Ian G. Cooper, BA, Dip.Pub. Ad., MCIT
Leslie J. Pascoe, B Com, AASA(S)
Ian Morison, BE, DTP, MIE Aust, FRAPI

Ian Cooper is the author of Trolley Buses of Tasmania published in 1980 and while at University of Tasmania presented a dissertation entitled “Passenger Transport Administration in Hobart”. After 21 years in Hobart Ian joined the Department of the Capital Territory in 1974 and has been Director of Public Transit — Policy and Planning since 1975.

Leslie Pascoe is one of the few contributors to this book who does not have engineering qualifications: he is an accountant who has a Bachelor of Commerce Degree from the University of Newcastle, NSW, and who is a Senior Associate Member of the Australian Society of Accountants. His interest in the Canberra Omnibus Service arises out of a life-long interest in urban street transport.

Ian Morison, after winning third prize in a world wide competition for a solution to London’s traffic problems, joined the National Capital Development Commission in 1959 and was its Traffic Engineer and Transport Planner throughout the 1960s. He was therefore largely responsible for metropolitan transport systems developed during that decade. He went to the USA in 1966 to work with the American consultant Alan M. Voorhees on the development of what became the metropolitan strategy plan, or “Y” Plan, for the ACT

CANBERRA had its beginnings in the heyday of the tram. Griffin intended to use trams on the median to link urban facilities lining the broad straight avenues he designed. He also proposed an eventual rapid transit in these medians set below grade — a concept that was still being examined by NCDC/DCT sixty years later as a possible future development. The avenues were built but major buildings were only loosely associated with them, and Canberra’s halting growth gave no real prospect for the development of a tramway system.

Instead, Canberra grew up in, and was eventually shaped by, the age of the internal combustion engine, with its public transport on rubber tyres. From the first charabancs that carried workmen and school children from Kingston across the bed of the Molonglo to Ainslie, Canberra’s omnibus service has become a high quality metropolitan transport system, fully integrated into the physical fabric of the National Capital. Since about 1960, bus routes have been an important factor in urban planning and design.

This chapter is about the evolution of the omnibus service as a system, and as a vehicle fleet which, in terms of coverage, operating hours, safety, operating costs and overall efficiency, is the equal of any metropolitan public transport system today in Australia.

The Old Canberra System

The first public omnibus service in the Canberra City area was commenced by the Commonwealth Department of Works in October 1923 for the benefit of workers constructing buildings in the new city. The service originated from construction camps and ‘tent cities’ at the Causeway and Pialligo, and the temporary railhead at Eastlake (Kingston), and two charabancs carried people to the various building sites in Civic Centre and Parkes.

The general public was first served by bus transport in July 1925 when a private operator, Mrs Helen Barton, commenced running buses between Ainslie and Eastlake, the two residential areas then being occupied, and included trips to the only available shopping centre at Queanbeyan. Although the privately owned service linking Queanbeyan and Canberra continues to this day (now under the ownership of Lever Coach Lines) private operations within Canberra were short lived because the Federal Capital Commission started its own bus service on 19 July 1926.

 Two Graham Dodge
Fig. 3.1: Two Graham Dodge Charabancs purchased by Department of Works in 1922. These were the first buses to operate in Canberra. Photo — DCT Collection.
Photographed in the yard at Eastlake
Fig. 3. 2:. Photographed in the yard at Eastlake (Kingston) in about 1928 were the FCC fleet of four Beans and one of the AEC Renowns. Photo — DCT Collection.
Four AEC Renown buses provided the Commission’s service which ran between a southern terminus at Eastlake anda northern terminus at Ainslie, using several different routes. This basic route pattern was maintained for the next 25 years, with minor variations and extensions of the service to keep pace with the gradual spread of residential suburbs. With the opening of Parliament House in May 1927 and the associated relocation of Commonwealth Government Departments to Canberra, the frequency of service offered by the Canberra City Omnibus Service gradually increased as the population of the new city grew.

It was not until the early 1950s with the expansion of Narrabundah and Yarralumla and the development of O’Connor, that any significant departure was made from the traditional Kingston-Ainslie axis. These routes were extended further in the late 1950s with the development of Red Hill, Lyneham, Dickson and Campbell. But the tradition that almost all buses should serve Kingston and Manuka shopping centres was maintained, thus reflecting both the minor role of Civic during Canberra’s first 30 years and the operational convenience of running buses to and from terminals situated adjacent to the bus depots. For the passengers, however, the public transport system was only convenient for those who were organised to suit the timetable of the service. It was a country town service essentially, designed to get public servants to their offices at starting time and bring them home again after work. But it was tailored to meet other recognised demands such as shopping and theatre trips, albeit on a limited scale.

Transition: Town to Metropolitan System

A comprehensive survey of Canberra’s public and private transport commissioned in 1961 by the still relatively new NCDC showed the Department of the Interior’s bus services were carrying only 7 per cent of the daily persontrips and around 15 per cent of work trips1. While this level of patronage was about the same as that in comparable sized towns like Toowoomba and Townsville, it was less than half that of the smallest State capitals2.

Given that Canberra might grow to several times its 1961 size (56,000) it was clear to the NCDC’s planners that positive measures would have to be taken to get more people to use buses: to lift Canberra’s public transport from a small town service to a metropolitan service3. It took several years to get the planning concepts together, and developed as a practical programme, before fundamental reforms to the system could be implemented.

By the early 1960s, urban expansion into the Woden Valley posed questions about new centres, routes for express movement, and the future balance to be struck between public and private transport modes. Recent innovations in Europe and North America were being studied by the Commission and presented in a Canberra context: urban transport (bus or rail); ‘park and ride’ stations; co-ordinated management of road and public transport systems with design and planning concepts4.

Meanwhile, bus services were having to be operated into the new suburbs, introduced usually as the first homes were occupied, to establish patronage in the formative years. The first Woden Valley (Hughes) service was introduced on 19 August 1963 following first occupancy of houses in 1963. Similar early services were provided for other areas. Care was taken on the details affecting bus routes in the planning of all new suburbs; they were to be within half a mile of all homes, pass the local shops and schools and have pedestrian ways co-ordinated with bus stops.

