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Adelaide's public transport tender demands "notable" cuts

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Transport Minister Stephan Knoll is promising improvements to Adelaide’s public transport system – which he says is among the worst in the world – despite the tender documents for the new bus contract stipulating a “notable reduction in subsidies”.

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Knoll insisted over the long weekend that better integration of public transport modes would allow his Government to provide improved services when it selects new private contractors for Adelaide’s public bus services.

The tender documents, however, show the challenge ahead for the new operators, including more cuts on the way.

The registration of interest document published by the Government shows that it will require contractors to build patronage and deliver “more frequent and faster services” in the face of shrinking public investment.

“While the key driver for government is to significantly improve customer service, a notable reduction in subsidies to deliver these services is also required,” the document says.

The document also indicates there could be further cuts to routes. It says the new contracts must enable “simplification of Adelaide’s metropolitan bus network” and “less underutilised services”.

The language in the tender, and its capacity to improve bus patronage, has been challenged by University of Adelaide researcher Dr Jennifer Bonham, who specialises in urban mobility.

She said cuts to the Government’s investment in public transport would lead to a further reduction in patronage.

“We need to recognise the provision of public transport as an investment – not a subsidy – in transport choice… physical and mental health… (and) environmental health,” she said.

Bonham believed “simplification of the bus network” signalled a reduction in network coverage, while the reference to “less underutilised services”  signalled a reduction in services at particular times of the day.

“These cuts have implications for social justice among those groups who rely on public transport,” she said.

“Together these two items suggest a focus on peak period (or at least daytime services – 7am-7pm) bus services to cater for the journey-to-work.

“I’d need to see the government’s modelling but the proposed changes may see an overall decrease in public transport patronage if the hoped-for increases on the favoured routes don’t outweigh the loss of patronage from route and service cuts.

“Unless the simplified routes/concentrated services are accompanied by measures to prioritise buses – eg through high occupancy vehicle lanes – they aren’t going to be any faster than existing services and are unlikely to attract an increase in patronage.”

Last year’s state Budget foreshadowed about $45 million in savings from the public transport system over four years, with “low patronage” and “duplicate” bus and train services to be cut. Knoll has already announced some of those service reductions with timetable changes in January cutting runs from 30 bus routes.

However, that change will only save $3.5 million over a full year, with Knoll indicating last year that the rest of the Budget cuts would “be realised through other initiatives including potential new bus services contracts over the coming years”.

The new contracts are due to be in place by the second quarter of 2020.

Knoll told ABC Radio Adelaide today that the city had one the worst public transport systems in the world and change was needed to arrest a slump in patronage.

He said he had examined overseas experiences and “I think it’s fair to say that we in Adelaide would have one of the worst public transport systems compared with a lot of the best cities in the world – they all have… a better integration of services.

“So only seven or eight per cent of people in South Australia use public transport – that’s the lowest in the country and low when it comes to the developed world. We also have, at 3 per cent, the lowest level of … integration of services in the country and in certainly most places across the world. We don’t have a great service and it’s why we need to shake it up and it’s why we need to do everything that we can to improve the way that the service operates.”

In a written response to questions from InDaily, the Minister said the State Government only recovered around 20 per cent of the cost of providing public transport services.

“In part, this is due to the relatively low patronage,” he said.

He said “the notable reduction in subsidies is built into the tender to ensure we get the best value for South Australian taxpayers. The value of the tender/contract is finalised through the process.”

In relation to the simplification of services, Knoll said this was a reference to “ease of use to drive patronage and make it easier for commuters to use”.

“We conducted a market sounding earlier this year and sought industry feedback about what is achievable and what innovations can be achieved through this tender, so we will have more detail when the tender responses come back. ”

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