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.
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.
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.
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.”