Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Our '99 per cent' bus service - ya gotta laugh

In bus talk, 'reliability' means a scheduled bus actually reaching its destination.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
In bus talk, 'reliability' means a scheduled bus actually reaching its destination. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Auckland Transport's latest "good news" bus-service statistics read like the electoral results of some tin-pot dictator.

Indeed, they're so fantastical any self-respecting dictator would have had them scaled down.

The transport overlords claim last month, Auckland's public bus fleet scored 99.88 per cent for "reliability" and 99.24 per cent for punctuality.

In bus talk, "reliability" means a scheduled bus actually reaching its destination. To score on the punctuality scale, a bus also has to "commence the journey within five minutes of the timetabled start time".

So AT's transport number-crunchers are asking us to believe that of the 171,610 scheduled bus trips last month, just 206 failed to reach their destinations - and presumably didn't start as well - and that only 1304 - 43 a day - failed to start within five minutes of their scheduled start time.

Call me a cynic, but I find these figures risible. On two evenings last week, with the rain pouring, I stood and waited for an 005 bus that the electronic "real time indicator" board at the stop promised was just around the corner. Literally so, because that's where it's supposed to start from.

On both occasions, the board ticked down the minutes before it would arrive, then announced it "due", then eventually lost interest and left me hanging, until 15 minutes later it began the countdown for the next 005. Every bus passenger has similar tales of woe.

What makes the figures even more amazing is that all six bus contractors offer nearly identical perfect scores: NZ Bus, the dominant provider, with 111,169 trips, the lowest on the reliability scales at 99.83 per cent; with Urban Express, the wooden spoon for punctuality, with 97.53 per cent of its 4977 trips turning up on time.

The smallest provider, Transit, is claiming 100 per cent of its 2204 trips reached their destination, while hard on its heels is Birkenhead Transport, claiming 99.99 per cent of its 10,167 services did the same.

You might have noticed I said these companies "claim" these results. That's a key word: the statistics are "self-reported".

Does seem overly trusting of Auckland Council, who hires these various firms at vast public expense to provide a timetabled bus service, to monitor outcomes using some school-yard, "cross your heart and hope to die" method of self-reporting.

Stand at any stop and see the real-time board recording bus after bus as "Delayed", and you might have thought the penny would have dropped at Auckland Transport that it was time to hire an inspector or two to get a better handle on the reliability and punctuality of the service they are paying for.

The "Delayed" sign, after all, isn't activated until a scheduled bus is at least 10 minutes late. Let's not even include the continuing difficulty Link buses have maintaining the promised 10-minute or 15-minute frequency.

Buses are the mainstay of Auckland's passenger transport network, providing 54 million of the past 12 months' 70 million trips. It's past time for a more rigorous and independent monitoring of the service. If it proves everything really is 99.99 per cent wonderful, then I'll climb back into my bus shelter and accept it all.

The report to last week's AT board meeting did note the boffins were "in the process of developing an automated tracking and monitoring system to report bus reliability and punctuality and provide enhanced data to improve service delivery".

While we wait, they could always start with a user-friendly complaints page on the Maxx website.

Getting back to the Link service, Zane Fulljames, the chief executive of NZ Bus, reassures me the music I fulminated about last week is only a temporary feature.

It's not, as I speculated, a genuine "Musak" tape, but a locally produced 20-minute compilation featuring "a fantastic Kiwi group, Kingston."

It accompanies an NZ Bus promotion, and will be gone in a few weeks.

- 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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