BIC Conference looks at the issues ahead

At the Bus Industry Confederation’s (BIC) 2022 National Conference in November, delegates discussed the issues facing the industry in 2023 and beyond.

As the bus industry looks towards the year ahead, there are a number of key areas that are sure to garner plenty of attention among operators.

The Bus Industry Confederation Annual Conference held in Brisbane in November 2022 surfaced numerous opportunities and challenges for the year ahead, including the hope of closing the gap on patronage numbers and moving from the current state of up to 80 per cent pre-COVID figures up to 100 per cent in 2023 and beyond.

At the conference, futurist Michael McQueen listed a number of key elements to look for in the coming years, including the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the evolution of hybrid working and the needs of the next generation of bus users in Generation Z.

McQueen spoke of a world where unmanned air taxis and unmanned trams are already being trialled, where staff may never go back to the office full time, and a next generation of consumers who are focused on sustainability and environmental protection as a major driver of their actions.

He said operators would need to find a way of connecting with Gen Z users, convincing them of their green credentials and inspiring them to start using buses for their transport needs.

Figuring out the ebbs and peaks of a new working world, particularly for city-based transport groups will be another challenge – with data collection and potentially differential pricing a way of boosting numbers of quieter days and encouraging usage all week.

On the topic of AI, it became clear that the technology has enormous potential to help businesses across a wide range of activities, not just in the transporting of people, but also in recruitment and administrative tasks.

On the people side of the industry, 2023 will be about finding ways to attract more drivers and being able to assure new and existing drivers that their safety and wellbeing is of paramount concern to employers and governments.

Changes to federal industrial relations laws being debated at the end of 2022 will likely play out in 2023.

In essence, what’s been proposed by the new federal government is a set of legislation that has the potential to enable unions to seek multi-company enterprise bargaining within an industry and the ability to seek Fair Work Commission assistance in both the process and in arbitrating a decision in cases where negotiations cannot be agreed.

The legislation is before the Senate in November 2022. If the laws are passed, it is likely the effects will start to be seen later in 2023. The best advice from the BIC National Conference was to talk to your advisors and understand where you are at in the enterprise bargaining cycle, and what potential impact these changes could have for your business.

A common catchphrase from this year’s conference, from operators and manufacturers alike, was that building and buying electric buses was the ‘easy’ part of the push towards a zero-emissions future.

A lot of attention was paid to the challenges of charging and maintaining the new fleets of zero-emissions buses. This would require strong investment in electrical infrastructure to be able to handle the charging loads – and training to ensure there were enough mechanics available to service the new styles of engines.

There are also issues of extra weight and width of buses and the impact this could have on the road network and in working within the current national heavy vehicle regulations. This is one of the many issues that will need to be worked through in the year ahead.

Another issue to watch in 2023 will be around the requirements of accessible public transport. There is debate around whether low ride buses are practical on regional roads, and what alternatives may be available to ensure anyone who needs to catch a bus, can.

One area that may assist in this process is the increasing development of on-demand transport services where operators are working more closely with passengers to provide door to door service, when needed, rather than by regular scheduling.

Conference delegates heard about the complexities of this system and trials in progress that are attempting to develop the best models for funding and managing the fleet and staff requirements of the programs.

On the regulation front, the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator’s (NHVR) Ray Hassall and National Transport Commission’s (NTC) Aaron de Rozario both spoke of a desire for their organisations to continue to work with transport operators to simplify processes and red tape and to develop regulations that serve the purpose of keeping everyone safe without creating an overload of administration for business.

This will be a work in progress for 2023. As an example, changes to the Performance Based Standards (PBS) scheme announced at the conference are offering operators of relevant vehicles a greater scope to source approved tyres for their vehicles from December 2022. This all makes for an exciting and, once again, challenging 2023 for the Australasian bus and coach industry.

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