Wellington Scoop

An appalling year for the buses

by Daran Ponter
It’s been an appalling year for all concerned with Wellington’s public transport. The Regional Council let the side down badly – execution was just simply poor on so many fronts. Some of these issues were outside the Council’s immediate control, but at the end of the day the buck has to stop with the Council / Metlink.

The bus network has improved quite significantly since the initial problems – but is still far from perfect. There are still capacity issues on some routes, bus bunching still occurs – albeit less often, provision of the right sized buses by one company is an ongoing issue – though less severe than it was at the outset, and hubbing is still not working as best it should. The blue lights were removed – remember those? The Real Time Information System has improved out of sight – only for some gremlins to revisit us last week and this week.

Given the problems that eventuated, the new fares package (off peak discounts, free fare transfers, student fares etc) have hardly got a mention, but nevertheless seems to have been well received (or used).

I suggest that attitudes have changed. For example, people are now more acutely aware of who the convenor of bus services – Metlink – is, in large part because they’ve had cause to complain, and some people have the 0800 number on speed dial – though again the number of complaints has dropped dramatically and we are now largely back into the realm of queries.

The GWRC undertakes a six monthly survey of users experience on the buses. The results of the November survey (to be released shortly) will show a decline in satisfaction with the Wellington City bus network. Hoping that the May survey will show satisfaction results moving north again, but it is going to take time to rebuild confidence.

Despite this it seems that Wellingtonians are hardy souls – and even when approximately 5% of transferring passengers are taken into account, the number of bus users is holding up well in comparison to that same time last year.

There is still much work to do – including a review later this year of the new Wellington City bus routes. To date, through motions to the Council, I and other Wellington based regional councillors have managed to get a number of routes extended of reinstated – No 14 from Hataitai to Kilbirnie, Zoo Service, Vogeltown direct service – and we are pushing for changes on the Miramar Peninsula, where Strathmore and Miramar North need attention, as well as other changes across the City.

With respect to the cancellation of rail services, the issue is simple – a lack of train drivers. And it takes approximately 9 months to train a train driver. This is an issue facing the sector as a whole, but disappointing that the operator didn’t see this coming – should have acted quicker to avert this situation.

Daran Ponter is a Wellington regional councillor.

Read also: Cancelling buses and trains


  1. Tim Jones, 12. February 2019, 15:05

    First of all, I want to say how much I appreciate your willingness to front up on these issues, Daran – an attitude not all your colleagues have shared! Second, as well as the matters you’ve covered here, it would be good to get another update on progress with re-electrifying the fleet. This is an issue of vital concern to me, both because of the urgent need to reduce our transport greenhouse gas emissions and because, as a pedestrian, those choking clouds of diesel fumes from our current bus fleet have got to go.

  2. Mike Mellor, 12. February 2019, 15:28

    The changes to the network since July have certainly improved it overall, and the fare changes were undoubtedly a success. The overall network design has certainly improved. But the same can’t be said about how well the network is performing. In terms of reliability (whether a bus actually runs), on average the ten busiest routes are consistently running below GW’s target – they’ve reached that target in only two weeks since November (and then only just). Punctuality (a bus leaving its origin less than one minute early or five minutes late – there is no published measure of timeliness en route) is also below target, in fact the worst it has been since data started being produced in November.

    It’s good to hear that bus bunching is occurring less often, but anecdotally it’s still common – GWRC has produced no relevant data, so there’s no way to check. Similarly patronage holding up well in comparison with last year is good news, but there’s no decent comparative information available to support this.

    It’s also good that a review of the network is planned, but the best-designed network in the world is of little use if it’s not meeting its operating targets. It’s about time that the (very real) warts and all were exposed and attended to. Until that happens, the chances of a significant move north in customer confidence are slim: it’s hard to have confidence in an organisation that keeps on telling us that things are getting better when its published operational data – often supported by experience at the bus stop – show that things are, at best, getting no better.

