Bus off

Categories: Wellington.

Graham Atkinson used to be Mr Fixit for Stagecoach, the company that previously ran the buses in Wellington. He probably knows more about bus services than any other single person, having been a driver himself for over ten years, followed by another ten years sorting out problems for bus operator Stagecoach.

Retired from NZ Bus, formerly Stagecoach, he’s now working for Australian bus operator Transit Systems, a potential bidder for Wellington’s bus services. He talks frankly to John Bishop about the challenges of running public transport in the Wellington region and what he thinks ought to happen.

The problem with Wellington is its peculiar shape and size. Everything is inside a small area called the CBD, and it’s fed from north, south, east and west.

I’d look to reduce the number of vehicles moving in and out of the area, especially at peak times, but not between lOam and 3pm, when there is not a traffic problem.

I’d provide a more reliable public transport system by ensuring that its movement was not affected by private vehicles.

More buses?

Not necessarily. There are alternatives like light rail and modern trams. The design of the roads in Wellington is such that it is not practical to have two tramlines on the same street, so the option would be to revert to the old inner route-outer route strategy used by buses in Wellington before the oneway street system.

A monorail is impractical. The beauty of light rail is that capacity can be increased very easily. We see it on the trains now. A train has six carriages at peak times, but two carriages at off-peak, and there’s still just one driver.

Light rail could also connect Upper Hutt and Masterton to the airport through Wellington railway station. Technically it’s feasible. But (and this is the killer but), Wellington is not a large city/region even by New Zealand standards and there just isn’t the population to justify the level of investment that would be needed.

The best option for Wellington City is buses. But I(j never advocate getting rid of rail to the Hutt Valley and Porirua.

What did you learn driving buses?

Wellington is very unusual. There is no segregation on the grounds of class. The buses are for everyone.

In the early days of Infratil’s owning Stagecoach (the previous bus operator in Wellington) I’d get a call from my boss about a problem on the network somewhere that morning. It could have come from an Infratil director or senior executive who was delayed getting to work that morning. The message to fix it came down from on high. It’s perfectly acceptable in Wellington for senior public servants and top business people to take the bus. That’s not so in many places overseas.

One of the great things about being a driver is that you come to work and when you go home again at night, there is nothing left in the in-tray. Every day is different.

The people who like driving buses are people who like dealing with people and who like driving. It’s possible to be a driver without interacting with people very much.

Snapper cards [smart fare cards] and bus passes make that possible in ways that having to issue tickets’and give change did not. Although there has been a concerted effort in recent years to get bus drivers to be friendlier and it is paying off.

Your thoughts on double-decker buses?

Double deckers are able to move large numbers of people, but there are some restrictions using doubledeckers on commuter routes. They take longer to load, and can’t pass other traffic so easily, meaning slower journey times through the city.

Replace the trolleys?

The key routes have already been upgraded – Newtown, Seatoun, Island Bay, Karori, all up to current safety standards.

The big difficulty is in the underground wiring which feeds electricity from the substations to the boxes and then to the overhead wires. All that wiring is pre-World War Two.

Trolley buses were originally to be phased out in 1980/81, then in the 1990s, then the late 1990s, and then 2005, and now it is to be 2017. Over that time only limited work was done on the wiring from the substations to the trolley boxes – just “if it breaks fix it” stuff. Much of it now needs replacement. One figure I heard for this was $50 million.

Three ways to improve public transport in Wellington, please?

Integrated ticketing is a must. Someone in Whitby going to Newtown takes a bus to the station, a train into Wellington and then a bus. Three tickets. We need one ticket.

Secondly there has to be a reliable frequency; every ten minutes on major routes is ideal. That’s only possible where capacity justifies it. We learned from the circular buses in Wellington (and Auckland) that if it comes around every ten minutes people will wait for it. Longer and people won’t wait.

Interchanges also have to be easy and attractive. Get off one form of transport and walk across the road to get another. Make the waiting area pleasant and safe .