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The Wrong Buses

Since 2011, NZ Bus (who run the Link buses, Metrolink, North Star, Waka Pacific and GoWest) have purchased over 350 ADL Enviro200 buses for use – most of these in Auckland. These are the ones:

city-link-bus

 

NZ Bus seem pretty proud of these buses – noting the following on their website:

Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL) is the UK’s leading bus and coach manufacturer, employing around 2,000 people at facilities in the UK, continental Asia and North America.

The fastest growing bus and coach builder in Western Europe, ADL encompasses three famous and successful marques – Alexander, Dennis and Plaxton. ADL produces a wide range of innovative and fuel efficient, low floor single and double deck buses, plus a full portfolio of coaches, welfare and mini vehicles.

ADL products offer real operator, passenger and environment benefits, all backed by an unswerving commitment to world class customer support.

In January 2011 NZ Bus announced a $50 million investment in new fleet and after an intensive search, we chose Alexander Dennis as our preferred supplier of fleet. Since then, NZ Bus has purchased 354 new Enviro200 buses at a total cost of approximately $140 million. These buses are of the highest quality, reliable, safe and with a Euro 5+ emissions standard, are environmentally friendly.

While the buses may have good fuel economy and less emissions than earlier types of buses, in a large number of ways they’re not ideal for the tasks we ask of them on many routes in Auckland – particularly when running City Link, Inner Link or Outer Link services.

Here’s a bunch of flaws these buses have:

  • The doorways are too narrow for someone who is paying with a HOP card to easily slip past someone who is paying with cash. This massively slows down waiting times leading to enormous operating inefficiencies, reduced reliability (due to slow boarding time) and longer trips (slower boarding times again is the culprit). For the lack of a slightly wider entrance to the bus the efficiency of the entire bus system is quite significantly undermined. This could be partially addressed by allowing people to buy tickets offline and/or having a policy of issuing no change, things that should probably be done anyway.
  • The aisles are too narrow. Perhaps due to the greater than normal separation between the two seats on either side of the bus, the aisle down the middle definitely feels significantly narrower than most buses. This makes manoeuvring around the bus really difficult when it’s full and once again slows down trip times hugely as people take ages to exit and enter buses when they’re busy. I imagine it would be even more difficult if someone in a wheelchair needs to board, as shown in this Campbell Live piece (from 11:20 but it is different kind of bus)
  • The seat layout at the front of the bus is completely unsuited to use on services where people are getting on and off all the time – like the City Link. The buses previously used for Inner Link services realised that it was worth sacrificing a bit of seating capacity for much greater circulation and standing area for bus services where people wouldn’t be on it for that long – but where loads may be really high. The ADL buses basically use a seating layout for an inter-city coach and then apply it to very busy inner city services – hopeless!
  • The buses are too small. While smaller buses are needed in some situations, I don’t know what possessed NZ Bus to invest in fairly small buses at a time when public transport patronage is growing and then to put them on popular routes. Very frequently people are unable to board packed Link services in particular – simply because the buses are too small and also because the silly seat layout referred to above means there’s hardly any standing room.
  • Low Ceiling height at the back of the bus. Because you can’t stand at the back of the ADL buses (ceiling is too low and there’s a sign on the steps banning it) once again the buses get so overcrowded that people are often left behind at stops. This doesn’t happen with other types of buses.
  • Really dark window tinting. The tinting on the window is really dark and while that is useful for helping reduce the impact of sun which in turn means the air-con doesn’t have to work as hard, it makes it harder to see in and out of the buses. Being able to see in and though buses was one of the key points made by Jarrett Walker the other day.

Overall, it feels like the ADL buses aren’t necessarily bad buses – they’re just being used for the wrong services or need a major internal redesign in order for them to work better. Key changes should be to shift to side-facing seats on Link Services (especially City Link) or preferably to use other buses in the fleet that are larger for these busy routes. That in itself raises another point, whatever happened to NZ Bus’s plan to buy some double deckers for busy routes? Another critically necessary change is to somehow make the front entrance wider – or perhaps allow rear door boarding with AT Hop cards to get around the narrow front door issue and make the buses faster, more reliable and more efficient.

I also hope that NZ Bus thinks harder about their next purchases to ensure that these same mistakes aren’t repeated. With the new bus network proposing many frequent services that will result in increased patronage over time, it’s important that we don’t get stuck with too small buses with too narrow aisles and entrances again.

HOP rollout to Link and Metrolink coming soonish

The changeover of NZ Bus buses to HOP has long been expected to be an issue – primarily due to the confusion of having two different cards both called HOP – and it hasn’t taken long for issues to start to emerge.

