Missed work, stranded students and skipped appointments are consequences of Tauranga's new bus system.

The start of school earlier this month highlighted the problem, as children crammed buses or called parents for rides when public transport didn't show.

Politicians have issued apologies and promises for change. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken explains how the system was meant to work, and why some people say the transit plan has gone nowhere fast.

Missing the Bus

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What's been billed as the biggest overhaul of public transport in Tauranga in a decade was rolled out on December 10.

That's when NZ Bus took over the $14.8 million a year contract to operate Bayhopper and Schoolhopper public buses for the Bay of Plenty Regional Council. The goal was more frequent buses with more direct routes designed to improve travel times.

Many residents say the new bus system has been anything but improved. They say cancelled trips and lack of shelters have left the community's most vulnerable users - children, the elderly and people with disabilities - at risk.

Stories told at public meetings and in private include the following:

* Elderly people forced to wait in the hot sun at stops with no shade
* School children waiting for buses that are either overfilled or never arrive
* An international student who accepted a ride from a stranger to get to school after her bus didn't come
* People cancelling doctor appointments because transferring between two buses would make them late
* Commuters missing work due to late or non-existent buses
* Parents leaving work early to pick up children from school because of overfilled buses or buses not running
* A driver asking students to lift another student and his 150kg wheelchair into the bus


Maungatapu Meltdown

Maungatapu resident Sue McArthur said more than 100 residents attended a meeting in the suburb Sunday to discuss the new bus system.

She said Maungatapu has lost its dedicated school bus and its direct link to the central city. Riders must now transfer at Ohauiti to reach the CBD.

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"This is much slower and more uncomfortable without seats or bus shelters on Ohauiti and Welcome Bay roads," she wrote in a neighbourhood flyer.

McArthur said changes had deterred people from using what was a "previously good service".

Officials including Bay of Plenty Regional Council Transport Committee chairman Lyall Thurston, BOP Council chairman Doug Leeder and Tauranga deputy mayor Kelvin Clout attended the Maungatapu meeting. McArthur said representatives got an earful.

"Kids leaving at 7am and getting home at 6pm at night; school buses not turning up or being late; bus drivers not knowing what the routes were; charging kids when they shouldn't have; people who couldn't go to work because buses didn't arrive ... I was surprised at the extent and seriousness of these stories."

One Maungatapu woman who didn't want her name used told Bay of Plenty Times Weekend she used to be able to ride the bus to and from Tauranga's CBD in 15 minutes.

"Now it takes most of the day ... it's ridiculous to go to Greerton and then come home."

The woman said she called off work last Friday because she waited for two buses that never came.

Another Maungatapu resident, Jane Langford, said non-drivers can't easily access city amenities like the main public library, art gallery, banks, the courthouse, churches and doctor's practices.

"It really has affected quality of life for these people, they think they've been isolated, they've been side-stepped. We all pay rates and we were used to good bus service to the CBD and it's been taken away from us."

Langford said an 85-year-old friend cancelled a doctor's appointment because a bus trip would've taken an hour and required a transfer. She believes road congestion in her area is due to lack of a direct Maungatapu-CBD bus route.

"Queues of traffic and the delay trying to get on the roundabout have increased hugely."

Traffic queues leading into Maungatapu. Residents say they've lost their direct bus connection with Tauranga's CBD. Photo/File
Traffic queues leading into Maungatapu. Residents say they've lost their direct bus connection with Tauranga's CBD. Photo/File

McArthur said councillors listened to residents for an hour-and-a-half.

"What I heard repeatedly was they owned the problem, they apologised to the community and said they will fix it."

The BOP Regional Council plans to restore direct service from Maungatapu to Tauranga's CBD. Councillor Thurston said a shortage of 30-40 bus drivers has been a major issue, but it's council's responsibility to make changes.

"We certainly got the message loud and clear. The biggest issue is to address the cancellation of bus services and the shortage of bus drivers, which caught us unawares."

Thurston said NZ Bus told council it couldn't deliver to the contract. He said BOPRC is investigating options to hold the company to account.

"We're angered about the current situation. And under normal circumstances, it would be considered totally untenable to have entered into a contract knowing there would be this shortage."

