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HomeLatest NewsBus stop battleground: promises made to beat commuter queues

Bus stop battleground: promises made to beat commuter queues

There’s good reason why we spotted NSW independent candidates Joeline Hackman and Michael Regan passing out pamphlets to people in the bus queue at Dee Why yesterday morning: commuters – voters – are pi**ed off.

Swathes of cancelled commuter buses – mostly the B-line express city services – have become so commonplace that one resident, Michelle, references it alongside the weather in the Dee Why community page each day. “Happy Monday. Today sees 10 City and 1 Manly bus failed to make starters orders. It’s going to a scorcher today so you might fancy a dip – water temp is a sultry 25.6 and high tide at 08:41 and low at 15:13. It’s National Dress Day…” was Monday’s entry.

It is this frustration of long waits and cancelled buses, as well as several cancelled bus routes further down the line in the Balgowlah areas, that has put Manly Liberal incumbent James Griffin in danger of losing his seat, or in the very least a swing against him. The MP may not be directly responsible for the changes implemented with the bus network, but as a cabinet minister in the party who is, he can’t wash his hands of it either.

Queues on Pittwater Rd, Dee Why, for the morning B-line bus to the city.  Photo: Alec Smart

The issue, critics would argue, is the Liberal’s privatisation of the Northern Beaches bus operations. The shift into private hands has coincided with a larger number of bus drivers leaving the job and its placed unsustainable pressure on peak services.

There are supplementary issues too: higher costs and less reliability for school sports and excursions,  about 30 odd Sun Run participants were stranded last month after a no show from the Keolis shuttle bus. There are also continued frustrations over the removal of less-patronised local services, such as those in the Balgowlah area. Routes popular with school children have been removed, reduced, or become too unreliable. Our inbox teems with commuter frustration.

Residents protest a number of changes to bus routes and frequency in North Balgowlah in 2021.

According to a Parliamentary Inquiry into the matter, the privatisation of bus services in NSW has been “nothing short of a disaster.”

In her foreword as chair, Abigail Boyd MLC writes scathingly that “the NSW Government’s objective to cut operational costs, and the private operators’ objective to make a profit, has come at the expense of effective and reliable bus services for the public, and fair and equitable working conditions for bus drivers.”

James Griffin’s main challenger for the seat of Manly, Joeline Hackman, has been approaching commuters during peak to discuss her plans for transport.

Joeline Hackman

“I have heard from bus drivers that they are not getting paid enough under their contract with Keolis Downer and that is affecting the supply of drivers to run these routes,” she said.

“Commuters are stranded, school aged children are alone for extended periods and some people are missing medical appointments across Seaforth, Balgowlah, Manly Vale and Dee Why. Is Keolis Downer meeting its contractual KPI’s and what are the consequences of this transport failure?

“It’s time for someone who will speak up about the privatised transport system not working and work to restore reliability, compliance and transparency in government service contracts,” she said.

A last minute Manly seat Labor challenger Jasper Thatcher, who works as a ferry deckhand, is also critical of the government’s transport decisions, though his campaign has  focused more on the ferries.

The issue is also a hot topic for Wakehurst, with candidate Michael Regan handing this pamphlet out all week:

Ms Hackman’s calls to return the buses to public hands echoes the sentiments from the upper house inquiry (Portfolio committee No.6- Transport). The recommendations were clear: bus services needed to revert to government operation.

“The committee calls on the NSW Government to consider taking action to bring public bus services [in the Northern Beaches and other contract regions] back into the operation, control and ownership of the NSW Government,” its media release from late 2022 reads.

The new operators of bus services on the Northern Beaches, Keolis Downer, see things differently: they are the victim of timing and circumstance, with bus driver shortages a national and international phenomenon causing services shortages globally. No matter who is operating the bus service, the driver shortage remains the same.

The issue is exacerbated, they say, by a sudden surge of residents returning to work after a long period of working from home.

“Cancellations are being experienced in most contract regions across Sydney as operators face the same challenges in a competitive labour market,” they explain via written statement.

Plans for us to meet the Keolis management team for a face-to-face coffee to talk about these issues fell through when Transport for NSW intervened.

Plans for us to meet the Keolis management team for a face-to-face coffee to talk about these issues fell through when Transport for NSW intervened.

Keolis Downer instead provided a number of written statements:

“There are lots of people moving in, out and within the northern beaches, and we are doing everything within our power to keep up with passenger demand and changes to peoples’ travel patterns.”

“Coming out of Covid, it has been a balancing act to implement services, with passenger demand increasing rapidly in the early part of 2023. We have been experiencing a driver shortage since mid-2022, but with increased uptake of people using public transport the impacts are becoming more obvious.”

