Are Wellington public transport users waking up?

Wellington’s had pretty decent public transport for a long time, but our aspirations for the services had plateaued at “pretty OK”.  Is this changing? 

It’s been an interesting year or so for public transport.

With a new government directing public spending to a stronger balance between public transport, active transport and private car / freight, you’d have thought Wellington would seize the opportunity step up its transport game and get lots more of the good efficient stuff.

“Bustastrophe” happened and … well, it’s hopefully prompted some voter turnout in the coming election so councillors with terrible attitudes will go, and those who’ve (comparatively) shone will be rewarded.

But it’s hard to see if there’s been any change in Wellingtonians’ overall attitudes to public transport.

Have ghost buses made us appreciate bussing more – absence making the heart grow fonder?

Or has the unreliability turned people off bussing for longer?

Meanwhile, train commuters felt a bit smug (or lucky) compared to our poor bussing friends.  Kiwirail’s  huge maintenance and upgrade programme – going for well over a decade now since the government bought the infrastructure back – has hardened train commuters to a small but regular dose of bus replacements and the attendant slowness and randomness.

Then the new timetabling last year brought in (slightly) more frequent services, and more of ’em, and we felt a big smugger. Just a little.

Then it all started coming apart a bit.  New services declared cancelled for weeks on end, with no proper reasons.  Frequent unscheduled cancellations due to “staff availability”.  Signal problems. Overhead problems. Lack of rolling stock.

Sure, there was no dramatic system-wide shutdown like Auckland (our last big one was the 2015 storm ) but at least Auckland got an apology from Kiwirail. and from the Mayor.

There’s been echoing silence from the powers that be in Wellington for even the exceptional disruptions to train commuters.

Train resignation?

And, more worrying, there’s no acknowledgement that this isn’t how it should be. Has the rest of the complex ecosystem delivering our train services been infected by the arrogant complacency at the top?  (Revealed in Regional Council Chair Chris Laidlaw’s epically revealing statement that “we wouldn’t do anything differently” around the bustastrophe, and less dramatically in Barbara Donaldson’s silence (as Scoop notes, “seldom talking about the bustastrophe which she has overseen“.)

Even if the ecosystem hasn’t been infected by the same disease as the top animals, the consistent background gnashing of errors suggests some pretty elementary things aren’t being done at operational management level.  As Dave Armstrong wonders,

But what has bothered me over the last few weeks is the number of train services cancelled, reduced or replaced by buses because of “staff availability”. Didn’t Transdev​ Wellington, which runs the trains, win the contract because it put in a superior bid to KiwiRail? Yet this multinational company can’t even provide enough staff to service the contract they won. Why not?

He speculates what could be causing this elementary aspect of a service to be so hard for TransDev, but then asks a good question: aren’t they incentivised not to be so crap?

I suspect what happened is that Transdev, like our bus companies, deploys as few extra staff as possible in order to keep costs down. When someone is sick or unexpectedly absent it’s cheaper just to cancel or downgrade a service. If I’m wrong, I would love to be corrected.

So surely Transdev must pay some whacking big penalties if it cancels a service? Our bus companies do now, but it would depend on Transdev’s contract. Previously bus companies didn’t pay a penalty but lost their fee. I suspect it’s the same with Transdev.

But even if they did pay a penalty, we wouldn’t know how much because, according to the Greg Campbell, chief executive of GWRC – such information is “commercially sensitive”.

Well what then?

There’s sure to be no silver bullet.  The issues are probably different for trains, given how their  asset vs operations arrangements are different again from buses. If nothing else, “there’s multiple reasons for the problems” is probably true for trains – as it was for buses [PDF].

But it feels like – for buses and trains alike – despite ongoing maintenance and gradual improvement, the background (or foreground) gnashing of errors is crushing down our once-proud public transport spirit.

Could simplifying help?

Punitive “destroy GWRC!” “restructure them all!” comments (mostly in the comments) are both stupid and a dime a dozen.

But is one contributing factor perhaps that Wellington’s structures for providing public transport are simply too complex for regular humans? 

With more transaction costs surely there comes a point where there’s simply too much scope for loss in translation, for poorly-configured roles and responsibilities, for carrots and sticks to become “floppy elongated things” rather than affecting performance.

So could we remove one source of confusion, poor strategic management, right-hand-left-hand disconnection and general transaction-costliness,simplifying who owns and runs what? Wouldn’t that help?

