Blind woman faces bus nightmare

Going nowhere fast: Pam MacNeill and guide dog Chica at the Fergusson Dr stop where they usually catch the Airport Flyer to Wellington.
Going nowhere fast: Pam MacNeill and guide dog Chica at the Fergusson Dr stop where they usually catch the Airport Flyer to Wellington.

A blind Upper Hutt woman's work that makes life easier for those with disabilities will be severely curtailed when the Airport Flyer bus to Lower Hutt is axed in January.

Pam MacNeill has a guide dog and uses the bus regularly to get to work appointments in Wellington. She has her own business and trains people, including staff at the Human Rights Commission, in the area of disability equity and responsiveness.

Since the Government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Mrs MacNeill and an assistant have travelled the country organising workshops for people with disabilities asking them how New Zealand has done.

Upper Hutt City Council recently won an award for disability awareness training Mrs MacNeill ran for its staff.

She has also done work on making the Christchurch rebuild more user-friendly for people with disabilities.

NZ Bus plans to axe the service, originally an extension of the airport to Queensgate route, in mid- January. Upper Hutt people and those who get on the bus north of Queensgate will have to use the 110 service instead. Neither service receives a regional council subsidy.

Mrs MacNeill says not only will she get lost trying to change buses at Queensgate but the Airport Flyer has a voice which announces the next stop, especially valuable for getting off the bus on the return trip.

She could ask the driver to tell her when it is time to get off, but "sometimes they forget".

"Anywhere to the airport I can know where I am.

"It will almost eliminate my independence. I have no show of catching the right bus at Queensgate. It will be gone by the time I have found the right one." Mrs MacNeill says operator NZ Bus "needs to be of service, not just be a service".

She says it does not make sense that they are wanting to axe a bus service that she usually finds well- used, and often almost packed by the time it reaches her home in Heretaunga.

Maybe they should just remove some of the runs, she says, pointing out the company carried out no consultation with users.

"What about all the people in Lower Hutt north of Queensgate."

The alternative for Mrs MacNeill is to use taxis, and the cost will have to be passed on to her clients.

Mrs MacNeill will collect signatures at The Mall this Friday from 10am till 4pm on a petition to save the bus service.

Last Friday Upper Hutt Mayor Wayne Guppy, regional councillor Paul Swain and Robert Bryan, chairperson of Upper Hutt Grey Power, met with Scott Thorne, general manager strategy for NZ Bus.

Afterwards Mr Swain said he was "annoyed" the Airport Flyer's service north of Queensgate was to be withdrawn.

It looked like Wellington would be getting an improved service, at the expense of north Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt.

"I asked 'what would have to be done to keep the service' and they said the decision had been made and it would be withdrawn."

Mr Swain says not only does the alternative 110 service not have a voice message system (similar to the new Matangi trains) but it had nowhere for luggage and did not appear to have easy access for wheelchairs and mobility scooters.

Mr Swain says the subsidy that is a mixture of regional council and government funding is given to services that feed into train stops.

Consequently neither the Airport Flyer nor 110 service receive subsidies.

The Gold Card had been a "huge success" but people who had to change buses at Queensgate after 3pm would have to pay for the trip to Upper Hutt that would have been free on the Airport Flyer if they got on it before 3pm.

Mr Bryan says the Airport Flyer is the only Upper Hutt bus service totally accessible to people with sight issues or on mobility scooters or wheelchairs. It is also able to "kneel".

Next year there will be a review of all bus services in the Hutt Valley but NZ Bus was not interested in waiting until then, he says. A full Airport Flyer leaving Silverstream would have no capacity to pick up anyone heading south, he says.

Mr Bryan says his organisation will fight for the service to be retained and write to the regional council about the possibility of subsidising travel for people with disabilities. It would only take a Private Member's Bill to say all public transport must cater for those with disabilities, he says.

Scott Thorne, general manager strategy for NZ Bus, says the company is proud of the Airport Flyer but the route north of Queensgate was not economic and they did not want to compete with rail.

The 110 buses to Queensgate and Petone had super-low floors that provided access for wheelchairs and mobility scooters.

He says the company carries many passengers like Mrs MacNeill in Wellington and Auckland and his advice is to tell the driver what stop to get off at.


The outcome of proposed changes to many local school buses, mostly to Lower Hutt, is on the website

A new route 919 from Silverstream to St Oran's and Sacred Heart will be introduced from January 28. NZ Bus says there are "ongoing discussions" with schools regarding routes 933 (Upper Hutt to Rudolf Steiner), 950 (Alicetown to HIBS), 963 (Eastbourne to HIBS) and 981 (Wellington to Rudolf Steiner).

And commuter route 92 (Te Marua to Wellington) and 93 (Timberlea to Wellington) were under the spotlight but are proposed to be retained with a price increase.

Upper Hutt Leader