Weekend bus improvements: inching towards 2019

HomeWeekend bus improvements: inching towards 2019
23026 PTCBR New Campaign Graphic Frequent Services V4 (1)
PTCBR’s 5 Point Plan calls for more frequent services, including buses every 60 minutes on weekends

Today the ACT Government announced it would improve Saturday local bus services so they would run hourly until 6pm. This is an improvement on the current situation, which only sees hourly buses until 12pm on Saturdays. However, on Saturday evenings and Sundays, most Canberrans will still only have access to a bus every 2 hours.

PTCBR welcomes all improvements to bus services, and this one deserves a single cheer. It’s an additional 331 bus services every Saturday, and it’s worth acknowledging. But it is slow progress, and still a long way away from the promise of a bus every 60 minutes all weekend, which was the standard for all Canberra buses up until 2019.

For those who don’t have obsessive memories about public transport timetabling, here’s a quick PTCBR explainer.

Why do our weekend buses only come every 2 hours?

ACTION bus timetable from 1977, thanks to ACTBus.net

Ever since ACTION buses began in 1977, weekend services came at least every hour (and sometimes more frequently on Saturday mornings). However, this was often across a special reduced ‘weekend’ network, so passengers had to remember a different bus route, which was often longer and more circuitous.

When Network 19 commenced in April 2019, it promised a ‘7 Day’ timetable. Passengers would only need to remember one bus route to get where they needed to go, and PTCBR had high expectations that this, combined with frequent rapid routes which would leave every 15-30 minutes, would significantly improve the weekend experience for public transport users.

Unfortunately, it did not go well. Transport Canberra could not find enough drivers to cover all the weekend routes, and passengers often found themselves stranded at a bus stop as services were cancelled without notice. Transport Canberra responded by issuing an ‘interim’ weekend timetable, which reduced all local weekend services to every 2 hours until they could sort out their staffing issues. This significantly improved reliability: passengers could be confident that their bus would actually show up. Unfortunately it would come at the expense of frequency.

What has the ACT Government been doing about it?

In September 2019, the ACT Government announced its action plan for weekend bus service reliability. It had 10 different action items to address over the short, medium and long term, including:

  • recruiting more bus drivers, particularly those who wanted to work weekends
  • providing better information for customers, including a new information system to replace NXTBUS
  • updating the weekend timetable to provide more reliable (that is, less frequent) services
  • changes to Transport Canberra’s internal operations to encourage more drivers to work weekends.

It’s been almost 5 years since this plan came out, so it’s fair to say it hasn’t achieved the goal of restoring weekend services for Canberra bus users. Transport Canberra has recruited hundreds more drivers, and a new passenger information system is just around the corner. However, the last point in the plan, about Transport Canberra’s internal operations, is really at the heart of this issue.

Currently, Transport Canberra only asks volunteers to work weekends. No driver works a weekend shift unless they want to. However, all drivers still have the benefit of a composite pay rate which includes an amount for penalty rates and weekend work. Transport Canberra has made some changes to its latest enterprise agreement with drivers to provide a greater incentives for drivers to work weekends. However, it will still rely on volunteers to cover these additional Saturday shifts.

PTCBR is concerned that this doesn’t give passengers the certainty they need that there will be enough bus drivers on any given Saturday. Other essential services, such as hospitals, police and fire stations, don’t operate under these sorts of arrangements. However, Transport Canberra has assured us they’ve done the numbers and they can cover these additional services. We will wait to see how this plays out, and we’ll be holding Transport Canberra and the Transport Minister to account if we are faced with widespread cancellations like we saw in 2019. Also, we’ll continue our campaign to see these improvements rolled out to Saturday evenings and Sundays.

Why do we need more frequent weekend buses?

Put simply, a bus that comes every 2 hours is not a very useful bus. If you need to get to work or meet with a friend at a particular time, a bus that drops you off 90 minutes early or 30 minutes too late is not good enough. People will simply drive instead.

PTCBR realises that weekend buses can be expensive to run given the low patronage. But the most straightforward way to get more people to catch buses is to improve services so they are more useful for people. Buses every 60 minutes is a good balance, and it should be a no-brainer for a city of half a million people. Someone out celebrating on a Saturday night should be confident they can take public transport home at a time that will suit them, rather than be forced to drive or take an expensive taxi.

If you like what you’ve just read, consider becoming a member of PTCBR for just $20 ($10 concessions). We rely on the financial support of our members, and we’d love to have you part of our growing group of transport advocates!