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Core transport problems remain as urgent bus review promised

Yesterday’s meeting of the Sustainable Transport Committee of the Greater Wellington Regional Council agreed to commission an independent review of what has gone wrong with the region’s new public transport system. But problems with core assumptions around the system remain, and the refusal of transport operators to negotiate with the drivers’ union remains the elephant in the room.

by Mark Cubey

Greg Campbell is not having a good week.

The GWRC chief executive said last week that he would be shelving all his other duties until the ongoing problems with Wellington’s region’s bus network were resolved.

Those duties presumably didn’t refer to his role as chair of the Council jointly administering the Whitireia and WelTec tertiary institutions, but now it looks like he won’t need to put aside time for that either.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said Tuesday that following consultation and consideration of submissions he has notified the combined Council of Whitireia and WelTec of his plans to dissolve it and appoint a Commissioner.

Greg Campbell fronted at yesterday’s packed meeting of the GWRC’s Sustainable Transport Committee, chaired by Barbara Donaldson, to hear solidly argued cases stating just how badly the Council has messed up the planning and implementation of the region’s bus system, and “made the city a nationwide laughing stock” as speaker Michael Gibson observed.

This is on top of “thousands” of emails received by councillors and Metlink, the operating arm of the GWRC charged with the design and implementation of the system.

On Twitter, complaints continue to flow in daily. There are always new problems, which is not what Metlink will be wanting, nearly ten weeks into the new system.

Worse, the same problems continue to resurface. These are not “teething problems” any more.

For example, the 7:40am inbound service on the #24 route has been frequently cancelled over the past couple of weeks. Most likely reason: no one to drive the bus. We’ll get to that. Other bus services continue to be cancelled on a regular basis.

Even the routes that have had extra services added aren’t coping. On Twitter this morning, Rochelle wrote: “Our #3 buses are completely useless today. 20 people have been offloaded from 4 #23 buses in a row and haven’t been able to board a #3. 2 were missing. 2 were full.”

To their credit, the Metlink social media team have been doing a sterling job of responding to complaints, comment and sometimes rage from passengers. (Metlink and the GWRC call them “customers”; I just… can’t.)

But there’s only so much that Metlink can do, or say.

Complaints about dropped services, driver behaviour and so on are met with a response that they have been passed on to the operator concerned.

In some cases, this will be the long time (and unionised) operator NZ Bus, who used to run over 70 per cent of Wellington’s bus services, and now run around 28 per cent of the routes, including the #2, #3 and #14.

Sixty per cent of the region’s services are now operated by Tranzit, under two subsidiaries (Tranzurban Hutt Valley Ltd and Tranzurban Wellington Ltd), with smaller operators looking after most northern routes. Uzabus provides most Porirua and Kapiti Coast services (with around six per cent of services), and Mana Bus (part of Newlands Coach Services, also at six per cent) operates in the northern suburbs and Tawa.

These contractors operate to (surprise!) contracts, and Metlink is not in a position to effect sudden change on these without negotiation.

Even penalties for non-performance aren’t an option – yet.

The GWRC agreed with operators that any financial penalties attached to performance provisions would be waived for the first few weeks of the new contracts. This was to let all parties work together establish the new network, resolve issues and allow for customer change, and gather and validate data.

Penalties for non-performance are planned to be introduced no later than 30 September 2018.

Services reinstated as requested

It is obvious that any changes to agreed contracts will take time. Even the service reinstatements to two bus routes that were agreed to by the committee yesterday are unlikely to be put in place until late in the year.

These alterations to the #14 and #18e services were first proposed at last month’s Sustainable Transport meeting.

That meeting agreed to the extension of the off-peak #18e service from north Miramar to Kilbirnie, via Wellington Regional Hospital in Newtown and Massey and Victoria universities, and recommended that officials investigate the reinstatement of the #14 from Hataitai to Kilbirnie.

