Wellington Scoop

Not only carcinogens – a bad year for public transport

As Wellington’s train network ground to a halt with yesterday’s strike, people were wondering – how had we got to this point? And should the Regional Council deputy chair and Regional Transport Committee chair Barbara Donaldson be taking accountability for recent public transport debacles in the capital?

It’s not been a good 12 months for Wellington’s public transport. Train staff are seeing the need to strike for the first time in more than 20 years, there are rising fares for commuters, apparently aggressive attempts from the multinational train companies to drive down wages and conditions on the trains, and our trolley bus system is being chucked into the dumpster. On the flip side, commuter use of public transport is expected to fall as a result of the fare rises, the Regional Council is reducing subsidies for public transport, carbon emissions from the network are increasing, and – as Brent Efford has pointed out – there’s now a new layer of carcinogenic diesel dust being spread across the city.

It’s hard to see any of this as a success. In fact, it looks like the Regional Council is completely out-of-step with the new government, the clearly-stated desires of Wellingtonians, and the global Paris Accord-driven zeitgeist on climate change.

Accountability rests with the Regional Transport Committee, of which Barbara Donaldson is chair. All these public transport issues have emerged on her watch.

Let’s take the re-contracting of the trains as an example. The expensive and long-running process run by the Regional Council tossed out locally-controlled Kiwirail in favour of a multinational consortium, which – according to the union – is pushing hard to unwind longstanding conditions for the staff who keep the trains running. Understandably, workers are unhappy with this and are striking as a result, with the distinct possibility of more industrial action.

Perhaps the possibility of a multinational with profitability goals trying to reduce wages and conditions might not have been a total surprise – it seems to be pretty much standard neoliberal practice across the planet. Ms Donaldson must have been aware of the implications of letting the contract to a multinational that was magically promising a lower price. After all, where else did she think the savings were going to come from?

The argument has always been that a cheaper train contract would benefit ratepayers, but there’s scant evidence for this. The trains are no better at running on time – and on some lines, they’re worse – and the only financial effect has been that Wellington’s transport network has less of a subsidy than anywhere else in the country. But even this has had no benefit for ratepayers – we don’t think anyone’s rates bills have gone down as a result. So if there are savings, where have they gone?

And the negative financial benefits from the rail strike will be costing the region millions of dollars – in higher fuel bills, increased emissions, lost productivity, higher road user charges and all the rest. In fact, the productivity costs of a few days of strikes might outweigh any putative financial savings from new train contract.

And that’s before we look at the mess created on the bus network – a transport spine review that seems to have been a complete failure, the lack of any forward progress on light rail, and the decommissioning of a trolley bus network that seemed entirely fit for purpose. Again, the justification offered seems to have been that it would save money – but the bus fares are going up, along with the rates.

Cr Donaldson clearly has some questions to answer about why she has signed off a series of public transport disasters in Wellington.

At the very least, she owes an explanation and an apology to Wellingtonians. But in reality, the city can ill afford such continuing poor leadership in public transport. She should resign.


  1. Marion Leader, 17. November 2017, 11:34

    The key question is whether the councillors in question come from the Hutt to their meetings in Wellington using petrol paid for by ratepayers at a dollar a kilometre.
    Or do they use trains?

  2. CPH, 17. November 2017, 12:25

    Hear hear! It’s time that the well-paid politicians were made accountable for their terrible decisions.

  3. GillyB, 17. November 2017, 15:45

    This is all depressingly similar to the fate that befell Auckland’s ARA-run public transport network back in the 1980s when it was privatised and dismembered. The cultural shift from public transport to private car use has yet to be reversed up there, despite the advent of modern trains and buses.

    Meanwhile back in Wellington as fares have increased over the last ten years, we’ve watched (from our vantage point across the road from a bus terminus in the ‘burbs) the steady decline of paying passengers and increased car use.

    The answer is to lower fares – not raise them – and increase services. That’s a formula that works IF more efficient, cost-effective public transport is the intended goal.

  4. Jonny Utzone, 17. November 2017, 19:56

    The driver/guard conditions and wages were largely recent ones agreed to by the penultimate passenger manager at Kiwirail who now works in passenger transport something or other at GWRC. GWRC could have kept it nice and cosy by letting the government (aka Kiwirail) have the contract, but spent millions on lawyers doing a multi-hundred page contract to stop the contractor doing anything else but employing staff. The French company, no doubt inspired by their merchant banker president Macron, has tried to hack back conditions and pay to somewhere near it was before…..

