Wellington Bus Network Implementation Review: Where do we go from here?

Guest poster Alina M. read the independent review of the Wellington’s bus system upgrade. There’s a few interesting things to be found...

It now has been over six months since the notorious bus system upgrade in Wellington, dubbed “#bustastrophe”. I consider myself relatively lucky. Living a comfortable 30-minute walk or 15-minute cycle from the city centre means I have the luxury of reducing my reliance on the bus network down to the essential minimum. However, this is a privilege not everyone gets to enjoy. It is not uncommon to hear from people relying on the bus network, of continuous levels of disruption to their travel plans to this day.

December saw the release of Wellington City and Hutt Valley Bus Network Implementation Review, prepared by L.E.K Consulting Australia. L.E.K was engaged by  New Zealand Transport Agency and Greater Wellington Regional Council to undertake an independent review of the implementation of the Wellington City and Hutt Valley bus networks. The full report is a fascinating (and quite short) read for anyone interested to know why the bus network implementation ended up being such a fiasco.

The purpose of the review was to determine the effectiveness of the delivery of the Wellington Regional Public Transport Plan, as well as considering whether the level of bus services is adequate for the needs Wellington City and Hutt Valley communities. Quite a broad scope.

L.E.K examined the full array of changes introduced as part of the new bus networking system and measured the effectiveness of the implementation by the Regional Council. This covered the selection process and engagement with new operators, fleet upgrade, changes to bus routes, new timetables, upgrades to Real Time Information (RTI) systems and introducing updates to the fares and ticketing structure.

The focus of the review is on the level of Regional Council delivery in eight key areas when implementing the full scope of these changes.

The report indicates the Regional Council had robust governance structures and processes in place to support such complicated exercise. However, the Councillors did not have a full understanding of all the risks involved, because the changes were presented to them in an aggregated level, making it hard to fully comprehend the level of readiness of the different programme aspects.

Judging from the actions taken by the Councillors to address the public outrage, it is fair to say there are some positive signs from some Councillors, and yet a lot of room for improvement for others. Councillor Daran Ponter, the Deputy Chair of Sustainable Transport Committee, has been communicating to the public the improvements Regional Council introduced in January 2019, as a response to what commuters had to say. He may have been one of the very few showing up front and centre, while the Chair of the said committee – Councillor Barbara Donaldson – avoided the angry Wellingtonians at some community meetings. It seems to me there needs to be more consistency among the Councillors to maintain credibility in the eyes of the ratepayers.

“GWRC took a collaborative approach to manage operators throughout the implementation process. They relied on operators being forthcoming and transparent about their true state of readiness, which resulted in GWRC being alerted late to key issues”

“Operators” means contractors who deliver the actual services. Council relied on them being honest and upfront, and raising flags early when they were aware things weren’t going right. And in quite a few instances they simply weren’t. One can see why an operator wouldn’t want to confess promptly to things going wrong, because you think you can sort it out and want to keep your client happy.

Contractor management is a difficult thing, and is at the heart of the sought-after efficiencies in public services from contracting them out.

The review points out a disproportion between the complexity of changes introduced and the capability and capacity amongst the dedicated programme team.  It highlights insufficient collective capabilities for tackling such a complex project. While the Regional Council was proactive in identifying any skills and expertise gaps, these were often filled too late in the process. One example pointed to an appointment of Change Manager in November 2017, when the requirement for one was first identified all the way back in October 2016 by an external consultant.

Programme management practices were appropriate when it came to implementing the changes to new routes, timetables, ticketing and fares. However, the report suggests that several elements to the programme were delivered either late or insufficiently. These elements included bus hubs, fleet, performance measurement systems, accurate RTI information and adequately trained drivers. L.E.K did note that some of these factors were outside of Regional Council control, and were subject to insufficient delivery of the bus network operators.

Risk and contingency management were deemed sufficient, with plans and processes in place to manage the implementation programme. However, these failed to address operator readiness. Regional Council had extensive communication with the operators throughout the planning process, however, relied too heavily on them to be forthcoming. As a result, some critical aspects being identified too late in the process, often after the go-live date.

“…timetables were developed by the operators with very little, or no, layover time between timetabled runs. This created a situation where if a bus runs late on one route, it will be late on subsequent routes for that day without intervention.”

Regional Council procurement process failed to identify significant delivery challenges, resulting in issues with driver and fleet allocation and resilience in scheduling late to recognise. On top of that, the Regional Council experienced difficulties with suppliers related to the upgrade to the RTI system and delivery of Bus Hubs. The only area experiencing minimal levels of interruption was the management of changes to the ticketing system.

L.E.K specified that Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM) contracts were outside of the review scope. According to the Regional Council, the new PTOM intention was to build commercially based partnering relationships with bus operators. Taking into consideration the appointment of four different bus operators for the Wellington area alone, spread across 16 different hubs, it begs the question whether Regional Council had the right capacity in place to manage these contracts properly? With the lack of adequate monitoring and reporting tools in place to allow full visibility on the levels of performance of the new bus routes, with complete KPI reporting tools to be introduced only from March 2019.

Levels of public consultations and communications that took place since the beginning of the process in 2009 were deemed extensive and appropriate. However, most of these occurred early in the process, and there was a lack of sufficient communication closer to the “go-live” date, resulting in misalignment of expectations from the public.

L.E.K pointed out that given the scope and complexity of the changes, it would have been advisable for the Regional Council to introduce the different components in stages.

“Some of the changes (such as fares, ticketing, performance data collection and shadow KPI regime) could have been introduced ahead of the operator and route change. This would however have come at a cost premium”.

The decision to implement all the changes to the bus network simultaneously was part of the Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP) in 2014. Alternatives for this route of action considered but then discounted due to its complexity, costs and overall disruption to the public.  This approach, however, doesn’t take into consideration the additional costs associated with the failed implementation plan. With the appointment of Customer Experience Leads and network design experts in October 2018, allocation of buses that did not have the right capacity for some of the routes at the beginning of the process, to name a few, were there any savings at all with the application of this approach? Could a different approach and a more careful planning process result in a much effective transition? These are questions worth considering.

The report concludes by recognising the efforts made by the Regional Council towards service improvement and addressing the issues identified. L.E.K are recommending for Regional Council to make improvements in several areas. These include strengthening the staff capabilities and improving the operations model, introducing changes to the reporting tools to identify problems early, collaboration with network operators and being more proactive in Regional Council communication strategy.

At the beginning of February Metlink has introduced further changes to bus timetables and routes, to better address the commute needs at peak times. On the days following these changes some things seemed a bit too familiar – such as service cancellations and problems with RTI. If one can judge by the slightly reduced levels of public outrage viewed on social platforms, could we say, with a level of caution, that some lessons have been learnt?

Editor’s note: on Wellington Scoop and here on Talk Wellington councillors (notably Cllr Ponter) have been responding to people’s comments. Have a read…

Image credits: 

  • In service Generation Zero bus – Newsie.co.nz

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