Wellington Scoop

Cancelling buses and trains

by Lindsay Shelton
Metlink introduced its new bus timetables yesterday. Things didn’t go too well. Sarah Free reported that over 30 morning bus services were cancelled in the eastern suburbs. Dave Armstrong wrote: it’s sad that even people who want to catch buses and trains are losing faith.

The cancelled buses included four services on one route. Bad luck for hopeful travellers on route 14: the services scheduled to run at 6:52, 7:30, 7:37, and 7:48 were all cancelled.

Metlink tweeted vaguely later in the morning that it had “seen” a number of bus cancellations. It said it was investigating and would “provide more details when we have them.” The explanation never arrived.

The Regional Council said nothing about yesterday’s failures. Instead, it announced that bus drivers will be stopping work on Thursday and Friday. Barbara Donaldson, the regional councillor who chairs the transport committee, sees these stopworks – strangely – as a “positive step.”

She had nothing to say about Monday’s cancellations. (She has seldom talked about the bustastrophe which she has overseen.) But she said the stopwork meetings “could provide more certainty” for travellers. How could this be? Because, in her view, they would be a move towards “concluding negotiations.” The regional council expected (or maybe just hoped) that they would lead to “greater unity between the operator and union.”

Is her council implying that all the cancellations were caused by some lack of unity? Are these negotiations that should have been completed before the new bus system was introduced so many months ago? Her statement continues the regional council’s endeavours to position itself as removed from all the problems. When any frustrated commuter can tell you that the council is the responsible organisation.

Her councillor colleague Roger Blakeley provided some minimal information late in the day. He said that Metlink dropped 27 trips during today’s morning peak. Again, he said, this was due to driver availability. “Search on for drivers.”

Then there are the train cancellations. As Dave Armstrong wrote this morning:

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?

And more:

Why does Metlink not inform us just what “staff availability” means? During the same period, I didn’t notice Air New Zealand or even Jetstar cancelling flights because of “staff availability” problems. If a school repeatedly failed to put teachers in front of kids, however bad the staffing crisis, it would get taken over by a commissioner. If a hospital repeatedly cancels operations there is an outcry. Why is public transport any different?

Does Transdev not have a pool of employees and a strategy, as most efficient businesses do, to cover for staff sickness or unavailability? Or is it that if you pay peanuts you get services cancelled due to “staff availability”?

And Dave reaches this conclusion:

As we build expensive convention centres, advocate for longer runways, and try to attract even more tourists to the city, perhaps our next tourism campaign could be “Come to Wellington – Subject to Staff Availability”. At least it would be honest.

Bus cancellations continued today, though Metlink described them as only “a few.”

What did it mean by this? It listed 15 services that were cancelled this morning. It said the cause was “driver availability.” Did it mean a lack of staff? A lack of unity? A lack of planning? Or was it (as someone suggested on twitter) a sudden outbreak of an unexpected epidemic that is striking down our bus drivers?


  1. James S, 5. February 2019, 13:37

    ‘Driver availability’ is never be acceptable as an excuse. The real reason is poor staff management. But somehow neither the bus operators nor Metlink wish to tell the truth.

  2. Graham C Atkinson, 5. February 2019, 16:57

    Only one operator cancelled a significant number of services yesterday and today due to availability. Another was affected by the two police-controlled road closures around Willis/Webb & Terrace Tunnel but all other services ran.

  3. Mike Mellor, 5. February 2019, 21:14

    The data that GWRC has published on how the new bus network is performing (online here) shows that reliability has been an issue for Metlink and the operators of the ten busiest bus routes – 1, 7, 24, 110, 130 by Tranzurban; 2, 3, 14, 22, 83 by NZ Bus – since at least November (GWRC has published no detailed data prior to that). On only two weeks has target reliability, an average of 99.5% of scheduled buses running, been achieved by this group of routes.

    Since the Christmas break, Tranzurban’s performance has improved, with all main routes meeting the target for the week ending 27 January (the most recent for which data has been published); route 2 was the only main NZ Bus route to meet the target that week, performing at 99.9%.

