Wellington Scoop

A shortage of drivers, but the bus companies aren’t negotiating

by Roy Murphy
The trade unions are blunt about the state of negotiations with Wellington’s bus operators. The president of the Council of Trade Unions, Rick Wagstaff, pulled no punches at yesterday’s meeting of the Regional Council’s sustainable transport committee.

Wagstaff said the unions wanted a collective agreement with the Wellington transport operators. “There’s a shortage of drivers,” he said. “An agreement would fix that. There’s only one problem, the operators won’t negotiate.”

Regional councillor Ken Laban added his bleak assessment. “It’s been a farce. What we need to do now is act rather than talk.”

Laban said: “What we have seen with the operators … is that it’s ‘surface bargaining’ only.” That is, there is no intention of reaching an agreement.

Laban noted there is a stopwork meeting of the Tramways Union on September 26. He said that regional council chief executive Greg Campbell has to step up and make sure there’s a meeting between Tranzit and the Tramways Union before that date. Otherwise, he said, “There is a real prospect of an industry breakdown.”

Regional Councillor Jenny Brash agreed: “We must make sure that negotiations get back on track.”

However, no amending motion was proposed to ensure such action.

Sue Kedgley, regional councillor for Wellington, asked Richard Wagstaff: “Would an independent mediator help?”

Wagstaff replied that a mediator usually comes in when the two sides are getting close but can’t reach agreement. “We don’t see that the operators are even trying.”

Former councillor Michael Gibson said: “You have made Wellington a nation-wide laughing stock.” He cited as an example of mismanagement that the service to Karori has been cut by 30 percent during both the morning and evening rush hours.

A petitioner to the council said it was meant to have the best minds for the job but it was bogged down by minutiae. He said the council has claimed it had no choice. “You’re politicians, of course you have choice.”

Kedgley agreed, but said sometimes the details indicate strategic problems. It was evident that distress and strain was felt by many – people are late for work, are standing in Wellington’s wind and rain waiting for a bus, children are walking home in the dark.

“The extent of the problem can’t be underestimated,” Kedgley said. “We should look after the customer first and not just talk about cost effectiveness. Why were the trolley buses retired? They had 70 seats. If we’d kept them we wouldn’t have this problem of overcrowding.”

Chief executive Greg Campbell, addressing the overcrowding problem in his report, admitted that “Removing seats has not been well received. … Metlink will be reinstating seating in affected buses over [the] coming months.”

This immediately prompted a question from Councillor Brash: “They were removed in a matter of days, why will it take so long to replace them?”

Campbell’s lame response: “I didn’t want to over promise.”

In fact his whole attitude was eerily optimistic. His report says, “Patronage has remained steady.” It was pointed out that the latest numbers include the increased number of transfers, which are being counted as separate trips. The original design called for 30 percent of trips requiring a transfer. After feedback this was reduced to 5 percent; it would seem that with a little more imagination and effort this could be reduced to zero for most passengers.

Anecdotal evidence is rife with people abandoning buses for private cars, or more expensive solutions such as taxis, or cheaper solutions such as walking. Then there’s the bus official who was reported to have advised a passenger, “Don’t take the bus if you want to get there on time.”

Campbell’s report is not much better. The Hataitai Residents’ Association passionately begged that the route 14 bus service to Kilbirnie and Rongotai be restored, saying there were important suburban facilities for residents there, including supermarkets, schools, parks, and the Rongotai retail centre. The new service ignores that and serves only travel into the city.

Campbell’s report says brusquely, “It may not be cost effective to extend route 14 given the apparent demand, but further work is required to confirm this view.” It was significant the focus was on cost effectiveness, not customer satisfaction, and on confirming his view rather than re-examining the problem.

And when questioned on how old people and people with disabilities are affected, Campbell’s response was, “I have had good feedback on that.”

It would appear that you have to be old or disabled to have a good opinion of the new service, an unlikely outcome. It makes one wonder where Campbell gets his information from.

But at least he’s happy. He says, “I am now confident that the new system will work.”


  1. Unimpressed, 20. September 2018, 10:13

    This has been like someone turning up with a sore thumb and having it fixed by amputating their arm. And if Greg Campbell was the doctor he would say “it’s been a good clean operation.” Eerily optimistic is a good description. What is going on with him?

