Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Auckland's much-hyped smartcard system hardly worthy of the name

Minister of Transport, Steven Joyce and Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Minister of Transport, Steven Joyce and Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Mayor Len Brown and his New Zealand Transport Agency mates must have some inside intelligence of voter intentions the rest of the political world has totally missed. They flew off to China last night to window-shop for, among other big ticket items, tunnelling machines capable of building the mayor's fabled inner-city rail loop.

It's as though they'd forgotten there's an election in two weeks and the National Government which gave Mr Brown's underground rail loop the big thumbs down is widely expected to be returned in a landslide victory.

The good news is the NZTA is picking up at least some of the travel bill. Whether Minister of Transport Steven Joyce will be happy with his bureaucrats for giving Mr Brown a platform to push his pet project in the middle of an election campaign is more doubtful. For promote it the mayor did, as he flew off into the unknown, declaring: "Auckland Council has identified key transport infrastructure projects which are critical to Auckland's development ...

"Amongst these are two significant underground projects, including the city rail link, which will open up a congested rail network and provide a fully integrated public transport system and an additional harbour crossing ..."

China, he said, "is a world leader in tunnelling technology and is developing new approaches to building urban tunnels which could save millions of dollars on major projects."

While Auckland commuters await Mr Brown's triumphant return, Auckland Transport has tossed them a promise of more immediate transport treats to come. NZ Post and Australian smartcard developers Placard have been contracted to oversee the full rollout of the Hop "integrated smartcards". Starting from mid-2012, Auckland commuters will swap their existing Hop cards for new ones that work not just on New Zealand Bus services as at present, but also on trains, ferries and other bus brands.

The rollout will be preceded by "an extended field trial ... utilising selected users" which does make one a little nervous. The existing smartcard service was rolled out in May and after a few teething hiccups - one colleague is still complaining about how his split in two and he had to pay $10 for a new one - has performed okay.

We were assured at the time that the Thales system was a world-tested, off-the-shelf system. To require an extended trial may be "international best practice" but for a basic swipe-card system it seems a tad timorous.

Auckland Transport's announcement calls the new card an "integrated smartcard," which is, as I've observed before, rather gilding the lily. The service is hardly all that smart, nor very integrated. It's just an electronic cash substitute that can deduct a fare from your card.

The fully integrated transport system we've been waiting so long for is still frustratingly far off. Especially the fares side. A fully integrated system would include a zonal charging system where passengers were levied for the distance travelled regardless of changes of transport mode on the way.

Even when the new "integrated card" comes in, swapping from bus to train, for example, will incur a new fare.

In a letter to transport committee chairman Mike Lee in August, Mark Lambert, Auckland Transport's manager, public transport operations, outlined how the organisation planned to implement the "integrated public transport network" model over the next three or four years. He painted a four-tiered network of routes, the backbone being a rapid transit network of electrified rail and dedicated busways, interlinked with a secondary grid of bus services.

But absent in this three to four-year plan is any mention of a simplified fare system. One that doesn't punish the commuter for changing modes mid-journey. The new $87 million "integrated ticketing system" is capable of doing these calculations. When will it be asked to is the question. Hopefully before the underground rail loop.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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