Improving public transport is a passion for professional musician Anthonie Tonnon. Tonnon is a member of Horizons passenger transport committee, representing Whanganui District Council, and operator of the Durie Hill Elevator.
It was through his music that he made a connection with the opportunities for public transport. “I moved to Whanganui because it was a good place to be based as a performer,” Tonnon said.
“A few years ago, I made a music video about the old train stations I’d seen growing up in Dunedin.” He did research at the Hocken Library and found out Dunedin had a suburban rail system, much like Wellington’s today. It was very impressive, running until 1982.
“That was a shock to me, as I’d grown up in an era where public transport was seen as something you would only use if you really had to.
“That got me thinking, so I started the show Rail Land, an experience where myself and everybody who bought a ticket, would meet — not at the venue, but at a train station. We would then get on a train together to go to a beautiful hall, have the show, and then send everybody back on the train. For me, it was a celebration of what’s possible.
“It was logistically hard sometimes. In Dunedin, we had to charter the train, but for one night, it was thrilling to bring a great public transport service back. In Whanganui, I couldn’t charter a train, but we had a show where we ran a bus along the old Gonville-Castlecliff tram route so people could get to the gig.
“As I learned more about public transport, I looked into the history of Whanganui and other cities, and, aside from Wellington and Auckland, many places had better public transport 40 years ago than they do now — and that surprised me.
■ Talking to Horizons Regional Council
“I started talking to councillors at Horizons and Whanganui District Council, and in 2020, Whanganui district councillors elected me to be their representative on the passenger transport committee at Horizons.
“The PTC is responsible for guiding our Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP). We passed a new plan last year and there’s been a big change: for the past 30 years, we’ve run public transport assuming that the only people who will use it are people who don’t have cars. But our latest plan sets an ambition to make public transport attractive and viable for everyone.
“The thing that got me excited about Whanganui is that our city was built around public transport. Much of our housing was built along tram lines. This meant that even when the trams went in 1950, the population density that we put on those tram corridors meant it was efficient for us to keep providing good public transport with the Greyhound bus system, from 1950 to 1991. Bus services went frequently, and services ran as late as 11pm.”
Greyhound was a private company, but it had many local shareholders. In its later years, it had some subsidy from the then Whanganui City Council.
A lot changed in 1991 for public transport in the smaller cities. Legislation changes meant Greyhound couldn’t keep operating with a subsidy from the city.
“Like Palmerston North, Whanganui lost its bus system, and our public transport patronage went from 430,000 in 1990, to 50,000 in 1991, on a taxi-bus service that replaced the buses.
“Buses came back in the 2000s, but in a different form. The trams and Greyhound buses were patronage focused — aiming to get as many users as possible. Since buses came back, we’ve had a coverage system, with a limited number of buses covering as many streets as possible in loops.
This has an admirable goal of serving a wide spread of people — but because buses depart only every two hours, it’s not usable for most.
“Palmerston North also moved to a coverage system, but also had some frequent services, and the results have been different. In both cities, people took around 10 trips per person per year by public transport in 1990. Just before covid, Palmerston North was close to 15 trips per person per year, while Whanganui was at less than three trips per person per year.”
■ Te Ngaru The Tide
Te Ngaru The Tide is a trial of a return to patronage-focused public transport service. It has been a joint approach between Horizons and Whanganui District Council, with Tonnon being a member of the governance group.
The goal of the trial was to create a service that more people would use — including people who did have a car. It was influenced by the approach of Queenstown, which in 2017 introduced a network of direct services that ran “crosstown” from one side of the city to the other, at up to 15-minute frequencies. The Queenstown network had public transport use rise 182 per cent in its first two years of use.
The Tide travels crosstown between Aramoho and Castlecliff, following the paths of former tram lines for much of its route through the city, the hospital and Gonville.
It runs every 20 minutes Monday to Friday 7am-7pm, and Saturday 9 am-3pm, as well as hourly night service from 7pm-11pm Friday. “The name for The Tide came from a competition run by Whanganui District Council, in association with a near meaning in te reo Māori, Te Ngaru — or the Wave.
“After six months, The Tide has seen urban bus patronage grow 80 per cent from the same months last year, and it is now the second most used bus service in the Horizons region,” said Tonnon, who is especially happy about the numbers for June.
“In June, we had 12208 urban trips, up 101 per cent from 6073 last June — 52 per cent of those trips, 6470, were on The Tide. And since The Tide has been in service, full-fare adults have overtaken Supergold card users, even though both groups have grown.
“I’m very happy with the result, and I’m excited to see it continue to grow in patronage. Just like any bus, or any road — we have busy hours and quiet hours, but it’s really exceeded my expectations.
“There is more we can do. Palmerston North introduces a new network next year with 15-minute frequency on half a dozen routes, and they will be spending more than three times the amount per person that we do.
“We have feedback that The Tide doesn’t have a long-enough route, and I’m hopeful we’ll fix that. But it’s been great to really test a patronage approach.
“I like the name because The Tide has been out for public transport in Whanganui for a long time. This is a chance to bring it back in.
■ Regional Services Review
“On the Horizons PTC, we are now consulting about regional services. It used to be possible to get to New Plymouth, Palmerston North and Wellington, more times a day, and more directly, using public transport. Today, those options are quite limited.
“We are asking residents ‘would you like to be able to get to Palmerston North more than once a day without a car? Would you like to be able to work in Marton, or to spend the day in Wellington and come back — using bus connections to the train at Waikanae station?’
“Our region is a funnel for the North Island — every region to the north has to go through us to get to Wellington. If we work with other regional councils, like Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay or Waikato, we could have distance routes that get from places like Napier to Wellington or New Plymouth to Wellington, or even from Whanganui to Hamilton connecting with the Te Huia train to get to Auckland,” said Tonnon.
The Connect the Dots Regional Services Review is open now at https://haveyoursay.horizons.govt.nz/connect-dots-regional-services-review-2023.