In 1966, a major step was taken to bring together sound land use and transport planning practices on a larger scale. A ‘general plan concept’ was formulated for the NCDC by Alan M. Voorhees and Associates, who recommended that Canberra’s metropolitan growth be along a limited number of corridors each served by a public transport ‘spine’. The towns forming these corridors would have their own major work centres from which local public transport routes would radiate. This concept was also consistent with the thinking of the bus operator.

The Voorhees analysis showed that good quality public transport service under such a concept should be able to attract sufficient patronage between town centres to justify the construction eventually of a separate right-of-way. This study was the first of its kind in Australia to properly integrate land use and transport planning, and it showed that two types of public transport operations were needed in Canberra: local and inter-town. It cleared the way for planning new features of the system: a rapid transit alignment; town centre interchanges; large capacity inter-town vehicles. The total concept was first publicised in the professional press in 19686 and by the NCDC in Tomorrow’s Canberra.7

While this sorting-out took place on the most appropriate future shape of Canberra, and the shape of the public transport system in a car-owning community, quite a few changes were being made to the existing network of bus services. From 1961 the new Russell Hill defence complex demanded a growing number of additional peak services including feeders from Civic. The Lennox Crossing route came to an end and a new Acton service from Civic began when Lake Burley Griffin, started to fill in 1963. The Scott’s Crossing route had also to be replaced because of the construction of the Lake. The system was at last being forced to keep to those avenues designed for trams, with Civic Centre as the main interchange point between services. These changes began to highlight operational problems inherent in the traditional method of operation. Timetabling was becoming more complex for management; the fleet had grown from 25 buses in 1942 to over 90 by 1966. Since 1958, patronage had doubled, but had not kept pace with population growth.

In 1966 agreement was reached between NCDC and the Department of the Interior to engage consultants to review the usage and efficiency of the service. This study by P.G. Pak Poy and Associates was the first of its kind in Australia, bringing together operational, administrative, and urban development contributions to effective public transport management. It was jointly directed by the NCDC’s transport engineer and the Transport Manager and the Director of Traffic of the Department, and looked into three inter-related aspects of the system: its internal operations (administrative, manning and financial), its external operations (route network and bus operations) and public attitude to the service8.

A survey of households undertaken as part of the study showed that of all the home-based trips made in Canberra, 69 per cent were by people whose circumstances made them captives to car travel, and 7 1/2 per cent were by people who, because of their age or income, were captives to public transport. More significant perhaps for the use of the bus system were discoveries about the remaining 23 per cent of trips, which were by people who could choose between buses and cars: almost all of them were opting to travel as car passengers9. Such as it was, nearly 80 per cent of bus usage was connected with school or work: the prevailing belief that public transport had no other real role seemed to be confirmed. But was this really so? The study showed that actual and potential demand for bus services was less concentrated around peak periods than the service itself: strains on the system might be eased and more passengers attracted if there was more flexibility in their time of travel10. Much else was brought to light concerning the operation of the system, providing the basis for revised timetabling and rostering procedures, bus layout and design, size and composition of the fleet, public relations, simplification of route network, to give a system of regular, easily remembered services throughout the dayh11.

These findings were accepted by both clients in 1967 and the detailing of a new system of bus operations began. Over the years some strange route patterns had been adopted as a result of local lobbying. People in areas where a straightening out of routes was needed had to be consulted. With one or two exceptions, the simplified radial networks from Civic were agreed to and an NCDC contract for installing many new bus stops and removing some hundreds of old ones was let in 1968.

At the same time, completely new bus timetables and driver schedules were drafted, based on not less than halfhourly services on all routes throughout the day with synchronised movements through the main centres. On 25 March 1968, the reformed bus system began to swing into action.


Secure in the knowledge that guidelines for land use and transport systems development, and existing public transport operations, were pointing in the same direction, the way was clear for the authorities to undertake a whole range of new developments to equip Canberra and its burgeoning new towns of Woden/Weston Creek and Belconnen with fast and efficient public transport.

The 1970s was a decade of ‘on the ground’ achievement for public transport in Canberra. The first significant commitment was the construction of the Woden Interchange.

Woden Interchange

The idea of a bus interchange at the new Woden Town Centre had first been mooted about 1963 but it was not until March 1968 that the express bus service was implemented between Woden and City and an interchange had to be effected between express and local services. It began as a temporary ‘on street’ operation in Melrose Drive, Lyons, on 25 March 1968 — a large bus stop and passenger shelter with a mess room for drivers and supervisors.

The permanent interchange which was planned to be as central as possible to the activities of Woden Town Centre was one of the first purpose-built suburban bus terminals in Australia. It was designed for NCDC by Graeme Gunn, with Maunsell and Partners as consulting engineers and Leighton Contractors the builder. Its fifteen ‘sawtooth’ platforms, with ticket sales and information facilities and public address system, were first used on 4 December 1972.

The original interchange was remodelled and a second stage built in 1982 to provide covered platform space for an additional 15 buses. Most platforms can now accommodate either one articulated bus or two standard buses. This extension, to cater for growth in Tuggeranong, was designed in-house by NCDC. Leighton Contractors was the construction manager and Cameron, McNamara and Partners Pty Ltd, the consulting engineers.

Belconnen Interchange

The Belconnen Centre was the first in Australia to incorporate a significant length of permanent way exclusively for buses and it was of a geometric standard to suit a future rapid rail transit system. This was built into plans approved in 1970 but provision of an interchange was fraught with lengthy delays.

As a direct result of problems with the siting of the shopping centre, the future Belconnen Mall, a temporary bus interchange was opened in the West Belconnen suburb of Higgins on 2 July 1973, the most convenient turning point for feeder buses at that time. Initially located on Fullager Crescent outside Higgins Shops, it was moved off-street’ on 22 December 1975 because of traffic congestion in the streets surrounding the shops. Although intended as a stop gap measure to serve the northern, north-western and western Belconnen suburbs, delays in the construction of the town centre interchange resulted in a life of five and a half years for the Higgins Interchange.

