The public transport handbrake

17:00, Jun 20 2014

Buses running empty in Christchurch and Wellington's decision to scrap its fleet of trolley buses worth $40 million half-way through their service life has led to demands for an urgent overhaul of the cities' public transport management.

Large bus companies say the development of public transport in the country's second and third-largest centres is being hampered by cumbersome council management, in stark contrast to Auckland, which has thrived under its supercity structure.

The companies, NZ Bus, Red Bus and Leopard Coachlines, say the fragmented and inefficient management structures require them to deal with multiple masters responsible for public transport infrastructure and services.

All are calling for the two cities to follow Auckland's example and centralise management of their networks to improve and speed up the decision-making process.

Auckland transformed into a supercity in 2010 by merging the regional council and seven territorial authorities to create ntsDundernte a single entity, the Auckland Council.

With that came the creation of Auckland Transport - a council-controlled organisation which manages all of the region's transport services excluding state highways.


It is the first time in Auckland's history that all transport functions and operations for the city have come under one organisation.

Auckland Transport has been credited with faster development of Auckland's public transport network making progress while Wellington and Christchurch are being restrained by slow decision-making.  

Wellington and Christchurch bus companies say a similar model would improve the cities' bus services by reducing bureaucracy and creating cost efficiency.

The current management of Wellington and Christchurch bus services is divided between city councils, regional councils, and bus companies with input from the government's transport division, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA).

Regional councils manage services and planning such as timetables and routes while the city councils manage infrastructure including bus stops, traffic lights and roads.

Often the two governing bodies do not see eye to eye on issues, resulting in slow or poor decision-making, bus companies say.

Wellington and Christchurch bus companies, and even the NZTA, want the two cities to follow Auckland's lead in developing a single-entity approach to public transport.

The three cities collectively account for about 90 per cent of New Zealand's public bus services, the NZTA said.

NZTA group manager of planning and investment Dave Brash said there were significant advantages in Auckland Transport's ''vertical integration'' model.

As both the road-controlling authority and the public transport operator, Auckland Transport's board was responsible for managing the city's entire public transport service.

''What we're seeing is much more streamlined implementation,'' Brash said.

The key to effective public transport was to be customer focus, and because Auckland Transport has oversight over the entire network, it was able to achieve this by tailoring services according to public demand, he said.

''It's much easier to achieve because they have control of all the levers.'' 

It was also proving to be cost-efficient while reducing bureaucracy, he said.

''The ability to integrate all of that is critical.''


Greater Wellington Regional Council could have a legal fight on its hands following its decision to axe the city's trolley buses in 2017.


Last week it agreed to get rid of trolley bus services in three years as it transitions to a new fleet. To achieve that the already fully electric trolley buses will be replaced with hybrid diesel buses at a cost of about $650,000 each, $225,000 more than a regular diesel bus.

New Zealand's largest bus operator, NZ Bus, says the council's lack of due diligence has resulted in a less than desirable result. NZ Bus upgraded the Wellington fleet of 60 trolley buses seven years ago at a cost of close to $40m.

NZ Bus general manager of strategy Scott Thorne said the buses, which cost the company between $600,000 to $650,000 each, would be sold for scrap.

"They have no alternative use so they will be scrapped."

The buses were less than halfway through their 20-year life expectancy and NZ Bus would bear the cost of any losses, Thorne said.

Asked whether legal action would be an option for NZ Bus, Thorne said: "I guess we'll have to look at that when the time comes."

NZ Bus, which owns about 370 of the 500-odd buses in the Wellington region, questions the decision and how robust the financial analysis was.

It would like to see Wellington adopt a single-entity management structure similar to Auckland, Thorne said.

"We would certainly encourage a more aligned approach to speed up the implementation of good ideas."

Without some form of local body amalgamation that was unlikely to happen, he said.

Greater Wellington Regional Council chairwoman Fran Wilde said a single entity should manage the entire region's public transport services.

"I agree with NZ Bus in that it would be easier to have it all on the same table. The question is, which table?"

A single-entity model would be best achieved through amalgamation of Wellington's councils, as this would encourage a more strategically focused approach to transport, she said.

Wellington had a mature public bus service, but Auckland had been making huge gains since the establishment of Auckland Transport, she said.