The Greater Wellington Regional Council has legislative responsibilities to provide public transport services for the region. This council now has to look at ways to reduce spending on these services, largely due to central government’s desire to cut the investment it makes towards public transport, as outlined in its Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM).
Currently public transport costs are met (approximately) on a one-third, one-third, one third basis, which each of those components coming from taxpayers, ratepayers and fare-payers respectively. A reduced contribution from taxpayers means that ratepayers and fare-payers will have to increase their contributions.
Good luck with getting fare-payers to directly stump up more for each trip they make. Good luck too with increasing regional rates, given council’s desire (particularly in an election year) to keep its rate increases less than the level of inflation.
The regional council owns the region’s rail network including the Matangi trains that run on the rails and other infrastructure leased from KiwiRail. That’s a big investment that it is stuck with, so cost savings are unlikely to be wrung out of there, particularly as the council struggles to fund its rail plans and commitments. So that leaves harbour ferries and buses.
Ferries are very small beer, probably close to being a rounding error in the regional public transport balance sheet. They provide a useful service getting tourists to and from Somes Island, which is a good thing.
So that leaves buses.
The region’s bus services of significance are currently provided by three operators. NZ Bus (Go Wellington and Valley Flyer) takes care of services in the Hutt Valley and Wellington City south of Johnsonville. Mana-Newlands takes care of Wellington’s northern suburbs, as well as Porirua and Kapiti. Tranzit provides contracted bus services in the Wairarapa.
The regional council’s cost saving strategy for buses has two key threads: reduce services and patronage. Fewer people on buses means fewer buses are needed.
To help achieve this it is removing Wellington city’s trolley bus network later in 2017, increasing the number of contracted operating companies, and driving down wages paid to bus operators.
Removing trolley buses breaks NZ Bus’s current monopoly for bus services in the city inherited from Stagecoach and the Wellington City Council before that. No trolleys makes it easier for the council to divide the region into zones that can then be tendered to bus operating businesses, with the lowest cost tenderer being the winner.
This pursuit of low costs is clearly evidenced by Tranzit’s success in the bus services tendering round announced in May 2017. How else could a business with no buses, no drivers, no depots, no supporting infrastructure and no experience operating a metropolitan bus service do so well? I guess that having no buses significantly boosted its ability to meet an emissions target.
Zones also make it easier for the regional council to reduce patronage by making bus usage more disruptive, inconvenient and take longer. For example from July 2018, bus users from Seatoun wanting to travel to the city will have to change buses at Miramar and Kilbirnie. The process of changing buses will add several minutes to the trip, more if travellers have to wait for their next service connection. Not particularly convenient if one is disabled or has a pushchair and toddlers to manage.
These new bus transfer terminuses are to be at already busy locations, Kilbirnie particularly. Increasing the numbers of buses entering and leaving the terminuses will further choke these suburban shopping centres, particularly at peak times. Several well-patronised bus routes (such as the Route 18 from Miramar to Karori via most university campuses) are also planned to be axed.
Given that there is no integrated ticketing system likely for some years, travellers will either have to carry multiple smart cards (like Snapper) or pay a new cash fare for each bus they board. People currently entitled to Gold Cards enjoy free travel throughout the region except during the weekday morning and afternoon peak services times. It is likely that they may have to contribute financially in future as the regional council takes over contributions previously made by government.
Double-decker buses are also planned. Very sexy they are too, London Chic, particularly for drivers of BMW X5s and regional councillors. Double-deckers (DDs) carry more people. A benefit of this is that services can be reduced. For example routes like Island Bay and Karori that now enjoy a bus every 15 minutes, or less at times, can expect to have a bus every half hour. But DDs take longer to load and unload, which means about another 10 to 15 minutes will be added to trips through the CBD. Limited overtaking opportunities for buses in the CBD will result in these delays being passed on to passengers on the double-deckers and passengers on other services, not just those on the tardy DDs.
A significant cost for bus companies is bus operator wages. Expect to see those slashed by new entrants keen to turn a dollar from their $500-plus million investment in buses, depots and infrastructure. Given that bus operator pay rates are currently not much more than the “living wage” in return for long hours of availability each week (13 hour commitment for up to eight hours paid in a six-day week), expect to see industrial disruption from the current workforce and the arrival of migrant drivers from lower wage economies. The regional council has invested millions of dollars in legal and strategic advice to help it manage its way through these murky waters.
All of the region’s buses and drivers will be dressed the same after these changes are implemented, probably to have a “seamless public transport experience” from regional council subsidiary Metlink’s point of view. Buses too will be regaled in Metlink livery, irrespective of the operating company. Yet the regional council argues that it will not be their employer.
If the regional council was serious about the region’s public transport, it would own all of the capital equipment (trains, buses and ferries) and employ all of the staff needed to operate and maintain those. It would pay those staff at least the “living wage” and possibly performance bonuses, as reasonable employers often do. To do otherwise by “contracting out” is disingenuous smoke and mirrors designed solely to reduce costs the council would not have the spine to do if it was truly responsible for providing safe, reliable, easy-to-use public transport services that increased usage. It’s a great example of so-called community leaders demonstrating that they may understand costs but not value or responsibility. It also demonstrates that decision-making at the regional council is in the hands of senior management, not elected councillors.
Yet again a local council - the Wellington Regional Council - has introduced major service changes without engaging with affected communities of interest or locality. The regional council may argue that it has done all of the engagement that legislation prescribes. In other words, the absolute minimum written submission process, or nowhere near enough. If it had engaged widely, there would be few surprises looming for any community in the region regarding public transport changes. It would also be able to significantly reduce the amount of money it plans to spend on lawyers.
One of these involved and affected communities is bus operators, who have been completely ignored by the regional council, despite being significant stakeholders in the region’s public transport network. Elected councillors have been bullied away from talking with the bus drivers’ union by their senior officials.
Communities representing Maori, people with disabilities, parents with young children (mums with prams), new immigrants, schools, local businesses, taxi operators, suburban retailers, commercial vehicle users and others have not been actively sought for their input either. The council is probably in breach of its Significance and Engagement Policy by not having proactively sought input from community members other than its “usual suspects”.
Communities deserve better. Greater Wellington Regional Council is not going to let them have it.