Woden Interchange.
Fig. 3.3: Woden Interchange.
The new Belconnen Interchange was finally opened on 27 January 1979. Sixteen platforms were included in the first stage. Its two-kilometres of bus-only roadway linking Coulter Drive and Eastern Valley Way provides unimpeded access for buses, improving the efficiency of the Belconnen operation. The pedestrian spine of the interchange forms part of the overall Belconnen Town Centre system which includes pedestrian bridges over roads. The project was designed by John Andrews International, architects for the adjacent Cameron Offices; Maunsell and Partners were the consulting engineers and Civil and Civic were the builders.

The ‘ACTION’ Service

The Department of the Capital Territory was concerned to raise not only the quality of the service offered by Canberra’s buses — through the best available mechanical technology and an efficient route network —but also the perceived public image of the service. Since 1930, the bus service had had various names: ‘Canberra City Omnibus Service’; ‘Canberra City Bus Service’; ‘Canberra Omnibus Service’; and ‘Canberra Bus Service’.

During the years of Canberra’s relative stagnation following the abolition of the Federal Capital Commission in 1930, the Department of Home Affairs had controlled the bus service until that Department’s functions were absorbed by the newly formed Department of the Interior in 1932, which was responsible until 1972 for the Capital Territory. In December 1972, the Department of the Capital Territory was formed and its administrative resources for public transport management were expanded.

In 1977, the service received another change of name, in association with a major programme to upgrade the service by the purchase of new vehicles, a new range of prepurchased tickets, passenger facilities such as shelters and a new colour scheme for the buses. On 14 February, the new system was unveiled — the Australian Capital Territory Internal Omnibus Network — or ACTION.

As a result of the integration of public transport system requirements into Canberra’s development and substantial capital investment to provide a good quality service, the system was able to attract a 33 per cent increase ip patronage in the two years between 1977—78 and 1979—80 when fuel prices were rising. Unfortunately, however, nearly 12 per cent of this gain in patronage was lost because of drivers’ strikes in 1981. Patronage is steadily recovering..

Facilities for Express Services

The intertown system, as it began to be known, received a lot of study in the late 1960s and first half of the 1970s. In 1970, Voorhees and Maunsell outlined a possible right of way for intertown rapid transit, prepared preliminary plans and cost estimates for its construction and a programme for its development. The study also looked into potential patronage, appropriate types of vehicles and the effects of charges for parking on the competitive position of express services. It nominated station locations and interchange designs for a line through Belconnen, North Canberra, the Central Area and Woden. It was recom- mended that land needed for the route be safeguarded and it concluded that “an urban busway system on a separate private right-of-way will best meet Canberra’s express public transport needs.”12

A modern duo-rail system was also considered, but was expected to cost up to 20 per cent more to build and to be more difficult to develop in stages.

In the early 1970s, the Commonwealth Bureau of Roads and the Bureau of Transport Economics developed schemes for public transport improvements grants in the States, taking into account consequential benefits of reduced car usage and parking. They identified the critical factors that were needed to attract people into public transport and the capital needed to develop improved systems. For the ACT, the NCDC and the new Department of the Capital Territory carried out an Intertown Public Transport Study in 1974 and 1975, reviewed by the Bureau of Transport Economics and the Department of Transport.

The main conclusions were:

  1. No non-conventional (automated) public transport system could be recommended for installation in the National Capital of Australia, on a metropolitan wide scale, in the near future.
  2. A conventional priority bus system was the preferred system for Canberra for the foreseeable future, i.e., the next 5—10 years.
  3. Changes in Canberra’s intertown public transport system should take place gradually in an evolutionary manner, and the priorities of improvements should be as follows:
    • a re-examination of the operating strategy utilised;
    • the early establishment of convenient efficient and comfortable bus interchanges;
    • the application of absolute bus priority in the vicinity of interchanges;
    • the planning, design and development of other bus priority arrangements, within an overall priority system strategy, as and when appropriate.
  4. Formal steps should be taken to ensure that a practical alignment for a grade-separated system on its own track is permanently reserved within the urban structure for possible future use in tomorrow’s Canberra.13

Belconnen Interchange
Fig. 3.4: Belconnen Interchange showing Bus-way links.
Stage 1 of the Belconnen Bus Interchange
Fig. 3.5: Stage 1 of the Belconnen Bus Interchange, with Benjamin Offices in the background. The Interchange has 16 bus platforms and provides commuters and shoppers with easy access to local and intertown public transport services. Four MAN SL200 buses at the feeder route platforms are flanked on the extreme left and right by Volvo B58s. Photo — Raeburn Trindall.
Belconnen Interchange.
Fig. 3.6: Belconnen Interchange. A MAN express articulated bus has arrived at the platform on the left from Woden and City. Photo: DCT Collection.
It was also proposed that facilities built for exclusive public transport should be designed and constructed to geometric standards suitable for future conversion to a commuter rail system. This decision was reflected in the Belconnen Interchange design together with exclusive public transport lanes on both approaches to the interchange. Express buses can move at speed along major roads, but it is the delays approaching the city or town interchange that so commonly detract from the efficiency and attractiveness of public transport.

One of the evolutionary improvements in express travel in Canberra resulted from the establishment in 1975 of a lane exclusively for buses on the City-Woden run. It was for non-stop travel so was implemented in the median lane and now operates over a distance of 4.5 kilometres. Another was on the City-Belconnen run, where traffic signals were the main source of delays: an exclusive kerbside lane was introduced to give buses priority for several hundred metres on the congested approaches to certain intersection signals.

While Canberra was experiencing strong growth, it was fully expected that an exclusive right of way would be constructed, like the section in the Belconnen Town Centre, for the congested City section of the planned rapid transit route. By the mid-1970s however, the slump in Canberra’s growth rate and capital funding made it clear that no separate right of way would be developed in City in the foreseeable future, and another approach would have to be taken to solving the interchange problems there.

City Interchange

One of the longest running sagas in Canberra concerns the siting and construction of an interchange in City. Initial studies into the siting of a bus interchange in City began in 1974 when it was realised that the projected growth of Canberra would outstrip the capacity of the street bus stops to cater efficiently for the expected number of passengers, especially those transferring between buses.

