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Metlink Live gets underway with Kilbirnie forum

Last night saw the launch of Metlink Live, a Facebook forum “developed to listen further” to concerns about changes to Wellington’s public transport network.

Mark Cubey got amongst it.

Metlink Live: On Our Way is a new initiative: digital, live-chat sessions that lets communities question the Metlink transport team, and share experiences so they might more clearly understand particular issues faced by passengers.

It’s a good idea, in theory. Facebook is where people are at, so Metlink had to go there, and this kind of forum is a good way to collate concerns about specific areas of the public transport mess, provide information, dispel misconceptions and commit to resolving issues within a timeframe.

Some of that happened last night in the first such forum, on Kilbirnie issues.

You can have a look at how it went at facebook.com/MetlinkOnOurWay (now with over 300 comments).

But Facebook is messy, kind of like the bus system, and being there for the live aspect was like going to an annoying real life public meeting with lots of shouting all at the same time to the room, with sideways crossfire, and people not keeping to the brief.

Also, the planned 30 minutes was never going to be long enough for what turned out to be a flood of questions and comments (the session was sensibly extended to 8:30pm) with some participants complaining after ten minutes that their questions weren’t being answered Right Now.

And online you don’t get the same kind of moderation of serial complainers, time limits to questions, or the gales of laughter or waves of derision that can enliven real-life community events.

But at least I didn’t have to sit on an uncomfortable chair and then attempt to get home on the bus.

This first online forum, followed on from a fractious community meeting on Kilbirnie and its surrounds, on Sunday at St Pat’s College.

Metlink noted public responses that meeting, and framed three core Kilbirnie problems for this online meeting: problems transferring at bus hubs, issue of capacity and overcrowding on buses and timeliness – buses running late or, worse, early.

These are all significant.

But as Frank Lawton pointed out in a response to a Metlink post on the Kilbirnie public meeting, they don’t address higher level matters such as “the extent to which the hubs are a problem and a disincentive for people to go by bus” and “your contracting of the operators is not as flexible as you need it to be.”

Or indeed, if the changes are needed at all, which has been a common complaint from the public since the changes were introduced on 15 July.

Metlink has a standard response to this: “The introduction of the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM) by central government was to future proof it for expected growth of the region. We are expecting passenger journeys to grow from 38 million to 42 million in 2024.”

This is why the unpopular bus hubs and route changes have been introduced, and the reason why Wellington will not be returning to its former system.

Metlink’s response to complaints about bus cancellations, lateness, driver unfamiliarity with routes, drivers playing radios, overcrowding on buses and so forth has often been “we will take it up with the operator”.

There are two operators: NZ Bus, which still runs most of the routes through Kilbirnie, and newcomer Tranzit. Negotiations between Metlink and the operators are not going to be carried out in public, and making changes to established contracts (ie. increasing bus frequency, changing routes) is not something that can be imposed unilaterally by Metlink.

However from October, they will be able to penalise contractors for failure to deliver on the agreed services.

What else is likely to happen?

There is a lot of concern about the unsuitability of Hataitai Village as a transfer point (semi-hub?), and while Metlink seem convinced that capacity didn’t warrant the retention of the #14 service continuing to Kilbirnie from Hataitai, pressure from the public and GWRC councillor Sue Kedgeley may yet bear fruit on this issue.

As is the case in most areas, the Kilbirnie bus hub is a temporary solution, with the finishing of the eventual site having been delayed by the excavation works being carried out by Wellington Water.

The hub will not be in a final form until the end of September, and it’s too soon to tell how this will work. Or not work; having shelters adjacent to the entry and exit points for the Mobil service station always seemed like a weird move. It’s a real shame that the council couldn’t kick KFC and Mobil off their current sites and turn the area into a full-facility luxury Bus Shub (with spa). Opportunity missed.

Metlink’s stated commitment is that “When properly working, on average you shouldn’t have to wait more than five minutes to make a timetabled connection to another bus at a sheltered bus hub.” That’s a bold claim, and they will need to be held to it.

The future Kilbirnie Bus Hub.

Real Time Information is obviously a huge priority problem for Metlink as it is causing difficulties all across the network, with online and roadside signs still not providing the same information. The technology fix for this must surely be resolved soon… though the “ghost bus” problem (when scheduled buses… disappear), was a problem even before the changes were introduced.

Late or early running buses are causing ongoing frustration, which Metlink acknowledge. Some services have run late as drivers get used to the new routes (this is a Tranzit and NZ Bus problem, not Metlink).

Some timetables have needed fine tuning so buses don’t bunch up and run late. This was always going to be required; there was no way of accurately testing this, despite claims that this should have happened. (The time taken getting on and off double deckers though… how easy would that have been to work out?)

Many passengers would have been used to buses arriving late, or not at all, before this change happened, but this really needs to be sorted.

Metlink says that overcrowding in the Kilbirnie area has been caused by “smaller-capacity buses sometimes being deployed at peak times, as well as cancelled services and buses not running to timetable” and that they are “working with operators to introduce improved depot management practices to ensure only bigger buses are used during peak services”.

They are also deploying extra back up buses between Lyall Bay, Haitaitai and the Wellington train station to provide more capacity.

Expect this to continue with the “fine tuning” that people on the forum were complaining about. We’ll see if it works.

In the meantime, watch out for people who might need a seat or disabled access or general assistance on a crowded bus. Because optimum capacity is the new reality; the days of catching a fairly empty bus whenever you wanted to are probably over.

There were other specific issues raised in the forum, and this long piece would have to be much longer to deal with them all.

And I haven’t even touched on the problems that drivers are facing in trying to cope with the exigencies of the new system, and their stalled negotiations with their bus company employers. Another time.

I should note though how impressed I have been with the audience engagement team at Metlink, who appear to be playing the best and most transparent hand they can, dealt to them from a stacked deck.

They engaged helpfully and courteously with complaints on the superior social media platform of Twitter pretty much from day one of the Great Change, and so it was on Facebook with this forum.

It took a while (I asked how many staff were working on it, but haven’t heard back), but they are eventually getting to everyone who contributed last night, including responding to an enquiry from Sarah Free, the only WCC councillor to participate.

She asked about the standard time frame for getting back to people who have tweeted, emailed or written with issues.

The answer: “We do aim to get back to any requests within ten working days.”

So, let us know, at [email protected], if this is happening. And with anything else you want to say.

Lastly, a suggestion for future forums: make it one question per post to keep the discussion simple and clean. Long lists of questions all in the one Facebook rant are really hard to deal to. Less is more.

The next online (bus) stop for Metlink Live is Karori, on Monday 3 September from 7:30pm (again, only for 30 minutes, but we will see). With the planned reinstatement of the 18 route, this may be a simpler discussion. Maybe not.

Or, if you’re in the western suburbs and prefer face to face, there’s a community meeting tomorrow night from 7:30pm at Karori West School, 19 Allington Road.

More will follow in the coming weeks.

If there’s any silver lining in this mess, it’s that people are engaging with each other about their community in a way we haven’t seen in Wellington for years.