Regional bus services

Wednesday June 17, 2020

Speech delivered in Parliament

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (12:48): I move:

That this house—

(a) acknowledges the importance of regional city and township bus services to rural communities; and

(b) conducts a review of all regional city and township bus services to ensure they are adequately funded and are providing a transport service that meets the needs of those communities.

South Australia has one of the lowest public transport patronage rates in Australia. It is also a fact that 85 per cent of South Australian households are car owners. You need to be a car owner in regional South Australia because if you rely on public transport you simply will not get where you need to go.

All the talk this week is on the overhaul of multiple bus routes in Adelaide and the introduction of Go Zone bus stops and the abolishing of others. I would like to put some regional perspective on this debate. In my electorate of Mount Gambier, our bus service is operating on a 30-year-old model. I will just repeat that: our routes have not changed since 1990, when the transport minister was eight years old. We are looking forward to that review and overhaul, minister.

In the 2019 state budget, this state government outlined funding for key metropolitan public transport projects, which included the Gawler line electrification project, at $615 million; the extension of the Tonsley rail line to the Flinders Medical Centre for $125 million; building a new park-and-ride at a cost of $33.5, million; and a station on the Tonsley line for $8 million.

For regional South Australia, 11 country bus contracts were extended. South Australia's regional public transport system is in dire need of an overhaul. If you live in metropolitan Adelaide, your modes of transport are many. You have access to buses, trains and trams that virtually run around the clock. If we want a regional public transport system that actually serves people living in regional and remote areas, first there needs to be a review and then the funding to implement the changes needed.

Mount Gambier Bus Lines is contracted to operate the Mount Gambier bus service, and the managing director is Sam Lucas, who fully supports my call for a review. Mr Lucas said there must be a balance struck in three aspects to provide adequate service levels: span of hours, frequency and geographical coverage.

I mentioned before that for Mount Gambier residents public transport is a public service that operates on a 30-year-old model. During that time, Mount Gambier has grown exponentially outwards, but the bus service does not go to the busy housing developments like Conroe Heights or the Hallmont Retirement Village. The bus will take you near Mount Gambier hospital but will not take you in front of Mount Gambier hospital. Umpherston Caves is one of Mount Gambier's biggest tourist attractions, but you cannot get there via a bus, nor can you get to the Lady Nelson Visitor Information Centre. The service does not operate on weekends or public holidays and it does not start until 9am, so if you start work early or finish late you will not be able to take the bus to or from work.

It stands to reason that if you have low service levels you will have low patronage. The last time a study into regional services was completed was in 2016 by then transport minister Stephen Mullighan. The study found that school services accounted for about 60 per cent of the total passenger numbers on buses in Mount Gambier. Of the non-school service, almost two-thirds of passengers were pensioners, 5 per cent were seniors, 7 per cent were students and 6 per cent were children travelling with another passenger.

Discussions with passengers found that most of driving age do not drive a car. The data also suggested 90 per cent of bus use was dependent on the town bus service for social inclusion. The researchers who completed the study noted there were repeated requests for longer hours for the bus service and for a wider coverage—from 7am to 9pm. The study also suggested regular intraregional daily public transport services between Millicent and Mount Gambier, and Naracoorte and Mount Gambier—both within an hour away.

The three demographics identified as being most in need of a public transport system are young families, youth and older people. There are currently 12 regional community passenger networks in South Australia, which are smaller services provided by trained volunteers. In Mount Gambier, the South East CPN service is operated by Red Cross and mainly caters for people aged over 70. The service is designed to be a last option for those who need it for local medical appointments, shopping and social activities.

Small communities now rely on locally funded buses like the community bus which services Port MacDonnell, Allendale and Kongorong. The purchase of the bus, which happened following the death of local footballer Stephen Noble, was made possible by a sub fund established in his name through the Stand Like Stone Foundation, which is a philanthropic foundation based in Mount Gambier. These are some of the options for people living in regional areas dependent on getting from A to B.

The peak industry body representing bus and coach services in South Australia is Bus SA. They have a Moving People 2025 Agenda, which recommended that regional accessibility committees be established in the Riverland, Mount Gambier and Port Pirie regions. A study was conducted in 2017 by then minister Stephen Mullighan that led to the trial of the regional accessibility committee for a year in Port Pirie. Much of this study would still be relevant today; it just needs updating and an approach from a consumer perspective.

It is time to ask regional South Australians directly what they want from their public transport. Mr Lucas has said he would be more than happy to work with the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure on a review into these services. This review could help guide departmental strategy on service delivery and look into consumer wants and needs, how existing services could be better utilised, and, finally, what sort of investment is actually required from the state government to bring these changes into effect.

Figures from Bus SA estimate current spending on public transport is around $20 per regional head of capita but should be building a plan to around $70 per head. By comparison, New South Wales spends around $200 per head.

On-demand services and ride-sharing services are taking over major cities across the world. Late last year, the state government announced on-demand bus service trials would begin in the Barossa and Mount Barker regions. The service operates in a similar way to ride-sharing apps and gives passengers the ability to track in real time where their bus is and order it to a point close to their location.

I asked the Minister for Transport how these two areas were selected as trial sites and whether any other regional sites were considered. In his answer to the house, the minister said the areas needed a certain level of population density to work and the two sites selected were considered the best opportunity to provide a test case. In his answer, he also said he believed on-demand services could be rolled out into regional centres if they work at the trial sites.

I am looking forward to hearing the results of these trials. The City of Mount Gambier, as the largest regional city in South Australia, is the ideal city to see this trial expanded. In his answer, minister Knoll also said:

If you have a capital asset, a bus, and you have a guy who is in a bus sitting around not doing too much, then that is not the best use of resources. The opportunity to provide a more flexible service that increases and encourages patronage means we can actually get better use of that existing bucket.

I could not agree more. The first step is to look at the service we are running and ways we can improve it.

On census day 2016 in the City of Mount Gambier, 81.8 per cent of people travelled to work in a private car, 2.8 per cent rode a bike or walked, 2.1 per cent worked at home and only 0.5 per cent took public transport. Of those 8,700 people who drove to work, 8,100 drove just themselves, i.e. no-one else was in the car.

The City of Mount Gambier has done a lot in recent years to encourage residents to become less reliant on their cars. The east to west rail trail is 11 kilometres of shared pathway, which has been a huge success, and there is also Ride2Work Day. These are all great starting measures, but the fact is regional South Australia is heavily reliant on cars to get around. As the economic impacts of the pandemic hit, there will be more people looking to make cost efficiencies, and cars may be one of them. The RAA estimates a car can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $17,000 a year to run.

We need a public transport system that caters to its population, no matter where they choose to live. Around 400,000 people live in regional South Australia. I am calling on the state government to work with existing providers to determine the best service and appropriate models for a region-specific service.

The Hon. A. PICCOLO (Light) (12:59): I would like to rise in support of this motion. I think it is a very good motion and I thank the member for Mount Gambier for raising it today. I think it is very important to ensure that we give people in the regions, and I will give some examples. It is time, so I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 13:00 to 14:00.