses light rail” argument trotted out for what will be the third Territory election in a row.”

On the issue of ‘trackless trams’, Mr Hemsley said “What is being promoted by the Canberra Liberals is in fact nothing more than a novelty electric bus, that manages to combine the impermanence and higher running costs of buses with the high setup costs of light rail.

“Once you factor in the costs of constructing an exclusive right of way, inclusive of utilities relocation, concrete track bed, accessible stops and recharging points, what you will be left with is an unproven piece of technology, locked into a single supplier with no discernible cost advantage over light rail. These ‘trackless scams’ offer the worst of all possible worlds and should not be given serious consideration by the ACT Government.”

Looking to the future, Mr Hemsley said that “Before the next election, I hope the Canberra Liberals will come to their senses and support the roll out of light rail, which has proven itself to be a reliable, popular form of public transport in the ACT and in other cities worldwide.”

Ryan Hemsley is the Interim Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra welcomes the release of the electric bus trial results

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes the release of the ACT Government’s electric bus trial results, as announced today by Transport Minister Chris Steel at the Australian Transport Research Forum.

PTCBR Interim Chair Ryan Hemsley said that “PTCBR supports the important work that the ACT Government is doing to better understand the performance and characteristics of electric buses. Buses will continue to play a critical role in public transport in the ACT as light rail is extended to Woden and beyond, and this trial shows that electric buses have significant potential to be an important part of the ACT’s public transportation system and emissions reduction goals”.

Mr Hemsley added “The trial has also shown areas where the manufacturers of electric buses need to concentrate their development efforts in order to address the operational requirements of public transport operators such as Transport Canberra.

“The ACT Government has a pressing need to replace around a quarter of the bus fleet in the next few years to ensure compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act and other roadworthiness requirements. This alone should provide sufficient incentive for manufacturers to provide suitable emissions-free vehicles.

“PTCBR looks forward to further initiatives from the ACT Government as it prepares to refresh and reposition the Transport Canberra bus fleet in a rapidly changing public transport environment.”

Ryan Hemsley is the Interim Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra supports the ACT Government’s efforts to improve bus service reliability

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes the release of the ACT Government’s 10 point action plan to improve the reliability of weekend bus services, as announced today by Chris Steel, Minister for Transport.

PTCBR Interim Chair Ryan Hemsley said that “Canberrans, especially those without access to alternative transport, deserve a reliable bus service to ensure they are able to participate in work, family and community events. A reliable bus service is also essential to ensure visitors to Canberra can visit its many attractions. The unannounced weekend cancellations of recent months have not contributed to the reputation of Canberra as a place with reliable public transport. We will be closely monitoring the reliability of services in the coming months.”

Mr Hemsley added “PTCBR is concerned that the short term reliability improvements are reliant on reduced frequency on some local bus services, and encourages Mr. Steel to re-double efforts to restore full services as soon as possible.”

You can read the full action plan on the Transport Canberra website.

Ryan Hemsley is the Interim Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra welcomes the fast-tracking of light rail to Commonwealth Park

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes the ACT Government’s decision to progress with the first section of the City to Woden light rail route. The decision announced today by Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Transport Minister Chris Steel ensures that work on the second stage of Canberra’s light rail network will get underway as soon as possible.

PTCBR Interim Chair Ryan Hemsley said that “Commencing construction on the leg between Alinga Street and Commonwealth Park is the first important step towards bringing fast, frequent, reliable and attractive public transport to Canberra’s south, and will help retain the skilled workforce acquired during the construction of stage one.”

On the design elements of Stage 2A, Mr Hemsley said that “The details of the route design, operation and approval are the responsibility of the relevant Federal and Territory government entities. On the issue of light rail stage two, PTCBR’s main goal as an outcomes-focused organisation is to see the successful completion of light rail between the City and Woden.”

“We trust that the Federal and Territory Governments will work together to ensure this is achieved in a manner that realises the greatest benefit to the citizens of Canberra.”

Ryan Hemsley is the Interim Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.