Fall in bus patronage costs ECan millions

GATHERING PLACE: People wait for their ride at a temporary bus exchange on the corner of Bealey Ave and Montreal St.
GATHERING PLACE: People wait for their ride at a temporary bus exchange on the corner of Bealey Ave and Montreal St.

Christchurch commuters have abandoned the city's buses, costing Environment Canterbury (ECan) and the Government millions of dollars.

Public transport passenger trips in greater Christchurch for the first four months of the year have dropped 40 per cent compared with last year, from 5.76 million trips to 3.34 million.

ECan estimated the drop in patronage would cost $6.5 million in the next financial year, split evenly between the regional council and the Government's transport arm, the New Zealand Transport Agency.

March passenger trips were 513,444 – less than a third of the previous year – while April trips rebounded to 672,186, almost half of the previous April.

The last time there were two consecutive months below one million trips was nine years ago.

The patronage figures, released by ECan, relate mostly to Christchurch bus trips, but include the Diamond Harbour ferry service.

Acting passenger services manager David Stenhouse said the drop-off was "significant". "We've got some reserves to cope with the shortfall in the immediate future, so we're not in enormous trouble, and by the time we redevelop the network and put in the changes to the network we hope to put in place ... we'd hope that that patronage would have started to bounce back."

Rising diesel costs are also expected to hit the regional council's coffers.

In September, the council was trumpeting the $3.8m that public transport contributed to its $6.1m surplus, because of a switch to gross bus contracts.

Under gross contracts, bus and ferry companies are paid a "subsidy" payment, which is the cost of services minus fare revenue.

Stenhouse said the drop in post-earthquake patronage would have affected ECan regardless of whether the contracts were net or gross.

He said ECan was working with the city council, the transport agency, and its contractors to change the bus network "within months" to link to the city's new employment centres, such as Hornby, Riccarton and Papanui.

A key to lifting passenger numbers was getting a central-city interchange.

Paul Bingham, managing director of Black Cat Cruises which runs the Lyttelton-Diamond Harbour ferry service, said patronage was 40 per cent down on last year. However, because it had a gross contract, lower patronage was "not an issue" financially.

The Press