Various sites were examined for the construction of a temporary interchange which would be used until the final alignment of the intertown public transport route was determined. In 1977, it was resolved to build the interchange on the car parks on the southern side of London Circuit, flanking the intersection with Northbourne Avenue, below City Hill. The site was compatible with possible routes of the permanent intertown public transport alignment.

A need for thirty-seven bus bays was identified by ACTION. Functional layouts were developed with bus turning radii checked out on a large pavement area at Fairbairn airport. Streamlined access was planned with slip roads on and off Vernon Circle to minimise delays to buses entering and leaving the interchange. An architect was engaged to provide an attractive structure incorporating all the functional and comfort needs of passengers. Based on these designs, tenders were to be called but sections of the community opposed the proposal, and the Minister for the Capital Territory asked for the tender advertisement to be cancelled.

One of the principal reasons for this, quoted at the time, was the alienation of a large tract of land solely for a single storey bus station in the heart of City. The key engineer at the NCDC for the project, Bill Minty. offers a different perspective:

There was never any intention to alienate the land for only a single storey bus station. The structure for which tenders were to be called had a frontage of shops and community facilities. There was residual land for such development as a Tourist Centre and at any stage, full air rights were available for development to any reasonable height over the full site. This could have been decked as replacement car parking, or for City offices. Indeed, one proposal was for new offices over the bus station to accommodate NCDC and the Department of the Capital Territory, but no finance was available at that time for any more than the bus interchange. Opponents of the London Circuit site also pointed to the problem of pedestrian access to the interchange. However, other plans were available to add pedestrian underpasses. Alternatively, overpasses could have been provided like those at Alinga Street and Belconnen Interchange. The question of traffic and pedestrian conflict in Northbourne Avenue and London Circuit relates to the broader issue of peripheral parkways which should bypass the city centre. City was then, and still is bisected by six lanes of heavy highway traffic including concrete agitators, huge semitrailers carrying cattle, sheep, steel etc. and every other type of industrial and private vehicle. Elsewhere, highways are being progressively diverted from downtown areas.

In 1980 the Minister requested a further review of the proposal taking into consideration the significant decrease in the projected population of Canberra.

The review reaffirmed the benefits of an off-street interchange, but showed that, to be cost effective, an off-street facility in the City should be combined with another land use. Subsequent projections of bus needs indicated that a much smaller interchange would be quite adequate for at least ten years and that it was now possible to accommodate all bus bays on-street in the ‘T’ shape formed by East Row, Mort Street and Alinga Street. This location has the advantage of being part of the pedestrian area of the eastern half of the City.

The present interchange was designed in-house by NCDC. Construction Manager was Leightons and the consulting engineers were Cameron, McNamara & Partners Pty Ltd. It was officially opened on 23 November 1982.


In many respects Canberra has adopted a bold and innovative approach to engineering matters as exemplified by the following list of events in relation to Australian public transport.

    • one of the first operators of AEC Renowns (1926)
    • one of the first operators of AEC Regal buses (1933)
    • the first city to operate a diesel bus (1934)
    • one of the first cities to test air bag suspension (1960)
    • the first with an AEC air suspended bus (1960)
    • the first Government operator of a Leyland Leopard(1962)
    • one of the first government operators to buy a rear engined bus (1967)
    • the first operator of AEC Swift buses (1967)
    • the first operator of Volvo city buses (1972)
    • the first operator of a German VOV designed bus (MAN) 1975
    • the first government operator of MAN SL200 buses (1975)
    • the first operator of an articulated bus, MAN SG192 (1976)

the first operator to buy buses with integral retarders (1978)

  • the first city to test Firestone HELP energy absorbing bumpers (1978) and the first city to equip production buses with these bumpers (1981)
  • the first operator of a Mercedes 0 305 built essentially to the German VOV design (1981).

Various Models, 1922—51

Two Graham-Dodge charabancs were the first government buses in Canberra. Both were purchased by the Department of Works in 1922 and passed to the Federal Capital Commission in 1925. The latter organisation purchased a third Dodge in 1925 for school and workmen’s services. The public bus service was started in 1926 and provided by four AEC Renown, 411s with Syd Wood bodies. The 411 model had been introduced in 1925 and the FCC was one of the first customers in this country for the new bus. A fifth Renown was added to the fleet at the end of 1926.

 Two MAN SL200 buses
Fig. 3.7: Two MAN SL200 buses at the Alinga Street platform of the new City Interchange. Forty-three per cent of the current ACTION fleet are standard MAN buses. Photo — DCT Collection.
In early 1928, four 17-passenger Bean Empire buses were delivered, the first one-man operated buses in the fleet. The Beans were not a success — their small capacity rendered them unsuitable for most services and they proved very costly to maintain. Reports of chronic overloading no doubt contributed to the mechanical problems of these lightweight vehicles. They were replaced by 30seat AEC Regals after a life of only five years.

After this trial with a lightweight chassis, the FCC was again to the forefront in purchasing heavyweight vehicles. Later in 1928, two Associated Daimlers (ADC) were brought, a model that had recently been added to the market in England. In June 1929, a rare example of an ADC/AEC (probably of the 426 type introduced in March 1928) was purchased; rare simply because the partnership between the Associated Equipment Company Ltd (AEC) and the Daimler Company Ltd, was dissolved in July 1928.

After a brief encounter with Commers (two were purchased from the General Bus Company of Parramatta after it ceased operations following introduction in NSW of a bus service tax in 1931) Canberra switched back to AEC for its major source of buses. Over the years, Canberra had the longest association with AEC of any Australian bus operator, the AEC model 3MP2R supplied in 1974—75 being among the last batch made by the company. AEC was taken over by Leyland in 1962 and the manufacturer has now disappeared from the scene. It is interesting to note that the first Commer entered service in Canberra still bearing its General Bus Company livery of biscuit fawn with yellow band, a colour scheme which was then adopted by Canberra to replace the original maroon and buff.