However, the GWRC report from Campbell tabled at yesterday’s meeting recommended that the #18e service only extend until 6:00pm, and that the #14 bus service continue to terminate at Hataitai.

A well-researched presentation from two Roseneath residents, supported by the Hataitai Residents Association, prompted discussion on how a frequent and reliable connection between Roseneath/Hataitai and Kilbirnie is essential for older and younger travellers to properly access shops and sports facilities.

Questioning from first-term GWRC council Ian McKinnon made it clear that the connection between Roseneath and Hataitai and the eastern suburbs had been underestimated.

As Marian Horan, one of the Roseneath speakers said about Kilbirnie, “This is where we go.”

The meeting disregarded the argument made in the Council report that there are insufficient passenger numbers to support the service, and voted to extend the #14 bus route from Hataitai along its original path east as far as Kilbirnie (though not to Rongotai, where it used to terminate).

The decision was also made to extend the #18e schedule between Miramar and Karori until 8:00pm, rather than 6:00pm.

The council will also be receiving feedback on whether other routes can be changed.

It’s a start.

Core problems remain

But despite Greg Campbell taking personal responsibility for fixing the network’s problems, and agreeing to an independent review, GWRC officials and councillors seem overly optimistic about the chance of issues being resolved.

For instance, yesterday’s report cited no significant downturn in passenger journeys since 15 July, when the changes were introduced.

Yet on Tuesday, as part of their consistently good reporting in the Dominion Post, Tom Hunt and Damian George put the GWRC on the back foot regarding its claim that the bus service had increased passenger numbers (short take: you can’t count three journeys that have replaced one direct trip as a tripling in numbers) .

I challenge anyone who takes the time to read the 22-page report not to feel cynical about the ability of the GWRC to resolve this issue.

It’s possible that an independent review of management and council can, as Campbell suggested at the meeting, “give a view of what has happened and articulate that well.”

But such a review, even if it happens “urgently” as was agreed yesterday, will still take time: consultation, documentation, implementation… and it’s hard to see much of the action that is desperately needed happening before the end of the year.

Even the agreement yesterday that removing seats from buses was a kneejerk response to a problem of overcrowding and capacity, and that these should be replaced, is likely to take much longer than it took to install them.

And fundamental problems with the system may yet be inherent.

As the meeting learned through answers to questions about three key transport features posed by long-time walking and public transport champion Mike Mellor, there is still much that remains unknown about core components of the system.

There has been no analysis yet of the promised reduced congestion along the Golden Mile. Nor has there been any study of how the introduction of double-deckers has affected time spent boarding and alighting at stops, and consequent bus-on-bus congestion.

Second, it cannot be determined if the bus hubs can work as planned. We don’t know, because they haven’t been built yet (and will not be completed until February 2019 at the earliest).

Most significantly, it is impossible to tell if the organisational capacity exists to deliver the new public transport system as planned, with its new timetables, routes, hubs and operators.

To date, Mellor said, the process has been an indictment of the effectiveness of GWRC’s project management, totally inadequate risk management, and lack of communication.

The Council, he said has “failed in risk and project managing – and listening”, and doesn’t have the data to measure – “You should know today what happened yesterday” – so how can it be confident of delivering on its promises?

The Council has a big task, he said: “Rebuild trust.” And this will be “a long, painful and humbling process”.

Back to school

An independent review will not solve the immediate problems being faced by schools like St Pat’s College, who have had direct and student-only services cut.

This was starkly outlined yesterday by the Kilbirnie college’s rector, Neal Swindells, who told the meeting of his concern for his students. They face overcrowded and extended journeys from the school’s northern suburbs and Kapiti Coast catchment, and are being put in danger.

“[The] two #753 buses to the station in the afternoon are significantly overloaded and are unsafe,” Swindells said in his presentation.

“On Monday this week, they were both loaded to the gunwales and there were thirty-odd students who couldn’t get on. So what they do is they run across the road to catch the new #24 bus, which by the time it leaves St Pat’s now is also over full.”