  3. Benny, 12. February 2019, 15:32

    Ditto Tim. Attention to the electric issue is nowhere near where it should be, given the climate crisis we are heading into. This is the most serious issue we are all facing, and one we all have to be part in. That includes New Zealand and Wellington. No green washing will amount to the difference it would make if all buses were electric (or anything that is not petrol powered). To our health, to our exposure to noise, to our contribution to limit effects of climate change. Getting people on public transport is good (better than in their car), but best is to have them sustainably transported.

  4. Michael Gibson, 12. February 2019, 18:12

    Daran – thank you for this. Two local points please.
    1/ Have the statistics on the number of users been affected by our having to change buses so often? For instance, when I travel from Northland to Courtenay Place the bus turns left at the bottom of Bowen Street (adding to the journey) and then I have to get another bus at the Railway Station before I get to Central Wellington. Does this count as two journeys by two passengers? If not, how can the statistics people tell?
    2/ In spite of the timetable “improvements,” last week we still have FOUR fewer Karori Number 2 buses than the nineteen services which used to leave Karori between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. – and it is still FOUR fewer returning in the evening two-hour rush-hour.
    How many seats were on the rush-hour bus services which operated before July 15th, and how many are there now please?

  5. Ian Shearer, 12. February 2019, 21:22

    Daran – thanks for this information. Are cruise ship bus services a separate contract that are not part of MetLink services? Can you report on the performance of ‘cruise ship buses’ – are they also being cancelled due to ‘driver unavailability’? Does there appear to be any connection between the days of high driver unavailable issues and the incidence of cruise ships being in port?

  6. Concerned Wellingtonian, 13. February 2019, 8:26

    Good question about the cruise ships. I had to wait for the third cable-car on Monday because there were so many passengers from the Sun Princess.
    What fares are they paying and who gets the profits?

  7. Heidi P, 13. February 2019, 8:45

    Don’t you mean an appalling year for the GWRC? This article attempts to distance the councillors from their many appalling decisions in the area of public transport. Seems like the GWRC are just an unneeded “double up” on the WCC and other govt organizations .

  8. Paul Clutterbuck, 13. February 2019, 9:21

    The “gremlins” that have crept into the RTI system since the latest round of changes will be the result of the latest version of the Google Transit feed not reflecting all of the intended changes to routes and timings. A revised version needs to be published ASAP.

    I was just reading on Metlink’s service updates that many of the cancellations and service reductions on rail services have to do with a scheduled overhaul and major maintenance work on the second tranche of Matangis, which are now 6 years old. This is unfortunately unavoidable.

  9. Graham C Atkinson, 13. February 2019, 12:11

    In answer to Ian Shearer’s question – cruise ship shuttles are not part of any Metlink contract (yes some spare Tranzurban buses are used for shuttles but these have no impact on reliability of public services). Today the DomPost reports NZ Bus, Mr O’Sullivan’s “poster” operator, cancelled 28 peak hour services while Tranzurban and Uzabus, the new “inexperienced” operators, ran all contracted services to time!

  10. Gillian Tompsett (ReVolt Wellington), 13. February 2019, 14:02

    Tim Jones, we are in full agreement on the need to re-electrify the fleet as a matter of priority, given the urgency of the IPCC’s findings that we need to make steep cuts in carbon emissions within the decade. The environmental and health impacts of a 95% diesel bus fleet are serious and have been deflected in the public discourse due to misinformation.

    Contrary to popular belief, the new, much-vaunted Euro 5 and 6 diesel single and double-decker buses procured by bus operators Tranzit, still emit dangerous particulate matter (not to mention the older Euro 3 and 4 buses that NZ Bus operate in significant numbers on our city streets – spruced up with a new paint job no less!)

    In other words, there is no such thing as “clean diesel”. Yet our regional councillors are discussing the purchase of new diesel, rather than electric buses for Wellington.

    The disconnect within the GWRC (and WCC) that speaks to increasing rates to create climate-change resilience, whilst at the same time sitting on their hands as the operators pollute freely is abhorrent. Given that we’re in an election year, let’s see who steps forward and grasps this issue.