Bay of Plenty Regional Council transportation committee chairman Lyall Thurston said council has heard residents' complaints about the new bus system
Bay of Plenty Regional Council transportation committee chairman Lyall Thurston said council has heard residents' complaints about the new bus system "loud and clear." Photo / File

Another issue, he said, is lack of infrastructure such as bus shelters, provided by Tauranga City Council. TCC staff said millions of dollars of infrastructure improvements are planned (see sidebar, "Bus Infrastructure Spending Plans").

How we Got Here

Regional council staff worked during 2017 and 2018 on a plan to overhaul Tauranga's public transport, seeking to get more people out of cars and on to buses.

They aimed to provide 50 per cent more buses running on most services with 50 per cent more seats; extended operating hours and increased service to outlying towns such as Te Puke, Katikati and Omokoroa.

Other features would include online top-ups of bus cards, free Wi-Fi and low emissions vehicles, including five electric buses. The e-buses have not yet been delivered.

BOPRC announced last April it would allow contracts held by Go Bus, Reesby Rotorua Ltd, Bethlehem Coachlines and Uzabus to expire in December. The total yearly value of those contracts was $12.8 million. NZ Bus said it would pay drivers the living wage ($20.20 for 2017/18), $2 an hour more than the previous operators.

In an article dated April 9, 2018, councillor Thurston told the Bay of Plenty Times the tender process had been "highly competitive" for the nine-year contract.

"Ultimately NZ Bus presented the best combination of price and quality for Tauranga ratepayers. The procurement team were particularly taken with the increased driver pay offered by NZ Bus."

The public transport contract is funded from fares from passengers using the service, by the NZ Transport Agency, and from council through rates.

Where We are Now

During a public meeting of the BOPRC transportation committee on February 8, elected officials described the new network as "A dog's breakfast", "a fiasco" and "a huge mess".

NZ Bus general manager Claire Neville told the group the company tendered for the Tauranga contract in 2017, when the driver shortage - now pegged at 25 per cent - wasn't as acute.

Complaints started immediately but skyrocketed when schools started returning. That's when NZ Bus began cancelling dozens of trips a day - 90 last Friday alone. Wednesday saw 30 trips cancelled, Thursday 34 trips were listed on buybus.co.nz as not running.

Lee-Ann Taylor, who heads the Aquinas College Parent-Teacher Association, said in her opinion it's not only NZ Bus' fault; the regional council also bears responsibility for designing new routes that can't arrive on time due to traffic.

"Community consultation last year asked that the routes be tested and actually driven at the appropriate times of day to check they were going to be efficient. Obviously, this didn't happen."

Rachel Pinn, BOPRC programme leader passenger transport, said route planning and tendering was undertaken by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council. Engineering consultancy firm Beca Ltd was responsible for the technical design of bus routes with oversight from the council.

Pinn said the Western Bay of Plenty blueprint was then publicly consulted in May 2017 before services were tendered in November 2017.

When asked if anyone had trialled the routes, Pinn's response was, "No".

BOPRC figures show total 55,973 bus trips scheduled from December 10, 2018 to February 10, 2019. Of these, 1875 were missed, or 3.3 per cent (missed trips were not captured by NZ Bus December 10-December 15).

On the old network, 28,354 total trips were scheduled from December 10, 2017 to February 10, 2018. Thirteen trips were missed due to breakdown or accident. Another 84 trips were dropped due to the previous trip running more than 20 minutes late. A total of 97 trips were missed during this time period or 0.003 per cent.

NZ Bus estimates it'll take another 10-12 weeks before it has a complete roster of 150 fulltime equivalent drivers. Neville earlier said the company was leaving "no stone unturned" in its effort to find drivers, including talking to other operators, recruiting internationally and lobbying the Government to have driving put on the skill shortage list.

BOPRC is preparing interim improvements, including returning route 36 from Papamoa direct to the CBD, extending route 36 via Maungatapu, reestablishing route 70 in Matua in off-peak hours and reviewing Brookfield service. The regional council held a transportation committee workshop Wednesday to discuss the bus network, but staff reported no outcomes from the meeting and were unable to provide answers about how soon changes would be made.

In a written statement on Friday, the council's chief executive Fiona McTavish said they were talking to other bus companies about alternate options for school buses.

"We are now talking with other bus companies and hope to have a solution to the issue in the next couple of weeks. Once we've confirmed the timing for these changes, we will let our communities know."

