Wellington Scoop

No defence for the bus chaos

There’s nobody defending the Regional Council’s new bus systems – which were dubbed “chaos” by TVNZ’s q&a last night. But there’s no shortage of critics who point to ways by which the problems could be solved.

Some of the most trenchant criticism that we published last week came from Hugh Rennie, in a comment following the report on Metlink’s Facebook consultation:

The economic cost of this shambles in Wellington city is huge. It comes from GWRC taking overall control when not competent to do that. GWRC aimed for a “Big Bang” implementation (which is all ego and razzmatazz and not the effective and efficient way to phase in change). It has applied “big city” techniques like hubs which are not workable in a small town like Wellington with low bus frequency and small numbers of transfers. It pushed out a competent and experienced operator, and experienced (in many cases dedicated) drivers and other staff – mainly to take control for GWRC. Then it egotistically and grandly over-promised it would be better when it was never going to be as good as before. Most of the huge cost of unused buses (the new ones before launch day, the old ones now), discarded skilled drivers, needlessly replaced signage, massive (and often untrue) promotional claims and launches, etc etc falls directly on those who live in Wellington. It has fallen especially unfairly on experienced staff. It will now come to fall on ratepayers as GWRC has nowhere else to pass it to. Core services like real time signage should have been converted to state of the art new technology like that of Connectionz in Christchurch. Now we just get the bill!

Another informed critic is Lim Leong, who has led complex design and implementation of nationwide data transport networks:

…it pains me to see a functional network get butchered and replaced with something which failed even basic design principles. It infuriates me to see all sort of PR spin put on this new network which does not live up to professional engineering codes of conduct. The fallout of the debacle has also affected badly a segment of society who can’t afford cars and rely on public transport.

And more

The Regional Council has shown no intention/no urgency/no time frame to address the root cause of the problems. People are seriously impacted on a day by day basis and we have been told even the simplest solution like reinstating Bus 18 is at least 3 months away. People are really angry because their livelihood has been impacted for no good reasons. There is a very strong groundswell at grassroot level wanting to see change immediately because people don’t want to spend hours of their life every day fighting the network.

Unlike a point to point network which you can do piecemeal improvement/changes without worrying too much about systemic impact, trying to make piecemeal changes to a hub and spoke model is high risk because any change on a spoke can have a bad unintended effect throughout the network. If you make a change to a hub and spoke network, you have to re-balance the whole network. For that reason, I and many others have advocated rolling back to the old network which is a good starting point and a known baseline. However, the Regional Council seems oblivious and that is causing public anger which is growing by the day.

Then there are the personal stories. At last week’s Karori meeting, a hospital worker was reported by RNZ as saying her pay had been docked because the new service made her late.

For 15 years she had been catching the number 3 bus, which used to take her direct to the hospital. Now she is forced to take two buses. “From the time it started I’ve only managed to catch three buses that link to Wellington Hospital,” she said.

The New Zealand Herald’s report from the meeting, where there were calls for the government to take over control over the troubled transport network, quoted a speaker as saying that to get on a bus, let alone securing a seat, was like a round of the Hunger Games.

The Herald quoted regional council chair Chris Laidlaw as saying resigning would be the easy way out and he had no intention of doing so.

He said he did care about the people and understood they were hurting. “I’m fielding questions every day and talking to people personally every day about their issue, we are spending our entire week only on this issue.”

Less defensive was the regional council’s Sustainable Transport Committee deputy chair Daran Ponter who offered an apology at the meeting.

“The regional council has been rather feeble in the way that we have acknowledged the pain and the anger that you have experienced over the last seven weeks.”

There have of course been two (or is it three?) apologies from Chris Laidlaw, though not recently. But he didn’t speak on last night’s TVNZ programme. And today, the eighth week of unresolved issues, the problems are continuing.


  1. Roy Kutel, 3. September 2018, 10:13

    Yes the Q+A report was shocking – incompetence by overpaid bureaucrats and councillors! GWRC needs to be abolished and replaced by a single body (a Public Transport Authority) that owns and operates the buses and trains. Anybody on the Executive MUST have qualifications and/or experience in transport. GWRC officers and councillors patently don’t. The rest of GWRC’s responsibilities can be managed by the local councils individually or collectively. The only reservation is the unions – would they bully the PTA and put in excessive wage demands and shift requirements or would they act responsibly?

