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Trying to fix the buses

by Thomas Nash
I really want to apologise for the cancellations of bus services in Wellington at the moment. We are short of about 60 drivers and we urgently need to improve pay and conditions so we can attract more people to the profession.

Bus drivers are employed by private bus companies, and under the public transport model designed by the previous National government the system prioritises profit over public good and has placed downward pressure on pay and conditions.

This system is failing all of us.

Wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living and split shifts are a killer. The covid situation has piled more risk and pressure on drivers, who kept us going as essential workers during the pandemic. As a result it has become harder and harder to retain and recruit drivers.

So what to do?

Firstly, yesterday the council announced we will change the timetable to run fewer services because of the lack of drivers. This will make it easier for passengers to plan journeys and mean fewer cancellations. But we need more services not fewer, so it’s frustrating.

Secondly we are working to improve wages. We’ve worked with the government to set the Living Wage as a base rate for all drivers, we’re supporting a fair deal for the drivers negotiating with NZ Bus and we’re advocating for a national agreement on fair pay and conditions.

Thirdly we are working on a submission to the Ministry of Transport on the Public Transport Operating Model, pushing for public ownership of buses and bus infrastructure. Public ownership of these assets will increase coordination and strategic control and likely reduce costs overall.

This will all take time – time to repair the damage done over years of devaluing public transport as a public good and undervaluing the workers that provide this essential service. I see a Regional Council committed to these changes. In the meantime I am sorry about the buses.

It won’t solve all the problems and isn’t a quick fix, but if you’re in a position to submit by Friday, the government is consulting on the Public Transport Operating Model. You can advocate for better driver pay and conditions and public ownership here.

Thomas Nash is a Wellington Regional Councillor and chair of the regional council’s climate committee.
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20 comments:

  1. Andrew Ecclestone, 16. June 2021, 9:57

    Thank you for this. While the explanation won’t improve the bus services, this kind of openness can help with retaining or fostering trust that elected representatives are trying to make things better. [via twitter]

     
  2. Greenwelly, 16. June 2021, 10:36

    “Bus drivers are employed by private bus companies, and under the public transport model designed by the previous National government the system prioritises profit over public good and has placed downward pressure on pay and conditions.” Oh come on. Stagecoach purchased the WCC’s bus company in 1992, private ownership is not new; the PTOM came into force in 2013, it is not new. The problems in the Wellington buses came about subsequent to the Regional Council upending the routes and timetables, they removed the emissions-free trolley buses, and then awarded the contracts to different companies, things really started to go downhill from there. Asking us to now lobby central government to fix the problem seems a little disingenuous when many would say the Regional Council’s changes were part of the problem.

     
  3. Alex Korban, 16. June 2021, 10:37

    I made a submission suggesting that public transport should be publicly owned and operated. The mental contortions required to insert commercial operators and private profits into what’s essentially a single network in each region are absurd. It should never have happened. [via twitter]

     
  4. Amacf, 16. June 2021, 11:38

    You’re right Greenwelly, but that was then and this is now. We need a solution to Wellington’s public transport woes and the PTOM model has to be addressed. GWRC has to take on being a single owner, public transport system that runs trains and buses across the region. It needs to happen ASAP.

     
  5. GK, 16. June 2021, 11:39

    Greenwelly: PTOM came into force in Wellington with new contracts (2016 for rail, 2018 for buses). Splitting bus services into units which were contracted separately was going to happen regardless of whether network changes happened.

     
  6. Molly, 16. June 2021, 11:42

    Really refreshing to hear a humble apology and honest explanation from a politician. While there may not be accountability for past council decisions, it’s good to see the GWRC is doing something, albeit largely influencing. Thanks Thomas!

     
  7. Alan, 16. June 2021, 16:19

    Wow, the Living Wage for bus drivers ($22 an hour). Honestly, Thomas you haven’t a clue what it might be like to sit at the wheel of a big bus responsible for the safety of large amounts of people for hour after hour. Starting sometimes well before the crack of dawn and at other times finishing in the small hours of the morning – when Councillors are tucked up in the warm beds. And you think the Living Wage is an answer!

     
  8. GK, 16. June 2021, 17:29

    Peak hour on Lambton Quay: three Island Bay buses in a row cancelled. Supposedly one of the main “frequent” routes. What a joke.

     
  9. Ray Chung, 16. June 2021, 19:47

    Thanks for this Thomas. I’m wondering though what empirical evidence you have that makes you assert that if wages for bus drivers were higher, there would be more people applying for these jobs? It’s always very easy to say that people are motivated purely by money. I tend to think that people choose their vocations because they want to do that work and enjoy it. I have a lot of respect for bus drivers, particularly those driving the 24 route through the narrow streets in Khandallah with cars parked on both sides of the streets. Regarding your proposal that the GWRC take over running the buses, I can’t say that I have any enthusiasm for this and doubt whether you could do any better because I’ve found that the GWRC love spending ratepayers’ money with scant consideration for the value we’re getting. I consider the huge subsidy to run the Manawatu commuter train as a prime example of this. Talking about the model where the GWRC tenders these contracts, isn’t that one of the responsibilities where they’re trying to get the best value for ratepayers?

     
  10. Hel, 16. June 2021, 22:33

    Might be struggling with memory but can’t remember things being this bad prior to the GWRC bus shambles. Hard to have confidence in these guys being any part of a solution.

     
  11. Cr Daran Ponter, 17. June 2021, 7:54

    Alan – no Alan. The living wage is a start.