And if it would help, would it be worth the effort?  Other towns have similar “multiple bits of local government and CCO” arrangements to us – Christchurch for one.  Auckland Transport’s one-stop-transport-shop can be a pretty intractable beast but in terms of getting people the public transport service they need, when they need it, it seems they’re on a strong trajectory of improvement.

Regardless of whether patrons are rioting in the streets for it or just sighing with resignation, we absolutely need to look at all the ways to make this stuff work better.

It’s our public transport. And it’s quietly, insidiously failing us the public.



Image credits:

  • Banner image – frustrated train commuters await a bus – Ross Giblin | Fairfax
  • Te reo Māori for the bus stop – Twitter user @Merxplat
  • Departure board feat. few departures – Isabella Cawthorn

11 comments on “Are Wellington public transport users waking up?”

  • Cr Daran Ponter says:

    Let me give this a crack.

    You say “It’s been an interesting year or so for public transport.” In fact its been an appalling year for all concerned. The Regional Council let the side down badly – execution was just simply poor on so many fronts. Some of these issues were outside of the Council’s immediate control, but at the end of the day the buck has to stop with the Council / Metlink.

    The bus network has improved quite significantly since the initial problems – but is still far from perfect. There are still capacity issues on some routes, bus bunching still occurs – albeit less often, provision of the right sized buses by one company is an ongoing issue – though less severe than it was at the outset, and hubbing is still not working as best it should. The blue lights were removed – remember those? The Real Time Information System has improved out of sight – only for some gremlins to revisit us last week and this week. Given the problems that eventuated the new fares package (off peak discounts, free fare transfers, student fares etc) have hardly got a mention, but nevertheless seems to have been well received (or used).

    I suggest that attitudes have changed. For example, people are now more acutely aware of who the convenor of bus services – Metlink – is – in large part because they have had cause to complain, and some people have the 0800 number on speed dial – though again the number of complaints has dropped dramatically and we are now largely back into the realm of queries.

    The GWRC undertakes a six monthly survey of users experience on the buses – the results of the November survey (to be released shortly) will show a decline in satisfaction of the Wellington City bus network. Hoping that the May survey will show satisfaction results moving north again, but it is going to take time to rebuild confidence.

    Despite this it seems that Wellingtonians are hardy souls – and even when approx. 5% of transferring passengers is taken into account, the number of bus users is holding up well in comparison to that same time last year.

    There is still much work to do – including a review later this year of the new Wellington City bus routes. To date, through motions to the Council, I and other Wellington based regional councillors have managed to get a number of routes extended of reinstated – No 14 from Hataitai to Kilbirnie, Zoo Service, Vogeltown direct service – and we are pushing for changes on the Miramar Peninsula, where Strathmore and Miramar North need attention, as well as other changes across the City.

    With respect to the cancellation of rail services – the issue is simple – lack of train drivers – and it takes approximately 9 months to train a train driver. This is an issue facing the sector as a whole, but disappointed that the operator didn’t see this coming – should have acted quicker to avert this situation.

    Cr Daran Ponter
    Greater Wellington Regional Councillor

    • AM says:

      Hey councillor

      Im new ish to Wellington – living here for the first time in a decade, and I was wondering what work/pressure was going through other agencies in this to make the new network work?

      Northern suburbs transport priority is worse than a decade ago, and now with major and very bus routes running full length of thorndon Quay and hutt Road, before going through the city, bunching occurs badly in this area (routes 1, 19e, 60e and Newlands), and travel time is unreliable.

      I was wondering why, with 11 general traffic lanes north of the city we couldn’t manage a peak direction bus lane from harbour gateway to jarden mile? Would improve speed and service time a lot – making 10 ish routes more attractive, save gwrc money by reducing journey time and allowing more services for same resource (busses, drivers). Surely Nzta and Wcc can be brought to the party to improve the network by improving things like this?

      Obviously just one area, but rather than focusing all the attention on the hubs and the operators, would be good to improve the network to make it actually work.

  • Tim Jones says:

    First of all, I want to say how much I appreciate your willingness to front up on these issues, Daran – an attitude not all your colleagues have shared!

    Second, as well as the matters you’ve covered here, it would be good to get another update on progress with re-electrifying the fleet. This is an issue of vital concern to me, both because of urgent need to reduce our transport greenhouse gas emissions and because, as a pedestrian, those choking clouds of diesel fumes from our current bus fleet have got to go.