Central Auckland bus passengers are having to carry two smartcards – both confusingly called Hop – to guarantee cash-free travel for the next few weeks.

Auckland Transport says that passengers travelling on central routes should keep carrying the purple Snapper Hop card introduced in 2011 by NZ Bus, as well as its own new dark-blue AT Hop card, during a transition between separate ticketing systems.

That is because some North Star buses, which are operated by NZ Bus from North Shore and were switched from Snapper to Auckland Transport’s new $100 million AT Hop system last week, are also being used at odd hours to make up numbers on central city runs – causing confusion and inconvenience to passengers not armed with both cards.

Westmere resident Richard Dale is unhappy at being kicked off a bus after heading to the city on a Snapper Hop card but being asked to produce an AT Hop for a return trip three hours later on the same 020 route via Richmond Rd.

“The driver refused to let me on with my Snapper card and, because I didn’t have any cash, kicked me off,” he said.

From memory we had exactly the same problem when the current Snapper system was rolled out and only gets more confusing as the system is rolled out to locations where there are some buses on some routes with the old system and some on the new system. This is primarily on routes where some of the buses are of one brand (e.g. waka pacific) that need to travel through an area that is served by other buses (e.g. metrolink buses.)

The good news is that at the AT Board meeting the other day it was mentioned that AT had come to an agreement with NZ Bus to minimise the use of buses branded from one area on routes usually run with different brands i.e. running a Northstar bus on an isthmus route.

The next NZ Bus brands to change will be Link and Metrolink buses. AT have just announced the dates those buses will change being the 10th and 24th of November. However this time far from reducing it, AT are taking things to a whole other level of confusion as only some of the Metrolink buses will swap over in the next change with the rest happening two weeks later.

Link and Metrolink rollout

At least at the moment if you are standing on the side of the road and you can see a Northstar bus you are able to tell if you need a Snapper HOP or an AT HOP card. However in the two weeks in between the swap-overs for Metrolink there will be little to highlight just what you will need until the bus doors open. As such AT is now saying that people should hold on to their old snapper cards until the changeover has been completed. That means potentially needing to have two separate cards each with money stored on them just in case the bus that turns up doesn’t have the right system.  It makes you wonder if anyone at any point in time sat down and thought what customers would think of such a process. I also wonder if they have thought through what happens at the other end of the process from telling everyone they now need to keep two cards topped up because they also say this:

Link and Metrolink rollout HOP Credit

So let me get this clear, because AT aren’t swapping all of the Metrolink buses over at the same time they tell now need to tell people that they should keep their old Snapper HOP card topped up just in case the bus that turns up doesn’t have the right equipment. After the changeover, if you have extra money on the old snapper card – because AT told you to do so – it can’t be refunded and can instead you have to go to one of the few retailers scattered around the region that can transfer the balance. I can see a lot of complaints coming from this process in about a month.

It is also a bit odd that Metrolink has been split up as back in 2011 when the link and Metrolink fleets were rolled on to snapper they were done over a single weekend. Another point worth noting is that NZ Bus/Snapper managed to get the current system rolled out to all buses en the NZ Bus fleet over roughly a one month period. They rolled out to Northstar in late May, two weeks later they converted the Go West and Waka Pacific fleets and then two weeks after that the Link and Metrolink buses. I understand AT want to get the Go West and Waka Pacific fleets changed before Christmas so by comparison it is probably taking about two months for AT to do the same thing. Based on what we have seen so far it would seem that despite the other issues we had with the company around the whole HOP debacle, that Snapper at least managed get some their system rolled out to buses with fairly minimal overall hassle.

Still at least we’re finally getting the system rolled out to some more buses, even if it is months late. I so can’t wait for the project to be finished and we have all buses on a single system.

A smoother bus ride

Whenever a debate appears on here around the benefits of one particular mode or another, inevitably  someone will complain about the way buses can be driven. Having customers feel comfortable on a bus is incredibly important so it was pleasing to see that steps are being taken to improve that. The Herald reports:

Operator hopes feedback system will improve passengers’ safety and comfort.

Auckland’s largest bus operator is promising passengers smoother rides from “black boxes” to monitor drivers’ performance.

NZ Bus says the equipment being rolled out initially on its North Shore fleet is primarily for drivers to keep an eye on their own performance.

It will allow them to correct their driving if any of five lights on a vertical console to the right of their steering wheels turns from green to amber or – in extreme cases such as emergency braking or lurching too fast around corners – to red.