In response to questions, he said that 85 boys were late to school on Monday, even though the start time had been put back to 9:15am from 8:55am.

With just one more week of term before school holidays start next weekend, he’s hopeful of a solution before the start of the fourth term. But he’s worried.

“I’d hate to have an accident before then.”

The crucial players: drivers

Accidents are also very much on the minds of drivers, who have been put under huge stress by the changes, with long shifts, new routes that cannot be completed within the scheduled time (for which they get penalised), and continually crowded buses that are more difficult to drive (60 passengers make a bus over seven tonnes heavier).

They’re also shouldering the blame for bus no-shows, when a shortage of drivers is the ongoing problem exacerbating all the other problems in the system.

It’s no wonder they feel under assault, and under-consulted: a crazy situation given the wealth of accumulated frontline experience accrued over years by experienced drivers on Wellington’s often difficult route and roads.

As Graeme Clarke, general secretary of the Manufacturing and Construction Workers Union, wrote today in an opinion article for Stuff, an email sent last week by Greg Campbell to “stakeholders” of the bus system suggesting that a review “could” be commissioned “to ensure that all available options have been considered” was not sent to the Tramways Union.

If the drivers and their union are not stakeholders in the bus system, Clarke asked, who is?

Many experienced drivers from the NZ Bus fleet took redundancy rather than work for Tranzit and Uzabus, who have refused to negotiate on a collective employment agreement.

This ongoing problem, dating back to before the tender process for the new routes began, is at the heart of the problem affecting the potential success of the system.

It’s a problem that neither GWRC councillors or officials seem keen to engage with.

You could hear the frustration from Richard Wagstaff, President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions, when he addressed the committee yesterday.

He has spoken to them, he said, “so many times” on the importance of protecting drivers’ terms and conditions. But it seemed to him that the committee was “impenetrable”.

Yet Wagstaff was still hopeful that a solution could be bound to the ongoing dispute between the Tramways Union and bus operators Tranzit and Uzabus about drivers’ pay and conditions.

A collective agreement would solve the problem of the driver shortage, he said, and “we can resolve this though dialogue and consultation”,

But this would only happen if Tranzit stepped up to the negotiating table, something it has consistently refused to do for six months.

Wagstaff said that problems with the network will not be resolved until the dispute is settled.

“This problem you find yourselves in now cannot be addressed until you confront the issues affecting the bus drivers.”

During committee members’ questioning of Wagstaff, Councillor Ken Laban described the process as farcical, with Tranzit refusing to engage properly with the union.

“We all know what the issue is: they won’t negotiate. They need to get their ass in the ring.”

Wagstaff said that the council had the power to force negotiations forward, by appointing a facilitator to help settle the dispute.

He said that the time for talk from the GWRC is over and it has to use its power to make Tranzit and Uzabus meet with the union.

“We don’t see Tranzit as even trying … the Council can put Tranzit on the mat.”

However, no motion to this effect from the meeting was forthcoming.

What’s next?

From 10:30am next Wednesday, 26 September, all union bus drivers will hold a stop work meeting (at St Pat’s in Kilbirnie, appropriately) to discuss the state of collective agreement bargaining that is under way with their bus company employers, and consider what industrial action will be taken.

It’s unlikely that what comes out of that meeting will be good news for anyone.

The Tramways Union is now expecting NZ Bus to try to reduce penal rates, as it tries to compete with the lower wages paid by Tranzurban and Uzabus.

Drivers are quitting both main employers, fed up with difficult conditions, constant stress, and inability to properly deliver services to the satisfaction of the (largely supportive) public.

The GWRC keeps talking, but to date has failed to show the kind of consultative leadership that the situation and times demand.

Let’s hope that we see some decisive and forward-thinking action from Greg Campbell, a CE with the time and – one would hope – the motivation to put things right.

Because, as a wise and successful retailer once said, it’s the putting right that counts.