    • Cr Daran Ponter says:

      Hi Tim,

      The short answer is that negotiations between GWRC and NZ Bus are continuing.

      The long answer is that the issues in play here are things like:

      a) the life of the vehicles once commissioned (i.e. repurposed trolley may only see out the current contracts (approx. 9 years); brand new electrics would go well into the next contract period; diesels could become stranded assets);
      b) depreciation rates – trolleys likely to be depreciated over a shorter period (to end of the current contracts), while new eclectics would be depreciated over a longer period; and
      c) battery warranty periods – for some reason the battery warranties could be less for a retrofitted vehicle (e.g. the trolleys) than for a brand new electric bus – not immediately an issue, but could become an issue if we experience failures in say 6 years time.

      Bottom line is that irrespective of whether we repurpose the trolleys or buy brand new electric buses, we (the ratepayer) will pay a premium for electric buses – so really what GWRC is trying to do is understand how NZ Bus have calculated that premium, where the pencil needs to be sharpened, and whether the price can be justified.

      Ultimately I am pretty sure we will make a decision for 50 electric buses – but at this stage it’s a line call on whether these will be repurposed trolleys or brand new electrics.

      If the decision is made for trolleys then they could start rolling within 6 months of agreement. New electrics is approx. 2 years – reason – we are looking for triple axle buses (i.e. very large buses) which will need to be designed from scratch (i.e. while there are more than 400,000 electric buses in China they are only double axle).

      On the Transit front the double decker electrics are performing very well. Nine buses are operating approx. 6 hours a days and the first pantograph fitted bus is working 18 hours a day seven days a week, with charging at Reef St. I have started discussions within the Regional Council to bring the next tranche (10) of double deckers forward, possibly with a bigger order.

      • Tim Jones says:

        Thanks again for this reply, Daran! This is the clearest statement I’ve seen of where things are at on electric buses, and what the issues and options are. I’ll be encouraging friends working on reducing emissions from Wellington transport to take a look at this.

      • Kieran says:

        Call them pantograph buses all you like. They are trolley buses and I’m glad they’re back.

  • Mike Mellor says:

    Useful article, and useful comment from Cr Daran Ponter, who has been excellent in fronting up – the changes to the network since July have certainly improved it overall, and the fare changes in July were undoubtedly a success. The overall network design has certainly improved.

    But the same can’t be said about how well the network is performing. In terms of reliability (whether a bus actually runs), on average the ten busiest routes are consistently running below GW’s target – they’ve reached that target in only two weeks since November (and then only just). Punctuality (a bus leaving its origin less than one minute early or five minutes late – there is no published measure of timeliness en route) is also below target, in fact the worst it has been since data started being produced in November.

    It’s good to hear that bus bunching is occurring less often, but anecdotally it’s still common – GWRC has produced no relevant data, so there’s no way to check. Similarly patronage holding up well in comparison with last year is good news, but there’s no decent comparative information available to support this.

    It’s also good that a review of the network is planned, but the best-designed network in the world is of little use if it’s not meeting its operating targets. It’s about time that the (very real) warts and all were exposed and attended to. Until that happens, the chances of a significant move north in customer confidence are slim: it’s hard to have confidence in an organisation that keeps on telling us that things are getting better when its published operational data – often supported by experience at the bus stop – show that things are, at best, getting no better.

    Moving on to trains, the information vacuum is actually worse. There’s been no punctuality information published since November (which shows below-target performance), and no reliability or current patronage information at all. So how is the network performing? Apart from passenger anecdotes and news reports, we just don’t know – and that’s just not good enough.

    GWRC’s systems must produce shedloads of valuable operational information, and it’s about time it opened up that information – or at least decent analysis of it – so that we, as owners, users and ultimately funders of the system, know what is actually going on.

  • Isabella Cawthorn says:

    Don’t we have some kind of open data charter or commitment? Prime Minister Key was really big into open government data. Pretty sure that’s for the whole public sector

    • Cr Daran Ponter says:

      Yes we do Isabella. But that quickly becomes clouded by other contractual commitments that are required / desired for commercial contracts.

      We will get to an open source environment for transport data – it’s just going to take a bit of navigating to get there.

      • Isabella Cawthorn says:

        Thanks for your quick answers. Whatever happens in the end, you’re running rings around your fellows for hard-working attitude in all this. And being seen to!

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