  2. Patrick Morgan, 3. September 2018, 10:30

    Yes. The regional council is in denial. [via twitter]

  3. Gary Froggatt, 3. September 2018, 11:19

    Yes,a Regional Public Transport Authority is the way to go. The old Wellington Transport Board was sucessful in its time and was owned by the ratepayers. These current bus companies are middlemen making a profit off the ratepayers. Cut out the middleman and take back direct control of depot land, buses and employees.
    Provide some reasonble work hour protections, competitive hourly pay rates and the same work conditions as other council employees and you won’t have any trouble with the work place representatives.

  4. michael Lee, 3. September 2018, 13:31

    The Regional council and Chairman Chris Laidlaw need to set out a clear timetable of amendments and corrections to the timetable of the number 2 route (Karori/Seatoun) which I travel on. (Formerly number 3 – which was faultless and seamless, and on time). I have been travelling on the Seatoun/Karori bus both ways in the past week, and tested timings. It takes 70 minutes from Seatoun to Karori, yet the driver’s timetable gives them 60m; hence they are mostly 10 minutes late. This applies on weekdays when there is a lot of early morning/late afternoon traffic and often weather or other delays. The drivers have no time for rest stops; they are stressed at being late. They are always polite and most seem resilient, and long suffering.
    Often on the 9.05 am bus to Seatoun there is no room for any more passengers from about Marsden Village. The same applies coming back from Courtenay Place between 4.30 and 5.30. By the time we get to Upper Lambton Quay the bus is full.
    I attended the bus meeting in Karori and noted the intense anger and frustration by people from all walks of life on the new fatally-flawed system.
    Mr Laidlaw and councillors: we call on you to publish a comprehensive plan with accurate timings and concrete solutions to the problems raised. And please do it sooner than later.
    I have never seen so many people standing at bus stops, or so few buses at the south Karori terminal and I’ve been a bus user for more than 35 years. Action is needed now, not words.

  5. Robert M, 3. September 2018, 14:26

    During 1984-1988, the first period of contract application, Treasury and Douglas tried hard to eliminate public transport and for about five years no new buses were ordered by the major cities for urban services. This had long been the plan of prominent Treasury official Roger Kerr, one of the most vicious public transport opponents. Although it had been said that some of the historic systems such as the huge and outdated Dunedin council service were the relics of a different age and city as the spread of low income uni students meant buses were no longer of much interest to most of the North Dunedin residents. With English given the PM’s office, a similar attitude of hostility to public transport was to be expected from a rural cabinet but in truth Labour and Clark are very recent converts to the global warming cause. Clark during her term of government very much prioritised Auckland rail transport development as does JA Genter and was always prepared to sacrifice bus driver pay. My own view of the Auckland city bus drivers and the Howick ones was they were of at least as much merit for $60,000 a year as train drivers and police, being often burnt-out school teacher types. [abridged]

  6. Ross Clark, 3. September 2018, 21:00

    @RobertM. Not so much that they were trying to eliminate public transport; the Treasury of the time simply didn’t want to have to pay anything towards it, regarding it as a ‘local responsibility’. They knew that councils were not at all prepared to pay to make up the difference. The real damage done, in my view, was after the ‘mother of all budgets’ in 1991. (During this time I was working for both the MoT and what was then known as the Urban Transport Council).

  7. Brent Efford, 4. September 2018, 10:11

    The roots of the bustastrophe go back over a decade, when Fran Wilde took over the GWRC and the transport chair and the visionary transport manager, Dr David Watson, was, essentially, fired (and replaced by a succession of dreary managerialists with neither passion nor much understanding of public transport.) Building the Transmission Gully Motorway and implementing the National Government’s RoNS road building programme became the central focus. (Even now, ‘four lanes to the planes’ excites most regional councillors far more than creating the electric public transport network that a sustainable Wellington needs.)
    Read more.