Mandy Gudgeon with CCS Disability Action said feedback from people the organisation supports has generally been positive, "... specifically in regards to improvements in frequency and improved services on the weekends. Wi-fi is a plus and the app has proved user-friendly and useful for commuters."

In addition, Gudgeon said buses in the new fleet are similar in design, making them more accessible. She said remaining issues include an easy-read version of timetables and letting passengers know where to wait at a long platform (such as the Bayfair/Farm Street interchange.) In addition, she said some drivers may have no experience helping a person with a disability. "... So a greater understanding and awareness of disabilities and impairments will enhance the service they provide".

Rocky Start to School Year

While a trial of free school buses for Welcome Bay students has earned positive reviews, some parents say their children are spending up to two extra hours each day riding the bus or waiting for one. Other problems include students crossing busy highways, lack of safe stops and no parking for pick up and drop-offs.

Parents also want the trial to last longer than Term 1 and include the entire city. Lee-Ann Taylor is circulating an online petition to restore the old school bus network.

"They crunched kids over onto the public bus system to make it look like there's 20,000 more people using the bus system that was failing. In a city that's struggling and drowning in its traffic woes and infrastructure lag, we're now being asked to sacrifice the children and it's not working."

Taylor said parents would prefer dedicated school buses instead of public buses where children are left behind and parents fear for their safety.

"There needs to be much more thought and planning before they push kids into public transport."

More than 300 parents have signed the petition, including Helen Rejthar, who wrote the St Mary's bus from Otumoetai was turning up to school 20 minutes late.

"Yesterday it didn't turn up at all and when we rang up they said, 'We didn't send the bus this morning.' These are 5-year-olds waiting at bus stops around Otumoetai."

She said the Aquinas bus was dropping her older children off at 10 to 5, when the previous drop-off time was 4pm.

"A few times it hasn't shown for pick up in the mornings. Very dangerous and unreliable service for our young children."

Aquinas College mum Jodi Way has three children, one of whom uses a wheelchair. Way said bus drivers have spent 20 minutes getting her son, Charlie, on to the bus because they failed to park where they can deploy a ramp.

"One night they had to shift the bus to three different positions to get him on. Last year, he got on effortlessly with no problems whatsoever."

Way said one driver asked two other students to lift Charlie's 150kg chair with him in it onto the bus. "Charlie said, 'No way.' It's crazy. It's ridiculous."

Gabbie, 12, Sam, 15, and Charlie, 13, wait in Gate Pa for a bus to Aquinas College. Charlie has spent extra time getting on the bus because of his wheelchair. Photo/Supplied
Gabbie, 12, Sam, 15, and Charlie, 13, wait in Gate Pa for a bus to Aquinas College. Charlie has spent extra time getting on the bus because of his wheelchair. Photo/Supplied

Welcome Bay Community Centre manager Anna Larsen said while the free bus trial has had hiccups, more students in the suburb are using public transport.

"The buses are much fuller than last year; they're full. Last year the buses were half-empty."

Still, Larsen said due to cancelled and overfilled buses, council should bring back the old routes.

"I can understand where they're headed, but I think it's been poorly executed. We want to get school kids becoming habitual bus users and the route change and taking school buses off has not been a satisfactory solution."

Some parents have asked whether the Ministry of Education, which provided school transport assistance before 2015, would be willing to once again fund buses. MOE head of infrastructure service Kim Shannon said the ministry offers bus help only in areas with no public transport options.

"We understand there have been some teething issues with council's new school services, and as we know with our own services, the start of the school year is always a very difficult time to manage due to the unreliability of estimates of student numbers who want to use buses.

"We have no plans to start services in an area where public transport operates and we recommend people continue to liaise with the council."

Regional council staff said no school bus services have been dropped due to the driver shortage. They've added additional buses to routes such as Mount Maunganui College, changed a route to cover Maungatapu and are in regular contact with schools.

Transportation committee chairman Lyall Thurston said the regional council would give "urgent consideration" to having free school buses for all Tauranga students, but someone must pay.

"We got a clear indication from a large majority of people at the public meeting they were quite prepared to entertain a rate increase for free buses and take pressure off the roading infrastructure in Tauranga. We'll consult the wider public, as I would imagine just as many others will have a different view."

