Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Just get the buses running on time

Lester Levy. Photo / Greg Bowker
Lester Levy. Photo / Greg Bowker

If Mark Ford is the Mr Fix-it of today's National Government, Lester Levy played a similar role in the early 1990s. This week, Dr Levy takes over as chairman of Auckland Transport, replacing Mr Ford, who is being parachuted in as chairman of Solid Energy to revive the fortunes of the ailing state-owned coal producer.

When Dr Levy first burst on the scene he was hailed as something of a wunderkind - an image rather encouraged by his predilection for self-promotion.

At the tender age of 38 he'd sorted out Tauranga Hospital and in 1993 was appointed to give South Auckland Health a good shake-up.

Four years later, as he headed off to try his hand running a media company and establish a private hospital, the headlines shouted "Model manager" and "Levy leaves a trail of success".

The cynic in me says, "Oh yeah, but that was only healthcare, how will he manage something tough, like public transport?" After all, even National's miracle worker Mark Ford, the man hand-picked to amalgamate Auckland's squabbling local bodies and referee the reconstruction of Christchurch, has failed to make Auckland's trains and buses run on time.

Perhaps that's the Mt Everest that Dr Levy feels he has to confront, the ultimate knighthood-earning challenge he has to take on before he can have a lie-down.

Looking at his CV, you'd be forgiven for diagnosing a case of adult ADD. He has so many jobs on the go that were he to look the wrong way and be run over by one of his own trains, the unemployment statistics would suddenly dip as his tasks were shared about.

Co-director of the NZ Leadership Institute, chairman of both the Auckland and Waitemata District Health Boards, chairman of international engineering and environmental consultancy Tonkin and Taylor, deputy chairman of Health Benefits Ltd, teacher, author, celebrity speaker ... it exhausts me just typing the list.

So, will he make my bus run on time?

Scrabbling through old clippings I stumbled upon an encouraging quote in a Listener interview on the eve of his taking control at South Auckland back in 1993.

"I worship the patients." Rule One at Tauranga was the patient is always right. "It doesn't matter how drunk they are, how obnoxious they are, how much they're vomiting. This is a service industry and we need to serve them."

Luckily, there's not a lot of vomiting on the 005 from Pt Chevalier, but neither is there much evidence of patients - sorry passengers - being worshipped either. So if Dr Levy could instil this Rule One into the AT theology, that would be a great start.

As he's been appointed by a mayor committed to refocusing Auckland's transport system towards public transport, my first recommendation would be for Dr Levy to have his car immobilised for a month, and to live the problem for a mind-changing period. Travel from his Mission Bay home to Auckland Transport HQ at Henderson by public transport. Make his fellow board members and senior managers do likewise.

No doubt they'll plead they're too busy, but that's why they should do it - to experience what the people making more than 70 million trips a year on AT's public transport network have to endure. We're busy people, too.

Stuck in traffic in a badly lit, badly ventilated bus, or waiting wanly at a train station, they might see the industry they run through the eyes of the long-suffering user.

Not only might they realise the 99.9 per cent bus regularity figures they tick off at each board meeting are pure fiction, they might appreciate the need for more bus lanes, more bus shelters ... need I go on?

In June, when his departure as chairman of AT was announced, Mr Ford said the highlights as inaugural chairman of the city's new transport conglomerate included not just successfully completing the amalgamation, but signing the contract for the fleet of new electric trains, the eastern suburbs AMETI project and "presiding over the highest growth in public transport use for over half a century". Perhaps wisely, he left out the troubled integrated ticketing programme.

With the council-owned entity now up and running, it's Dr Levy's Everest to conquer. Me, I'd be delighted if he concentrated on the passenger worship.

- 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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