The types and ages of bus fleets in Ruapehu will come under much more scrutiny following recent crashes.
Ruapehu District Council is planning a public transport service on its mountain roads which are getting busier and busier.
The council and Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL), which runs the ski operations on Mt Ruapehu, are together working on a proposal to get Government funding — via the New Zealand Transport Agency — for the project.
Mayor Don Cameron said the public transport idea came about after too much traffic going up and down the mountains was becoming dangerous. The argument is that more buses mean fewer cars and, in turn, fewer crashes.
But, following the bus crash on Ohakune Mountain Road last month that killed 11-year-old Hannah Francis, and a subsequent government inquiry into bus safety, the council is having to reconsider what would be required of operators of a bus service.
Last year RAL trialled a new service as part of its ticketing to better manage traffic going up to the Tūroa and Whakapapa skifields. The results of that service are being used to create the case for funding for a public bus service.
Once the service gets the go-ahead, it will go to tender, inviting bids from various operators.
"The crash has certainly raised the awareness of the standard specification we should be using," said council transport manager Warren Furner.
He is tasked with coming up with the tender document operators will have to bid on.
"What should be the specification for fleet age? We heard a lot about old buses and whether old buses are a safety hazard or should you only have new buses or five-year-old buses?
"That's a conversation I'd like to have with bus operators because if you said that you had to have buses with less than 500,000 kilometres and an average fleet age of five years that would essentially discount many operators from being able to participate.
"If I want a high level of service what will the supplier market look like?
"Will we limit it to just the big players. If we put it high enough we'd probably only have two or three potential businesses that could tender. Would that be fair?
"If we put it too low and we get a whole host of tenderers, am I compromising safety?"
RAL chief executive Ross Copland agreed the Ohakune crash — which involved one of his buses — and subsequent bus crashes in Inglewood and Sanson meant bus safety had come under the spotlight.
"From our own investigations we'll have some input to ensure that any learnings will be fed back to Warren," he said.
A number of local bus operators believe the business case for a public transport service hasn't included them and has been skewed to favour Ruapehu Alpine Lifts.
One of them — Richard Faire of My Kiwi Adventure — said smoothing out the area's transport issues was complex.
"It is important to understand that demand for transport up Mt Ruapehu is related to when the car parks are full or the roads are restricted to vehicles with chains or four wheel drive," Faire said.
"During the season, this is largely over the school holidays plus 10-15 days. This requires commercial operators to have vehicles and staff on call every day throughout the entire season and cover the related costs.
"This is often overlooked and highlights the complexities of transport in our region and the need for greater engagement to develop sustainable solutions."
He was critical of the district council and RAL not engaging the smaller operators in preparing the business case to go to NZTA for funding. Warren Furner's defence was it wasn't typical to include potential tenderers in preparing the business case, but he was willing to discuss the planning of a tender document with them.
Another operator has criticised the smaller companies of fighting to keep the price per customer at about $20 a trip. RAL was charging something closer to $6 per trip.
Faire argued that a focus on lowering the price was the wrong direction.
"Offering a cheap transport service up Mt Ruapehu using taxpayer money and running at a loss is not sustainable," he said.
"It also has negative implications, including reduced competition, and limits investment into quality vehicles due to financial viability.
"With increasing tourist numbers, we should be following the basic principles of economics when it comes to finding a price equilibrium to manage demand and supply.
"If we don't, we also run the risk of increased environmental impacts caused by not managing visitor numbers."