  5. Michael, 17. November 2017, 21:06

    The Regional Council and Regional Transport Committee should be sacked. Wellington transport has been mismanaged from start to finish and set Wellington back years.
    It was always unacceptable to dump Auckland’s smell noisy second-hand buses on Wellington. But I guess this has really been about Auckland getting a new flash transport system and offloading their old carcinogenic diesel buses on Wellington. Wonder what incentives were given for this to occur? No doubt we will now have to listen to a myriad of excuses as to why these buses can’t be replaced and Wellington’s transport system will continue to suffer and be downgraded.
    As a result, there won’t be any point in reducing the number of roads in the city because the increased public transport fares, for less than acceptable public transport, are going to result in people going back to private transport.

  6. Richard Keller, 20. November 2017, 20:41

    Keep in mind that the GWRC has majority suburb (Hutt, Kapiti) membership. Cr Donaldson is anathema to Wellington and should be sacked for the vandalism she has led, but she is representing the suburbs not Wellington. The burbs are pressing their resentment at Wellington City being a hindrance to them getting to the airport easily. Mayor Lester should take the lead in fighting back but seems to be acting more a regional mayor than a Wellington mayor.

  7. Greenwelly, 22. November 2017, 20:10

    And now they admit that there are not enough buses at peak on some routes – and the response from the gwrc is a shrug with a ” wait until July.” I’m sorry but that is NOT an acceptable response. If the July handover is anything but an amazing unicorn success, there are going to be crowds and pitchforks.

  8. Robert M, 23. November 2017, 11:36

    A lot of quite major cities would have loved to have a system like our advanced trolley buses that have been dumped on the scrap heap. The moves to get rid of them have been going on for 40 years, such as the always somewhat defective wiring upgrades and the failure to put in new sub stations or streamline and modernise the network 20 years ago. After the withdrawal of the Trolleys, I would expect a significant decline in patronage as they were an experience in themselves and should have been marketed as a tourist icon. I recall that patronage halved when the Christchurch trams were withdrawn in 1954.
    Wellington is full of wall placards of trams and even models of trams but somehow the last thing wanted by the GWRC is for them to run around the streets being beautiful and carrying beautiful people but disrupting the cars (old third hand high emission bangers imported on the cheap to Wellington.)

    The going of the trolleys is a sad day and a disgrace. Wellington is a lesser place

  9. CPH, 25. November 2017, 17:57

    What amazes me about Wellington is that politicians like Chris Laidlaw and Barbara Donaldson make these terrible decisions year after year, but never get voted out.

  10. greenwelly, 28. November 2017, 14:08

    hey look, the Regional council want to spend another $300 million on more trains.
    From the Regional Transport Committee on 21 November

    “Procurement of diesel-electric multiple units to provide additional capacity, resilience, reliability and growth on the Metlink rail network,including:
    Improved services to Wairarapa, and north of Waikanae to Levin and Palmerston North. To assist with capacity constraints and rolling stock order size procurement constraints on the electrified network, and to improve the resilience of the electrified metro network.”

  11. greenwelly, 30. November 2017, 16:58

    And the hits just keep on coming:
    NZ Bus exploring alternatives for Wellington after hybrid testing troubles
    I have a really nasty feeling that the use of “bleeding edge” technology is going to also bite Tranzit’s double decker electrics too – I really hope not, but….

  12. Citizen Joe, 1. December 2017, 8:14

    If the Double Deckers work then Wellington City Council rate payers should prepare for rate hikes to cover for road deformation. The buses will probably have 90 seats and could carry 10 standing. That’s about 8.5 tons in passenger weight for 100 pax which needs to be added to the 8.5 ton of basic bus. Add in (at least?) 2 tons for the Lithium Battery and you have a grand total of 19 tons.
    For AKL, axle weights regs were relaxed by 1.5 tons to allow them to operate. For Wellington, the extra battery weight will increase axle overloading even more. The Golden Mile will be deformed quite soon so watch out for more roadworks. And watch out for very slow elephantine movement as they wander along unloading and loading through the CBD on the silly through routes GWRC has created with drivers having to wait for passengers to sit down before progressing.