  4. Steve Doole, 6. February 2019, 0:14

    The lack of data for months before November is no surprise as the data for the middle of the year did not always reflect what actually occurred.  My understanding is that when a timetabled bus is not started within 10 minutes of departure time, council’s system called RTI uses timetable information to progress the bus on the displays at major stops but indicated with letters ‘sched’ rather than a calculated time of arrival. No bus may actually be moving for a ‘sched’ service. The common name for this situation is ‘ghost bus’. Ten minutes after scheduled departure from each stop, usually with the bus being shown near the top of a sign, it is no longer displayed. It vanishes.

    RTI tracking is initiated by the Snapper ticket machine on the bus sending a signal to bus RTI equipment when the driver starts a bus ‘trip’. If a driver is unable to select the correct timetabled trip on the bus ticket machine for any reason – there are several – RTI data may not be accurate.  If the driver selects a trip that is timed later, the bus will be tracked by RTI ok but the intended service will show on RTI signs as ‘sched’ and the later timed service will show as well. The bus company has an opportunity to match such events on the RTI system afterwards.

    Of course, if the driver sets off as soon as able on a later trip, the later trip will then be recorded as running early! (I’m not sure what happens when another bus also selects the later timing.) If a driver cannot select any valid trip, the bus is not ‘tracked’ by RTI, but may run.  Such buses will not show on RTI signs at bus stops, but collect passengers, possibly without the Snapper smartcard system functioning (so revenue was uncollected). On July 26th outside Farmers on Lambton Quay I recorded 16 buses not showing on RTI signs in one hour from 8am. Many were well behind their planned timings. Hopefully things have improved now, although GW junior and middle management wasn’t interested at the time.

    When a bus starts over 10mins late, data can become more problematic, especially recovery of service.  Unplanned start part way through a trip, say an empty bus moving south on route 1 toward Island Bay, is stopped early and resumes moving north from hospital toward Johnsonville. This might be straightforward but usually isn’t. The RTI and Snapper systems combination doesn’t seem intuitive to me, or many drivers I spoke with.

    The Snapper ticketing system is not a good proxy for RTI data, as there are issues, for example, Snapper GPS ‘drift’ – Snapper equipment on a bus temporarily looses knowledge of where the bus actually is so malfunctions until GPS resets automatically or the driver is able to intervene ( by manually advancing the ‘next stop’ on the ticket machine, which is not always possible ). Sometimes passengers with Snapper cards are not able to tag on or off during these periods. If tag-off doesn’t happen for someone who tagged on ok, then a penalty fare may be charged on their next trip.  Some people don’t notice this happening. Other times Snapper behaved as though it is still at the last stop where it knew where it was.  Passengers alighting may hear a message ‘fare already paid’, which can mean the Snapper equipment thinks the alighting is occurring in the same fare zone as the passenger boarded that bus in. Passengers who boarded in a different zone will be charged but only the fare to the stop where the snapper thinks the bus is, which is not necessarily the full amount.

    In August, GPS drift was occurring more at some locations than others, but location wasn’t the only factor. Imagine a load of people alighting at a stop that is a fare zone boundary stop. If the GPS drift occurs while they alight, passengers alighting later than others at that stop are charged a higher fare! Revenue losses to council seemed low priority in August. Customer travel was correctly more important, although Snapper resolved most contact from customers about fares, rather than council. My point is that council bus data was not reliable enough to be used for comparisons, even with itself.

    But ghost buses are not a new issue. How many of us saw RTI screens displaying false data over a year ago? Any competent management would have fixed RTI months before the changes last year. GWRC management made a pigs ear of the bus changes. And council assertions about improving performance might be true, but might not be.

  5. Geoff Blackmore, 6. February 2019, 7:28

    In both cases, bus and train, GWRC went with the lowest bidding tender. As with anything, you get what you pay for. Perhaps next time they will look at quality of service rather than just the bottom line.