  2. Jonny Utzone, 20. September 2018, 10:24

    How bizarre – counting a transfer as two trips to convince us that patronage is on the up and up with GWRC’s silly hub system! I suppose this is what happens when you put highly paid accountants in charge. We get creative counting.

  3. City Lad, 20. September 2018, 13:08

    Chief executive Greg Campbell is fighting to keep his annual $400,000 pay package. His arrogance in refusing to admit any personal liability for allowing Wellington’s former perfect bus system to become a nightmare for passengers is obvious. As is his dislike for unions. The Tramways Union will attend to this matter on Wednesday 26th.

  4. Rochelle F, 20. September 2018, 14:26

    Hey Metlink your #3 buses are completely useless today. Twenty people have been offloaded from four #23 buses in a row and haven’t been able to board a #3. Two were missing. Two were full. [via twitter]

  5. Polly, 20. September 2018, 14:37

    Jonny – have been with an elderly friend from Miramar today and from Para Street to the CBD she had to change four times! Mr Campbell is trying to tell us the patronage is improving?! Each time she had to walk quite a distance to the next stop, and only one covered shelter for wet days.

  6. Roy Kutel, 20. September 2018, 15:16

    City Lad – Greg Campbell’s GWRC remuneration package was $426,212 in 2016/17 (see page 187). Clearly GWRC wasn’t enough work and he got $12,000 from being chairperson of the financially challenged Whitireia (see page 131) and $12,000 from being chairperson of financially challenged WelTec (see page 93). So his total remuneration for 2016/17 was $450,212 (which is more than the Prime Minister gets for governing a whole country).

  7. Tony Jansen, 20. September 2018, 19:33

    Interesting how our democratic institutions have been hijacked by old, redundant neo liberals. No one at senior management level has any accountability to their customers anymore. Everybody seems to be chasing the cash. There is a vacuum of leadership at the top level in our society. Don’t even get me started on morals and ethics! I doubt any of these people would have any time for those concepts. They just get in the way of maximising profit.

  8. Faith Saffioti, 21. September 2018, 11:56

    Well this old and disabled person is certainly not happy. I use a walking stick. Reduced bus service, longer walk to bus stop and waiting for connecting buses is not an improvement.

  9. Kay, 21. September 2018, 12:46

    I’m older and disabled and would like to tell Greg Campbell in person what I think of his excuses. Metlink have told me they have no information on which buses are missing seats and they can’t help me plan my travel to get a chance of getting a seat. Standing on a bus aggravates my health conditions so I’m now avoiding bus travel at busy times. Individual bus drivers and newer buses may be fine but the overall network isn’t reliable or convenient. Route changes and impossible transfers have made my life, and that of friends, harder.

  10. Pepe Robertson, 21. September 2018, 13:34

    Reinstate Route 22 that serviced the highest part of Rintoul Street and Lavaud street in Berhampore. This part of Berhampore also has 5 off streets. I raised this at the meeting in Kilbirnie but it has not been mentioned at all. This route is now running through Russel Terrace which only has houses on one side. Council housing and Housing NZ are also at this end of the area. Why are some of the bus shelters being demolished eg.like the one in Lyall Bay where one of the most popular shopping centres includes the Warehouse. It’s also one of the windiest part of Wellington. It has discouraged a lot people to go there, which is a shame. Maybe a commissioner needs to take over. It’s not a good look for the Regional Council’s CEO who is also the chair for Whitireia and Weltec who will be dismissed. Interesting to see how much this problem is costing the taxpayers and ratepayers.

  11. Dave, 21. September 2018, 18:31

    The current system is much worse than the previous one but the previous one was not perfect as some people claim. There were plenty of late and cancelled services. Somehow GWRC have gone the extra mile to make the current system worse.

  12. Pete, 23. September 2018, 21:16

    The change to the bus service is the end result of privatisation and the transfer of wealth from the community to a few individuals. PTOM was designed by Steven Joyce who made his fortune from buying (supposedly) inefficient public assets. He is ideologically opposed to both public ownership of services (like buses and unions.)

  13. greenwelly, 24. September 2018, 9:36

    @Pete, I think you have the wrong Steven Joyce; the one who is the NZ politician was in the Radio business in Taranaki..

