Mutiny on the Sydney commute: ‘pirate bus’ hits the road after privatisation leads to axed routes

Ken Wilson, whose crowdfunded service was created in frustration, says public transport needs to be in public hands

At 8am in south Willoughby in Sydney’s north, Ken Wilson ferries commuters on to what appears to be a stock standard bus about to take the roughly 12-minute journey into the city.

Except there’s a twist.

The Wednesday service is the first to make the journey in Wilson’s “pirate bus” movement, a crowdfunded one-off bus route created in response to frustration after privatisation led to cuts to the area’s bus trips.

“It is a bit of a stunt and protest against what the government selling off our buses has meant for our community,” says Wilson, dressed in a pirate costume with a toy parrot on his shoulder. “It’s also a proof of concept on whether we can do this ourselves if the government won’t.”

Across Sydney commuters have become frustrated by bus services plagued by delays, cancellations and axed routes.

Last year the New South Wales government conducted an inquiry into the privatisation of bus services, finding the claim the move would deliver better services to commuters had not come to fruition. It found privatisation had led to worse services and recommended returning them to public hands.

Transport will be a key issue when voters cast their ballots come late March. NSW Labor says it’s open to bringing services back into public hands once the contracts with private companies are up.

Commuters board the chartered bus
Commuters board the chartered bus. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

But Wilson is taking matters into his own hands. He launched a GoFundMe page in December which raised enough to charter its first bus, mirroring part of the trip made by the old 272 bus service, at a cost of $420 a trip.

The group plans to run more services each time it raises $420. Commuters can ride for free but are encouraged to contribute.

“[Privatisation] can’t keep going, otherwise in a few years we won’t have any more buses,” he says.

Several commuters have already moved to use Uber each morning since bus routes were axed, Wilson says.

‘The difference between getting somewhere on time and not getting there at all’

Aboard the bus are passengers who share Wilson’s frustrations. Some are on the journey purely in support, others have used the service to get to work.

Robert Samuel, a Willoughby councillor, is catching the bus to the city on the way to a meeting in Bondi.

“I’m going to Bondi, but not on the 340 like I should be because it’s cancelled,” he says, referring to one of a number of routes that has been canned in the aftermath of privatisation.

Eden Taylor (left)
Eben Taylor says his bus is ‘supposed to come every 10 minutes, but then suddenly it can be every 20 or 30 minutes’. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Eben Taylor is sitting near the back of the bus, talking to his friend Umaima Patni, also both dressed in pirate costumes, as the bus barrels across Sydney Harbour Bridge. He is a student at University of Sydney and says it’s not unusual to watch two 120 buses fly past his stop during rush hour because they are too full to take on more passengers.

“It’s supposed to come every 10 minutes but then suddenly it can be every 20 or 30 minutes,” he says. “It’s the difference between getting somewhere on time and not getting there at all.”

Once he finally gets to the city on his commute to university, he often faces the same drudgery of getting a second bus to the inner west.

“The buses that go west are notoriously late, sometimes they’re cancelled altogether.”

The frustration is shared in the eastern suburbs, where the mayor of Waverley council, Paula Masselos, says numerous bus routes have been axed.

When in 2019 the community found out the bus service in the area was flagged to be privatised, 14 people hired a bus and drove it from Sydney to Bega to meet the then NSW transport minister, Andrew Constance.

But Constance refused to meet them, Masselos says. And since the service was sold off last year, Masselos says she has received non-stop complaints about how much the service has declined.

“It’s forcing people back into cars and road congestion is now ridiculous,” she says.

Larissa Penn
Independent candidate for Willoughby Larissa Penn. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Sitting in the aisle of the pirate bus opposite Taylor is an independent candidate for Willoughby, Larissa Penn, who says fixing the bus services is a high priority in her campaign.

“[Privatisation] has been an experiment and that experiment has failed, so that means we need to return it to public hands,” she says.

“There needs to be a review of all of the transport services that will connect with the new Metro, and we need to be providing more bus services based on population growth.”

The NSW opposition transport spokesperson, Jo Haylen, agrees privatisation has failed. She says if Labor wins the state election it will establish a bus industry taskforce to “clean up the mess”.

A Transport for NSW spokesperson says an “unprecedented bus driver shortage” across the country had caused some operators to alter their timetables to offer more predictable route services, “rather than cancelling services ad-hoc”.

The spokesperson said two weekday morning 120 services would be added this week, following a similar route to the 272. More were planned by the end of February.

When the bus reaches its destination near Wynyard station, Wilson says whether it can be an ongoing service remains to be seen.

“The GoFundMe is there, it’s already got another $120 to go towards running another service,” he says. “How long we go for really depends on whether we get more services.”


Jordyn Beazley, Elias Visontay and Tamsin Rose

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fresh train delays in Sydney as expert warns outdated systems are likely to keep failing
Professor predicts further outages as Labor attacks NSW government over $670m maintenance backlog

Elias Visontay Transport and urban affairs reporter

14, Mar, 2023 @12:23 AM

Article image
Sydney trains hit by widespread delays and cancellations on election night
Transport for NSW urges passengers to make other travel arrangements with disruptions on several lines due to urgent signal repairs

Guardian staff

25, Mar, 2023 @8:51 AM

Article image
Q&A: Australia's immigration rate should be cut in half, Bob Carr says
Former foreign affairs minister says the benefits of immigration could be preserved but effects managed by slowing down rate

Anne Davies

12, Mar, 2018 @11:13 PM

Article image
Sydney train commuters to get free transport day after rail network outage causes chaos
Cybersecurity attack ruled out as rail shutdown puts pressure on NSW government before state election

Natasha May

09, Mar, 2023 @2:11 AM

Article image
Timid NSW transport policies show Labor and Coalition have taken their feet off the accelerator
No matter who wins the election, the task of tackling clogged roads and Sydney’s tolling mess will be immense

Elias Visontay Transport and urban affairs reporter

18, Mar, 2023 @7:00 PM

Article image
Rivals hammer out their pitches in fiery first debate of NSW election campaign
Dominic Perrottet and Chris Minns argue and interject over privatisation, infrastructure and public sector pay

Michael McGowan

09, Feb, 2023 @1:18 AM

Article image
WestConnex: bitter battles mark the road to Australia's urban future
The controversial 33km road and tunnel project in the city’s inner west has become a litmus test for Australian urban planning

Christopher Knaus

04, Apr, 2017 @8:21 PM

Article image
Erased from history: how Sydney destroyed its trams for love of the car
As the city prepares to open a new line built at vast expense, the decision to get rid of trams in the 1950s looks more questionable than ever

Mike Ticher

27, Jul, 2019 @10:00 PM

Article image
NSW poised to privatise state forests to raise $1bn for infrastructure projects
Exclusive: Long-term lease of softwood plantations expected to be one of first assets off block in 2020

Anne Davies

26, Dec, 2019 @7:00 PM

Article image
Everything you need to know about the NSW election: when is it, how to vote and who will win?
Voting is underway across the state and polls favour Labor to win. But the 25 March election could also produce a hung parliament

Mostafa Rachwani and Abhranil Hazra

24, Mar, 2023 @11:55 PM