City bus users get new fleet of green machines

By Mathew Dearnaley

South Island coachbuilders are pounding out an order for 20 new-technology vehicles to rejuvenate central Auckland's 11-year-old Link bus service.

Ashburton-based Designline International expects to start delivering the new fleet next week, ready for Infratil's NZ Bus division (formerly Stagecoach) to introduce to its Link loop route between Ponsonby and Newmarket via Queen St, in about late August.

The buses are being built over Volvo chassis and engines from Sweden and will meet latest Euro 5 emission standards, meaning they should cause 70 to 90 per cent less pollution than the existing 1996 fleet of 18 Link vehicles.

They will be longer and more spacious than the older buses and there will be more of them to maintain a 10-minute frequency for the service - no matter how dense the traffic becomes around them.

NZ Bus is spending more than $7 million on the fleet, an investment it says is needed to build on the success of its flagship Auckland service, which carries 2.5 million passengers annually but which fell foul last year of a complaint to the Advertising Standards Complaints Board about timetable delays.

The company is also investing heavily in staff training and recruitment to ensure the drivers of the new buses have superior customer skills and can keep their cool in difficult conditions.

Marketing and communications manager Steve Wade said that although the company would rely on existing drivers for the core of its Link fleet, the right people needed to be matched to what was often a gruelling task of grinding through heavy downtown traffic while dealing with every manner of passenger.

"They need to be hand-picked to make sure we provide the best possible service," he said.

"We have to make sure they know what the job entails - driving in traffic day in and day out."

Mr Wade said that if the company had to recruit newcomers to supplement seasoned staff, it would prefer to hire those with retailing backgrounds, for their experience in customer service.

"It is hard to train people in customer service - they have either got it or they haven't," he said.

"I can teach people how to drive a bus, but I can't teach them how to be excellent at customer relations."

Drivers of the new lime-green vehicles will be kitted in uniforms distinguishing them from other Auckland bus services and will ultimately be trained in using GPS navigation equipment to ensure adequate distances between vehicles.

The Link service came under criticism last year from passengers who complained of having to wait for up to 40 minutes for a bus, prompting the advertising board to rule that Infratil could no longer claim they ran every 10 minutes.

That ruling - compounded by adverse publicity in the Herald - jolted the company into adding more buses at peak times, improving staff training and appointing a manager dedicated solely to the Link service.

Infratil was relatively new to the business at the time, having bought the main Auckland and Wellington bus fleets from British company Stagecoach late in 2005, and director Tim Brown said it was determined to enhance the reputation of what it considered its flagship northern service.

"We sat down and tried to work out every way of making it a better service," said Mr Brown, who has special responsibility for NZ Bus.

Mr Wade said the Link bus service was now running to within five minutes of its timetable in 97.6 per cent of cases, compared with 91 per cent last year.

He said that although longer delays were generally unavoidable - usually a result of traffic congestion or other obstructions such as roadworks or crashes - Auckland City's expanding network of bus lanes was a powerful tool for improved reliability and patronage.

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