  11. Frustrated, 13. February 2019, 14:04

    I’m not sure that the bus numbers are holding up because people are ‘hardy’. More like they have no choice.
    I’m in Miramar – I’ve never seen so many people standing at bus stops and I’ve lived there for 20 years. It’s unbelievably bad especially now the second bus that was put on to alleviate the overcrowding has been taken off again.

  12. Keith Flinders, 13. February 2019, 18:18

    Michael: A list of the Karori and Northland bus services as they were prior to July 2018 is at http://vault.revoltwellington.co.nz/busmovements7.pdf

    Same list has the changes made Sept 2018 and further changes this month. Overcrowding on the 2 route was addressed this month by having even fewer services.

    30 buses to Karori used to start or pass through Courtenay Place per evening peak hour, now 16 do. Equates to 980 fewer passengers that are able to be carried through the CBD per peak.

    The 10 Northland/Mairangi buses per evening peak were previously in addition to the above 30, now start at the railway station, not via Courtenay Place as they used to. There are in addition 7 services from Courtenay via Kelburn, but they don’t suit users wanting to board Taranaki Street to Pastoral House.

    Frustrated: The Karori end of the 2 route has issues too.

  13. ani, 13. February 2019, 19:15

    appreciate your efforts, Daran, but really the current schedules are NOT an improvement on what we had prior to July18. thirty train drivers not available? surely “the market” would require better conditions and pay to fix this??? Every time I go to town I have no idea whether I will be at my destination in a timely fashion, let alone at the scheduled time. the american consultant was a joke. The rti is unreliable. it’s like the GRWC thought everyone was going to use ubers or Lime scooters. we’ve lost a very good public service which needed improvement for the disabled anyway, but what improvements occurred? noone believes the metlink stats

  14. Cr Daran Ponter, 13. February 2019, 21:51

    Hi Tim, The short answer is that negotiations between GWRC and NZ Bus are continuing.
    The long answer is that the issues in play here are things like:

    a) the life of the vehicles once commissioned (i.e. re-purposed trolley may only see out the current contracts (approx. 9 years); brand new electrics would go well into the next contract period; diesels could become stranded assets);
    b) depreciation rates – trolleys likely to be depreciated over a shorter period (to end of the current contracts), while new eclectics would be depreciated over a longer period; and
    c) battery warranty periods – for some reason the battery warranties could be less for a retrofitted vehicle (e.g. the trolleys) than for a brand new electric bus – not immediately an issue, but could become an issue if we experience failures in say 6 years time.

    Bottom line is that irrespective of whether we re-purpose the trolleys or buy brand new electric buses, we (the ratepayer) will pay a premium for electric buses – so really what GWRC is trying to do is understand how NZ Bus have calculated that premium, where the pencil needs to be sharpened, and whether the price can be justified.

    Ultimately I am pretty sure we will make a decision for 50 electric buses – but at this stage it’s a line call on whether these will be re-purposed trolleys or brand new electrics.

    If the decision is made for trolleys then they could start rolling within 6 months of agreement. New electrics is approx. 2 years – reason: we are looking for triple axle buses (i.e. very large buses) which will need to be designed from scratch (i.e. while there are more than 400,000 electric buses in China they are only double axle).

    On the Transit front the double decker electrics are performing very well. Nine buses are operating approx. 6 hours a days and the first pantograph fitted bus is working 18 hours a day seven days a week, with charging at Reef St. I have started discussions within the Regional Council to bring the next tranche (10) of double deckers forward, possibly with a bigger order.

  15. Cr Daran Ponter, 13. February 2019, 21:59

    Hi Michael
    1/ The statistics for Wellington bus commuters count a transfer as two journeys, so the raw statistics will show slightly inflated numbers because of more transfers. But even taking this into account, overall patronage is holding up when compared to the same period last year.

    2/ I’m not sure what the exact seat comparison is between Karori services now, versus same time last year. What I can say is that the Karori service (No 2) is now more consistently being served by triple axle buses (i.e. very large buses) whereas the previous services had a mix of very large and medium sized buses).