  8. Paul, 4. September 2018, 13:52

    GWRC keep trotting out the line that the problems on route 2 from Karori are all NZ Bus’s fault for putting on buses that don’t have enough capacity. Yet NZ Bus ran that route up until 15 July with the same size buses and no issues. Same operator, largely same bus fleet (although the trolleys are gone) so the only thing that has changed is the GWRC-devised timetables and route plans. Time for them to accept all the responsibility instead of trying to deflect all blame. NZ Bus must be fuming that they can’t rebut the GWRC spin.

    Their latest initiative is to remove the seats. Shows the contempt they have for the travelling public. Happier to treat us like cattle rather than admit they completely stuffed up and put it right.

  9. Kaytee, 4. September 2018, 21:47

    It’s time for the GWRC to get out of the way along with the Tranzit bus co. We are all bleeding money and time while paying for this chaos to be inflicted on us. Take the hit Govt, pay off GWRC & Tranzit, take over and get back to a workable system under a competent and qualified Transport Board or statutory management group.

  10. Jonny Utzone, 5. September 2018, 10:08

    Mike and Luke – didn’t bus fares go up by an average of 3%?

  11. luke, 5. September 2018, 12:51

    They may have done, but most of my trips now fall under the offpeak fares so what used to be $4.08 with Snapper is now $3.15.

  12. Thomas Posimani, 6. September 2018, 16:11

    I think the bus services have to change service structures to make public transport traffic friendly, financially viable etc; I’m happy and I think the bus services need time to settle down and everything will be cool.

  13. Casey, 6. September 2018, 19:42

    Thomas: I take it that you are not a bus user who since the changes doesn’t spend up to 2 extra hours per day getting to and from work, or one who is late getting to work or classes. You are not a parent of school children who are late getting to school and late getting home, or indeed not a parent not able to meet your children after school to take them home because your bus is late or doesn’t run at all.

    Read the report in the Independent Herald of 5 September reporting just some of the comments from upset and angry people at the Karori bus services meeting on 30 August. The present under capacity bus services will never settle down unless there is a dramatic drop off in passenger numbers. Fewer people taking buses will see more taking cars and adding to traffic congestion. Bus capacity needs to be increased back to the pre 15 July levels.

  14. Murray Sanders, 7. September 2018, 2:08

    I have read all the comments from Wellington bus service users regarding the messy state that our beloved bus service has succumbed to. It confirms to me that the commuting public are astute in recognizing that there needs to be urgent attention given to correcting this sad destruction of our once nationally highly regarded Public Transport system.

    I am a bus operator with NZ Bus and proud of it. This company has labored hard along with Newlands/Mana to provide what I believe to be an excellent service for the citizens of the Wellington District since Go Wellington and Valley Flier took over from Stagecoach. It has therefore angered me to observe the arrogant way that the GWRC trashed those long-serving companies and gave the 60% capped routes to a company with a poor employment track record and little experience in undertaking a contract of this size with its complexities and special needs for the people of Wellington.

    The damage done to the incumbent operators has been huge – we have lost many highly qualified and loyal drivers, managers, administration staff and service staff thanks to all this PTOM nonsense. There is an old saying that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – just make some up-dating adjustments to ensure the continued smooth running of the service. With the demise of the trolleys, this left us short of suitable large buses meaning that we had to replace those losses with diesels from Auckland – an unneeded expense and waste of resources. (I thought PTOM was about reducing costs – apparently not?)

    The GWRC talk of bringing into line “errant” bus companies with the leverage of the draconian terms and conditions of the new contracts. “We can now use these conditions as leverage to punish those who fail to act in accordance with our conditions”. You reckon – if you carry on running the Metlink system you will run the risk of ending up with no bus service … we are just not going to be treated like that! The best results are obtained where the organizing body and those providing the service work in co-operation with each other. Up until now, this has not happened! There has been no transparency from the GWRC. Everything has been conducted behind closed doors. The GWRC were offered knowledge and experience from the Tramways Union and the incumbent companies. None of it, we were told. We will make the decisions and you will do as you are told when we are ready to tell you. This is Wellington. Not London or New York or Sydney. Wellington. We are unique with our needs and that has to be recognized and acted on. Consultation with the people who use the service and listening to it – that’s the way to get results.