  6. Susan Says, 6. February 2019, 8:59

    We had a great bus service, we submitted our thoughts and suggestions and were ignored – repeatedly. The result is a sub-optimal service, massive disgruntlement (yes I know, it’s probably not even a word), with drivers battling for decent wages and conditions and passengers stranded and grumpy. Don’t get me started on the bus hubs. Now I’ve sounded off – what can I do? I went to meetings, gave feedback, signed petitions, continued to use the buses and champion the drivers so what else? Suggestions please!

  7. Wellington Commuter, 6. February 2019, 9:48

    The next meeting of the Regional Council’s Sustainable Transport Committee is:
    9:30am Wednesday 20th February – GWRC Council Chamber, Level 2, 15 Walter Street, Te Aro, Wellington
    Public participation is open at the start of the meeting.

  8. Rumpole, 6. February 2019, 10:47

    Susan: You’ve summarised superbly what you and the public are having to endure. The numerous Parliamentary Select Committee hearings exposed the Regional Council’s incompetence to administer our public transport. Hilda and I are not amused and I’ve had to put the old Bentley back on the road to keep her happy.

  9. Gillian Tompsett (ReVolt Wellington), 6. February 2019, 14:36

    The real reasons for the “driver shortage” have not been reported adequately by the MSM. Our NZ Bus drivers had to reapply for their jobs twice last year and now face the prospect of reapplying for them again when the new owners of NZ Bus take over later in the year. Within six months, conditions have been driven into the ground, rosters casualised and a great work culture destroyed.

    Despite it being common practice within central government tendering to protect the interests of staff, the GWRC continues to wash its hands of any responsibility and ludicrously asserts that it is illegal to be a good (indirect) employer, by ensuring continuity of employment and conditions. Matthew Palmer QC demonstrated this to be a falsehood. The GWRC have yet to make their opposing legal advice public.

    This current iteration of ‘Bustastrophe’ is a direct result of the failure by the GWRC to protect drivers’ conditions and subsequently fulfil its stated objectives of providing a “safe and reliable public transport service” for Wellingtonians. Given that Cr Ponter is performing the operational work that CEO Greg Campbell and his staff should be responsible for, Campbell should be instructed to resign immediately.

    At the political level we shouldn’t be surprised at the recent turn of events. The large number of faces from the Rogernomics/Ruthanasia era prevalent at local government level, who apply the same ruthless market philosophy, with the same religious zeal and disastrous consequences for staff, is reminiscent of ‘Groundhog Day’. In that sense, Steven Joyce and his PTOM legislation, designed to cut the NZTA’s public transport funding, pushed at an open door.

  10. Cecil Roads, 6. February 2019, 15:06

    Rumpole – watch those diesel emissions from your Bentley and watch that red wine consumption too The alcohol limit has been much reduced since you last drove that heap of Russian steel around Wellington.

  11. Bill Bennett, 6. February 2019, 16:26

    Remember how privatising transport services was all the rage because “profit driven companies are more efficient”? Bidders who fail on this scale should be penalised and contracts retendered. [via twitter]

  12. Meredith, 6. February 2019, 19:44

    A stop work is a “positive step”? says Barbara Donaldson. Two days with no buses? Strange!
    Is Barbara looking for the Union vote at this year’s elections?
    “Could provide more certainty”..?
    For her?

  13. steve doole, 7. February 2019, 8:40

    At one time New Zealanders had a reputation for being mostly mild mannered and considerate. I feel consideration of fellow humans has dropped, and not just on the personal scale. Is this just a NZ thing?

    Do you sometimes take a long lunch break? How about 3 hours or more, compulsory – would you work twice in one day with a gap in the middle? Would you work any hours on just about any day your employer chooses? Would you work in a more complex situation for less pay? Would you dream of going to work on Labour Day Monday? Most people have Labour Day off work and school – it’s a public holiday isn’t it? Not for all. Labour Day is to celebrate everyday workers, and may have become a public holiday as a sop to the masses looking for work-life balance and a norm of an 8 hour day. Nurses, police, fire, ambulance, prison officers, and others work on Labour Day, so the rest of us can have a good time. Are they paid extra for working one of our nation’s official days off? Are they even classed as public servants now?

