Tough rules will force buses to run on time and go green

By Mathew Dearnaley

Bus passengers are being promised sweeping law changes offering them better odds of getting picked up on time, and by clean and safe vehicles.

The Government intends giving the Auckland Regional Transport Authority, and councils elsewhere in New Zealand, wide powers to set standards for all urban bus and ferry services.

The tough new measures will be imposed regardless of whether the services are run commercially or with subsidies from the public purse.

Regional councils will be able to deregister commercial services which fail to keep to their timetables. Ministry of Transport officials are working on an incentive and penalty regime to apply before that happens.

At present, councils can set standards only for subsidised services, and operators do not even have to provide them with patronage information for planning purposes.

Operators face no sanction other than passengers voting with their feet if buses or ferries fail to turn up.

Transport Minister Annette King plans to introduce the legislation within six months to encourage more New Zealanders to leave their cars at home.

Her mission has been given added urgency by the Government's new goal of making New Zealand a world leader in energy sustainability, and the fact that only 3 per cent of people caught buses to work on Census Day last March.

Ms King said boosting public transport was a major part of the push towards sustainability, and her aim was to remove disincentives for people to travel on buses and ferries.

"For example, there would be the ability to require integrated ticketing or to set standards for ease of access for passengers into vehicles."

The lack of tickets for passengers to use interchangeably when transferring between rival transport fleets is a particular bug-bear in Auckland.

Having to pay separate fares is seen as a major road-block to more people using public transport.

Ms King acknowledged the legislation would not go as far as the Auckland authority wanted, which was to give it power to pocket all bus and ferry fares, from which it would pay transport operators fees based on passenger numbers.

That is how the authority runs urban rail services, which will not be affected directly by the new legislation.

The Bus and Coach Association had warned of a dramatic rise in subsidy costs for ratepayers and the Government, and the minister accepted there might have been "some problems" from a potential withdrawal of investment by commercial operators.

But she said the new rules would enable transport authorities to obtain commercial information from operators for network planning, and to set minimum standards over all urban services to increase passenger confidence.

Association executive director John Collyns accepted last night that regional councils expected some influence over commercial operations, as well as those they subsidised, but he feared the legislation would tip the balance too far.

"What the Government is handing Arta is the ability to create a sort of master-servant relationship - and if we are not going to be equal partners taking equal risks, public transport is not going to be well-served in Auckland."

A particular fear was the potential for the transport authority to stop commercial bus services competing against subsidised trains, meaning passengers would have to transfer at railways stations rather than continue along more direct routes.

Mr Collyns denied there were any quality differences between commercial and subsidised services in Auckland, which were all run by the same fleets, and said performance standards in New Zealand were markedly better than in Australia and North America.

Infratil director Tim Brown, whose company owns the Stagecoach fleet, said it was encouraging that the minister was leaning to much more of a consultative model than feared and he was optimistic his team could keep working with councils to provide greater service frequencies.

Regional transport authority chief executive Fergus Gammie said the proposal would let his agency work collaboratively with operators to achieve an integrated public transport system with integrated fares.

Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee said it was a step in the right direction.

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