Dorrigo Transit has been rejected for a NSW Government grant they wanted to use to offer concession fares on their Armidale to Coffs Harbour route because Transport for NSW thinks the route is ‘unsustainable’.
Dorrigo Transit had applied for the Transport Access Regional Partnerships Grant Program. This program provides small lots of funding and supports initiatives to improve services and outcomes for transport disadvantaged groups in rural and regional community. Our region and the route qualifies for the funding, however the funding is ‘seed’ funding designed to support a route to expand but not long term. Dorrigo Transit’s application was rejected because they were unable to identify a future funding source after the TARP funding ended.
Owner of Dorrigo Transit, Rowan Byers, says they applied for the grant in October of 2022, and it took more than a year for the grant application to be rejected. An email received by Mr Byers apologised for the extensive delay, blaming “multiple staff changes in the past year” for the government agency’s inefficiency.
“We are very disappointed in the No verdict and the long amount of time involved,” Mr Byers said.
“We have never had any government funding, so have had a flat rate fare since we started coming to Armidale in December 2021.”
Unrealistic grant demands
That flat rate fare for Armidale to Coffs Harbour is currently $90 one way. Dorrigo Transit currently do give children under 10 half fare at $45, but lose money on that as it costs around $75 per seat to operate the small service. The grant was sought to be able to offer half fare concession tickets to eligible people, enabling pensioners and students to travel the popular route for $45.
“This is a low volume B-road route, and the cost base is very different to east coast operations like Greyhound or Premier Motor Service, or NSW Train-Link,” Mr Byers said.
“Insurance costs are huge and we have little bargaining power for all the inputs needed.”
“The flawed aspect of the grant is that in two years’ time they expect our service with concession fares to be self-sustaining, that is we sell something for $30 below cost.”
“No similar transport operator anywhere in the world could meet this requirement.”
The NSW Department of Transport confirmed that the reason for denying Dorrigo Transit’s application was due to the lack of ongoing funding being identified.
“The Transport Access Regional Partnerships (TARP) grants program is not designed to provide ongoing long-term funding for projects,” a Transport for NSW spokesperson said.
“Transport for NSW is always focused on ensuring that the people of the New England, and the entire state, have reasonable and affordable access to intercity transportation.”
“We provide funding to accredited community transport operators under the Community Transport Program which assists individuals who are transport disadvantaged due to physical, social cultural and/or geographical factors.”
High demand for Armidale – Coffs Harbour route
“NSW TrainLink also provides coach services from the New England that connect to Brisbane via Kempsey and Grafton,” the spokesperson for Transport for NSW said.
The New England Times was unable to identify any bus service from the New England that goes to Kempsey. The route planner on the Transport for NSW website recommends that to travel from Armidale to Brisbane (a journey that is a five and a half hour drive), people travel by train to Maitland, change, and then travel by train to Brisbane, a journey of some 20 hours and costing $105.52. There are no direct bus or train options provided by government or private transport operators; Link Airways flies on three days a week for a standard fare of $315 one way.
There is no realistic nor affordable government public transport option between Armidale and Coffs Harbour, a drive of around two and half hours. The Transport for NSW trip planner site recommends travelling by train via Maitland for this trip as well, a 15 hour journey and costing $77.12. The buses – either using the Tamworth to Port Macquarie route via Walcha, and the Moree to Grafton route via Glen Innes – would require an overnight stay and multiple service changes for someone from Armidale to access Coffs Harbour, cost more and take considerably longer than travelling the train trip.
Mr Byers said that they began operating the service between Armidale and Coffs Harbour due to strong local demand.
“New England Coaches operated this route up until April 2021.”
“When we started the process to begin our business in mid 2021, the original idea was to operate short transfers from Dorrigo to transport hubs such as Urunga Rail and Coffs Airport,” he said.
“The phone rang hot with requests to expand.”
Dorrigo extended the Coffs – Dorrigo – Armidale regional shuttle service to Tamworth on Fridays a couple of weeks ago, enabling people in Tamworth, Kootingal, Bendemeer, and Uralla to access public transport to Coffs Harbour as well.
“Including pensioners, students, unemployed, we estimate more than 70% of our passengers would have been eligible for discounted travel,” Mr Byers said.
“Many existing passengers have said they would travel more if we offered concession fares.”
“Others have had to get individual tickets paid for by charities, welfare centers and other government departments,” he said.
Have your say
From a long-term perspective, Transport for NSW is preparing to develop a Strategic Regional Integrated Transport Plan for New England North West in 2024.
The NSW Government has very poor form in developing strategic plans for the New England region generally, with assumptions made that Armidale and the Northern Tablelands do not need different services or initiatives to the surrounding plains, or that Tamworth having a service means the entire region is adequately serviced. Reports clearly demonstrate the persistently poor understanding of the natural movement of people between various towns. In particular, the movement and interaction of people between the Tablelands and the various service centres along the coast is often ignored in such reports, because those coastal centres are not within the New England North West.
The spokesperson for Transport for New South Wales development will include a public exhibition process that will provide an opportunity for local communities and key stakeholders to review content and provide their input.
“This will enable Transport for NSW to respond proactively to anticipated changes in land use, demographics, and travel demand across the New England North West region with initiatives that aim to improve transport accessibility and modal choice both within, and beyond, the region,” they said.
Dorigo Transit is encouraging people to make their feelings known to Transport for NSW through a survey that is open until December 19 https://www.transportsurvey.com.au/.