‘Customers are losing confidence in our ability to provide an acceptable service,’ warns an internal AT memo.
The “March madness” endured by public transport users across the country reached new heights of frustration and fury in Tāmaki Makaurau last month. Across bus, train and ferry services, users registered all-time low levels of satisfaction in Auckland Transport surveys, leading an AT analyst to sound an internal alarm about a crisis of customer confidence.
Ahead of the traditionally strained month of March, impacted in part by the return of tertiary students to campus, AT warned commuters in a controversial social media post: “Please consider travelling off-peak to avoid the busiest periods on our roads and public transport services. Buses, trains and ferries will be busier and more services will have standing room only. For those who need to travel in peak, please allow extra time.”
Those concerns were borne out. The first full week of March saw users’ satisfaction with their most recent public transport journey fall to an all-time low for the second consecutive week, at just 34% of respondents. The same figure was recorded the following week.
As far as overall satisfaction with the public transport system is concerned, the first week of March saw a record low of just 22% of users. That fell a further three points in the second week, to 19%, meaning that less than one in five public transport users declared themselves satisfied with the system. Most of the comments that accompanied survey responses addressed the cancellation or delay of services.
The ratings are drawn from online surveys of registered Hop card customers who have travelled on the Auckland network, provided to The Spinoff in response to an official information request.
‘Customers are losing confidence’
The gravity of those numbers was laid out in internal correspondence. “As reliability issues continue to plague the network,” wrote a customer insights specialist in a note that set out the numbers from the first week of March, “customers are losing confidence in our ability to provide an acceptable service, with some commenting that it is no longer worth it to use public transport.”
In the first week of the month, satisfaction with bus services fell to an all-time low of 32%, while more than half (57%) of respondents reported their latest journey being affected by a disruption.
“The frequency of cancellations has left customers uncertain, causing anxiety and stress about whether they will be able to get to their destination on time,” noted the AT survey analyst. “Whilst some have opted to leave their houses earlier to account for any disruptions, others resort to [a] private vehicle to save time. Additionally, for those impacted by cancellations, they express frustration at extended wait times due to subsequent buses being full and unable to pick passengers up.”
Auckland Transport online public transport survey
The following week, the analyst noted: “Frequent cancellations (coupled with March madness) means buses are perceived as crowded or at times, too full to pick customers up. This results in high stress and anxiety as customers are missing work or important appointments, and organising alternative transport can be costly.”
Satisfaction with train services came in at 41%, with disruptions reported by 58% of respondents. The analysis stresses that this result does not include those whose services were out of action as a result of the Rail Network Rebuild programme. “It is important to note that these are from customers who are currently using our train services – that is, those who haven’t been impacted by RNR.”
There were some encouraging signs, albeit from a low base, by the end of March. In the week ending March 29, overall satisfaction with the latest journey was 37%, with overall satisfaction with the system at 24%. By the end of the month, train satisfaction was at 43%. Patronage across the system increased in March.
Ferry satisfaction was dire through March, reaching a record low of 28% for the month. Reports of disruption were also at their highest level, on 58%. The survey analyst observed: “Customers are frustrated with their ferry services, with one saying ‘the service is getting worse and worse, and no one seems to be held accountable’, calling it a ‘total farce of a service’. Others do not feel that AT or the ferry operators care about the number of delays / disruptions. Customers’ biggest pain points continue to be information about delays and disruptions (13%) and how often services run (15%).”
‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
The results reflected “a range of complex staffing, infrastructure and broader service delivery issues”, said Mark Lambert, AT’s executive general manager, integrated networks. “On our bus and ferry networks our passengers are experiencing a disappointingly high number of cancellations, delays and disruptions due to ongoing staff shortages from our bus and ferry operators, part of a global transport skills shortage,” he said in a statement.
“And on our rail network there are significant disruptions at the moment for passengers travelling on the Eastern Line because of KiwiRail’s Rail Network Rebuild programme, which is line-by-line replacing the foundations of Auckland’s rail network. These challenges have led to a prolonged period of disruption and uncertainty for our passengers, which has understandably dented Aucklanders’ confidence in public transport.”
Lambert pointed to progress including a lift in bus driver wages and a recruitment drive that had seen a driver shortfall at the end of last year reduced to 354 today. The goal, he said, was to deliver a full timetable by the end of the year. AT was working with KiwiRail “to find ways to minimise disruption from the Rail Network Rebuild and provide better alternative transport options” and with ferry operators “on an industry-wide training approach to help address the skills shortage affecting our ferry services”. Further work was under way to improve communications.
“Despite the current challenges facing our network we are seeing increasingly strong patronage across our network, with passenger numbers last week reaching 79% of pre-Covid levels, made up of 83% for bus, 103% for ferries, and 60% for trains (reflecting significantly lower passenger numbers during KiwiRail’s Rail Network Rebuild),” he said. “Like most of our team at Auckland Transport, I’m a regular public transport user too and I appreciate that it is tough at the moment with the state of the network. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and so we’re asking Aucklanders for their patience as we continue to do our best to improve the reliability and performance of our network.”
Auckland Transport is currently undergoing a restructure process expected to see around 150 people in a staff of around 2,000 lose their jobs.
That process follows Auckland Council demands for a $32.5 million annual saving from the council-controlled organisation, which Wayne Brown wants to see implemented “without making further cuts to public transport services that Aucklanders rely on”.
Addressing the board of AT, the Auckland mayor said: “This is a tough ask, I know, and will require hard choices, but households across Auckland are facing tough choices as interest rates rises, and council and our CCO’s must do the same.”
Brown has reiterated a request for “a fundamental change of approach from AT”, saying: “The organisation currently suffers from a serious democratic deficit and needs to regain social licence for its activities. AT needs to deeply understand and respond to what matters most to Aucklanders in transport.”
He urged a focus on meeting immediate service needs ahead of “large-scale investment in new infrastructure”, and improvement in communications with users. He said: “AT needs to reduce its cost to council. AT must at all times prioritise affordability and value for money. This should include looking at phased delivery of projects and lower cost delivery of the cycling programme.”