The five factors measured by the lights are rider comfort in terms of cornering, engine idling, braking, acceleration and speeding.

But the company can also download data for driver training and fuel efficiency purposes from the telematic machines it expects to install on most of its 1000 or so buses in Auckland, Whangarei and Wellington by the end of the year.

This sounds like a wonderful idea as a way to improve the passenger comfort levels as it allows drivers to actively change their behaviour as they drive. As I started reading the article though my first thought was a concern that drivers union might oppose the idea but I was pleasantly surprised to see them getting right in behind this initiative too.

Although black box cockpit voice recorders in aircraft became controversial among pilots in the 1990s after their use in court action, bus union leaders are giving the project qualified approval, after being assured the company will have a “conversation” with any staff needing to mend their ways before it resorts to any disciplinary action.

Auckland Tramways Union president Gary Froggatt believes most drivers will welcome the innovation, which the company says will complement its “Pathways to Safer Driving” programme – in which it is in the midst of providing 18 hours of refresher training across four modules including customer service, and driving and personal safety.

“I don’t think the disciplinary process will be invoked at all – the drivers in most cases will listen to what they are being told,” Mr Froggatt said.

“It will improve the performance of the drivers and hopefully cut down on the amount of speeding tickets they are getting.”

He said monitoring lights coupled with beeps when buses are travelling too fast would help to make up for an absence of a 50km/h mark on speedometers in the company’s predominantly European-made fleet.

I really love the part slightly later in the article where it is mentioned that some drivers are now actively competing with each other to see how long they can keep the various lights green. There’s nothing like a good bit of healthy competition to make things better for passengers. All up it seems like a really positive step so well done NZ Bus and hopefully we will see other bus companies roll out the same, or similar technology to help improve the experience for passengers.

NZ Bus pay dispute resolved

Yay some good news at last in the long running pay dispute between NZ Bus and their drivers. The two parties have finally come to an arrangement which means no more threats of strikes or industrial action.

NZ Bus making progress in culture change
NZ Bus has been in negotiations with representatives of the Auckland Tramways Union and First Union for the past 6 months to agree a new Collective Agreement (CA) for their members.

“NZ Bus continues to make great progress as it moves forward with its investment programme in Health and Safety, Training, new and upgraded facilities and new fleet” says Shane McMahon COO NZ Bus

NZ Bus is pleased to announce that at ratification meetings held last week, Tramways and First Union members voted to accept the new Collective Agreement.

“ A significant effort has been underway in this business over the last few years to reshape the Values and deliver on our commitment to “RELIABILITY” to our customers, staff, partners and shareholders and this will continue at speed with a new collective agreement in place in Auckland” Mr. McMahon concluded.

NZ bus is delighted that the offer to staff has been supported and would like to thank customers for their patience and understanding.

NZ Bus and Union issues drag on

One thing that came out on the weekend was that the bus drivers once again rejected the latest offer from NZ Bus. Here is the recent press release issued today by the company.

Mediation Confirms Final Offer

NZ Bus has been involved in negotiations with Tramways and First Union since May this year to agree a new Collective Agreement.
At Mediation today the Company confirmed its final offer. It has now reached agreement with the unions twice on what terms of the new collective should be. Both those agreements have been accepted by the unions and recommended by them to the members. The CTU have also been involved and Helen Kelly has recommended acceptance.

The latest recommendation for a settlement was accepted by about half the unions’ members in a ballot last week. Unfortunately, because the unions require a 60% vote the deal was not ratified.

The unions and the company returned to mediation today to discuss how to get past the problem that the on two occasions now deals which have been struck at the table, and recommended and endorsed by the unions, have not been supported by enough of their members. There comes a point where we cannot continue to increase the offer because we become uncompetitive.

It appears that some drivers will simply not accept that a fair or final deal has been struck until they have tested the company by taking industrial action. This is frustrating for both the company and the unions.

At mediation today the company again re-affirmed that it has made its best offer. Unfortunately, it appears that industrial action may now follow.

NZ Bus appreciates the work that the unions, and the CTU have been doing. They have achieved a position for their members where they will be the highest paid in bus drivers in Auckland. The company has already said that if there is any other collective agreement offered by a major operator in Auckland, then the company would consider it instead. In fact, the company and the unions know that this is the best deal available for drivers.

“Unfortunately there is an element within the unions that sees strike action as a key element in any negotiation. They seem hell bent on following that formula again this time around, which is a real shame because it’s our customers that pay the price” says Shane McMahon, COO NZ Bus

“It is time for the members to support their unions and bring these negotiations to a conclusion without inconveniencing the public or the half of the union membership that voted to accept the deal” concluded Mr. McMahon.

