ACT government to back down on school bus cuts
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ACT government to back down on school bus cuts

The ACT government has revealed a major backdown on cuts to school bus services proposed under its new public transport network, following community backlash over student safety.

On Thursday, Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris said at least half of the school bus routes it had planned to scrap would be restored, though the details are still to be ironed out.

Noah Sham, 10, and Elijah Sham, 7, of Brindabella Christian College would have had to get on a public bus and make multiple connections to get to school from the Woden bus interchange under the new network.

Noah Sham, 10, and Elijah Sham, 7, of Brindabella Christian College would have had to get on a public bus and make multiple connections to get to school from the Woden bus interchange under the new network.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

Since unveiling the new network in June, the government had been flooded with more than 13,000 responses in a "record consultation".

While many supported more services running into evenings and weekends, Ms Fitzharris said Canberrans had also voiced concerns about safety, particularly for students travelling more often through interchanges.

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Under the plan, the majority of school services had been dumped in favour of more public buses running past schools more often, as Transport Canberra worked to make better use of its fleet in a growing city.

Fifty-nine schools, including 49 primary schools, were set to lose all their dedicated services in the reconfiguration, due to come online in January, and many were bracing to lose most of their daily routes.

The non-government sector had been hit especially hard in the network overhaul, with more students travelling from farther afield and boarding buses at younger ages than in the public system.

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To address community concerns, Ms Fitzharris said changes were now being made to the network's design and would be released after the school holidays next month.

"While we can’t make changes to everything, we will do our best to balance the different views of existing users while developing a network which will attract new users," Ms Fitzharris said.

A spokeswoman for the minister's office confirmed some routes would still change and some schools would still lose all their dedicated buses, but could not yet provide further detail as consultation continued with schools.

Transport spokeswoman for the Canberra Liberals Candice Burch said the government's partial backdown was an admission that the plan had threatened student safety, but the amendments didn't go far enough.

“Many school principals, teachers, and parents raised serious concerns about the safety of young school children, but Ms Fitzharris repeatedly dismissed these concerns as scaremongering by the Opposition,” Ms Burch said.

“It’s disappointing that the government had to be dragged towards actually listening to parents and schools...Ms Fitzharris should have engaged properly...much earlier in the process. [It's] been handled very poorly.." 

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Some non-government schools reporting full buses each afternoon had questioned the government's data, which found many such services were under-utilised, particularly by primary school students.

After releasing the network's design, authorities carried out at least one head count at buses outside Marist College and held meetings with a number of school communities but schools and parent groups said they were not briefed beforehand. They were yet to hear details about the new amendments on Tuesday.

Ms Fitzharris said it was unlikely that the increased frequency of the new network would suffer as a result of the partial restoration of school services as routes with low patronage would likely change.

"What we will see with the number of the dedicated school buses that are coming back in are the routes might be quite different to what they are now but schools will be serviced and many of the schools will get more of the dedicated school buses back into the proposed network," she said.

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MyWay data indicated more than half of students catching buses in the territory already used the public network.

"I think we all learnt a lot collectively about how many kids are catching the bus to and from school," Ms Fitzharris said of the past two months of consultation.

"That's been a really productive conversation."

Eighty new buses were also set to join the fleet next year as part of a major investment in Canberra's public transport, Ms Fitzharris said. A small number of older buses would also be retired.

A spokeswoman for the minister said Transport Canberra was still examining whether or not to reinstate Xpresso services, which were set to the cut in favour of more Rapid routes but strongly supported in community feedback.

With Katie Burgess

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

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