The successful Gong Shuttle was inspired by a bad idea.
The green buses that link key points in the city were the brainchild of David Campbell, the Keira MP who was also Transport Minister and Minister for the Illawarra back in 2009, when they first hit the streets.
Mr Campbell said the spark for the Gong Shuttle was the call for a different bus route, one he just couldn't get behind.
“There had been chatter in Wollongong for a few years about a shuttle bus that went from the railway station to the beach,” Mr Campbell said.
“It was clear to me that sort of service was not needed in Wollongong.”
That service wasn’t a goer, but it got Mr Campbell thinking about another shuttle that just might work.
With urban planning expecting more people to be living in the CBD and the likely traffic headaches that would cause, he felt that maybe a free bus linking the CBD to high-traffic areas like the hospital, the university and the train station might just work.
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“The transport planners came back and said ‘we can do this but we don’t think anyone will use it’,” Mr Campbell remembered.
“I thought, ‘hold on, lets just have a go’. Within a few months of it starting, the transport planners said ‘this is going gangbusters and we have to add more services to it’.”
It certainly was popular – less than a month after its March 18 debut more than 5000 people were riding the Gong Shuttle each weekday. And the shuttle only ran in one direction in those days.
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It was so popular that residents who lived just outside the loop began petitioning Mr Campbell for inclusion on the route.
Not everyone was a fan however; a month after the debut, taxi drivers were already claiming the free shuttle had led to a decline in fares. A stance that continues through to today.
That strong support for the Gong Shuttle has – bizarrely enough – been the reason the NSW government has given to introduce fares.
In an announcement that came just days after the end of lectures at the University of Wollongong (students are one of the shuttle’s biggest users), Transport for NSW said there were so many people using the Gong Shuttle that the fares were needed move some of them onto other services.
The man who created the Gong Shuttle said the idea the government would “attack” a successful public transport service “defies belief”.
“A couple of weeks ago they were stating how brave they were because they’ve got increased numbers of passengers in Sydney so they’ve increased the number of services,” Mr Campbell said.
“The response to an increase in passengers on a bus service in Wollongong is not to increase services but to introduce or increase prices. It just defies belief.”
The original fares announcement this week did not come from Transport Minister Andrew Constance but rather an unnamed “Transport for NSW spokesperson”.
Since then, neither Mr Constance nor any other minister has come to the region to explain the decision. Mr Constance and other ministers have also been less than forthcoming with responses to the Mercury’s repeated efforts to get answers.
None of which surprised Mr Campbell – he said no one will explain it because it is simply “unexplainable”.
Well, unless you talk about the bottom line. That's where Mr Campbell felt the true reason for the fare introduction could be found.
“I suspect that it’s being driven by Treasury,” he said.
“They’ve added all those extra train services in Sydney, they’ve got to pay for them somehow.
“It’s clearly driven by cost, and where they should be adding additional services if it’s overcrowded, they’re seeking to drag out some revenue and it can only be as a response to increased expenditure from those train services in Sydney.”
The outcry opposing Gong Shuttle fares was something Mr Campbell expected.
“It’s about more than the fact that some people might have to pay a bus fare,” he said.
“That’s not the issue, the issue is people value this service as a means of public transport but they also value it for the social interaction.
“You see people across generations, people of different nationalities having a chat on the bus.
“I think also generally people know that if people stop using this, there’s going to be more cars along its route and that’s not a good thing in any way, shape or form.”