  14. Mark Roxburgh, 24. September 2018, 13:07

    Got to the Petone bus stop 5 minutes before the scheduled time, and with the 2 81s that travel together (?) 3 minutes away according to the real time. But they’d already left – this is not the rapid transit we are looking for! [via Facebook]

  15. Harriet Palmer, 24. September 2018, 13:10

    Newsflash: the 23 loop is not always a loop! This morning my 4 yr old and I got kicked off at Hutchison Rd despite needing to get to Newtown. Apparently it’s been changed so some buses now cycle between Kingston and Hutchison, bypassing the hospital and Newtown. Who knew? Not the Metlink rep at the bus stop, not the Metlink rep on the phone, and certainly not me as I was told by a driver to get off the bus. The result? A 40 minute, two bus trip between Newtown and Mornington. Just one of the improvements made by Metlink …
    In a hilarious twist, my daughter and I had already missed one bus that was reportedly at Hutchison when it was meant to be meeting us – about eight stops prior. Why? It was running more than five minutes early. Happy Monday everyone. [via Facebook]

  16. Sarah Simpson, 24. September 2018, 13:25

    I had to catch a number 2 this morning and it was jam packed and couldn’t pick up passengers long before it got to town and you could see utter frustration on the passengers faces as we drove past! [via Facebook]

  17. Christine Tijsen, 24. September 2018, 13:28

    This morning at about 10.30 I was waiting for the #2 at the temporary bus stop at Miramar to go to Seatoun. Lo and behold two buses arrived at the same time. To the driver of the second bus, bus #2211, it would be appreciated if you could wait before passengers are seated before you obviously try to beat the first bus going to Seatoun. [via Facebook]

  18. Sarah Free, 24. September 2018, 13:36

    I’s concerning that Metlink are now saying bus patrons shouldn’t wait more than 10 mins for a transfer. Originally, this was meant to be less than 5 minutes, it was even mentioned in the 2 page Dompost Advert. 10 mins is not what Wellingtonians were led to expect. [via twitter]

  19. Reg Varney, 24. September 2018, 14:39

    GWRC defines bus services as “on-time” when they depart from the terminus at the scheduled time or up to 10 minutes after (based on information provided by each operator). So a bus departing 5-10 minutes late is “on-time” according to GWRC. Not surprisingly: in 2016/17 only 0.2% buses weren’t on-time. I wonder why GWRC decided to redesign the bus system around ‘hubs’ when it was so nearly perfect?

  20. John Rankin, 24. September 2018, 17:21

    @GlenSmith re: aggregating demand for rapid transit using feeder bus services. This is generally-accepted practice in cities with light rail. For example, the head of CDPQ Infra, who was responsible for the highly successful airport to CBD light rail line in Vancouver, said in Auckland, “Effective bus networks around the light rail backbone are critical to getting people to use the trains. Without frequent buses feeding the light rail network, people will be reluctant to get out of their cars.”

    An on-street light rail line is about 1.5 minutes per km faster than the same trip by regular bus. To make it worth a traveller’s while to catch a feeder bus and transfer, the time savings on the light rail part of the trip must outweigh the transfer penalty. This requires a line at least 5 km and preferably 8 km for the first stage you build. In Wellington, unless we are prepared to invest in a line from the station to Kilbirnie, and preferably on to the eastern suburbs and airport, we are at risk of creating a white elephant. And of course the buses must keep good time, as we discussed previously. So I agree with the Spine Study’s assessment of light rail as the study proposed it: good tech; bad economics. The key question, and it’s one LGWM must consider, is what is the minimum viable light rail product Wellington can support. If we spend too little, we risk wasting our investment.

    The projected 59,000 daily airport trips is an interesting number. Where are the people travelling within the Wellington region? If the combined population of the Hutt Valley and Kapiti Coast is 250,000 and every single person makes two plane trips per year, that’s a daily demand of about 5500 trips, or about 2750 trips per line per day. Rail lines connecting these parts of the region to the airport is not a business I would invest in.

    As @Kerry pointed out, the problem with point-to-point networks is that they are only useful for trips up and down the line. If you want to go anywhere else, you must drive. To offer people anywhere to anywhere travel, all day every day, you need a network with trusted connections. Living for 3 months in a city like Vancouver, without a car, would show what’s possible.