  16. Cr Daran Ponter, 13. February 2019, 22:17

    Hi Frustrated,

    Since the 4th of February we have encountered issues with one operator, NZ Bus, dropping a significant number of services – up to 30 services in the morning peak on some days (28 today) – no services dropped by any other operators. This is hugely frustrating, if not intolerable for all concerned. It has a particular effect on services in the Eastern suburbs, which, with the exception of Route 24, are all operated by NZ Bus.

    The issue advised by NZ Bus is a lack of drivers. Yet, NZ Bus were aware that additional services would be provided from 4 February and they said they could deliver. We know this because both NZ Bus and the Tramways Union signed off on the additional services and the shift rosters. Turns out that NZ Bus were not as prepared as they said they were.

    Metlink is working with NZ Bus to rectify the current situation. This means encouraging NZ Bus to take assistance from other bus companies who might have drivers who can be deployed to NZ Bus routes as an interim solution (similar to what Tranzit did in mid 2018).

    It seems incredible that services can be cancelled because of a lack of drivers – but this is a situation being faced in Auckland, Tauranga and Wellington – and particularly by NZ Bus, who seem to have been particularly slow to recognise the need for recruitment and training.

    As I say, Metlink is working with NZ Bus but I fear that we won’t be out for the woods for a while yet.

    Note that double deckers are due on the 30X and 31X routes at the end of the month. The double deckers are due in NZ around 20 February and should start being deployed a few days later (following fitting of Snapper equipment).

  17. Roy Kutel, 14. February 2019, 8:01

    Route (#2) was served by 100% electric trolley buses which were also bigger capacity. GWRC dismantled the network costing us $11 million and polluting our air and our ears. GWRC promised us Wright Speed replacements but delivered us crappy ex AKL diesels! I’ve given up on you guys. I shall never vote again in local elections because the system is broken.

  18. Trish, 14. February 2019, 10:39

    We asked for extra buses on route 35 and got two extra – but 1 too early and 1 too late for the morning rush – instead of reducing the time between buses to 10 minutes. They have added buses in the evening as well – but they are not on the timetable, so you cannot plan when to leave work! This is a small complaint, but indicative of the ongoing, half arsed, incompetent work being done to the system.

  19. Frustrated, 14. February 2019, 12:23

    Hi Daran, To be honest I’m tired of the reasons why things are wrong. There are so many reasons and the explanations just go on and on. And in the meantime I live just about every day with the mess. The traffic was unbelievable past the airport this morning between the buses and the road works.
    I participated in community consultation several times as this system was developed and many of the problems we are now having were anticipated at these consultations by members of the public. Officials disagreed – obviously they were wrong. I just want it fixed.

  20. Paul, 14. February 2019, 12:36

    @ Roy, you are playing into the councillors hands. Those who have no conscience and stand again (hopefully NOT Laidlaw or Donaldson who have to go) will be counting on just this level of apathy to get them back to the trough again.

  21. Kara Lipski, 14. February 2019, 14:04

    Last night I waited at a Lambton Quay bus stop for nearly 30 minutes for my bus (No.3) only to see two route 1 buses go past within 15 minutes of each other. And even though the No.14 is now going down to Kilbirnie the RTIs are still showing Hataitai as the terminus.

  22. Kon, 14. February 2019, 15:04

    Surely it is now time for some affirmative protest action against the bus debacle to get something done by Central Government. How about taking a page out of the French political protest book and take to the streets in some form or another? Nothing else has worked and don’t wait until election time for more promises.

  23. michael, 14. February 2019, 15:15

    I just wonder where all the “Not in Service” buses are going as every day there seems to be so many of them on the roads

  24. Roy Kutel, 14. February 2019, 19:56

    Hey Daran – what´s happened to the Airport Express? Frequency down, buses clapped out. Not a good look for visitors! I know GWRC doesn’t subsidise it but you did nail the company that provided it. I guess NZBus has been thinking Wellington is no place to do business.