Key Facts:
Average Annual Income for bus drivers = $46,000
Average hours worked per driver = 43 per week
Drivers are paid overtime rates for hours worked above 40 hours per week
Almost all drivers employed in full time roles, and over half (525) work straight shifts
Under the agreement reached between company and unions drivers pay rate would rise to $20 per hour plus allowances – making them the highest paid drivers in Auckland
In addition to hourly rate, drivers also get allowances for broken shifts, meals and certain additional duties
Total wage bill for drivers per annum = $46million

At this stage we don’t know what industrial action is planned by the union but reports in the Herald the other day suggested that it could possibly include running services but not collecting fares. While that might boost patronage for those days, I just really want to see this issue resolved.

Bus strike cancelled

Great news

Strike averted as NZ Bus and Unions reach agreement

NZ Bus, the Tramways Union and First Union are very pleased to announce that following a last ditch meeting this morning they have reached a proposed settlement for the Collective Employment Agreement covering bus drivers and service staff in Auckland.

All planned Industrial action including the strike on Monday 24th September has been called off and all Metrolink, North Star, Go West, Waka Pacific and LINK bus services including school bus services will now operate as normal.

“This agreement will see NZ Bus drivers amongst the highest paid in the industry” said Shane McMahon, Chief Operating Officer, NZ Bus.

“We are delighted that agreement has been reached and changes to the ratification process agreed. NZ Bus is committed to continue to invest in our people and resources to see public transport in Auckland grow” continued Mr. McMahon.

“We welcome this development and are pleased that the buses will be on the road to carry the travelling public this Monday” said Gary Froggatt from Tramways Union.

“Today’s meeting was positive, and we can see a way forward with some unity between the bus unions and the CTU, and NZ Bus,” said Karl Andersen from First Union

Well done to all parties for being able to come to an agreement.

Monday’s bus strike – PT alternatives

So unless there’s a miraculous fix to the ongoing labour dispute between NZ Bus and its drivers, it seems as though all NZ Bus services will not run this coming Monday and every subsequent Monday for the next eight weeks. That means no buses at all – including school buses – if your service is operated by any of the following:

  • Metrolink
  • GoWest
  • Waka Pacific
  • North Star
  • Link (City, Inner or Outer)

All up NZ Bus services account for just over half of all public transport journeys in Auckland, which I guess gives us the opportunity to look at things from a “glass half full” approach and note that half of Auckland’s public transport will still be running. So by part of Auckland, here’s a bit of advice about how you can still catch public transport:

North:

Ritchies and Birkenhead Transport buses will still be operating, as will the ferries. Birkenhead buses serve the Onewa Road catchment, both to Beachhaven and up Glenfield Road. If you’re on the western side of the North Shore perhaps try to get to somewhere on a route operated by Birkenhead Transport. The 966 bus travels via Ponsonby to Newmarket – a useful replacement for some Inner Link journeys.

Ritchies operate the Northern Express, which will still run. They also operate a number of other routes to areas like Northcote, Bayswater and  a number of other routes around Albany. The park and ride stations at Albany and Constellation are likely to be pretty packed so perhaps look at finding a different route operated by Ritchies and parking on a street somewhere along its course.

Ferries operate from Devonport, Stanley Bay, Bayswater, Northcote Point and Birkenhead Point.

West:

Two main options out here: a Ritchies bus from places like Henderson and further to the northwest – or catch the train. Ritchies buses from the west also run along Great North Road between Pt Chevalier and the city centre, which makes them a good option for people in the western part of the isthmus trying to get to work/uni.

If you’re catching the train, expect it to be pretty busy. Western Line trains only run once every 15 minutes at peak times, but this service level also runs for most of the time during the day (aside from a few hours around midday). Urban Express also run services from Green Bay and Blockhouse Bay along Blockhouse Bay Road and then Great North Road into the city – another good option for people in the western part of the isthmus.

Isthmus:

Options here are relatively limited in many places outside the catchment of the rail system, but some replacement buses will be operating along Dominion and Sandringham Road (check with Auckland Transport for confirmation about times over the next day or two). Otherwise try to perhaps get to the Great South Road or Great North Road corridors where you can benefit from Ritchies or Howick and Eastern Buses coming from the far southeast or far west areas. Some Howick and Eastern express buses pass through the Eastern Suburbs although I’m not sure whether they stop there.

