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Current as of 19/09/14 03:00PM NZST

Ending free Christmas rides affects thousands

By Mathew Dearnaley

Passengers hoping to travel on Auckland buses for free on Christmas Day were disappointed. Photo / The Aucklander
Passengers hoping to travel on Auckland buses for free on Christmas Day were disappointed. Photo / The Aucklander

Thousands of Aucklanders missed out on free Christmas Day bus rides, and drivers did without gift hampers, after belt-tightening by NZ Bus.

The company yesterday blamed the recession for its axing of what have been yuletide traditions for many years for Auckland's main bus fleet, and could not say if free rides might be reinstated next Christmas.

"I honestly can't say," a spokeswoman told the Herald.

Drivers used to look forward to carrying family groups to the beach for free after Christmas lunch, some adding to the festive spirit by dressing up and handing out sweets.

"As drivers, we thought it was quite rude," said one of the company's decision to end the free trips, which he said were already a tradition when he joined the bus fleet nine years ago.

NZ Bus carried on that tradition after its parent company, Infratil, bought the Auckland bus operation in 2005. About 20,000 people enjoyed free rides on Christmas Day that year.

The company this year instead supplied drivers with "wobbly Santa" pens to give away to passengers.

Auckland Tramways Union president Gary Froggatt said he had received messages from drivers accusing the company of being "a bit Scrooge-like" and trying to claw back some of the pay rise they won last month after a six-month dispute.

They suspected the same motive behind the company's decision not to give them Christmas hampers of groceries and other small gifts, ending a practice of at least 10 years.

But the company spokeswoman said everyone at NZ Bus had received the hampers, and the decision to discontinue the practice was communicated to all staff in April - well before the dispute.

That and the decision to end free Christmas Day travel had been made for business reasons.

"It's been a difficult financial time for everybody," she said.

Mr Froggatt said some drivers had not known of the decision to end the freebies until shortly before Christmas. The union's advice to them was not to argue with any passengers waiting at bus stops with no money, but to let them take a seat and then notify the company's control-room.

The NZ Bus spokeswoman had no comment on a report that some passengers angrily argued with drivers.

She denied there had been any lack of notice, saying posters had been put up in buses advising passengers of Christmas timetables and that normal fares would apply.

She was unable to say how much the free rides had cost the company, but drivers had to get double-time wages and a day off in lieu for working on a public holiday.

The company lost about $1.1 million in Auckland Regional Transport Authority subsidies in October for not providing contracted services during a seven-day lockout of drivers.

- NZ Herald

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