  25. Keith Flinders, 15. February 2019, 9:26

    Roy. The Wrightspeed option was never going to work in Wellington as I wrote to Scoop in 2016, but had it then by now the complaints about the noise emanating from the micro turbines fitted on each bus would have been extremely numerous. I’m pleased that project was abandoned, but most unhappy that the GWRC sees no way forward converting 50 trolley buses in storage to battery operation. Converted trolley 361, the only conversion, continues to perform well.

    Does the Airport Flyer frequency reduction have anything to do with the lack of drivers at present ?

    If anyone wants to see an array of clapped out buses then look no further than route 2. Old noisy buses, some of which emit clouds of smoke.

  26. steve doole, 15. February 2019, 10:16

    Hi Daran, I appreciate your efforts.

    Have GW councillors been kept abreast of the financial and patronage results of bus changes – I mean the overall or combined position for all routes?
    If you have, did the summaries, presumably weekly, have notes about how much revenue was either missing or uncollected for each failure type, say – bus not run at all, bus service abandoned part way, bus did not follow route expected by passengers, bus not collecting fares at all, bus ticketing not working for part of journey?
    Presumably before the changes GWRC had some idea of the value of fares to be collected on each day of the week – yes Wednesdays tend to be higher than Mondays.
    And what about the cost of running services per day, (Including payments due to bus companies for operations, ticketing and real-time system suppliers, GW transport staff, GW data service supplies, and other things)?
    With cost and revenue figures for any day, the resulting surplus or deficit would be apparent.
    As fares cover less than the overall cost, the government subsidy through NZTA should be mentioned as well.
    Of prime concern is how the overall result is changing for better or worse. For instance, is GW actually going further in the red ?
    Perhaps you have seen a graph for costs vs revenue over some months. If you haven’t, is it time councillors saw the financial picture ?

  27. Roy Kutel, 15. February 2019, 22:50

    And the Airport Flyer gets worse with now no Snapper/RTI.

  28. Meredith, 16. February 2019, 10:59

    Just waiting…five empty buses in the CBD gone past..none others coming to the busstop? Is this the certainty the Chair talked about Daran? Have the drivers gone on strike again? I don’t blame them…

    I blame …?? Which CEO?? Which Council??

  29. Concerned Wellingtonian, 16. February 2019, 19:26

    The Regional Council has not had a Transport Committee meeting for over two months and the delay in publishing the Agenda for the meeting due next week means that they are in breach of their own formal rules about how the Council business should be conducted.
    In these circumstances it is unfair to blame Daran for not knowing what is going on.

  30. Roy Kutel, 16. February 2019, 20:37

    GWRC is disfunctional and needs abolishing now. It needs to be replaced by a Public Transport Authority with professionals in charge and clear objectives.

  31. Greenwelly, 16. February 2019, 20:50

    The meeting agendas are always made public only a few days before the meeting; I suspect the CRs get them a bit earlier. The reason it’s over 2 months is the Christmas break – for the rest of the year it’s 6 weekly

  32. Concerned Wellingtonian, 17. February 2019, 7:30

    Greenwelly, you are well qualified to stand for the Council and I hope you do.
    Using vague phrases like “a few” when their Standing Orders state “no less than two” will mean that you should get on very well with the people you will be sitting down with every six weeks (longer at Christmas of course).

  33. Mike Mellor, 18. February 2019, 9:45

    The agenda for Wednesday’s GWRC Sustainable Transport Committee meeting is now on line. As well as the usual agenda items, it includes presentations from Transdev on a new trial approach to rail replacement services on the Hutt Valley Line; and from NZ Bus on issues related to its current driver shortage.

    The meeting is at 9.30 at GWRC’s offices at 15 Walter St, and public participation is available.

  34. Colin Bloomfield, 12. March 2019, 14:42

    Daran, are all of the Transit electrics to be fitted with pantographs? I seem to recall assurances being made when they were touted as alternatives to the trolleys that terminus charging would keep them on the road as much as possible.

  35. Graham C Atkinson, 12. March 2019, 15:30

    Colin: the answer to your question is yes; now that the testing of the locally-developed version has been completed, the units are being fitted, with the second due in Wellington tomorrow.