    The re-introduction of revenue auditors (Inspectors) to curb “Revenue Leakage”. Years ago, inspectors were done away with for a variety of reasons: 1. The inspectors’ salaries far out weighed the small amount of lost revenue and 2. To protect the safety of drivers from the possible negative physical reactions from angry passengers. It was determined that the drivers were more valuable driving the bus than lying in a hospital bed with their face kicked in after they challenged a non paying passenger for the loss of a $3.50 fare. We live in an age alas where people are living in high stress conditions. There are circumstances where a little TLC is helpful in containing what could develop into something nasty – when it doesn’t really need to. ie: Someone has a problem getting their Snapper card to “talk” to the validator on the bus – quite common. Or, if “pay the driver”, firstly for everyone on the bus to hear, the embarrassment to begin with and then not having any or enough cash to pay as most people pay with EFTPOS these days – much easier for all to “take a seat” so that we don’t hold the service up – making it late getting into an argument.

    Drivers no longer being allowed to wear their Hi Viz safety vests when driving the bus. This item is very useful to a bus driver. It is there to protect the driver from harm when or if he/she has to suddenly exit the bus in traffic to remove an object from on windy days – eg. – a rubbish bag blown into the path of the bus. It clearly defines who the driver of the bus is and thirdly when having to deal with a problem from say an unruly passenger, the hi viz assists in giving the driver a little more psychological advantage. (people in authoritative roles always wear Hi Viz – Police,Fire,Ambulance etc).

    Drivers’ remuneration. There is very little difference between a bus driver with 60 people on the bus and the pilot of a 747 jumbo jet with 500. The pilot works at 40 thousand feet and the bus driver on the ground amidst a colony of bad drivers, people running across the road etc. Both have many people’s lives in their hands – no real difference. So why are bus drivers regarded so poorly? We both have the same responsibilities of safety for our customers. This was neglected in the new bus contracts. Because of the very strict conditions to be a bus driver – clean driving licence requirement, no criminal convictions and vetting by the Vulnerable Children’s Act – it is not easy to attract drivers or to replace them when treated with very little regard.

    I hope that this statement will help all get a better idea of the situation that we are all experiencing.

  15. Denis Brian, 7. September 2018, 14:15

    Do the “planners” and “designers” of these new systems and schemes ever see further than their computer screens? Do they ever look beyond the making of money and think of the real people using the services they contrive? I think not.

  16. Sharyn Young, 7. September 2018, 15:09

    Never has there been a Greater Wellington Regional Council mistake than changing the bus system!

  17. John Rankin, 7. September 2018, 16:01

    @DenisBrian: once upon a time, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to work for Edmonton Transit in Canada, one of the first bus systems in North America to introduce a “hub and spoke” network.

    The people Edmonton Transit recruited to design the bus schedules were all ex-bus drivers. They knew from direct personal experience how long it took to drive every route in the city, at all times of day and in all weathers. They knew how long to allow for transfers at the “transit centres” (hubs), again from direct experience. They knew that keeping to the schedule is essential in a hub and spoke network, and that they had to design schedules which let the drivers do so, all day every day. If a driver complained about the schedule, they knew when it was a real problem and when the driver was just trying it on.

    The system ran like clockwork. I wonder how many of the people who designed Wellington’s new bus schedules have worked as bus drivers. If it was up to me, I’d put a bunch of Wellington bus drivers in a room and ask them why the current network isn’t working and how to fix it. Then I’d ask them to present their proposals to another bunch of bus drivers, to look for potential problems and come up with solutions.

  18. greenwelly, 7. September 2018, 16:23

    @John, Part of the problem will be the onerous terms in the contracts that will have resulted in absolutely no slack in any of the schedules… In May 2017 the Regional Council were trumpeting
    “The outcome of the tender is expected to reduce operating costs by several million dollars a year.”
    It’s clear that they have simply screwed the contractors so much they cannot actually make the system work.

  19. Dave B, 13. September 2018, 18:54

    @ Sharyn Young : “Never has there been a Greater Wellington Regional Council mistake than changing the bus system!”

    Yes there has. Ripping out the clean, green, 100% electric trolleybuses. This mistake is even harder to repair than the messed-up network.