On 3 September 2001 the ACT Government introduced a subsidised transport scheme that provided eligible primary, high school and college students with free public bus transport to and from school on school days.

Application forms were made available online, and through schools. The form had to be stamped by the school before being submitted to ACTION for assessment.

The Scheme was removed as of Friday 21 December 2001, following the election of Jon Stanhope’s Labor Party to the ACT Government, in October 2001.

To help cope with the extra students on buses, ACTION chartered 17 white Hino RG197K buses from the STA – this was intended to be a temporary solution until delivery of the new low-floored Irisbuses (the first of which would eventually arrive in 2003). The Hino buses were registered as ACT vehicles and had feet numbers that followed on after the Darts, from 157 to 173.

Eligibility Requirements

To be eligible for subsidised travel under the School Student Transport Scheme (SSTS) Students had to:

  • Be an ACT resident who attended an ACT school on a full time basis;
  • Attend Kindergarten, First or Second Year; or,
  • Primary School students in years 3-6 living beyond a radial distance of 1.6 kilometres of their school measured on a radius from the centre of the school site, or beyond 2.3 kilometres by the most direct practicable walking route to the nearest point of physical entry to the school; or,
  • High School and College students living beyond a radial distance of 2.0 kilometres of their school measured on a radius from the centre of the school site, or beyond 2.9 kilometres by the most direct practicable walking route to the nearest point of physical entry to the school.
  • Free transport was available on school days only for travel between school and home between the hours of 7.30AM and 5.30PM. Purchased tickets were used for travel outside of these periods. The scheme was not available on weekends or during school holidays
  • Students deemed ineligible by the school radial distance criteria could apply to the Department of Urban Services for analysis against the walking distance criteria, where applicable
  • Where a student’s pass was lost or damaged, a $5.50 administration charge was required for replacement rickets to be issued
  • Students ineligible for free transport remained eligible for the existing range of discounted School Term and Faresaver tickets issued by service providers.
  • From 23 July 2001 the price of all ACTION Student Faresaver tickets was reduced to the equivalent of a single-zone fare regardless of zone boundaries.
  • A related budget initiative extended the period during which tertiary students could access Student Faresaver tickets in recognition of their longer semester periods compared to ACT schools.
  • Tickets were sent out to students through the school, with the name, grade level and school name of the student printed on them.

Bus Information

17 Hino RG197K buses were hired due to the free school bus scheme

The 17 Hino RG197K which were used were previously operated by North & Western Bus Lines of Gladesville. The vehicles were originally intended to be hired for 12 months (August 2001 to August 2002) but all the buses were returned, or sold on, by December 2001.

Of the buses, there were three different body types:

  • Motorcoach “Marathon” body: 157, 158, 159, 160, 162
  • PMC “Commuter” body: 161, 163, 164, 165*, 166
  • Custom Coaches “200” body: 167, 168, 169, 170, 171*, 172, 173

* – Buses 165 and 171 swapped registration plates in September 2001. (165 was originally allocated to a Custom Coaches bus and 171 to a PMC bus.)

For further information on individual vehicles, please visit the Hino RG197K Category on our Wiki.

Media Articles

Canberra Times 24 August 2001
The $1.4 million fee to hire buses to cope with the start of the free school bus travel scheme on September 3 has been labelled a “waste of money” by Labor MLA Wayne Berry.

ACTION has hired 17 50-seat buses from the NSW State Transit Authority to cope with the expected 15 per cent increase in the number of students catching buses to and from school.

Mr Berry said yesterday that it was a waste of money to hire the buses simply to fulfil the Government’s promise of starting the scheme before the Legislative Assembly election in October.

“It just demonstrates the scheme was never thought out,” Mr Berry said.

“It’s the first time ACTION has used second-hand buses . . . we’re using redundant buses to carry our kids around.” He labelled the scheme itself as very unfair, saying its $27 million cost over four years would only benefit a quarter of Canberra’s students.

Mr Berry also said that it was a concern that the NSW buses did not have screens to prevent any objects thrown by passengers hitting the driver.

ACTION executive director Guy Thurston said the buses were an interim measure until the exact demand for school buses could be determined, and until the school bus timetable could be redesigned for the new school year in February, when 10 new permanent buses would be delivered.

Mr Thurston said the buses were of a high standard, and that drivers and ACTION’s occupational health and safety committees had not deemed the screens to be essential.

A spokeswoman for Urban Services Minister Brendan Smyth defended the cost of hiring the buses, saying it had always been intended to do so.

Because Labor had promised to scrap the scheme if elected it was up to the public to decide in the election whether the scheme was worthwhile.

If the buses were good enough for use in NSW under the Labor Government they were adequate for the ACT, the spokeswoman said.

The Canberra Times 28 August 2001

In just six days as many as 17,000 Canberra schoolchildren will walk through the morning chill to the bus stop and catch a free ride to school, courtesy of the ACT taxpayer and a Liberal Government very keen on winning another term.

Public servants and staff at ACTION buses have been working overtime to get the $27 million plan ready in time for the September 3 start date.

Urban Services Minister Brendan Smyth made it clear when he announced the plan, three months ago, that delays would not be tolerated. The free bus scheme would be in full swing six weeks before the ACT election, he insisted. Since then it has been one of the most controversial pieces of pre-election policy, and has provided the sharpest point of distinction between Labor and Liberal as they vie for the votes of Canberrans.

Labor, after a failed attempt at scuttling the plan on the floor of the Assembly, announced it would scrap it outright if it won office, and put the savings into education.