    One thing Vancouver has done on the buses is have folding seats at the front, so that if the bus is full there is more room for people to stand, but if necessary people who need to can sit down. Why didn’t we think of this in Wellington?

  21. Ayn Randy, 24. September 2018, 17:39

    Is that overseas RTI expert actually doing anything or is he being actively undermined by the bus drivers? Nothing seems to be improving for users out there. [via twitter]

  22. Reg Varney, 24. September 2018, 18:53

    Ayn – the UK ‘expert’ is working in elapsed time not ‘real time’.

  23. Glen Smith, 24. September 2018, 19:40

    John. As per my previous comment, feeder services from more minor locations (eg Scorching Bay or Seatoun Heights to use examples local to me) on to a rail spine is inevitable and essential but I have seen light rail advocates propose aggregating major bus lines (e.g. Island Bay at Newtown). This would impose unnecessary transfer disincentives on a huge percentage of commuters. Logically there will be a tipping point, in terms of demand, where you go from aggregating to running a through service. This should, in my view, be kept as far towards running a through service as possible, based on financial and practical considerations (Golden Mile capacity being the major one – and if this limits frequency of buses too much, a mixture of feeder and through services would be a solution). Commuters from major bus lines could still take the option of transferring to rail at peripheral transfer hubs if this suits them (e.g. going to a Waterfront destination or getting across town quickly to/from the Hutt or Kapiti – rail is intended as a rapid bypass of the CBD) but to not then continue a significant proportion of the bus services a couple of extra kilometers to the CBD for commuters who want a Golden Mile destination or who are put off by transfers makes no sense.

    In terms of through-running trains from Hutt/Kapiti to the airport, the number of commuters on any ‘line’ who specifically want to go from one peripheral location to the other peripheral location is a minor consideration. The point is you are linking high demand lines either side of the city. Even if all the commuters from the ‘origin’ only go to the CBD, they are distributed across the CBD while commuters to the ‘destination’ are collected. Commuters going from the ‘origin’ to the ‘destination’ are a bonus (and in the airport case there would be a lot of them). Again as per my previous comment the main purpose of through running trains would be to seamlessly open up the whole of the CBD to the tens of thousands of commuters from the north.

  24. Jonny Utzone, 24. September 2018, 20:46

    JR – Vancouver does not have LRT but it does have a rather ugly driverless Skytrain metro. Given the opposition to the Basin Flyover I doubt it would ever be contemplated for Wellington.

  25. Glen Smith, 24. September 2018, 21:42

    John. Just a side note. The 59,000 figure is from the Airport Master Plan (table 2-2, page 15). However if you divide the projected passenger trips (10 million) by 365 you end up with around 28,000. The figure must assume a round trip for each passenger (which would be true for inefficient road drop offs but not PT) in addition to Airport staff etc.

  26. Lim Leong, 25. September 2018, 6:41

    @John Rankin, @Glen Smith, @Kerry. Which ever future option is chosen, user convenience must not be overlooked. The high level network design is going to be a trade off between the classic pyramid of “user convenience” vs “costs” vs “efficiency”. @Neil Douglas’s transfer penalty study is the best evidence that perception is real for commuters.
    Nobody wants to have to incur a transfer for very short journeys. Classic examples are Northland to CBD requiring two buses, and in Miramar where a trip to Newtown in the off-peak now involves catching three buses. This is nonsense.
    User convenience is an important feature to encourage uptake of public transport. I hope common sense will prevail in the new world …

  27. John Rankin, 25. September 2018, 9:55

    @LimLeong: necessary, but not sufficient.

    In @Glen’s future with feeder bus services connecting to a rapid transit line, on-time performance of the bus service is essential. It’s fine to catch a low frequency feeder bus to a hub in the morning, to get on a high frequency rapid transit vehicle. But on the way home, the high frequency rapid transit service has to connect to a low frequency feeder bus. The time to start fixing bus timekeeping is now, because it will take years to put the infrastructure and attitude in place to deliver “leave no more than 1 minute early, arrive no more than 2 minutes late” across the bus network.

    @MikeMellor’s Golden Mile proposals would certainly help. Why aren’t we doing this?