The Future of Service

Thurston said regional councillors and other politicians have decided to start changes to the bus system "forthwith" though he couldn't pinpoint a date.

"We acknowledge this is impacting the trust and confidence of the public transport system. We're working hard to resolve the immediate issues."

Taylor urged councillors and staff to ride buses themselves.

"Everyone is raining hell on this bus company, but no one's pointed out it's the routes and new system that has the fault in it."

She said many parents would be willing to pay to restore school buses, but urged council to consider options other than a rate hike.

"Why does the ratepayer have to pay? Why can it not been seen as part of a cost to be acted on to help the traffic situation as well?


Experienced Drivers Turned Away

Anna doesn't want to use her real name because she's still looking for a driving job. We meet Tuesday at a Greerton cafe, where she recognises one of her former passengers in the doorway.

"You get to know the people. I generally drove three routes a day."

Anna worked for Go Bus four years until December 9 when the company's contract with the regional council expired. She has her class 2 and 4 licences, 13 years' commercial experience and said she applied to drive for NZ Bus.

"They said they weren't progressing my application any further."

Anna displays an email from NZ Bus dated January 30 stating one of her referees failed to give her a positive mention. "I really felt gutted and at first I thought it was a mistake."

Another former Tauranga bus driver (who said her employment contract requires her to remain anonymous) said she, too, was turned away by NZ Bus. But unlike Anna, her application was accepted and she started training.

"They didn't contact us. They left it for weeks and weeks. I needed to know if I had a job or not."

Ruth said the recruitment agency for NZ Bus claimed she had abused one of their staff. "I was just asking whether I would start work."

Ruth, who has nearly 22 years' driving experience, got hired by another operator in Hamilton and is learning bus routes in her new city.

"You should've just employed the whole 60 of us, we know the area, we know everything about the buses - there were 60 drivers all ready to go. They wanted to do it their way."

NZ Bus general manager of operations Claire Neville referred questions to the company's media team, who did not return emails by deadline.

Tauranga-based FIRST Union organiser Graham McKeane said he's dealing with case a similar to Ruth's and will take the matter to mediation. "It's asinine they have not picked up all those Go Bus drivers who've applied."

McKeane said NZ Bus has employed 25 drivers from Auckland who don't know Tauranga or the bus routes. He said many Go Bus drivers didn't apply with NZ Bus because the company doesn't pay time-and-a-half on weekends and requires split shifts. McKeane said if demand for bus drivers exceeds supply, a company must offer more to prospective employees.

First Union organiser Graham McKean says working conditions and wages for bus drivers need to improve. Photo/File
First Union organiser Graham McKean says working conditions and wages for bus drivers need to improve. Photo/File

"There's enough qualified bus drivers to meet the demand, but they simply don't want to be involved in the industry. In Tauranga, a truck driver with a class 4 or 5 licence will get $25 an hour or more. What's more valuable to society, a truckload of concrete or rubbish, or our children?"

McKeane said he's negotiating with NZ Bus and has a draft collective agreement in place to improve drivers' employment terms and conditions.

NZ Bus drivers in Wellington staged a strike last month, seeking better terms and conditions.

In Auckland, NZ Bus drivers this month have held walkouts and protests.

Bus Infrastructure Spending Plans:

Tauranga City Council, which provides bus infrastructure such as dedicated lanes and shelters, said in a report it needed 90 new bus stops to service new routes. Spending plans include:

*$175,000 to improve or relocate shelters
*Greerton bus bays - $100,000.
*Information board roll out - $100,000 for the 2018/2019 year, and $1,000,000 split
over the following two years.
*New and improved stops - $120,000
*Brookfield bus interchange - $200,000
*Links Avenue bus lane and associated intersection improvements - $250,000.
*Windermere interchange and turn-around facility - $300,000.
*Arataki bus interchange - $1 million spent to date
*Arataki Corridor improvements, including Marlin St/Girven Ro intersection traffic
signals, Grenada St Bus Lane and improved bus stops - $2 million
* Options for a city centre bus interchange and Cameron Rd bus priority measures.

Source: Tauranga City Council

Have Your Say
0800-4-BAYBUS contact centre;
Council 0800 884 880
email contact centre: baybus@corporateconnect.co.nz
email council: info@boprc.govt.nz

Petition to Bring Back the Old School Bus Network:

https://tinyurl.com/y3bah6pp