Auckland is in the midst of a public transport crisis.
No-show buses, three years of looming rail shutdowns, and crew shortages on the ferries are crippling the city’s public transport system.
There’s a bus driver shortage when buses are being promised to plug the gap when trains stop running for three years on a major rail upgrade.
Even the city’s cycleways are not immune. A section of a popular cycleway closed suddenly this week until mid-January.
Mayor Wayne Brown is not mincing his words. It’s time to move to an “emergency footing” to maintain public transport services for Auckland, now and over the next few years, he said on Tuesday.
Aucklanders should not and will not accept three years of rail disruptions and cuts to bus services, said Brown, who gave Auckland Transport, KiwiRail, and even Transport and Immigration Minister Michael Wood a kick up the bum to do much better.
Wood, an Auckland MP and regular user of public transport, said migrant labour alone cannot solve the issues plaguing commuters, and came to the table last weekend with an additional $61 million to lift bus driver pay and conditions.
AT interim chief executive Mark Lambert has also acknowledged commuters are facing a “driver shortage crisis” causing significant disruption and warned of challenging times ahead for rail passengers as a result of long overdue maintenance to KiwiRail’s tracks and infrastructure.
Here’s what in store for Auckland commuters
Commuters face three years of disruptive shutdowns from Christmas on the Southern, Eastern, and Onehunga rail lines.
KiwiRail is doing a $330m rail network rebuild on the three lines to pave the way for more commuter trains when the City Rail Link opens, sometime from 2025.
From Christmas, trains will not run on the Southern line between Ōtāhuhu and Newmarket and the Onehunga line for three months.
This will be followed by the Eastern line between Ōtāhuhu and Britomart being closed for nine months and sections of the Western line being closed in 2024 and 2025.
The shutdown will affect an average of 8000 commuters a day.
The rebuild follows two years of shutdowns and speed reductions in 2020 and 2021 while KiwiRail replaced rail tracks and sleepers.
The latest rebuild is to replace the rock foundations under the tracks, some of which haven’t been renewed since the 1870s.
Buses will replace train services with Auckland Transport saying it will promote current services and have ambassadors on-site at affected stations to help make it easier for passengers.
More information about alternative travel options for Onehunga and Southern line customers affected by the first stage of work is expected to be available this month.
KiwiRail chief operating officer – capital projects David Gordon said the work would be frustrating for commuters, but it needed to be carried out. Given the scale of the work, it could not be done by short shutdowns or closing sections of the track but allowing some peak services to meet the CRL opening date, he said.
“Like roads, rail lines wear out from use. We’ve been undertaking routine maintenance and replacing worn-out track and sleepers and we’re now moving on to something more fundamental.”
Gordon said that while most of the rail network rebuild is expected to be finished before CRL construction is complete, it is likely some lower patronage lines – such as the Manukau to Puhinui line, the Swanson to Henderson section of the Western line, and the part of the rail network between Newmarket and Britomart (which will see a substantial drop in train frequency once CRL is running) – will be completed after the CRL is open.
In a report this year on the governance of the CRL, Auditor-General John Ryan said AT and KiwiRail have signalled that between now and 2036, a further $7.5 billion will have to be spent on the rail network to realise the full benefits of the CRL.
KiwiRail and AT are developing a business case for this work. Last year, the Herald reported the cost was $6.7b for additional tracks and trains, lengthening platforms for nine-car trains, removing all level crossings on the Southern and Western lines, and a signalling upgrade.
Outgoing Mayor Phil Goff was annoyed at only learning about the full extent of the work three days before the public announcement on October 3, saying it will cause “significant disruption” for commuters.
New Mayor Wayne Brown is unimpressed with KiwiRail’s “badly planned” line maintenance project, saying Aucklanders should not and will not accept years of rail disruptions. AT, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, Ministry of Transport, KiwiRail and the Transport and Immigration Minister need to move to an “emergency footing” to maintain services for Aucklanders, he said.
Lobby groups Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) and Greater Auckland have criticised the rail closures. The former called for a ‘plan B’ that does not affect rail passengers while Greater Auckland said every time this kind of thing happens it damages trust in the rail network and encourages people back into cars.