    Unlike Glen, I’m relaxed about the idea of a rail-to-rail transfer at the railway station, because these are the easiest connections to do well. If the operator can’t deliver reliable rail-to-rail transfers, I would question its competence. I’m not going to enter into a debate about this, because I think the best way for Wellington to buy a rapid transit service is to specify the service level requirements and invite suppliers to propose what they consider is the best-value solution.

    @JonnyUtzone: semantics? AFAIK, nobody is suggesting Wellington adopt a SkyTrain-style system (much of which is in fact underground).

  28. Neil Douglas, 25. September 2018, 9:58

    Hey J.U. Driver-less trams have just hit the streets of Potsdam! I’ll put my name forward to sit up front wearing a cap and uniform on a 2028 Wellington tram to make people feel comfortable (as the train captains do on the DLR in London).

  29. Neil Douglas, 25. September 2018, 10:41

    Lim and all. You might be interested in this summary done for the NSW Government in estimating Sydney CBD LRT patronage. It includes transfer penalties for bus, LRT and rail for shorter trips and also the preference for LRT over bus and train as well as the cost of onboard crowding. The public’s views and perceptions have been used in forecasting the demand for public transport projects. I don’t think Wellington or Auckland has commissioned any similar work as part of developing their forecasts for bus, train and LRT but you might wish to ask them.

    One of the surveys did use a method I developed for NZTA which looked at the quality of bus and train stops and vehicles. We surveyed over 12,000 passengers in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. However, I don’t think GWRC used the passengers’ views in developing their bus plan.

  30. Kelly Dennett, 25. September 2018, 16:18

    Hey Metlink I am really, really desperately over waiting in the cold for buses. This morning I’ve clocked 25 minutes at this stop and it’s still not here. It’s raining. This happens at least twice a week on the 24 route. [via twitter]

  31. Corinna Connor, 25. September 2018, 17:38

    Considerable confusion in Kilbirnie now that the stop at the Sports shop is temporarily shut (but some buses letting passengers out there) and relocated to outside Commonsense Organics. Some metlink signage would help. [via twitter]

  32. Lim Leong, 26. September 2018, 8:17

    @Neil Douglas. Many thanks for sharing your research reports. Informative and insightful. I tried to look through the GWRC web sites looking for Macro Level Transport Modelling and Forecasting without a lot of success. The closest thing that I can find is a document “PTSS Short List Evaluation – Modelling Report WGN_DOCS-#1215901-V9″ dated June 2013. In that report it did mention transfer penalty but no real-world customer views quantitative research that I can see, unlike your study. I would have thought a real-world customer views evaluation is a very important input into the bus planning.

    I could be wrong as I have not seen all the documentation, but I have to wonder about the quality of inputs/assumptions going into the GWRC’s initial macro public transport modelling.

    If there is going to be an independent review on this debacle (key word here is independent), the review really ought to look at the holistic picture right from planning, design, implementation and operations.

  33. Neil Douglas, 26. September 2018, 9:33

    @Lim – well considered market research of the people you are doing the planning for should be a pre-requisite. But many consultancies who do the plans for bureaucrats don’t want to water down their fees by spending any money collecting such information and just base the forecasts on ‘reviews’. And, unfortunately Councils don’t seem to have the staff with the right qualifications or the ambition to collect such data.

    In the UK, Wellington and Sydney I’ve been fortunate to work for guys who wanted to base their forecasts and evaluations on the people who used their services. Sadly they have retired and the new breed don’t see the need to collect basic information.

  34. Glen Smith, 26. September 2018, 19:45

    Neil. Nice piece of research. No wonder we end up with poor outcomes if basic background research is no longer undertaken.
    John. Agreed that a rail to rail transfer will be the most efficient but still likely a 10-15 minute penalty (maybe up to 5 minute walk and wait time and around 9 minute pure ‘disincentive’ penalty) which, unlike ‘line to line’ transfers, serves no functional purpose but will act as a potent barrier to utilisation forever. Why wouldn’t you aim to remove this by incorporating the ‘track sharing’ practices that are increasingly used overseas (see my previous references). Where are the feasibility studies and costings for this? Have our planners sought any overseas advice from areas where this has been successfully implemented? The main barrier I gather is reluctance by rail operators to even consider this. They should drag themselves from the Jurassic period into the modern era.