     
  12. Cr Daran Ponter, 17. June 2021, 7:59

    Ray Chung – it is about pay AND conditions. Higher pay will be required to attract a stable work force. But conditions need to be addressed as well – which is why Metlink is working with the operators and unions to remove split shifts. In the coming months you can expect to see more inter-peak services being offered.

     
  13. Pete, 17. June 2021, 8:35

    The problem with the current accountability mechanism is that the fines are too low, encouraging operators to bid unrealistically low for the contracts. But imagine how much worse it will be if the only accountability mechanism is three yearly elections.

     
  14. Benoit Pette, 17. June 2021, 9:52

    I support having public transport in the hands of the public. But I also remember that the Regional Council is responsible for the annihilation of our current bus network, that it removed our electric buses in 2017 and replaced it with diesel ones. It’s also an organisation unable to clearly oppose the airport expansion, despite the known reality that it will increase emissions.

    So while crushing down PTOM seems the logical thing to do, while reclaiming the bus service so that it works for the community makes a lot of sense (and if anything, clarifies accountability), my trust in the council is also low. I think I will feel better about it when the promised new electric buses are finally delivered (we haven’t had one single electric bus in the East since 2017!).

     
  15. Old Driver, 17. June 2021, 9:53

    Hel the problem of short notice cancellations has been with us since early 2011 when NZ Bus implemented changes to the previous Stagecoach operational management structure. There was one week where four morning-peak Route 23 services out of Houghton Bay were cancelled in succession leaving no service at all between 7.45am and 8.45am and the first two Route 14 trips were also regularly cancelled.

    Old hands at both the regional council and the bus companies will be able to tell you of regular meetings between the two when the council wase assured that NZ Bus knew what the problem was and a fix was in the pipeline – just show a little patience.

    The big challenge now will be how the council balances up the pay rates between operators – a big jump to the base rate at NZ Bus (with the obvious flow on through the service and penal rates) will mean that drivers working for those companies already paying above the “living wage” will be disadvantaged.

     
  16. Ralf, 17. June 2021, 10:18

    Normally services are reduced when there is no demand, usually sped along by starving PT in the first place and making it unattractive, which our GWCC is doing a splendid job with. Still that didn’t work in Wellington, demand is clearly still there, so we just reduce services anyway. Finally I understand the meaning of “First to Zero!”. First to Zero bus passengers, because we have no more busses.

    And I have to hand it to the GWCC, it will work hand in hand with the new handout for buying new cars from the government. So the long-term strategy to put more cars onto our roads to grow our economy is going along splendidly (last time I checked NZ did not have a car industry though, most of the money is going out of NZ, but hey, that is why they pay the people in government and council the big bucks, they must surely understand it better than me).

    It doesn’t really gel with VisionZero or ClimateEmergency, but those are just PR Spins anyway, the latter one is already solved by focusing on 2050, so that is out of scope for any politician for a long time (besides declaring that we will be zero in 2050! Yay! of course this year we will increase our emissions, obviously, duh). Vision Zero has 2029 as a date, which is also far enough away to apply business as usual, which in NZ means “All Hail The Car, Our Overlord”.

    P.S. GWCC: Greater Wellington Car Council.

     
  17. Cr Daran Ponter, 17. June 2021, 11:14

    Ralf – er no. The network has a bit of head room to remove some peak services at the moment as the network is at approx 86% patronage on what it was prior to Covid. While Metlink will remove some peak services, we will be putting in more inter-peak services, giving more options through the day. This has the benefit of being able to provide drivers with more full shifts (removing/reducing split shifts).

     
  18. Cr Daran Ponter, 17. June 2021, 11:25

    Old Driver – salutary reminders – thanks. Metlink is aware of the need to ensure a balanced approach to driver remuneration and conditions, across operators – work in progress.

    Benoit Pette – “annihilation”! Really? The electric buses for both NZ Bus and Tranzurban are on the way. Driver training on the first of the new NZ Bus EVs is underway on the streets of Wellington. The first of the new batch of Tranzurban double decker EVs will be on its test track shortly. Within a short period there will be 108 EV buses on the network.

     
  19. Ms Green, 17. June 2021, 11:39

    Public ownership would be good…but will it ensure that the half full off-peak bus, which sped right past the busstop where I was waiting, will stop next time? I see the Minister is apparently supporting public ownership .. so that means he and the government will pay for breaking the current contracts with bus owners and operators and purchasing the buses? Pigs might fly? If not … well public ownership is many years off, if ever. It won’t solve the present operational problems. We the public are just pawns in a political game. As far as I can tell, the Regional Council is locked into contracts with owners and operators and hasn’t the funds to purchase.

     
  20. Benoit Pette, 17. June 2021, 12:26

    Daran, we all remember GWRC’s rollout of the new bus network in 2018 and how smooth a ride it was. The service we are currently getting is equally appalling with so many cancellations. You can blame NZ Bus, Tranzurban, the wages, PTOM or the moving tides, what matters is whether users trust that the service is reliable, frequent, and affordable. Right now, despite traffic being at its worst, it is still more efficient to take the car, which I deeply regret, believe me. So the service continues to disappoint, and I bet people who bus do so because they have no other choice. Once again, I want the best for Wellington’s PT network. I also believe it should be managed publicly. But trust in the Regional Council’s ability to take over is damaged, or at least, mine is.

    I am pleased to read the electric buses are around the corner. I just hope that “shortly” and “soon” is in English, and not LGWM talk.