    Buses are a public service too.

    The travelling public struggled with the consequences of the regional council shitting on bus drivers. Financially squeezing bus companies through tendering, who then target their biggest operating cost – staff. Of course regional councillors are quick to distance themselves from their application of this, as well as other bus issues. Council showed no concern at all, not even for its own reputation, let alone the reputation of public transport. Little wonder so many drivers left when the bus arrangements were revised last July.

    Drivers are the front-line of public transport, not automons, not robots, not some-else’s-problem. An efficient, safe, and well regarded front-line for public transport will not be the cheapest possible. Wellington had well regarded transport, that could have been made better. Before the change the fare box recovery (proportion of costs paid by travellers) was one of the best in the country. Did boffins at the New Zealand Transport Authority make up the contracts that led to bustastrophe in Wellington? lnstead bird brains appear to have been to the fore, perhaps in a quest to change fare box recovery ratio. The regional council kowtowed to NZTA rather than stand up for quality public transport. Front-line staff were expendable.

    The cure for bustastrophe will include quality employment for all public transport staff, and tracking risk effectively, especially to the reputation of public transport.

  14. Concerned Wellingtonian, 7. February 2019, 12:50

    Meredith, most bus drivers live in Porirua, so you might be right. If your re-election depends on this, why worry about Wellington?

  15. Trevor H, 7. February 2019, 21:14

    Wellingtonians deserve everything they get for voting for useless numpties every three years, or not even voting at all. We are all responsible for this farce.

  16. Keith Flinders, 8. February 2019, 9:59

    It is the system that is flawed, Trevor. Expecting elected councillors to run, let alone understand, a multi million dollar a year business is only going to bring the poor results we suffer. Not one of the current batch of GWRC councillors has demonstrated any commercial skills, let alone any understanding of basic engineering principles. The highly paid council officers who visited bustastrophe upon us are still on the payroll, and the question we as stake holders need explaining to us, is why.

    Councillors micro managing facets of GWRC operation will continue to bring us bustastrophe results. Public transport needs to be run by those who understand it, and until Wellington gets a much needed transport authority Metlink needs a complete change of management. Driving the wages and conditions of bus drivers down, is not the only symptom of what is wrong.

  17. Alan, 8. February 2019, 13:20

    Metlink by its own admission states “We measure punctuality by recording the bus departure from origin, leaving between one minute early and five minutes late.” How interesting. I believe its trains are measured on arrival time not departure. Perhaps instead they should do the same for buses. The bunching together of buses with the same route number is still prevalent, which might mean they depart on time but they are not keeping time on the route. Bunched buses means people have been waiting longer than they should, or others will be waiting longer back down the route. I can’t see an end to it. The buses on the high-frequency routes are still departing through the day at 10 minute intervals and new timetables reveal little or no change.

  18. Kara Lipski, 8. February 2019, 19:41

    Trevor H may not realise that the Regional Council (which has overseen the bustastrophe) has only 5 places for Wellington City based representatives. Somehow Tawa has been placed with Porirua to give them 2 reps. So we have to realise who were the bustastrophe architects. One then 2 from Wellington city, 1 from Upper Hutt, possibly 1 from Hutt City and possibly 2 (but definitely 1) from Porirua. So if anyone is feeling aggrieved due to bus services in those areas, I suggest they stand for election. And – if successful – work to vastly improve the bus service, decrease the diesel pollution and have those Metlink officials who have ridden roughshod over us – be made to reapply for their jobs.

  19. Henry Filth, 9. February 2019, 16:34

    One imagines that the council is rolling in cash from the penalty payments from the repeated breaches of contracted service levels. Looking forward to news of the rates cut.