Keolis Downer bus depot at 630 Pittwater Rd Brookvale. Photo: Alec Smart

Who’d be a bus driver?

The Keolis Downer team say the job of a bus driver is particularly hard to recruit for with low rates of unemployment across the country. Shift work isn’t easy to recruit for.

“Many industries are facing similar challenges including health, logistics and hospitality, who are all recruiting in a competitive market. Especially in areas such as the Northern Beaches and the Lower North Shore, where the costs of living are particularly high.

“Other possible reasons for the driver shortage could be the reduction of migrant workers, as many returned to their country of origin during the pandemic,” they write.

“The way in which people now work is also vastly different, with many people able to fulfil jobs in a hybrid work scenario, where they can work from home and from an office.

“Driver shortages are being experienced across Australia, and Keolis subsidiaries in Europe and America are also reporting challenges to recruit drivers to the transport industry.”

Queues on Pittwater Rd, Dee Why, for the morning B-line bus to the city.  Photo: Alec Smart

We asked if the driver shortage was a result of privatisation. It’s franchising, not privatisation, they reminded us since the government still owns the assets and sets the fares.

“Transferring employees under franchise agreements during the transition process, they were guaranteed their current wage arrangements under the award and as such, our drivers have retained the same Enterprise Agreement wages and conditions as they enjoyed with STA.”

“There was a natural attrition when Keolis Downer took over operations, as with any new employment changeover, people use the opportunity to make life decisions like retirement, family commitments and travel plans.”

We understand any new drivers, however, are offered different and arguably less appealing conditions. The STA-level contracts also have an expiry, we understand.

We asked: What strategies are being put into place to remedy the situation, decrease cancellations, and increase service levels back to normal?

The answer from Keolis  boils down to putting more effort into recruiting new drivers, as well as educating passengers on other routes aside from the B-line that will still get them to their destination, such as the 180X or 181X.

“We are also working with local Members of Parliament and Transport for NSW to openly discuss the challenges we are facing and solutions to improve bus services for customers,” they concluded.

One of those meetings was held with James Griffin on Friday.

Following that meeting, on Wednesday 8 March, Griffin’s office put out a dossier of promises to fix the bus operations. You can read it in full here.

“I have been meeting with the local bus operator for months, sharing my total frustration on behalf of commuters who deserve a better experience, and fighting for solutions,” Mr Griffin said.

The first big change offered this week will appease the frustrated commuters of Manly Vale. Mr Griffin has announced the introduction of services that start at Brookvale. Often these commuters get bypassed as the final stop before the B-line goes express. The Government has also committed to examine timetables to see where resources can shift to meet peak demand. Though this will still mean someone, somewhere and at some other time, misses out.

There is also the announcement of a new On Demand service to connect commuters from the major bus hubs to Manly Wharf and other destinations. It has long been mumbled about, and now officially announced. More on how that would work and when it will be introduced another time, in another piece.

To the issue of driver shortages, Mr Griffin defers to Minister for Transport David Elliot and the party’s four-point plan, which you can read here.

NSW Transport Minister David Elliot (centre) at the announcement, with NRMA’s CEO of Expeditions Rachel Wiseman (far left), and Manly MP and NSW Environment Minister James Griffin (far right). Photo: Transport for NSW

“As part of the NSW Liberal and Nationals plan, there will be a focus on increasing the number of drivers by securing proficient drivers from overseas, waiving training fees, offering bus drivers in Greater Sydney subsidised travel and giving local communities the opportunity to have input into bus services.”

“We will continue to work with BusNSW on the future of the bus industry in this state, in addition to the recommendations we’re committing to today,” Mr Elliott added.

“The NSW Liberal and Nationals will establish a recruitment taskforce to develop further strategies to recruit and retain bus drivers, including individuals from interstate and overseas, and also assist with the recruitment of bus and coach drivers via support for specific funding for new recruits to upgrade to a Heavy Rigid or Medium Rigid licence to obtain a Bus Driver Authority (BDA) at little or no cost.”

With rents sky high across the region, it could continue to be an unappealing job prospect to take the wheel on the Beaches’ region 9 run.  Drivers working for the private operators are now going to be offered free public transport to get to work at least, according to the raft of recent announcements, so that’s one obstacle removed for out of area drivers to the wheel on the Beaches. The problem, of course, is they’ll still need to catch public transport to get here.

There is one other way we can solve the issue, but you might not like it. 



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Manly Observer is an experiment in providing non-sensationalist hyperlocal news on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. We cover the big news across the LGA, but with a hyper focus on the Manly electorate encompassing Balgowlah, Seaforth, Freshwater, Brookvale and Curl Curl up to Dee Why. It is run by those living in the community for the benefit of an informed community. We care about an informed and connected community. That’s it. Simple. Thank you for your support in keeping quality local news alive!

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