Gareth Ward responds to Gong Shuttle questions

Parliamentary Secretary for the Illawarra Gareth Ward returned to work last week into a firestorm.

Anger at the government’s decision to charge fares on the Gong Shuttle was high and people were looking for answers.

On Wednesday Mr Ward sent a prepared statement to the Mercury and declined to talk on the record.

In response the Mercury published a list of questions we would have liked to ask.

Mr Ward later agreed to provide responses to those questions, which we have published unedited.

How much does it cost each year to fund the free Shuttle?

The cost of operating the Wollongong Shuttle is around $3 million a year.  

Who made the decision to introduce fares to the service?

Transport for NSW regularly monitors all of its contracted services and in response to feedback from customers, a review of the service was started in November 2016.

Data gathered from the surveys indicated that during the weekday peak times between 8am and 9am, and between 1pm and 5pm, patronage on the Wollongong Shuttle was either just under the legal maximum capacity or a full service. The service was just as popular on weekends.

Transport for NSW will continue to monitor patronage on all local bus services including the Wollongong Shuttle, and will make service improvements or adjustments when and where they are needed.

As I was not involved in making this decision, I am more than happy to take individual messages to the Transport Minister. People should feel free to write to my office and I will seek responses to concerns raised or you may wish to write to the Transport Minister directly.

Will the NSW government be investing more money into Wollongong hospital parking now that it has removed one of the main incentives for catching public transport there?

In 2015, more than $30.5 million was invested to deliver 750 additional car spaces. This was in addition to the 566 parking spaces already available onsite. All of which is accessible to staff, patients and the public. This comes on top of the $106 million invested to re-develop the hospital by the NSW Liberal government. No such investment commitment was ever made under the former Labor government.

Will the NSW government fund improvements to roads in metropolitan Wollongong now that it's removed an incentive for people to use public transport?

The NSW government has already invested heavily in roads, road planning, pathways and cycleways in and around metropolitan Wollongong with more than $65 million dollars invested into the seat of Wollongong in the last six years.

Will the NSW Government fund improvements to the South Coast rail line now that it's removed an incentive for people to use public transport?

Since coming to government, we have increased the number express services to the region by 125. We have also delivered numerous station upgrades and/or car parking expansions at Dapto, Albion Park, Gerringong, Kiama, Oak Flats and Thirroul.

The NSW government has also introduced the Opal card to improve the customer experience.

Further, the government will be investing in new train carriages to provide increased comfort and more services.

When considering future projects, Transport for NSW looks at current and future patronage, customer demographics, changing needs and trends and how to best integrate future plans with existing networks.

The South Coast Line has been earmarked in the Transport for NSW Future Transport Strategy over the coming 10 years for investigations into flattening grades, straightening curves and a potential new rail crossing through the Illawarra escarpment.

Further, in the 10 to 20-year time period, we will investigate the electrification of the South Coast Line from Kiama to Bomaderry, and duplication of the South Line.

The government's own strategic plan for the Illawarra and Shoalhaven identifies the free shuttle as an important connection between the different precincts in metropolitan Wollongong.

Has the government considered how removing an incentive for people to use public transport to travel between these precincts will affect this area?

The shuttle will remain as will the standard 75 per cent subsidy for all fares.

The long-term plan was written in 2014. Introducing a standard Opal fare is now considered the fairest way of reducing congestion on the Wollongong shuttle and helping to spread the load across the network.

I recognise that when a free service moves to one that requires commuters to make the standard contribution, there will be obvious concern and even anger. I have previously stated that I am more than happy to convey any individual letters or emails to the Transport Minister who is responsible for such matters.

I would make the observation that whilst Wollongong City Council were quick to condemn this decision, I also note that Newcastle City Council make a contribution to their local shuttle service. I have written to both the Lord Mayor and the University of Wollongong asking if they would be prepared to make a contribution given that the NSW Government will continue to subsidise this service with 75 per cent of the cost of each ticket covered by the NSW Government from January 28 next year.

How does the NSW Government expect overseas and interstate tourists from cruise ships to use the shuttle on January 29? Where should they get their Opal card?

Transport for NSW has met with Destination Wollongong to discuss changes to the Wollongong shuttle and to discuss their concerns.

Mr Ward, you were “thrilled” to announce that the NSW government had secured “exclusive matches” between Wigan and Hull for Wollongong and Sydney. We've got thousands of tourists coming to the area and tourism bosses say the free shuttle was part of the strategy for moving these people around?

I was very pleased to meet with a representative of Wigan management to encourage their tour to Wollongong. This will be a tremendous opportunity for our region and will see thousands of overseas tourists come to our community and make an enormous contribution to our local economy. Transport for NSW has met with Destination Wollongong to discuss changes to the Wollongong Shuttle and to discuss their concerns.

Parramatta has population of 200,000, like Wollongong. Why isn't Parramatta's free shuttle having fares introduced?

The free Parramatta shuttle is under consideration with Parramatta Light Rail due to commence construction in 2018. A similar free service that used to operate in the Sydney CBD has been discontinued.