The number of passengers on Canberra's local bus routes is now significantly higher than the longer-distance rapid routes, in a further sign the pandemic has prompted significant change to public transport use.
The shift has prompted a public transport user group to call on the ACT government to reinstate the full timetable, which has been shelved in an effort to manage driver shortages due to COVID quarantine requirements.
Daily passenger numbers on local bus routes, which service suburban areas, are now close to pre-pandemic levels while rapid route passenger numbers are still lower than they were before the August lockdown.
Rapid route patronage is also lower than the level it reached before the Omicron COVID-19 wave arrived in the capital in early December.
The seven-day rolling average for daily passenger numbers on local routes is presently about 14,100, just down from a pre-pandemic peak of about 15,900 in February 2020.
The average daily passenger number across rapid routes is now 7600; immediately before the pandemic, in February 2020, it was more than 23,000.
The ACT Public Transport Association called on the ACT government to return service frequency to the level in the Network '19 timetable.
The association's chair, Ryan Hemsley, said frequent services were the key to a successful public transport system.
"Under the interim timetable, we've got people waiting around at interchanges for up to half an hour, and then squeezing into crowded buses. If we want people to get off the roads, and back onto public transport, we need the regular timetable," Mr Hemsley said.
Transport Minister Chris Steel last week indicated he would take a conservative approach to reinstating the full timetable, choosing to prioritise service reliability over frequency.
"The worst thing that could happen is if we go back up to the previous level of service delivery and then we cannot deliver those services," he told a Legislative Assembly inquiry.
Rapid and local services run at least every 30 minutes during the day under the interim timetable.
A spokeswoman for the ACT government said transport officials were working towards restoring the normal timetable in term 2 - which begins on April 26 - depending on the pandemic situation, health advice and driver availability.
"The interim bus timetable allows contingency and assists in managing staff shortages as a result of COVID-19. It also ensures service reliability across the network for Canberrans who need it," the spokeswoman said.
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However, the Public Transport Association of Canberra said the number of bus drivers had grown in the ACT, with annual reports showing there were 801 drivers in 2019 and there were 897 in 2021.
"This government has an exciting transport vision, and is willing to fund it, but this is meaningless unless it can get drivers for the services Canberra needs," Mr Hemsley said.
"We've seen claims that it's because of industrial issues, because of recruitment difficulties, because of COVID. Frankly, whatever the cause, it's been three years now, and it's the government's responsibility to sort out.
"We need a bus workforce that is sufficiently resilient to handle a few unexpected absences."
The executive branch manager of bus operations within Transport Canberra and City Services, Ian McGlinn, last week told a Legislative Assembly inquiry the reduced services under the interim timetable allowed for greater flexibility in managing driver absences when they were forced into isolation.
"You can borrow and scrape and get people to do extra shifts but you can't continually do that," Mr McGlinn said.
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