In December 1930, the London General Omnibus Company introduced three experimental AEC buses fitted with diesel engines — the first in regular public service. These were followed in 1931—32 by a further batch of diesels. By 1933, AEC had perfected the diesel and new models were being offered. Canberra was again to the forefront. After buying four petrol engine AEC Regals with Smith and Waddington bodies in late 1933, The Canberra Times reported in May 1934 that bus number 24 had been fitted with an AEC ‘diesel type fuel oil engine’ for evaluation. It was claimed to be the first time an engine of this type had been used for passenger transport in Australia. The tests were successful and the next six buses delivered in late 1936 were fitted with six-cylinder AEC diesel engines.

A natural progression from the long line of 84 AEC Regals bought between 1933 and 1951 was the underfloorengine AEC Reliance introduced in England in 1953. The decision to order the Reliance in September 1955 was also inspired by a report in 1953 by Messrs W.D. Chapman and L.A. Schumer which recommended the progressive introduction of one-man operation of buses. The body design of the AEC Regal made one-man operation unworkable.

AEC Reliances 1956—68 and Leyland Leopards 1962—66

Although it was not the first operator of Reliances in Australia, the Department bought 120 over twelve years — the largest fleet in the country. Canberra’s first Reliance arrived in April 1956 and was the forerunner of 52 similar buses, with bodies by Commonwealth Engineering, over the next five years. One of these vehicles, number 037, which entered service in December 1960, was fitted with air bag suspension, one of the first city buses in Australia so equipped. Unfortunately the Department felt that this pioneering attempt at improving the quality of the ride of buses was not altogether successful as the manufacture of reliable air levelling valves had not yet been perfected. Canberrans had to wait until the arrival of the Leyland Nationals in 1974 before again experiencing the comfort of air suspension.

Leyland’s medium weight chassis, the Leopard, was introduced at the end of 1959 and the first models reached Australia in 1961. Although a couple of Sydney private operators bought examples in 1961 and early 1962, Canberra was the first Government concern to buy a Leopard. Number 015 was registered in August 1962. Only 11 examples of this marque were bought, because the AEC competitor, the Reliance, was preferred.

AEC Regal at Telopea Park High School
Fig. 3.8: AEC Regal at Telopea Park High School. Date of photo unknown but could be just after the end of World War II. The bus is a pre-war model typical of 80 Regals with half cab bodies built for Canberra between 1936 and 1951. Photo — DCT Collection.
The Reliance with AH470 engine, was, in the main, a reliable medium weight chassis. For an underfloor-engine bus it was generally quiet, gave a good ride and was economical. However, frequent failure of the heaters was a severe inconvenience in the Canberra winter.

AEC Swifts, 1967—75

AEC offered a rear-engine alternative to the Reliance at the 1964 Commercial Motor Show in London in the form of a 36-foot Swift with the AH505 engine. A 33’ 6” version was released in 1966. Interest in lowering floor and step heights by placing the engine at the back of the bus gained momentum in Britain during the mid-1960s and there was a rush among manufacturers to offer a suitable chassis.

Among the pioneer operators in Australia to buy rearengine city buses was the Department of the Interior. Canberra chose to buy the 33’ 6” Swift and in December 1967, number 121, a Hedges bodied unit entered service, the first of four similar buses bought for evaluation alongside the more familiar Reliance. Although drivers were not keen on the low driving position and the gear linkage, the Swift offered exceptional comfort for passengers on a bus with leaf springs. It also had a wide, low entrance platform and relatively low noise level. It is very rare for a rear-engine city bus to be fitted with manual transmission and these four buses, plus 10 bought in 1969, were among the few manual gearbox Swifts in the world.

Passenger appeal had entered a new era in Canberra. More Reliances and Swifts followed in 1968 and 1969 and then it was decided to buy Swifts exclusively, but this time Canberra moved into the semi-automatic gearbox arena — or to describe it in more specific terms, the Department ordered the AEC Swift 3MP2R, the ‘2’ signifying the fitting of a Wilson semi-automatic epicyclic transmission with Mono-control electro-pneumatic gear selection. The Wilson transmission made by Self Changing Gears was one of the most common gearboxes on British-built buses whilst the Mono-control gear selector switch, mounted on the steering column, had been devised by AEC in conjunction with CAV Ltd. The first semi-automatic Swift, number 156, was bodied by CVI in Sydney and entered service in Canberra on 23 November 1970.

Although Canberra trailed most other cities by many years in introducing such transmissions, passengers were to suffer from the occasional over-energetic driver. The reason was published many years ago in UK: ‘Semiautomatic gearboxes made bad driving so easy’. All the driver had to do was flick a little lever on the steering column from one gear to the next. Although drivers should pause when moving the lever between each gear to permit an appropriate matching of engine revolutions and road speed, one or two over-anxious drivers did not attempt to relate the two variables, with the resultant whiplash affect on the unsuspecting passenger and premature failure of the transmission.

Like other British rear-engine buses of this era, the Swift experienced some engine failures, in the main, caused by the breakage of fan brackets. Some problems were no fault of the chassis design. To quote from Blue Triangle, a history of AEC buses by Alan Townsin, ‘Not all bodybuilders had appreciated the extent to which the body structure of rear-engined single deckers had to cope with the effect of the ton of machinery suspended from the rear overhang of the inevitably flexible chassis — a problem experienced with other similar chasses’14 Canberra ran into a body stress problem and some rectification work was necessary on the buses within a relatively short time after delivery. But despite all this, the Swift was generally an attractive bus for passengers. A total of 101 Swifts were bought — 14 bodied by Athol Hedges, 30 by CVI, (the last buses built by this subsidiary of Commonwealth Engineering), 37 by Freighter and 20 by Smithfield. This constituted the largest fleet of 505-powered Swifts in the world outside London Transport which bought 838 of the type.

The Volvos, 1972—76

Reliability problems with earlier buses prompted the Department to have a look at the new Volvo B58 then being offered for the first time in Australia. A fairly conventional chassis in the traditional underfloor-engine format, the Volvo has been called the Swedish equivalent to the Leyland Leopard. After examining the one demonstration chassis which later received a Denning coach body, two Volvo B58-50 chassis were ordered and bodied by Freighter at the end of an order for 20 Swifts. Both were delivered in February 1972 and proved to be very reliable buses.