The Government says it promised to deliver free school bus travel in the 1995 election campaign, and will stick to its promise.

It had been very sorry that, once it won office, sufficient funds were not available to begin the plan immediately. Now it had the money it was time to honour commitments.

The plan was also about giving something back to the community, Mr Smyth said.

Public school parents and teachers’ unions for both private and public schools have fiercely opposed the scheme, saying it wastes money that could be much better spent inside schools, on basic facilities, learning assistance for those in need, and welfare services. In a highly unusual move, usually publicity-shy primary and secondary school principals joined the opposition.

As critics predicted, the benefits have fallen heavily in favour of the private sector. Working from the most recently available figures, taken last week, public school students are applying for, and receiving, the free passes at about half the rate of private school students.

Less than 25 per cent, or around 7400 of the 38,000 government school students either already have or are about to receive passes, compared with just under 50 per cent, or 9500 of the 23,000 ACT non-government school students. Not everyone is eligible for free passes, distance and age restrictions cutting some out of the benefit. Older students must live at least 2km from school, younger ones at least 1.6km away.

According to a spokeswoman for ACTION buses, which are processing the applications, around 18,000 applications had been processed as of last Friday with just 5 per cent rejected as ineligible.

The total expected to apply was about 22,000, with 50 to 100 applications coming in every day. Late applications could not be guaranteed a pass by the start date.

One group which has not been heard in the debate is the students.

Students at St Clare’s and St Edmund’s Colleges who spoke to The Canberra Times were unanimously in favour of the scheme, a number from large families with yearly savings of up to $1000 in store.

At Narrabundah College it was a different matter.

Year 11 student Claire Templeton said her parents were teachers, and it would be much fairer if the funds went to better teaching salaries, or to school resources that everyone could share.

Classmate Michelle Paterson thought it unfair that some students got passes while others missed out, even if they did live closer to school

The Canberra Times 1 September 2001

The ACT Government’s free bus travel scheme discriminates against some students and will destabilise government schools, leading to some closures, according to an Australia Institute report.

Given to The Canberra Times two days before the scheme swings into action, the report slams the pre-election policy as money-wasting and biased towards richer families.

Commissioned by the ACT branch of the Australian Education Union, it said the Government had likely underestimated the yearly costs of $4.5 million. Working from the NSW scheme, which the ACT scheme is modelled on, ACT costs were estimated to reach $6.4 million by the end of the decade.

The free bus scheme was announced as part of the ACT Government’s May Budget, and begins on Monday. Around 17,000 students have passes already, with more to come from late applications. Students qualify for a pass if they live 1.6km from their school, or 2km from school for older students.

The report, Free School Buses, Who Gains Who Loses said the NSW scheme had been plagued by costs blow-outs. In place since the 1970s, it cost $402 million now, and was estimated to cost $450 million yearly by 2005-6. Similar pressures were likely to drive costs up in the ACT. Among these were:

– Demands for broadening of the scheme, so more were eligible.
– Calls for more flexible timetables for after-school activities and shorter travel times.
– Calls for safer and more comfortable services with seat-belts and airconditioning.
– The continuing drift from public to private schooling, increasing the number of eligible students.

The report said that in the long term the policy would encourage greater enrolments in out-of-area schools. That could lead to the closure of some government schools.

This contradicted the social capital objectives articulated by the Government in recent years, and ran directly counter to the planning principles that had underpinned Canberra’s development.

“Planners have long accepted that schools, especially primary schools, should be starting points in planning and developing cities, and no where has this principle been pursued so deliberately than in the development of Canberra,” the report said. Under current guidelines government schools must be centrally located in communities, close to other facilities like child and health services, and pre-schools.

The report said that 58 per cent of private school students would be eligible for the scheme, compared with 42 per cent of government school students. Studies had proved that families which chose private schools were wealthier, so free bus travel was biased towards richer families.

The Canberra Times 3 September 2001

Seventeen extra school buses will hit Canberra’s roads today, with existing services expected to be full to bursting as the Government’s pre-election school bus scheme kicks off.

Just under 17,400 students have already received their free bus passes, with about 900 applications rejected. Urban Services Minister Brendan Smyth said 17 extra buses had been hired from the NSW State Transit Authority, to fill the gap until new, low-floor, ACTION buses were ready.

Also a fleet of smaller vehicles, including Tarago vans, were ready as back-up.

Mr Smyth said the scheme would see a more than 20 per cent jump in school bus patronage, and that this had been built into the costings. About 15,000 students used buses to get to school now. Once the plan was in full swing, an estimated 22,000 would travel using the free passes.

Announced in the ACT Government’s May Budget, the plan provides free travel for older students living more than 2km from school, younger ones must live at least 1.6km from school.

Mr Smyth said the scheme would be good for families, and that the Government hoped it would have a positive effect electorally.

The Government was determined that the ALP would not win office in the October poll and scrap the plan.

An Australia Institute report on the scheme, issued at the weekend, said non-government school families would be the biggest beneficiaries. Also annual costs were likely to blow out from $4.5 million to $6.4 million by the end of the decade.

Government school parents, principals and unions have joined the Opposition in vocal protests against the plan. They say the money would be much better spent inside schools.

ACTION said applications were still arriving at a rate of between 50 and 100 a day.

Students who had yet to apply could obtain an application form from their school, or call 131 710. Processing of late applications would take about seven working days.

This page was last updated on 21 October 2023