Each time I write in praise of public transport, I end up having to eat my words. On Monday I was lauding the increased patronage figures in Auckland but by 8.15 on Wednesday night, I didn't care whether I ever saw another commuter bus in my life. Mainly because, for the past hour, I hadn't.
It was a bleak and stormy night when I reached the bus stop buried into the side of the TVNZ headquarters in Victoria St just after 7pm. The timetable on the pole said the next - and last bus for the night - to Herne Bay was at 7.10, so by my watch, and the electronic timetable clock it seemed I was in luck. Down at the other end of the cave-like stop were half a dozen raucous itinerants, one of whom was dicing with death, dashing out into the busy road trying to wash windscreens. A little comic relief.
By 7.15pm I should have suspected all was not well. The electronic timetable had made no mention of an 005, just listing a fleet of Link buses, the next due in 10 minutes.
Then a glimmer of hope lit up the sky: 005 Westmere DLY. DLY is short for delayed.
Perhaps I hadn't missed it after all. It was just late. Nothing unusual about the Metrolink service there. The Link duly arrived. Did I jump on board, then walk from Ponsonby Rd in the rain, or did I wait? I blame the couple of drinks I'd had beforehand for my stupid decision to let the Link go.
The electronic helper kept reassuring me 005 was DLY until just before 7.30 when it just disappeared. The next Link was now 28 minutes away - so much for the 15-minute gap - and the rain had taken a break, so I started walking, muttering like a crazy man about lying real-time indicator boards. My head swivelled hopefully every time I thought I heard a bus approaching. But not one did in the half-hour walk up College Hill and down to Herne Bay. Nor could I persuade a taxi to stop.
The next morning I checked the bus timetable at Victoria St to ensure I hadn't misread it in the rain and gloom. But there it was, departure time 7.10pm. It was only then I spotted at the bottom of the page, about the level where a dog would pee, the small print saying all times were "approximate". Investigating further, I found the official bus timetable says the bus leaves the downtown terminus at 7.05, but that was only an "approximate" time as well.
What really annoys me is having let myself be suckered by the electronic timetable yet again. From 2003, Auckland City Council spent $7 million on setting up and trying to make this flawed system work and failed.
Three years ago, the city flicked the lemon on to the Auckland Regional Transport Authority for a token $1. I wrote at the time that it was a dollar too much.
ARTA claimed it could fix it and expand it out across the region over four years at an added cost of $17.4 million. At the time, ACC officials claimed they had managed to cut the initial error rate of up to 30 per cent down to 3-4 per cent. But a letter to the Herald earlier this year suggests that nothing much has changed.
The boffins blame the bus drivers. The multimillion-dollar system uses an on-board global positioning system, bouncing messages off satellites in space, to predict the timing of more than 730 buses in the Auckland network. The fatal flaw is, it depends on the driver to log on to the system at the beginning of each trip. If he/she doesn't, then 10 minutes after the scheduled start of the service, the real-time board announces it's been DLY. Which is a lie, particularly if you're standing at the first stop after the starting point. It should read, SUCKER, LEFT 10 MINUTES AGO, START WALKING.
An ARTA spokeswoman says the driver on Wednesday started "on time" and they're investigating why the bus didn't show up on the system. As cold comfort, she added that "we are in the midst of planning a new, better, real-time system, the current one obviously has its limitations".
Unfortunately we've been hearing that since 2003.By Brian Rudman Email Brian