Volvo then introduced their turbo-charged engine THD 100A to the Australian scene and in February 1973, it was decided to order six B58-56 chassis powered by the new engine. The first such bus with a Smithfield body was Number 236, delivered in August 1974, and it entered service on the intertown route between Woden and Belconnen. It was among the first turbo-charged buses in Australia. Number 236 was followed by an order for a further sixteen B58s in September 1973 and another 54 in three batches in 1974. The one major obstacle to a higher Volvo sale to Canberra at that time was Volvo’s inability to supply more vehicles to meet a very tight delivery schedule, having just commenced their assembly line in Australia.

With the exception of 17 Volvos fitted with two-speed ZF 2HP45 fully automatic transmissions, all the Volvos had the Wilson semi-automatic transmission as fitted to the Swifts. Again, as with the Swifts, this transmission is sometimes not used correctly by drivers. At the time of writing, tests are under way to re-equip some Volvos with Voith 851 three-speed fully automatic gearboxes with integral retarders. The Department felt that such equipment should overcome the problems it saw in brakes and transmissions.

The Leylands, 1974—75

Cabinet approved in August 1973 a major upgrading of the Canberra Bus Service with the introduction of new routes and improved timetables. A substantial addition to the bus fleet was required and speedy delivery was essential. Leyland appeared to be the only manufacturer capable of delivering all the required number of buses in the time. Accordingly, the Department ordered seventy of the brand new Leyland National 10.9 (10.9 metres long — a bus especially developed for the Australian and New Zealand markets to meet rear axle weight restrictions), plus sixteen Volvos. Delivery of the Nationals was expected between April and August 1974. Originally it was intended that 32 of the buses would be imported complete from England and the others assembled in Sydney from imported components. Following objections from trade unions and a realisation that it was going to be easier too btain shipping space for boxes of components rather than complete buses, the mix was altered to 16 imports plus 54 assembled in Australia. A combination of labour disputes in England and Australia and delays in shipping between the two countries resulted in the first National being delivered to Canberra in November 1974 and the last in October 1975.

M.A.N. buses at Woden Interchange
Fig. 3.9: M.A.N. buses at Woden Interchange showing the original 1972 structure in the background and the recent extensions closer to the camera. Photo — DCT Collection.
Again being the pioneer operator of another brand of English rear engined bus created problems. Although the National has an exceedingly strong and good looking steel body, is a delightful bus to drive and offers a high level of comfort to passengers, it has had more than its share of mechanical and electrical problems. Also, the innovative ‘70’ series low profile tyres have not been particularly successful. On the other hand, the bodywork, after eight years, is in the best condition of any series of buses purchased for Canberra. The Department has replaced the original steering with heavy duty steering arms designed for the Leyland Titan double decker and in one bus has substituted a Gardner 6HLXB engine for the original Leyland 510 in a bid to improve the reliability of the bus and reduce the excessive smoke problem which has plagued the National since new. It is pertinent to note that Leyland has discontinued using the 510 engine in Nationals and is now offering Gardner and Leyland TL11 engines as original equipment on the revised National Mark II now available in Great Britain. If Canberra’s re-powering is successful, it is expected that other Nationals will be re-engined, thus extending their economic life.

MAN Buses, 1975—81

The slow delivery offered by some manufacturers encouraged the Department to seek alternative suppliers of buses. Germany’s standard municipal VOV bus was thought to be an attractive solution to Canberra’s problem and when tenders were called in late 1974 for forty-seven buses, MAN of Munich successfully tendered for ten complete SL200 city buses fitted with the ‘SU’ intercity front end. Volvo successfully bid for the supply of thirtyseven B58-56 chassis to the same specification as earlier units.

The first MAN was imported to Australia in a framed state and Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Melbourne was appointed to complete the bodywork using a high proportion of imported components.

Number 410, was delivered in July 1975 — the first bus in Australia built to the basic German city bus design. In the same month, Perth took delivery of its first Mercedes Benz 0 305 city bus — the Mercedes competitor to the MAN SL200. However, Perth decided to fit its standard Western Australian body to the Mercedes chassis.

From December 1974 to June 1979, a total of one hundred and forty-one additional MAN SL200 buses were ordered, the biggest single batch being 86 ordered in April 1975. All but 16 were completed by Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, the last 16 being built by Smithfield and Custom Coaches. Although not without their problems, such as an engine air filter which could not cope with Canberra conditions, the MAN has been a remarkably successful bus and has certainly had less major problems than any other recent bus delivered to Canberra. It would appear that Canberra’s roads are more dusty than those experienced by MANs in their native Germany. The more recent MANs were successfully modified prior to delivery. Although there are a total of one hundred and forty-one SL200 buses in the fleet, all looking basically similar, there are significant differences ‘under the skin’, and many modifications have been made to the design over a period of five years. Another initiative saw the delivery in January 1978 of bus 518, the first in the fleet with a fully automatic transmission with integral retarder — a Renk Doromat unit — the only bus then in Australia so equipped. Integral retarders which vastly improve braking performance, and hence safety, are now almost a standard feature on Australian city vehicles.

In April 1975, Australia’s first articulated bus was ordered from the MAN company. Faced with increasing patronage among a rapidly growing population, the Department foresaw the need to move more people in the peak period as economically as possible. The introduction of articulated buses would not only reduce labour costs, but would provide greater comfort to passengers in offering more seats to more people.

Bus Number 450 entered service on 27 September 1976 on a trial basis between Woden and City. Seating 71 passengers and operated by one man, the bus was an immediate success. A further twenty-one MAN SG192 articulated buses were purchased over the next three years for use on linehaul services including express school routes. The articulated buses have proved to be very reliable units, cost no more to maintain than a standard bus and are popular with passengers and drivers alike. Canberra’s operational experience with articulated buses attracted widespread attention throughout Australia and New Zealand, and operators in Auckland, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and Darwin have either ordered or are operating articulated buses made by MAN, Mercedes Benz, Volvo and Leyland.