South/Southeast:

Rail for the south and Howick and Eastern in the southeast are you two main options here. The 380 bus between the Airport and Manukau, via Papatoetoe train station, is generally frequent and reliable and could be useful in getting you to the rail network. Otherwise it’s fairly lean pickings unfortunately.

I’ll probably be walking. Further ideas are most welcome!

Bus Strikes back on

Now this is just getting silly. Last week the bus drivers unions agreed to a deal with NZ Bus which saw their planned strikes called off but interestingly the bus drivers who met today decided to reject that offer. I don’t know what they are now demanding but it is very odd for the union leaders themselves to agree to a deal and recommend it but then have the members turn it down. This of course leaves commuters in the lurch once again and happens at a pretty critical time for PT in this city with things like the new bus network about to be consulted on which will also mean new contracts for the bus operators. Here is the press release from NZ Bus and understandably they seem frustrated:

Bus Drivers Vote Down Offer to be Highest Paid in Auckland

In a bizarre twist today drivers voted against the wage offer from NZ Bus, which was recommended by Tramways and First Union leadership and supported by Helen Kelly at the Council of Trade Unions.

Today’s ratification meeting was attended by only 517 of the 818 union drivers with more than one third not attending the meeting.

The parties met last Wednesday in mediation where NZ Bus, Tramways and First Union leaders agreed financial terms for ratification at today’s meeting. Both Tramways and First Union leadership agreed the offer was a good one and that they would positively recommend the offer at today’s ratification meeting.

Tramways and First Union had been engaged in industrial action ‘working to rule’ and NZ Bus had worked hard to minimise the impact on customers.

“ We managed to have the unions lift full blown strike action by giving them what they asked for in order to prevent impact on customers and today they turn around and reject an offer the union executive endorsed” Shane McMahon concluded.

“Negotiating with this group is a bit like Groundhog Day, it’s hugely frustrating – we worked very hard to see their point of view, worked constructively with them and reached agreement which they endorsed and then they vote it down”, said Shane McMahon COO NZ Bus.

NZ Bus operates Metrolink, City Link, Inner Link, Outer Link, North Star, Waka Pacific and Go West brands in Auckland. NZ Bus would like to apologise to customers in advance should the unions choose to escalate industrial action.

No Bus Strikes

Some great news has just come out that NZ Bus and the Tramways Union have come to an agreement over their industrial dispute which means that there won’t be any strikes, something that would have severely dented the reputation of public transport right at a time when we are about to start talking the most positive change in for buses in decades. Here is the NZ Bus press release:

NZ Bus wage talks reaches agreement at negotiations

NZ Bus, the Tramways Union and First Union are very pleased to announce that they have reached a proposed settlement for the Collective Employment Agreement covering bus drivers and service staff in Auckland today which will be put to union members on Monday for ratification.

Helen Kelly, the President of the CTU, who has been assisting the parties, said she is very pleased an agreement has been reached and is committed to seeing through all opportunities this settlement provides.

Both parties have been involved in constructive dialogue since May and acknowledge the significant progress made in the agreement, which will be recommended to members.

Shane McMahon COO NZ Bus said “we have built a strong relationship with the unions and we will continue to invest in the business to see public transport in Auckland grow”.

The settlement includes a commitment for the parties to work together to use the agreement to build the best bus company in New Zealand.

All industrial action has now been lifted and members will meet on Monday between 11am and 1pm for the ratification meeting.

Noisy bus advertisements – like torture!

I’ve been catching Inner Link buses this week – rather unusually for me but that’s how things are at the moment. Generally I have found them to be pretty fantastic: incredibly frequent, pretty fast (especially now that there’s no longer the enormous detour down into the city between K Road and Grafton Bridge) and quite consistent with their timing. The buses themselves are also really nice and flash – although like most of the new NZ Bus buses the aisle seems to be just a little too narrow for comfort.

But what’s really driven me crazy is this advertisement for Unitec, which plays an inane, kind of hip-hop piece of ‘music’, while showing bits of construction going on around Auckland. And the bus plays this over and over and over and over and over and over again. On my journey home this evening I counted 9 plays of this one advertisement – and that’s on a trip of little over 10 minutes in duration!

I don’t mind the silent advertisements on the bus screens. I like the information maps showing me where the bus is, the cameras showing what’s going on from different points of view. The little snippets from the Herald website. But please, noisy advertisements on a bus is like torture – there’s no escape, there’s no way of blocking it out and it’s just a really really horrible way to treat one’s customers.

Really there’s absolutely no need for bus advertisements with sound. It’s just plain rude and shows no respect for the passengers. You can do better Auckland Transport and NZ Bus.