(Photo: Radio NZ / Diego Opatowski)
(Photo: Radio NZ / Diego Opatowski)

Local ElectionsSeptember 13, 2019

Everyone says they’ll fix Wellington’s buses. Easy-peasy. Right?

(Photo: Radio NZ / Diego Opatowski)
(Photo: Radio NZ / Diego Opatowski)

Across the city, candidates are running for office on the promise of fixing the botched bus network. Good luck to them.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

In the space of just a year or so, a generation of goodwill towards the Wellington bus network was destroyed.

Routes that commuters had rode for years were suddenly gone, to be replaced by a “hub and spoke” system that required far more frequent transfers than before. There were immense teething problems with that, but public confidence was damaged far more by the fact that it never seemed to get any better. 

Buses frequently just wouldn’t show up, or would run late. Mismanagement led to a collapse in morale among the driving workforce, and an exodus of skilled, experienced drivers, particularly from contractor Tranzit. Fines piled up for the other major contractor NZ Bus, for tens of thousands of breaches of contract. They’re all relatively separate issues, but combined to create an absolute cluster. 

For the Greater Wellington Regional Council, who oversaw the transition, the political fallout hasn’t ended. In Wellington City itself, almost every candidate running for election has made talking about fixing the buses a campaign priority. Some candidates running for offices that don’t have a lot to do with the buses are even getting in on it, such are the potential gains. 

But voters who expect their preferred candidates to be able to simply cut through the mess might be in for a huge amount of disappointment. Because there are some huge structural roadblocks, which could take years to clear away. They include: 

The whole structure under which the reforms were made

The story of Wellington’s bus debacle could be dated back to the 2013 adoption of the Public Transport Operating Model framework by central government. The idea behind it was to open the commercial potential of public transport systems, in tandem with reducing reliance on public subsidies for networks. It is now being reviewed, but this is basically the context in which bus networks operate now. But how does a commercial contractor make money out of running a bus network? The vehicles and fuel costs are pretty much identical from operator to operator, which means there’s one major area for screwing down costs – labour. 

Much of the bus driving workforce of Wellington has packed it in

Much like other undervalued professions, driving a bus is really hard. It weighs a few dozen tonnes, and in Wellington must be threaded through narrow gaps, and up steep and winding hills. All the while, the tiniest mistake could kill someone. Unfortunately, when Tranzit picked up a share of Wellington City routes from NZ Bus, many drivers took voluntary redundancy, and looked askance at the conditions being offered by Tranzit. There’s no collective agreement at the latter, so the experienced drivers (who were almost all unionised) said thanks, but no. 

And that means there has been a frantic and ongoing recruitment drive

Many of the problems right now stem from the fact that there just aren’t enough drivers. There are posters around Wellington right now, with the slogan “full time student, part time bus driver.” There have also been moves by NZ Bus to bring in drivers from overseas, and lobbying from operators to have bus driving added to Immigration NZ’s skill shortages list. The concern is not the drivers being brought in won’t be up to the job, it’s that it will further undercut the existing workforce. And again, see above about driving a bus being really quite hard, particularly in Wellington.  

So can’t Greater Wellington Regional Council just throw a whole lot more money at it all?

What pile of money would that be, exactly? Regional councils do get a share of rates, but it’s much smaller than that which are paid to City Councils. As well as that, it’s not like any local government organisation anywhere in the country is particularly flush with cash right now. 

But surely, if everyone in Wellington City agrees it’s a good idea? 

Say all five seats in the Wellington constituency end up going to the most extremely pro-bus candidates who are running. That still leaves nine other seats from around the region – Kāpiti, Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt, Porirua-Tawa and the Wairarapa. Wellington is the biggest of those, but given the geography of the region, the train system is arguably more important for the other constituencies. 

That’s not to say that the bus debacles are an issue for Wellington City only – other parts of the regions have had their problems as well – but it’s most pronounced in the city.  Besides, no matter how much everyone agrees that a single issue is their top priority, regional councils have very wide responsibilities, particularly around the environment. 

And there’s a whole lot of not particularly well shared responsibility

The Greater Wellington Regional Council oversees and awards contracts for public transport service providers. The Wellington City Council decides where priority bus lanes and bus stops will go. The two organisations haven’t exactly been seeing eye to eye recently, particularly when voters started blaming the city council for the regional council’s mess. And that’s not to mention the fact that all up, there are many more city councils to the north who also have a stake in the issue. 

Can’t they just go back to the old routes that people liked?

Not really. In the space of about a decade, Wellington City’s population grew by about 20,000 people. Bus patronage rose. And the previous routes all pretty much went through the middle of town, creating serious bottlenecks and capacity constraints. Much as many might hate the hub and spoke system, something really did need to change if capacity was going to increase further. 

Ah, but won’t Let’s Get Wellington Moving get Wellington moving?

Eventually, but that’s a totally separate issue again. The LGWM package is an extremely long-term funding plan, and while bus improvements are a priority in that, anything noticeable that will rebuild public trust is likely to be years in the making. 

Is it possible that Julie-Anne Genter’s secret letter contains the secret to fixing the buses? 

We can only hope.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

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