Mercedes-Benz, 1981—83

Canberra is moving closer to the European scene in that it now operates a fleet of MAN and Mercedes-Benz city buses, in both the standard and articulated varieties as are found in many German cities.

In December 1980, Mercedes-Benz was awarded a three year contract to supply buses to Canberra.Ansair was appointed body contractor by Mercedes and the first product of the ‘three pointed star’ manufacturer in the Canberra fleet was officially handed over on 11 November 1981. Although built essentially to the same basic VOV design as the MANs, a myriad of improvements has been made to the Mercedes unit. They are the first Mercedes Benz 0 305s built in Australia to a German design although the Canberra buses have the front end from the 0 307 intercity bus. A total of twenty-eight buses were delivered in 1981 and 1982, and at the end of 1982, a further twenty one were on order for delivery in 1983.

Five Mercedes-Benz 0 305G vehicles were ordered in March 1981. A new-generation articulated bus was delivered to Canberra late in 1982. These buses constitute a break with the previous engineering approach to building articulated buses. Whereas the MAN SG192 has a trailer towed by a prime mover with the drive provided through the second axle of the prime mover, the Mercedes Benz 0 305G has its drive axle in the trailer which acts as a ‘pusher’ to the front section of the bus. Claimed advantages are greater stability and comfort, lower floor height and reduced engine noise.


For most of its existence, the Canberra Bus Service had only one workshop at Kingston which was also the central workshop for the Government car and truck fleet. Kingston bus depot was supplemented by a small sub-depot at Ainslie. It has only been in the last decade that a massive expansion has taken place in depot and workshop facilities with new buildings being opened in Belconnen and Woden.


At Kingston, the original depot was located on the river side of the Power House. In the late 1920s, a new garage and workshop was built off Wentworth Avenue’ to the south of the power station. This latter garage was then incorporated into a much larger depot in the 1930s and was, in turn, converted into the existing bus and truck workshop, in the early 1970s.

The amount of land occupied by the Transport Section at Kingston increased over a 45-year period until it reached its maximum in 1971 when the existing ‘new’ depot was opened. A fibro-clad shed had been built adjacent to the present Government Printing Office during World War II, and acquired some years later by the bus service. This was followed by a new lubritorium in the early 1950s. Alterations to the first group of buildings were made over many years until the original structure became almost unrecognisable.

By the time the building, later known as the ‘lower workshop’ was reconstructed in 1981, only one small galvanised iron wall of the old building remained in situ. The recent renovations included construction of a new store, offices and electrical workshop. This area is now used solely for repairs to the car and truck fleet owned by DCT and the Department of Administrative Services.

Kingston Depot about 1934.
Fig. 3.10: Kingston Depot about 1934. The buses are, left to right: Associated Daimler, AEC Regal, Commer, Coinmer Parlorcoach, AEC Renown and AEC Regal. Photo — DCT Collection.


When the Ainslie Depot opened in June 1929, it consisted of two garages, which originally came from the Molonglo Construction camp near the present suburb of Fyshwick. Two more garages and a workshop shed were added in the early 1930s.

This depot was situated at the corner of Leslie Crescent and Campbell Street, near the northern end of Corroboree Park.

In December 1941, eight brick individual garages, built side by side, each with their own roller shutter door, were constructed at a new location at the intersection of Stephen and Tyson Streets. A second group of eight garages was built next to the first eight in 1945—46 and an additional sixteen garages were built by 1950.

There were no mechanical servicing facilities but a fuelling installation was provided when, due to delays in the construction of a depot at Belconnen, busports to cover 30 buses were built in the yard at Ainslie to assist in the accommodation of the overflow of buses from Kingston. These busports were used from 23 May 1977 and, when Ainslie was closed on 2 September 1979, were dismantled and re-erected at Woden Depot.

The most striking developments in the provision of infrastructure have occurred in Belconnen and Woden. Both towns have purpose-built off-street bus interchanges and their local fleets are housed and maintained at depots in the service trades areas adjacent to both town centres.


Initially, buses from Kingston serviced the new suburbs in Woden Valley. The first stage of the Woden Depot, housing 44 buses and workshop was opened on 16 April 1974. A second depot building also housing 44 buses was completed on 14 July 1975. Woden Depot was designed by the Department of Works in association with Winterbottom, Moore and Associates. Miller, Milston and Ferris (Engineers) Pty Ltd were structural engineers and Leighton Contractors the builders.

Extension of bus services into Tuggeranong gave rise to additional depot requirements met by the transfer of busports from the old Ainslie Depot. In 1983 the workshop will be doubled to provide purpose-built facilities for the growing number of articulated buses as well as standard buses. New fuelling and washing facilities are also to be provided. The then Department of Housing and Construction designed the extensions with Leighton being awarded the construction contract.


Although a public bus service to Belconnen commenced in 1967, it was not until 1979 that a depot was available in the new town. Problems with the design of the depot followed by budgetary restraints caused delays to the start of construction.

Belconnen Depot opened on 3 September 1979. Designed to accommodate, under cover, 250 buses, it is easily the largest depot in Canberra and among the largest in Australia. Associated with the depot is the Belconnen workshop, a facility opened in October 1978 although it did not perform its complete role until the depot opened. Belconnen workshop has a dual role, providing day-to-day maintenance of buses operating out of Belconnen Depot and functioning as the major overhaul facility for the entire fleet.

With the opening of this workshop, ACTION extended its ‘repair by replacement’ programme. When a major component requires repair or replacement it is removed from the bus at the ‘home’ depot workshop and immediately replaced at that workshop with a new or reconditioned component enabling the bus to return to service. The Belconnen workshop provides fully reconditioned engines, gearboxes and other parts to all three depot workshops.

One of the features of the building is the largest underground workshop in Australia. Leighton Project/Construction Management Division were the construction managers for Belconnen Depot and Workshop.


From its modest beginnings, public transport in the ACT has been a story of continuing innovations, including several firsts for Australia. Had the high growth rates of the 1960s and early 1970s continued, long range planning studies might have led to more ‘firsts’.