From tomorrow, Auckland Transport will suspend 1000 bus services across Auckland in response to the bus driver shortage.
AT says it is taking the action to provide “more certainty” to Aucklanders frustrated at opening their AT mobile apps and seeing lines of ‘cancelled’ services.
Some 12,000 bus services across Auckland will continue every day, however, which AT said accounts for more than 85 per cent of the network. The routes most impacted by the removal of services included the City Link, the Inner Link, and the Northern Express, with between 26 and 53 scheduled buses cut for each route every day.
Buses operating in and around Auckland’s central suburbs would see the greatest number of removed services. In total, 931 services a day would be discontinued across the city.
AT is aiming to keep a number of scheduled services, including the first and last trip of the day and school buses and city routes with high patronage of students.
AT’s group manager of metro services Darek Koper said an ongoing shortage of bus drivers meant AT hadn’t been able to deliver the full scheduled service for “some time now”.
“This year we have struggled to operate our full bus timetable because of the effects of the national driver shortage, which has led to far more cancellations ... than we would usually see.”
There is a nationwide shortage of 800 bus drivers, 500 of those in Auckland.
The impact of Covid-19, immigration settings, poor pay, and working conditions that include split shifts have led to the driver shortage, although three rounds of pay rises this year have lifted the hourly rate from about $23 to $25 towards $30.
Ongoing and regular bus cancellations have frustrated passengers since April but Koper said the timetable changes would reduce any further cancellations and give passengers more certainty when planning their trips.
“We’re not taking anything away that’s currently running. We are just temporarily removing them in the timetable, so they won’t show up and then appear as cancelled.”
Buses are the backbone of the transport system in Auckland, accounting for 74 per cent of public transport journeys.
Brown supports AT’s decision to no longer advertise bus services for which buses are not available “in the interests of clarity and reality … bus users don’t want to be told buses are going to turn up that then don’t”.
But PTUA co-ordinator Jon Reeves has lambasted AT’s failure to ensure buses could arrive as scheduled, calling it a “cynical move” and not in passengers’ favour. AT is there to deliver a service, and they’re failing when the buses aren’t even turning up, he said.
There’s bad news for Waiheke vineyards and restaurants banking on a holiday season boom to help them recover from Covid.
Ferry operator Fullers said it will shift to its busier summer timetable 15 crews, or 60 staff, short of the number required for its “optimal” timetable of 122 sailings per week. It’s set to be nine sailings short of that target.
The firm aimed to add an extra 32 weekend sailings from October 17. That was not as many as it would like, and it warns there will be no staff for backup and contingency vessels.
Fullers will offer a 35 per cent discount for those who travel to Waiheke off-peak in a bid to smooth demand.
All Coromandel sailings have been suspended (service to the peninsula is usually seven days a week during peak summer and three days during the rest of summer) and service to Rangitoto has been scaled back.
Fullers chief executive Mike Horne said the business had been grappling with skills shortage issues for more than a year, adding the anticipated post-pandemic summer demand is a bittersweet moment for the company.
Cyclists who use the popular Grafton Gully shared path got a surprise this week to find the route blocked with road cones and fencing along the route.
The closure, until mid-January for a power supply upgrade to Auckland City Hospital, affects a 200m section of the separated cycleway running under Wellesley St bridge to Grafton Rd.
About 350 to 400 cyclists use the shared path each day, says AT, plus large numbers of pedestrians on its lower sections.
Contractors have established a two-way protected cycleway detour, a diversion that includes a short and steep uphill section that requires some riders of non-electric bikes to dismount and push their bikes.
But instead of the works causing a stink, the detour via Symonds St and Grafton Rd, near the University of Auckland and AUT, is being praised by Bike Auckland, who want to see the protected cycle lane - part of it encroaching on a bus lane - become permanent.
Bike Auckland chief biking officer Fiáin d’Leaf said if the detour became permanent it could connect with the proposed Upper Symonds St and New North Rd upgrade.