It is often suggested that Canberra has been designed for the motor car, with the implied criticism that public transport has been neglected. Contrary to popular belief, Canberra has been planned and developed over the last twenty years to provide for public transport, and it now has a most effective network of inter-town as well as local services.

Ninety-five per cent of residents in most neighbourhoods are within 400 metres walk of a bus stop on a route to their local town centre. Buses operate on a basic headway of 30 minutes throughout the day with most areas receiving a bus every fifteen minutes in the peak. Busier routes have a bus every seven or eight minutes in the morning peak.

From interchanges, peak period express buses operate every seven to eight minutes to the major employment zones such as Russell and Barton. The proportion of passengers seated in peak periods is believed to be higher than most other cities in Australia.

Small components of a possible future rapid transport system operating on its own right of way have been built into Belconnen Town Centre. Other facilities could be adapted to meet its requirements with a minimum of disruption, including those of property resumption.

From its earliest years a primary consideration in NCDC planning of new neighbourhoods was the bus routes and the provision of convenient access to them. Emphasis was placed on planning that would encourage people to leave their private vehicles at home, and take public transport. In later years, disincentives such as control of commuter parking were added to the incentives to use public transport.

Like many other public utilities, most public transport systems do not recoup their costs from the individual user, the magnitude of the deficit depending on the magnitude of the system. The optimum scale of public transport able to be supported in a planned city becomes a matter of very detailed study. NCDC and DCT carried out many such studies beginning in the sixties.

A later study in the mid-1970s concluded that the heavy capital outlay for a transition from a bus-on-street system to a complementary fixed rail system or busway on its own right-of-way could not be justified until Canberra had about three quarters of a million people plus associated increases in densities brought about by infill and redevelopment around each of the town centres, inter-town centres and planned stations on the proposed inter-town public transport system15.

New developments in bus technology (such as double articulated buses) strengthen this conclusion and have extended the population at which a change to a bus on its own right-of-way or a fixed rail system would be justified. Nevertheless, engineers recognised that in most cities the late insertion of a transit right-of-way normally entails exceedingly high costs for land resumptions and/or tunnelling.

The latest in public transport
Fig. 3.11: The latest in public transport. ACTION is taking delivery of five Mercedes-Benz 0 305G ‘pusher’ articulated buses. These 70 seat buses are 17.26 metres long and are powered by an 11.4 litre engine located in the trailer. The rear section ‘pushes’ the front part but a hydraulic device prevents jackknifing. Steps and floor levels are lower than in earlier articulated buses and the vehicles are more stable in all road conditions. Photo — DCT Collection.
ACTION has ordered 21 additional Mercedes&
Fig. 3.12: ACTION has ordered 21 additional Mercedes—Benz 0305 buses similar to this unit delivered in November / 981. The new buses will befitted with ABS anti-lock braking, another engineering highlight for Canberra. They will be the first buses in service in Australia with this safety equipment. Photo — Ian Cooper.
In Canberra, where urban development was created directly from rural land, there was a responsibility to define the land required for the future transit, and to control interim land use so that minimum acquisition costs are involved l6. Indeed, in areas such as the important approaches to town centres where most delays normally occur, there was a strong case for building the permanent approaches early. This has almost been achieved at Belconnen Town Centre. The only component still needed is the bridge over Benjamin ‘Way which can easily be added when justified.

Canberra has acquired sound foundations for the continuing development of its public transport. The corridors are secured for the progressive introduction of separate express routes. Attractive passenger interchanges operate at three major stations where they provide high visibility for the system; and there is a high performance bus fleet which functions well. As a result of their German ancestry through that country’s municipal public transport association, the bodywork of the latest ACTION buses is related to that seen on German trams. It is perhaps ironic that Burley Griffin’s plans for trams should develop in the shape of rubber-tyred buses originating from Europe.


  1. Rankine and Hill in association with Dc Leuw Cather Canberra Area Transportation Survey 1961, Report to NCDC. [return]
  2. In early 1960s, the people of Canberra, Townsville and Toowoomb (all about 60,000) made 016 trips per day by public transport compared with Hobart 0.5 (1964), Adelaide 0.37 (1965). [return]
  3. Morison, 1W. “Canberra — A Review of Recent Traffic Surveys” ARRB Conference Proceedings, 1962, p. 385, 6. [return]
  4. Andrews, W.C. Transportation and Urban Planning for Canberra, NCDC February, 1964, NCDCAnnualReport. 1963—64. [return]
  5. Voorhees, Alan M., Canberra Land Use Transportation Study General Plan Concept, plus report to NCDCJune 1967.
  6. Harrison, Peter, “An Approach to Planning a City on the Increase”, Architecture in Australia, August 1968 (and Canberra Times, 10 October 1968). Hansen, W.G. and Morison, 1W., “Canberra— A Study of Land Use and Transport” in ARRB Conference Proceedings, 1968. [return]
  7. NCDC, Tomorrow’s Canberra, 1970. [return]
  8. PG. Pak Poy and Associates Joint Study of Public Transport for Canberra, 1967. [return]
  9. Kneebone, D.C., Pak Poy, PG., Simpson, NA., “Canberra’s Public Transport Study”, ARRB Proceedings Vol. 4 Part 1, (1968), See TableVat p. 73. [return]
  10. ibid,Page8O. [return]
  11. ibid,PageSl. [return]
  12. Maunsell and Voorhees, Canberra Public Transport Study, 1970. See also NCDC Annual Report for 1969—70, p. 24. [return]
  13. Intertown Public Transport — Alternatives for Canberra, NCDC, June 1976. [return]
  14. Townsin, Alan, Blue Triangle, 1980, The Transport Publishing Company, Glossop, Derbyshire. [return]
  15. Iritertown Public Transport— Alternatives for Canberra — NCDC, June 1976. [return]
  16. Intertown Public Transport— Civil Works Evaluation NCDC, June 1975. [return]


The authors record their appreciation to Roger Payne, Nelson Simpson and Keith Downey for their helpful, constructive comments on the draft chapter.

 An Associated Daimler built
Fig. 3.13: An Associated Daimler built in 1928 and number CO 13 in the FCC fleet at the Corroboree Park, Ainslie terminus. Photo-DCT Collection.